1959 United States Grand Prix: Many Firsts
By: Jeremy McMullen
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By: Jeremy McMullen
| The very moment that the New Zealand International Grand Prix Association crowned its own Bruce McLaren its first 'Driver to Europe' scholarship winner everyone noted that it would just be a matter of time before McLaren made his debut in Formula One. And when he made that debut in Formula One at the German Grand Prix in 1958, everyone would come away with a sense that it wouldn't be long before the talented Kiwi earned his first World Championship victory. Most believed it wouldn't be too long. Whether or not they believed it would come the following year or not would be something else entirely.
McLaren had dealt with a serious and debilitating disease when just a young boy. It would cause him to be confined to a bed for a period of about two years. However, during that time McLaren would not be defeated by the disease. In fact, it would be during this time that he would develop his strong fortitude and drive to succeed. It would also be a time in his life that he would develop his wonderful sense of life and such an engaging personality, all aspects that would come to serve his racing career and racing enterprises well in the future.
One other aspect that would develop during this time of confinement would be a love for learning and study. And though he would go on to carry a limp for the rest of his days, he would overcome the disease and would get on with his life, a life that not only included racing but a love for engineering as well.
Engineering and mechanical intricacies had been Bruce's father's great love. A garage owner, Bruce's father would not only fund his son's racing career but would also be the one that would tweak his cars for him. However, he would pass this trade and understanding on to Bruce. It would only be further enhanced when Bruce studied engineering in school.
Therefore, when Bruce arrived in England all alone from New Zealand he would bring with him, not only his great racing talent, but also, his ability to know and understand the inner workings of a car and of aerodynamics and other important issues. These assets would serve him well in Formula 2 working alongside another engineer/racer in Jack Brabham.
Those that had the opportunity to watch McLaren in a Formula 2 race would note his obvious talent, but it would be the 1958 German Grand Prix that the whole of Formula One awoke to the sheer genius of the man.
The 1958 German Grand Prix would be held, as usual, at the infamous Nurburgring. Even great men had found the 14 mile long Nordschleife a lamentable 'Green Hell'. Here was McLaren, not only had he never raced on the circuit before but he would be doing so in a mixed race. The 1958 German Grand Prix would allow Formula One and Formula 2 cars to run on the circuit at the same time. So not only would McLaren have to get used to the demanding and dangerous circuit, but he would also have to do so while having one eye on his mirrors looking for approaching Formula One cars.
However, this was the kind of challenge McLaren just thrived in and he would prove that to be the case when he would manage to outlast the circuit and the race itself to finish an amazing 5th overall. Tony Brooks would take the overall victory, but there would be McLaren standing on the podium with him as the Formula 2 champion of the race. Had he not been driving a Formula 2 car he would have earned championship points for the result. This was incredible given that it was just his first season of racing in Europe.
That result cemented it for just about everyone. It was just a matter of time before he took his first victory in a Formula One car. And, by the end of the following year, a number of firsts would be achieved.
Throughout the 1959 season, McLaren would come close to achieving the feat. The first race of the season, the Monaco Grand Prix, would see McLaren finish a fine 5th place in what was just his third Formula One race of his career and second actually driving a Formula One car.
He would follow that performance up with another 5th place at the French Grand Prix a couple of months later. In that race, McLaren would show his technical abilities as a racer as he would steadily march up the running order to finish a solid 5th after starting the day 10th.
But while the two 5th place finishes provided McLaren with a couple of championship points, they were not podium finishes or victories. The first podium, in a Formula One car, would come just two weeks later at the British Grand Prix.
At the end of the first lap of the race held at Aintree, McLaren would be running in the 7th position and would be following Jack Brabaham, Stirling Moss and a number of other talented drivers. However, on this day, McLaren was tuned-in and was confident. By the 24th lap of the race Bruce was in the 3rd position and would become embroiled in a spirited battle with Stirling Moss for 2nd place behind Brabham.
Brabham was running away with the event, but Moss would find himself totally unable to shake the New Zealander following him. The battle would rage lap after lap with McLaren threatening Moss at every turn. McLaren would manage to best the Brit to take 2nd place, but would hold onto it for just a single lap before relinquishing it back to Moss. But even though Moss would retake 2nd place back from McLaren, Bruce would not give up the fight. The epic battle would be waged until the 75th, and final, lap.
Brabham would comfortably cruise to victory having more than twenty seconds in hand over Moss and McLaren. Less than a second would be the difference between those two, however. Rounding the final corner and powering toward the line, the two were practically side-by-side. Moss would end up pulling out the victory beating McLaren by the narrowest of margins. But despite beating McLaren by two-tenths of a second on this day, it was clear who the aggressor had been. It was even all the more obvious that victory was just right around the corner for McLaren.
The 'right around the corner' would be the southeastern corner of the United States. It was now early December and the final round, the ninth round of the 1959 Formula One season was the only race left on the calendar.
After the Italian Grand Prix held on the 13th of September, teams and drivers had three months off before the final round of the championship. That would be a long time the championship contenders would have to wait before the title would be decided. In the case of McLaren though, it would be a time to really work hard on the car in order to have it ready before it shipped across the Atlantic to the United States.
The 1959 season had already been a season of firsts for McLaren. Not only was this his first full season in Formula One, but it would also lead to McLaren making his first ever visit to the United States.
But the firsts wouldn't stop there. Known also as an astute sportscar racer, McLaren would be making his way to a site making its debut as a host for Formula One. Sebring Raceway had become well known for its 12 hour endurance race. But in 1959, it would prepare to make its first, and only, appearance as host for a Formula One race.
By the summer of 1941 it was clearly evident the United States would be embroiled in the Second World War at some point or another. Our British allies were facing the brunt of the German attacks but had managed to stall the advance as a result of the narrow victory in the Battle of Britain. It was clear an invasion of Europe would only be manageable if German industry could be pounded and pounded by aerial bombardment. Therefore, there would be a great need for bombers and bomber training bases to be built across the United States. One such base to be built would be Hendricks Army Airfield just a few miles southeast of Sebring, Florida.
Throughout the Second World War, Hendricks would be used to train B-17 and B-24 bomber crews. The base would fulfill this row throughout the duration of the war but would quickly find itself decommissioned at war's end. By early 1946, the city of Sebring received its permit to operate the airfield as a civilian airfield.
The base wouldn't just be useful for civilian aviation, and by 1950, a portion of the former airbase would host its first ever sports car endurance race. The first race would attract some thirty cars from across the country and would eventually lead to the first 12 hour race being held at the site in 1952.
Ever since the beginnings of Formula One, the Indianapolis 500 had counted toward the World Championship. However, by the end of the first decade of the series, only a handful of Formula One regulars would make the jump across The Pond to take part in the 500 mile race. America, therefore, was a strategic market that had not been adequately tapped into.
Even in 1959, the Indianapolis 500 still counted toward the World Championship. However, the popularity of the 12 Hours of Sebring would lead to the first road course Formula One event in the United States, officially known as the United States Grand Prix.
In another first, the Formula One World Championship would be decided at a race held in the United States. Unfortunately, not all that many would really know about it as attendance for the race would be rather disappointing, especially considering the popularity of the endurance race.
Nonetheless, the battle for the championship would come down to just two men, Jack Brabham and Stirling Moss. Bruce McLaren had been a relatively small-time actor in the 1959 season, but by the end of the season, he would certainly take on a more prominent role.
Not all that much seemed different in qualifying, however. Stirling Moss would prove fastest in a Cooper-Climax. He would lap the 5.18 mile facility in 3:00.00 and would beat Jack Brabham to the pole by three seconds. The American-Parisian, Harry Schell, would complete the front row, also driving a Cooper-Climax.
Just like all of the drivers occupying the front row, Bruce McLaren would be at the wheel of a Cooper-Climax. However, he would not fare as good around the bumpy concrete circuit. His best effort would end up eight and a half seconds slower and would only prove good enough to give him a fourth row starting position on the grid. Starting 10th overall, McLaren would have a lot of hard work to do over the course of the 42 lap race if he even had any hopes of standing on the podium, let along scoring his first victory.
Despite the relatively small crowd, the weather would be perfect for the race with the skies clear and the temperatures comfortable. McLaren, too, would look to get comfortable quickly in order to draw in the leaders that had a clear advantage over him in qualifying.
At the start of the race, it would be Brabham that would get the break off the line and would lead the whole of the field. However, Brabham would have Stirling Moss all over him vying for the lead as well. The best start to the race, however, would go to McLaren. Starting from the fourth row of the grid, by the end of the first lap he would manage to come up from 10th to 3rd and would not be all that far behind the battle for the lead.
Moss would lead the first lap of the race over Brabham. But while Moss would hold onto the lead throughout the first 5 laps of the contest, he would not know just how fragile his lead was. But then, on the 6th lap of the race, Moss would see his championship aspirations go out the window, yet again, when his gearbox failed him. This left Brabham in the lead with his teammate McLaren not all that far behind.
The two Cooper teammates ran first and second all the way from the 6th lap through to the penultimate lap. However, not all was well, even with the Cooper drivers. Maurice Trintignant, the steady veteran, had remained toward the bottom of the top ten throughout the first ten laps of the race, but then, began a steady climb up the running order as others began to run afoul of mechanical ailments. Never known for outright speed, Trintignant would be in the groove this day and would even go on to record his one and only fastest lap of his entire career. On the 39th lap of the race, in a bid to break up the Cooper teammates at the front of the field, Trintignant would push his own Cooper to set the fastest lap of the race and would put a tremendous amount of pressure on the two Cooper teammates.
Brabham would have more trouble than just the pressure Trintignant would apply from behind. It was the final lap of the race and Brabham was still holding onto a narrow lead over his teammate McLaren. McLaren had run a tactical masterpiece of a race. Following along behind Brabham, Bruce would make Jack work the entire race and it would end up causing the Australian to use a little more fuel than what Bruce would end up using. This fact would come to bear on the final lap.
All of a sudden, and with Trintignant bearing down on both of them, McLaren would pick his moment and would swing out into the open air and past Brabham. Jack had greater problems than his teammate passing him. His Cooper was running out of fuel. It had happened suddenly enough that McLaren was almost too late swinging out and getting by. This allowed Trintignant to close up even more as the two men powered their way toward the line just a few hundred yards to go. Brabham would coast the car trying to get every possible ounce of fuel to the engine possible.
The race, for so many laps, had been conducted just as the small crowd suggested—very little in the way of racing and action. However, in the last few hundred yards of the race, there would be more action the rest of the race on a whole. And as the final lap had started, it seemed everything was clear.
Everything was anything but clear. Brabham was out of fuel, but it wasn't clear whether or not he was out of the race. McLaren had pulled out to pass to take over the lead, but with Trintignant bearing down it was unclear whether or not he would pull out the victory. All of a sudden, what had seemed for a long time to be a rather boring race, all of a sudden, became a bevy of activity with everything thrown into confusion.
McLaren, the new young talent, would not be denied. And when opportunity presented itself, he would find himself ready to take advantage. McLaren would hold on to take the surprising victory, his first in his Formula One career and in just his first full season as a driver in Formula One. Bruce would beat Trintignant to the line by just six-tenths of a second and Tony Brooks would complete the podium in 3rd place.
Jack Brabham would be down, but not out. Though his car had run out of gas, he would hop out of the car and would push it the remaining distance across the line to ensure his first World Championship title.
The race was a matter of firsts in so many respects even before it had started. However, by the end of the race, this poorly attended race would turn into a memorable classic for the number of firsts and records it would set. And the man at the center of it all would be Bruce McLaren. For not only had he scored his first World Championship victory in his first full year of Formula One racing, but the victory would also make McLaren the youngest ever to score a victory.
Sadly, the poor attendance and the costs associated with the race would lead to another unfortunate fact. And that fact would be that after hosting the Formula One World Championship for just the first time, Sebring would never again host Formula One. Nevertheless, Sebring's one time in the Formula One sun would provide the backdrop for one of the sport's most enduring figures, a figure and a name synonymous with Formula One.
And that, perhaps, is the most enduring and intriguing legacy of the 1959 United States Grand Prix. McLaren is one of Formula One's most enduring and successful names. And yet, the place at which the McLaren legend would truly get its birth would be at a place synonymous with endurance sportscar racing. It was more than evident McLaren had the talent to drive in all spheres of motor racing. And therefore, it would be fitting that on this circuit famous for endurance sportscar racing, in a moment of shocking confusion and surprise, that a Formula One legend would be born. McLaren had arrived. And it would be just the first time of many that the McLaren name would be mentioned as victorious in a Formula One race.
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