Bruce McLaren’s F1 legacy still fuels his team’s revival – even sixty years on

They call Formula One the “pinnacle of motorsports” for good reason. The global series features some of the world’s fastest and most sophisticated cars, brilliant engineers, and talented drivers. For the people in the sport, the climb to reach that pinnacle is the most daunting part of their careers.

The Athletic’s F1 coverage is designed to illuminate those sagas, and that’s what we’ll be doing in Origin Stories. Follow along as we take you beyond today’s news to understand how today’s players earned their starring roles.

Each time Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri enter the McLaren Formula One garage, they are reminded of the footsteps they follow.

At the entrance, roundels mark each of McLaren’s world championship wins, including the names of F1 legends such as Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Niki Lauda, Mika Hakkinen and Lewis Hamilton. All have written chapters of the team’s greatest successes in F1.

Yet it is the legacy of its founder, Bruce McLaren, the team has been celebrating this year. A large number 60 flanks the garage entrance in papaya, the color McLaren made synonymous with the team he established in 1963. McLaren also broke the naming sequence of this year’s car, which should have been the MCL37, to call it the MCL60 in honor of the anniversary.

Bruce’s legacy can be felt wherever you look at McLaren, whether in the garage at the track or the state-of-the-art factory in Woking, England.

“We’re extremely proud of our heritage and who Bruce was, the humility with how Bruce carried himself, and everything he stood for,” Zak Brown, McLaren Racing’s CEO, told The Athletic.

“Bruce is a massive inspiration. He was a racer.”

An enduring legacy

Walking up the main boulevard of the McLaren Technology Center is like stepping through the history of not only the team, but motor racing.

The most modern McLaren F1 cars sit at the far end near the canteen, including its most recent F1 winner: Daniel Ricciardo’s MCL35M from Monza two years ago. A few steps further take you to the chrome Mercedes-powered cars of Hamilton and Jenson Button. You’re led back through the championship winners belonging to Hakkinen, Prost, and Senna, right through to the first McLaren title winner Emerson Fittipaldi in 1974. It’s a living, breathing history that illustrates the evolution of grand prix machinery.

Interspersed between the F1 cars are great McLarens from other racing series: the Le Mans-winning McLaren F1 GTR from 1995, Jonny Rutherford’s Indianapolis 500 winner from 1974, and Denny Hulme’s Can-Am title-winning McLaren M8D from 1970.

“I love walking down our boulevard,” Brown said. “It’s the history of motor racing across different series. Our history is second to none.”

Brown has orchestrated McLaren’s return to competing on more fronts than just F1, which had been the sole sporting focus of his predecessor, Ron Dennis, along with the growth of the road car business. The McLaren name returned to the Indy 500 in 2017 through a partnership with Andretti before taking a majority stake in the Arrow SP team last year. It has teams in both Formula E and Extreme E and is looking to return to Le Mans next year when GT3 cars are eligible to race.

That heritage across championships is something McLaren has celebrated this year. As the only team to win the ‘Triple Crown’ — the Monaco Grand Prix, Le Mans and the Indy 500 — it fielded a celebration livery for Monaco and Spain, as well as individual liveries for its three cars at Indianapolis.

It is a history that sets McLaren apart. “We’ve earned that,” Brown said. “It’s nice to have something that separates us from everyone else that is genuine and authentic.”

Brown is a self-confessed McLaren history buff, and has six McLaren cars in his private collection, including Senna’s 1991 Monaco winner and Hamilton’s 2012 Austin victor. He drove the latter at the United States Grand Prix last year in a show run alongside Mario Andretti last year.

But Brown is missing something: “I don’t have a Bruce car. I’m dying to get one. There’s just not many about.”

Bruce’s big break

From a young age, Bruce McLaren seemed destined for a career involving cars.

His father, Les, ran a workshop on the outskirts of Auckland, New Zealand, and restored a bright red Austin 7 in which Bruce would learn to drive. The small, two-seater car would also be used for his first foray into competitive racing at the age of 15 in some local hillclimb events.

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Bruce McLaren’s first car, the red Austin 7. (Courtesy of McLaren)

McLaren contracted Perthes disease at the age of nine. He spent two years strapped to a gurney before he recovered, though with a limp and one leg shorter than the other. Even so, McLaren quickly showed a talent for racing. By his late teens, he was fighting for championships in New Zealand with Formula Two cars, prompting the national racing organization to support him in a move to Europe.

McLaren joined the Cooper team, where he would become teammates with Jack Brabham, an Australian racing driver who knew what it was like to make such a big move to the other side of the world. Brabham had seen McLaren impress at the New Zealand Grand Prix in 1958, convincing him he had the talent to make it in F1.

Later that year, in his grand prix debut at the Nurburgring, then one of F1’s most fearsome tracks, the 20-year-old McLaren finished fifth in an F2 car (grands prix back then were open to both F1 and F2 machinery) — a performance that put him on the map.

The following year, he became the youngest grand prix winner in F1 history at 22 when he won the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, a record that would stand until Fernando Alonso’s maiden victory in 2003. He finished as runner-up to Brabham in the 1960 championship and remained an F1 front-runner, regularly fighting for wins and podiums.

But McLaren was starting to think of plans beyond simply racing and winning. He wanted to win with his own cars.

The formation of McLaren

In 1963, while still racing for Cooper in F1, McLaren formed ‘Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd’ — the company that became the McLaren we know today.

The first McLaren racing car, the McLaren M1A, competed through 1964 across sportscar events in the United States and Europe. The McLaren team also raced in the Tasman Series the same year, running Cooper cars and laying the foundations for forming a fully-fledged McLaren F1 operation. McLaren won the Tasman drivers’ championship that year, but it ended in tragedy when his teammate, Timmy Mayer, was killed in practice for the final race.

In 1966, McLaren entered F1 with his own team and car: the McLaren M2B. The early years were difficult – the teething problems typical of any new team. But by 1968, the team could win races, the first victory coming courtesy of McLaren himself at Spa. After Brabham, he was the second driver to win a grand prix in a car bearing his name. The feat hasn’t been achieved since. McLaren’s teammate and compatriot, Denny Hulme, won two races that year as the team finished second in the constructors’ championship in only its third season.

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Denny Hulme receives advice from Bruce McLaren at Silverstone in 1968. (Ronald Dumont/Daily Express/Getty Images)

Bruce was eager for the team to compete on as many fronts as possible. He had won at the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Ford in 1966 and took McLaren into the Can-Am sportscar series in North America, where it would dominate. It won five straight Can-Am titles between 1967 and 1971, with Bruce winning the championship in 1967 and 1969.

But while testing a McLaren Can-Am car at Goodwood in 1970, at 32, McLaren was killed in a crash. A team that had revolved around one man’s vision was suddenly without a leader.

At the team’s workshop, Phil Kerr, Bruce’s close friend and team racing director, and Teddy Mayer, his business partner and Timmy’s brother, brought all the staff together to tell them the tragic news. They said for everyone to go home and take the next day off.

Everyone, without fail, turned up for work the next day, determined to do Bruce proud and ensure his work lived on. He’d created a group that stood for much more than simply being a racing team. It was one invested in him, the leader and the man.

Howden Ganley, who worked at McLaren under Bruce before forging his own successful racing career, summed that much up in the 2017 documentary “McLaren”: “I’ve always said that if Bruce had come into the factory one morning and said, ‘OK men, we’re not going to work on racing cars today, we’re going to march across the Sahara desert, we’d have all said: ‘Yeah, OK Bruce, no problem!’”

The return of papaya 

One thing Brown brought back upon taking over at McLaren at the end of 2016 was its hallmark color: papaya. McLaren first used the vibrant shade of orange in 1967 before all of its cars adopted it the following year.

Papaya disappeared over time due to new sponsors and manufacturer involvement. The last fleet of title-contending McLarens were chrome and red, the colors of then-works partner Mercedes and Vodafone, its long-serving title sponsor. Papaya occasionally returned on testing liveries. All the while, fans asked for a return.

By the time Brown took the helm, McLaren wasn’t at the behest of either a manufacturer or a major sponsor in the same way. “We had the freedom to do what we want, so why not go back to what the fans want?”

It proved hugely popular. The McLarens are not only extremely easy to pick out from the F1 pack, but seeing grandstands filled with papaya t-shirts, particularly at the British Grand Prix, is a regular occurrence on the calendar. It has strengthened the team’s identity.

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McLaren’s return to the papaya color scheme makes it unmistakable most weekends. (Photo by ANP via Getty Images)

Brown also felt it brought a bit more fun and vibrancy to McLaren as a team, which he said had grown “a bit Darth Vader” towards the end of Dennis’s tenure when the team was known for its clinical, corporate nature.

“It worked in the past,” Brown said. “It was the most dominant racing team, and it was feared. For that time, it fit. But now we’re in a world of inclusivity and fan engagement. I still want to live under the Star Wars umbrella but be on the Luke Skywalker side, which is a more vibrant, inclusive, energetic part of McLaren, rather than a little bit of the colder, killer instinct.”

The return to papaya serves as another nod to Bruce’s legacy, as does the continued presence of the ‘speedy kiwi’ on the McLaren car. The original McLaren logo was a kiwi bird native to New Zealand. It was replaced in 1980 by a McLaren ‘swoosh,’ but the original kiwi logo sits on this year’s McLaren on the DRS actuator faring on the rear wing.

Writing the next chapter

Entering the MTC from the main doors at the front of the factory, by the start of the boulevard walk, the first thing to greet you is a gold statue of Bruce McLaren – alongside his red Austin 7 car. It is the starting point of McLaren’s history.

It’s a story nowhere near the finish. The cars act as a source of inspiration, as do the cabinets filled with trophies beside the canteen. Anytime a McLaren F1 employee goes for lunch or to get a cup of coffee, they’ll walk past the history of which they are writing the next chapter.

“That success in the past is always a nice thing to have,” said Piastri. “It’s nice to look back on and use as motivation.”

But amid a rookie season that has yielded two podiums and a significant upswing in fortunes for the team on track, Piastri added he was  “looking much more at the present and the future of what the team can deliver.”

The same is true for Brown. When McLaren celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2033, where does he want the team to be?

“I want to have more wins and more world championships,” he said. “It’s a huge responsibility, but I love it.”

The “Origin Stories” series is part of a partnership with Chanel. The Athletic maintains full editorial independence. Partners have no control over or input into the reporting or editing process and do not review stories before publication.

(Lead image: Bernard Cahier/Getty Images, Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images, Bernard Cahier/Getty Images; Design: Eamonn Dalton/The Athletic)

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