30/8/1937 - 2/6/1970
Record updated 10-Feb-23
Bruce McLaren was a racing car designer, driver, engineer and inventor. Killed testing a M8D CanAm car at Goodwood.
Bruce Leslie McLaren was born in Auckland, New Zealand. He was a racing car designer, driver, engineer and inventor.
His name lives on in Team McLaren which has been one of the most successful in Formula One championship history, with McLaren cars and drivers winning a total of 19 world championships. McLaren cars totally dominated CanAm sports car racing with 56 wins between 1967 and 1972 (and five constructors’ championships), and have won three Indianapolis 500 races, as well as 24 Hours of Le Mans and 12 Hours of Sebring.
As a nine year old, McLaren contracted Perthes disease in his hip which left his left leg shorter than the right. He spent two years in traction, but later often had a slight limp.
Les himself had raced before the war, racing motorcycles in beach races and various cars in local events and owned a garage in Remuera, Auckland, so when Bruce showed an interest in motor racing, he was encouraged. Bruce spent all of his free time hanging around his father's workshop and developed a strong understanding of mechanics and engineering.
Les McLaren restored an aging Austin 7 Ulster in which 14-year-old Bruce learned to drive the in the garden of the family home, carving a figure 8 between the fruit trees. It was also the car in 1952 when he entered his first competition, a hillclimb. Two years later he took part in his first real race and showed promise. He soon graduated from the Ulster to a Ford 10 special and his father's Austin Healey which he raced at Ardmore. He then purchased an Bob Tail Cooper sports which he immediately began to modify and improve and master it, so much so that he was runner-up in the 1957–8 New Zealand Championship series.
His performance in the New Zealand Grand Prix in 1958 came to the attention of Jack Brabham and as a result he became was the first winner of the New Zealand International Grand Prix Association's "Driver to Europe" scholarship. McLaren was the first recipient and Denis Hulme was another later. The scholarship did just that, got him to Europe! However once there he was left virtually on his own. Thus later in the year a 20-year-old Bruce set foot in England with his friend Colin Beanland, acting as his mechanic. Jack Brabham, John and Charles Cooper took them under their wing and the two New Zealanders moved into the Cooper works to literally build their own Formula 2 Cooper.
He started getting entries to the top Formula 2 races and at the 1958 German Grand Prix, a combined F1 and F2 race at the Nurbürgring, he truly arrived on the scene. Against the best drivers in the world he finished 5th overall and won the F2 class. Jack Brabham summed it up saying "I don't know. A couple of Arabs came over with three spanners and a spare wheel just to fill up the entry list and then they win the bloody race!" Bruce was now in the big time.
McLaren joined the Cooper factory F1 team alongside Jack Brabham and Masten Gregory in 1959 and won the 1959 United States Grand Prix at Sebring at the age of 22, becoming the youngest ever GP winner up to that time. He followed that with a win in the Argentina Grand Prix, the first race of the 1960 Fomula One season. (Forty three years later, another Kiwi racer, Scott Dixon, would become the youngest ever winner in any major open-wheel racing formula anywhere in the world when he won the Indy Racing League Lehigh Valley GP in the US when 20 years, 9 months and 14 days old.) In just his second season he finished runner-up to Brabham.
McLaren continued to race for Cooper, becoming their No. 1 driver when Brabham left in 1962, winning the Monaco Grand Prix that year in a Cooper T60 and the non-championship New Zealand GP in 1964.
Over the winter of 1963-64 he ran his own team, Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd, (which remains in the Formula One championship simply as Team McLaren) in the Tasman series with two specially built 2.5-liter Coopers for himself and Timmy Mayer. John Cooper had already signed Timmy as number two to McLaren for the following season. Bruce won the Tasman series but it was not a happy team that returned to Europe for the start of the F1 season as Timmy had been tragically killed in practice for the last race. Later that year McLaren branched out as a builder, manufacturing a series of sports cars powered by American V8s.
McLaren left Cooper at the end of 1965, and announced his own GP racing team, with co-driver and fellow Kiwi Chris Amon. He bought a service station at Te Atatu, a suburb of Auckland, however on the track it was a difficult year. He retired in 5 of the 10 races and a third in Belgium was his only result of any note. He left the team at the end of the year to start his own F1 team with Teddy Mayer (Timmy's brother and manager) as partner. Tyler Alexander also joined the team as head mechanic.
The team only ran a single car in F1 for the first two years (1966 and 1967) without notible success, however in Can-Am things were slightly different in 1966 with the new McLaren cars finished second twice, and third twice, in six races. The team then won five of the six races in 1967. Denny Hulme won three to Bruce's two, but it was Bruce who took the title.
Also in 1966 he won Le Mans with Chris Amon in a 7-liter Ford Mark IIA and the following year, the 12 hours of Sebring with Mario Andretti in a Ford Mark IV.
Amon left in 1967 to drive for Ferrari. For 1968 Bruce was joined by Hulme in the F1 team, having won the 1967 Championship for Brabham. McLaren won the non-championship Race of Champions, at the Brands Hatch and then took the team's first World Championship Grand Prix win at Spa (the fourth of his career) driving a car bearing his name. Hulme won a further two races, Italy and Canada, in the McLaren-Ford M7A. The duo dominated Can-Am again that year winning four for the six rounds. This time Hulme took the title from McLaren. In tribute to his homeland, McLaren's cars featured the "speedy Kiwi" logo.
1969 was another good year in F1 with Bruce finishing 3rd in the standings despite taking no wins (Hulme took a win for the team in Mexico). In Can-Am, McLaren cars were unbeatable, winning all 11 races. In two rounds they finished 1-2-3 (McLaren, Hulme and Mark Donohue). Bruce McLaren won six races, Hulme five with Bruce taking the driver's title for the second time.
Though there were hints of impending retirement, Bruce carried on racing into 1970, with plans afoot to tackle Indianapolis after the success of the Can-Am cars. In due course a McLaren would win the Indy 500, but sadly the team's founder and inspiration was not around to see the success.
Bruce McLaren died that year at Goodwood, aged 32, when the rear body work came adrift on the new M8D Can-Am car he was testing. The car left the track on the Lavant Straight just before Woodcote and hit a concrete bunker used as a marshal's post.
Mention the name McLaren in the 1990s and most people will immediately think of the wonderful red and white cars which have established so many records. But Ron Dennis can surely testify that all those lucky enough to have either met the remarkable New Zealander or seen him in action will also never forget the man with the silver helmet in the tangerine car who began it all 30 years ago.