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McLaren on the Verge: The 1967 Canadian Grand Prix


NINETEEN SIXTY-SIX was a disastereous year for McLaren Cars. The money they had spent developing the Ford Indy engine for their promising F1 chassis, the innovative M2B, had proven a waste of time, and a drain on their dwindling resources. That, coupled with the fact their revised M1B Group Seven sports car had failed to win a single race in the inaugural Can Am series. At the end of the year, therefore, it must have come as no surprise, when their primary sponsor, the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, failed to renew their contract.

That the team was on the verge of greatness, no one could have predicted. For McLaren Cars, 1967 would be a year of many surprises. The first surprise was the willingness with which the Goodyear Tire Company stepped in and signed them for the 1967 season. It proved to be an inspired decision, because McLaren's chief designer, an ex-aerospace engineer, named Robin Herd, had designed what would become the most dominate Group Seven racer in Can-Am history, the sleek McLaren M6A. Best of all, construction of the new car had begun early, and would be completed and available for testing in early June, fully three-months before the fall series began, allowing the team plenty of time to work out the bugs that always plague new race cars.

Another change that promised more good results was the deal they had struck with BRM (British Racing Motors) to run their new compact 3-liter V-12 engine--ostensibly designed for prototype sports cars--but made available to McLaren for the new F1 car Herd had designed for the coming Grand Prix season, the beautifully-proportioned McLaren M5A.

Unfortunately, development of BRM's new V-12 was slow, and not made available to McLaren Cars until August, half-way through the F1 season. When the engine finally arrived, it was quickly fitted to the M5 chassis, and the complete package was taken to nearby Goodwood for testing.

In most respects, Bruce McLaren was the best test driver in the business, as well as a highly competent engineer, which partly explains Goodyear's faith in Team McLaren, despite their poor showing in 1966.

Bruce McLaren graduated from Auckland University in his native New Zealand, with a degree in engineering, and might have gone on to design bridges for the government, had he not developed a talent for winning motor races. This, in turn, led him to move to England, and the opportunity to drive for the Cooper Formula One team, and eventually, a chance to form his own racing team, and to concentrate his engineering talent on chassis design.

It was hard not to admire Bruce McLaren. In his magisterial book, "The Great Racing Cars and Drivers", journalist Charles Fox offers this brief description of McLaren: "Bruce McLaren was a distinctly lovable man. His eyes twinkled and he smiled from within. He had a full-chested, broad-shouldered build and a quick, rolling walk peppered with a limp. He was always moving, but never hurried. He had more self-assurance than a senior British diplomat; nothing seemed to ruffle him, perhaps because as a racing driver he had so often dealt with real emergencies."

Having been satisfied with testing the BRM-powered M5 McLaren at Goodwood, Bruce McLaren authorized the new racing car to be shipped to Ontario, Canada, for the inaugural Canadian Grand Prix.

At Mosport, Canada, the new McLaren-BRM proved competitive right off the transport truck. The fact that Bruce McLaren was quick at Mosport, was not that surprising, as he knew the track intimately, having raced sports cars there several times over the years.

Comprised of ten turns, the Mosport circuit stretched for about one mile down a gently slopping hill, to a hairpin curve, then for another mile ran uphill to the start-finish line, on Pit Straight. The difficult curves were Turn Two--a fast down-swept left-hander--and Turn Eight, a tricky right-hander, that required finesse and infinite patience to truly master.

The trouble with Turn Eight, was that the entry lay on the backside of a prominent crest in the road. To take the turn at maximum speed, the idea was to back off the throttle prior to the crest, and let the racecar sort of float over the top, then, on the backside, apply the brakes. Do this, and the car would be positioned perfectly for a swift, smooth entry into the turn.

For most drivers the most difficult curve was the turn at the foot of the hill, a double hairpin curve known euphemistically as Turn Five. The approach to driving a sports car through these twin turns was entirely different from that of driving a Formula One. In a sports car, the fastest way around the hairpins was to be as precise as possible, with minimal wheel spin. In Formula One, the fastest way around the hairpin was to manhandle the car, and power through with oversteer. McLaren infinitely preferred the former style, which is why he was so much faster in sports cars than in Formula Ones. It was this precise driving style that made him such an effective test drive, and conversely not a particularly fast F-1 driver.

WILD CARD

In Canada, the new McLaren-BRM was something of a wild card. The car looked fast standing still, and being a McLaren was sure to handle well. The question was the engine, which was brand new, and yet to be tested in a motor race.

Among the fastest cars McLaren had to face would be the innovative Lotus 49, powered by the redoubtable Cosworth-Ford V-8. A potent combination, the brand new Lotus-Cosworth had won first time out, at the Dutch Grand Prix, in early June. In the experienced hands of Jim Clark and Graham Hill, the car had proven to be fast, but fragile; indeed the Lotus-Cosworth had won but one race since Zandvoort (the British Grand Prix).

The car that had won the most races in the first half of the year was the new slimline Brabham BT24. Powered by an updated version of last year's winning Repco V-8, the key to the Brabham-Repco's success was its reliability and utter simplicity. In the hands of owner-driver Jack Brabham, and his talented teammate Denny Hulme, the latest Brabham-Repco had proven to be a formidable F-1 machine, with impressive victories at Monaco, France, and Germany.

On the other hand, the bulky BRM P83s of Jackie Stewart and Mike Spence, were the exact opposite of the Brabham-Repco, being overly complicated, heavy cars, powered by the problematic BRM H-16 engine. While something of an engineering marvel, the BRM H-16 engine wasn't terribly powerful nor terribly reliable, and the BRM P83 had finished few races since making its debut back in early 1966, never mind failing to become the dominate F-1 machine the design engineers at BRM had hoped it would be.

The other car to have won a race that season, was the exquisite, dark-blue Eagle V-12 of American Dan Gurney. As with the Lotus-Coswoth, the Eagle was fast but fragile. Since winning the Belgian Grand Prix in mid-June, Gurney's Eagle had failed to win another race.

The only other team to have won a race in 1967, was Cooper Cars, which had won the South Africa Grand Prix, way back in early January, with its cumbersome Cooper T81 Maserati. Despite winning the first race of the season, Cooper Cars was having a difficult year, wasting the supreme talents of Austrian Jochen Rindt.

Since losing its number-one driver in a horrific accident at Monaco, Ferrari sent only one car to Canada, for the promising New Zealander, Chris Amon. Now lighter, and delivering more horsepower, the latest Ferrari 312, while competitive, had yet to win a single race in 1967.

Missing from the list of regular F-1 competitors in Canada was Honda, which had given up on the heavy, ill-handling Honda RA273. Rather than compete in the Canadian Grand Prix, Honda instead chose to stay home, and concentrate on building a new lighter F-1, the Honda RA300, which, in John Surtees' capable hands, would make its debut the following month at the Italian Grand Prix.

STARTING GRID

As they had since making their debut back in June, the Lotus-Cosworths of Jim Clark and Graham, dominated qualifying, and would be starting one-two. Third fastest, and filling out the Front Row, was Denis Hulme's Brabham-Repco. Fourth and fifth fastest were Chris Amon's Ferrari and Dan Gurney's Eagle. The surprise was Bruce McLaren, who, despite driving a new car, qualified fifth fastest, ahead of Jack Brabham, and Jochen Rindt. The Fourth Row was comprised of the BRM H16s, of Jackie Stewart and Mike Spence, respectively.

After a week of sunshine in South Ontario, race day was overcast, rainy and generally miserable. As he had all season, Clark was first off the starting line, and led the opening laps. Though leading, Clark was struggling to control his machine in the rain, as was his teammate, Graham Hill. Clearly, this was not the case with Denny Hulme, whose Brabham handled superbly in the rain. On lap two, Hulme passed Graham Hill to take over second place, and, on Lap Four slipped past Clark to take over the lead. By lap 20, Hulme's lead over Clark had stretched to 24 seconds.

Bruce McLaren, too, was absolutely delighted with his new car's handling in the rain. From his fifth-place starting position, he had passed Gurney, Amon, and Hill. On lap 22, he passed Clark to take over second place. However, there was a fly in the ointment--before the race, his crew had removed the alternator, reportedly to save weight. As the battery's power gradually drew down, the engine began to misfire, slowing McLaren's charge to the front, at a point when it appeared he might take the lead and possibly win the race. At just about the time his engine began to misfire, the rain stopped. Clark regained lost ground, and retook McLaren in second place, and, within a few more laps passed Hulme to resume leading the race.

Further back, Jack Brabham had been moving up as well. By the half-way point of the race, he had passed Hill and Gurney, and, having battled Stewart's BRM for several laps, broke free and overtook McLaren to move up to third place.


When the rain returned, Clark found his rhythm and began to extend his lead over Hulme and Brabham.

At about the time McLaren stopped in the pits to replace his flat battery, two things happened. Hulme pitted for a change of goggles, and Clark, while rounding the hairpin at the bottom of the circuit, had his engine stall out due to a short in the ignition system, thus, turning over the lead to Jack Brabham. With a new pair of goggles, Hulme rejoined the race, to finish second, giving Team Brabham a rare one-two finish.

McLaren, meanwhile, finished a disappointing seventh, and no doubt rued the results. For want of an alternator, he might very well have won the race. It was the shadow of things to come. In another month, with fellow New Zealander Denny Hulme as his teammate, the new McLaren M6A sports car would prove nearly unbeatable in Can Am competition, winning all but one race, thus beginning the first of five year's of Can Am domination, in what would become known as "The Bruce and Denny Show."

And the McLaren M5-BRM that woulda, coulda, shoulda won the Canadian Grand Prix? It was deemed as too heavy to be a winner, and was sold to veteran F-1 driver Jo Bonnier, who campaigned the car throughout the 1968 season. The Swede was so taken with the machine's graceful lines, that after the season he had the car mounted on the wall of his art gallery in Lausanne, Switzerland, as a most-unique and unusual art object.

Meanwhile, McLaren Cars would build a new, lighter M7A Formula One machine, designed to accept the Cosworth Ford V-8, which McLaren would drive to victory in the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix, and his teammate, defending world champion, Denny Hulme, would drive to victory in that year's Italian and Canadian Grands Prix.

About his team's amazing success, Bruce would write: "The first essential for success in racing is enthusiasm. Not mild, but burning enthusiasm. To succeed in motor racing or in any sport it must be the most important thing in your life . . . you must eat, live, and think about motor racing. The more you think about it and plan, the better you will do."

The team Bruce McLaren had put together would continue to dominate Can Am through the 1972 season, and eventually would produce racing cars that would twice win the Indianapolis 500 (1974 -- Mark Donohue; 1976 -- Johnny Rutherford) and twice capture the Grand Prix world championship (1972 -- Emerson Fittipaldi; 1976 -- James Hunt).


Tragically, Bruce McLaren would not live long enough to enjoy his team's success; and would perish in 1970, while testing the latest Can Am sports car at Goodwood.

- END -

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