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McLaren - The Defining Essence

Kerry Morse
Aug 22, 2011 SHARE

It is difficult to know at what moment a person becomes a legend and the name becomes a brand, or in that most revered state, a definition. Something to which others (and objects) will inevitably be compared and will attempt to emulate. We are all familiar with the man from Italy who gave us the cars of the prancing horse; now it’s time to consider one Bruce Leslie McLaren. The man simply could not be categorized or labeled so easily. While his sudden passing during a test session at Goodwood in 1970 would have meant the end of some teams, the work ethic, the preparation and the engineering brilliance that Bruce brought forth was matched by the dedicated crew at the McLaren workshop in Feltham. That spirit of continuity has been at the center of McLaren through the decades of changing ownership, personnel and motorsport business partners. A personal pinnacle of excellence and professionalism is expected when one walks through the doors at the Woking facilities of the McLaren Group just as it had been decades earlier at Feltham. The strength of any successful enterprise is in the people, the old and the new, junior and senior, and the commitment they bring. How else can a business go from a small 3,000 square-foot building to a major mover with more than 1,300 personnel?

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History shows that most racing drivers are not good businessmen, let alone innovators. History also shows that there have been notable exceptions. Bruce McLaren obviously falls into the latter category. Sunday afternoon on a podium collecting a trophy to Monday meetings followed up by mid-week testing. McLaren knew the direction he wanted to go for himself and his company. Simply driving another brand would never suffice; McLaren was aiming at the formula successfully used by Cooper and Lotus by eventually constructing sports racers and open-wheel warriors, solid race cars with a platform for the constant upgrading and evolution needed to get to the top step of the podium. How well McLaren succeeded is defined by a look at a few past noteworthy examples. And on the eve of the market debut of the company’s new road car, the MP4-12C, there’s another to add to the list.

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1964 McLaren M1A

The first real McLaren to see production, and the basis of the long-standing arrangement with Elva and Trojan to produce replica variants for private teams and customers. The M1A and Mk 1 models showed efficient use of the hardware-store model of using proven components with an original chassis. The Traco-built Oldsmobile V8 was the mainstay, but most were updated to Chevrolet power. The most important victory for the M1A was a no-holds battle in 1965 at Silverstone between Bruce and the Lola T70 of John Surtees. McLaren as a manufacturer had arrived and in a pop culture moment when the M1A shared the big screen with Mr. Elvis Presley himself in Spinout. Thank you Bruce, thank you very much.

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1965 McLaren M2A

This one-off single-seater was used for testing but never raced officially by McLaren. Its inclusion is noteworthy as it was designed by Robin Herd and used Mallite (alloy panels with balsa wood) in its construction, a sign of things to come.

1966 McLaren M1B Mk II

For many, this is the prototypical Can-Am car. Many of us still remember the cover of Road & Track that featured Charlie Haye’s example. Tidy and compact, the 28 examples constructed remained competitive for years. The simple but clever nature of the car made it popular for many teams and as the cliché goes, it was “priced right.” Since the majority were sold as complete rollers, a team could choose its own powerplant.

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1967 McLaren M4A and M4A/B

Formula Two cars have a tendency to be overlooked simply because the number “two” seems to designate a lower class of driver and car. Scanning the list of hot shoes that drove in that so-called lower class shows the opposite. The Trojan-built M4A/B was the first truly commercial success for McLaren in the open-wheel category and showed it could compete with the F2 cars of Ferrari and Lotus.

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1967 McLaren M6A

A whole bushel of firsts for McLaren. The company’s first monocoque Can-Am car, it debuted the McLaren orange that would identify the team cars for the next few years and the first one-two finish as Can-Am Champions for Bruce and Denny Hulme.

1968 McLaren M7A

Everyone remembers their first time. The Formula 1 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, Bruce finally gets his first win. The Ford Cosworth worked out pretty well too.

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1969 McLaren M6GT

McLaren’s attempt at a roadgoing production car that could be homologated for use in GT. A late rules change out of Paris with a requirement of 50 cars as mandated by the FIA ended that idea. Bruce used the prototype to announce his arrival (it was that loud) and an additional three were constructed by Trojan.

1969 McLaren M8B

Pure Can-Am domination resulting in a perfect season, the Gordon Coppuck-penned M8B simply was the best. Saying it was in the details is to give that phrase a whole ’nother meaning.

1970 McLaren M10B

Constructed by Trojan for customers following the success of the M10A in Formula 5000. As much a driver favorite as it was with fans.

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1970 McLaren M8D

If ever a team suffered a mixed year, in 1970 it was McLaren. The loss of its founder, namesake and guiding genius would have crushed most others. But Bruce’s spirit persevered, and the team, with Denny Hulme and the M8D, dominated the 1970 Can-Am season. An assist goes out to Dan Gurney, another legend in the making, by stepping in to replace a legend. The M8D may well be the quintessential Can-Am car of all time.

1972 McLaren M16B

Bruce always wanted one of his cars to win the Indianapolis 500. It took Mark Donohue and Team Penske to oblige and give McLaren the first of three wins as a constructor at the Brickyard.

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1972 McLaren M20

The most awesome Can-Am failure ever built. Few normally aspirated race cars in history shook the ground the way the 8.1-liter, aluminum-powered M20 did. The contrast between the quieter turbo power of the Porsche 917/10 could not have been more evident. As the 1972 season would show, McLaren didn’t have the resources to go to battle with Porsche on a consistent basis. Bowing out of Can-Am, the focus now became relentless on open-wheel racing.

1973 McLaren M23

Few F1 cars of the current era can claim the lifespan of the M23. The Gordon Coppuck design went through a series of developmental work on the suspension but used the basic monocoque for three seasons. The addition of Emerson Fittipaldi to the team resulted in a long-standing partnership with Marlboro and the familiar red and white colors were to be among the most memorable for years. Fittipaldi took the World Championship in 1974 and in 1976. Fans were also treated to an incredible battle between the Ferrari 312T of Niki Lauda and the M23 of James Hunt, with Hunt claiming the title at the last race of the season in Japan.

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1981 McLaren MP4/1

The uneasy merger of McLaren and Project Four as headed by Ron Dennis came down to a matter of sponsorship. Marlboro was eager for the merge, and the arrival of the brilliant—but at times difficult—designer John Barnard meant walking papers for Gordon Coppuck. McLaren International, as the new merger became known, came straight out of the gate with a truly revolutionary car. John Barnard was a designer with vision and complete faith in his abilities, whether proven correct or not. In the case of the MP4/1, the path was wide open. Building the first complete carbon-fiber F1 car became Barnard’s mission and through it he made a commanding statement.

1984 McLaren MP4/2

Who could have imagined that the company that defeated McLaren in Can-Am would be the one to design—as an outside contractor—the motor that would come to dominate? The Porsche TAG V6 turbo powered the MP4/2 and its variations to victory after victory, something that World Champions Niki Lauda and Alain Prost came to appreciate.

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1988 McLaren MP4/4

The departure of John Barnard at the end of 1986 brought a number changes to McLaren. While this may have been considered a distraction to a team known for such success, Steve Nichols and Gordon Murray were able to continue in the winning direction. The mating of the Honda turbo V6 to the MP4/4 gave the team an almost perfect season, recording 15 out of 16 races on the top step of the podium. The drivers were some guy nicknamed The Professor and somebody from Brazil named Ayrton.

1993 McLaren MP4/8

A very good but underpowered race car due to the use of a Ford customer version HB 3.5-liter V8. Williams had Renault power and the rest of the field struggled to keep pace. Although the MP4/8 did achieve several wins that season, its inclusion comes down to it being Senna’s final year with the team and what many consider one of the great drives in F1 history, the victory at Donnington. Maybe the best… ever.

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1993 McLaren F1

A road car from McLaren, part two. Ron Dennis talking to Gordon Murray about the supercars on the market—where was the real stuff, the innovations, and so on?

A later conversation between Murray and designer/stylist genius Peter Stevens. Cut to Monaco in May of 1993 and the launch of the McLaren F1, a center-steering, three-passenger road car that remains the supercar standard.

1995 McLaren F1 GTR

While you’re at it, build a few to race in the BPR Series and perhaps we will go to Le Mans. Ron Dennis enlists Paul Lanzante to manage the effort at La Sarthe and McLaren claims the 24 Heures du Mans in its first attempt.

1998 McLaren MP4/13

McLaren appeared to be in the wilderness after the departure of Senna. In addition, the loss of Marlboro to Ferrari meant the change to a new color and major sponsor. Ford power gave way to a short-term trial with Peugeot and eventually a long-term deal with Mercedes-Benz. The most positive change was the arrival of ex-Williams designer Adrian Newey. He and his team set about turning things around quickly and delivered. Mika Hakkinen claimed the Drivers title and the Constructors title returned to McLaren. Mika also claimed the Driver’s crown again in 1999.

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Everything in motorsport is cyclical, including success and failure. The past decade has seen the team from Woking have its share of both. While Lewis Hamilton won the drivers title in 2008, the battle for the coveted constructors crown has never been more competitive. Design and innovation continue to be at the forefront, and with constant focus on the engineering tasks at hand, the spirit of Bruce McLaren lives on.

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By Kerry Morse
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