Of the many racing deaths that hit Formula 1 in the 1970s, the passing of Bruce McLaren – which occurred on this day in 1970 – was perhaps the most shocking.
The affable New Zealander was considered among the safest drivers of his era, and his death – caused by a crash while testing one of his own Can-Am racers at Goodwood – was greeted with sheer disbelief among the motorsport community.
McLaren arrived in Europe virtually unknown outside his homeland, supported by a scholarship from the New Zealand Grand Prix Association and with the mentoring of fellow Antipodean racer Jack Brabham.
He made his Grand Prix debut in 1958 at, of all places, the Nurburgring. Armed with a Formula 2-class Cooper, he qualified a sensational 15th-fastest and went on to finish fifth overall and first in his class.
He was promoted to the works team full-time in 1959, and paired with Brabham he was excellent. By the end of the season, he’d broken the record as the sport’s youngest-ever Grand Prix winner when he crossed the line to claim victory at the United States Grand Prix at Sebring. The record would stand for 44 years before it was broken by Fernando Alonso.
With Brabham winning the 1959 title – pushing his out-of-fuel car across the finish line to earn the points necessary to win the crown – the 1960 season saw more of the same, with McLaren playing the dutiful understudy to the Australian, despite winning the season-opening Argentine Grand Prix.
He acquired some great engineering skills from his mentor in their final year together, and Brabham would depart to set up his own Formula 1 team.
McLaren remained with Cooper for the next five years, but the team was entering a slow and terminal decline. A lucky win at the 1962 Monaco Grand Prix would be a brief highlight, and Bruce started to dovetail his duties with regular appearances in endurance racing and the Tasman Series.
After setting up Bruce McLaren Motor Racing during the 1965-6 off-season, he bit the bullet in 1966 and entered his team for the Formula 1 championship. It was a tough debut year, but his highlight was winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Ford with fellow-Kiwi Chris Amon.
The 1967 season proved little better as he struggled with BRM power, but he made the brilliant decision to tempt his compatriot – and the newly crowned World Champion – Denny Hulme away from Brabham to join his expanded team for the 1968 season.
The move – which allowed McLaren to focus more on the management and engineering duties – worked, and McLaren claimed his fourth (and last) Grand Prix win with an excellent drive at Spa-Francorchamps.
Consistency saw him finish third overall in the 1969 Driver’ Championship, and he went on to claim his second Can-Am title with six wins.
While he might have preferred to hang up the helmet, Bruce carried on into the 1970 season, formulating plans to tackle the Indianapolis 500 in one of his own cars.
It was while testing one of his Can-Am machines at Goodwood that tragedy would strike. A piece of bodywork detached from the car and sent poor Bruce out of control towards a disused marshal’s post. He struck it and was killed instantly.
While the McLaren team today bears little resemblance to the small operation with its tangerine-coloured cars founded all those years ago by this much-admired New Zealander, no one in the team would dare forget this excellent racer’s lasting legacy.
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