1968 Belgian Grand Prix: A First for McLaren By: Jeremy McMullen
McLaren and Formula One are truly synonymous. Over the course of its history, McLaren has completed 714 races and have garnered no less than 178 victories. But while McLaren and victory in Formula One are an almost certainty, the very first would be anything but a complete surprise.
In December of 1959, Jack Brabham would be leading the way in his Cooper T51 with Bruce McLaren following along not all that far behind. The final lap of the United States Grand Prix held at Sebring, Florida has just gotten underway and it seemed as though Brabham would cruise to victory and to the World Championship title.
Brabham had held onto the lead for some 35 laps, but with just a few hundred yards remaining in the race, McLaren would find himself back off the throttle suddenly. Then, frantically, Brabham would wave his teammate through into the lead of the race. All of a sudden, the rather mundane race had turned into an absolutely chaotic mess. Just when it seemed McLaren was on his way to a 2nd place result, Brabham's difficulties would allow him to come through to take the victory just ahead of Maurice Trintignant and Tony Brooks.
The chaotic events would transpire into McLaren taking his first victory in Formula One in just his first full season in Formula One. These events would end up nearly repeating themselves a decade later and would see the first for McLaren as a team owner and car-maker.
By the mid-1960s, Jack Brabham had left Cooper and Bruce McLaren was doing all he could to help the team return to its championship winning ways of 1959 and 1960. However, a serious accident suffered by John Cooper, and the subsequent death of Charles Cooper in 1964, left the company dispirited and rather aimless. Though the team would be sold and would carry on for a couple of years afterward, McLaren would already recognize the writing on the wall and would decide to make the leap to start his own company, just like that of Jack Brabham.
Having a sound technical mind, McLaren was able to make a quick leap over into the world of producing his own race cars. But one thing about McLaren was that he was an avid motorsports fan, and therefore, would not just build cars for one particular series. In fact, while making preparations to enter his first Formula One car in 1966, he was also making serious strides producing his own chassis for the new Can-Am Series based in North America.
Making the leap into the world of being a manufacturer did come with its frustrations and disappointments. While he and Chris Amon would go on to glory in the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Formula One project would struggle mightily and it wouldn't be until the British Grand Prix that the team scored its first championship point.
McLaren's first few cars were McLarens almost in name only. But then, in 1968, Robin Herd would come to design the M7A and was the team's first really 'pure' design. With the help of the Cosworth DFV V8 engine, the team finally had a car capable of challenging the best teams in Formula One. And, in just the third season of existence, less than a decade after McLaren's first win in Formula One, the team would take its first victory.
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As with the victory back in 1959, it would not be taken for granted that McLaren would come away with a victory at some point during the 1968 season.
When the Ford-powered M7A came online by the Spanish Grand Prix, the second round of the 1968 Formula One season, it was clear McLaren had become a team to be reckoned with. Still, the team was not, by any means, a default choice for victory or podium finishes. After Denny Hulme's 2nd place result in the Spanish Grand Prix, the team would struggle to earn points and finish races. Still, the team was proving fast and quickly improving.
Then came the Belgian Grand Prix. Bruce McLaren had come into Formula One at the time Cooper was revolutionizing Formula One with its mid-engined cars. Heading into the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix, McLaren would find himself as a witness to a new era of Formula One that still plays a prominent role in the sport right up to this very day.
By the end of the 1960s, the speeds were easily exceeding 180mph and the slender lines of the grand prix cars were causing them to lift at high speeds, thereby reducing the effectiveness of steering inputs. If this could be controlled, a driver would be presented with a car capable of carrying higher speeds into and through corners. Ferrari would recognize this and would show up to Spa-Francorchamps with some curious attachments to Chris Amon's car. Amon's Ferrari would introduce wings to the world of motorsports and the effects would be immediately noticeable.
With the small wings affixed to the car, Amon would produce a best lap during qualifying that would be nearly four seconds faster than Jackie Stewart in his Matra-Ford-Cosworth. To show the difference the little wings had made, Jacky Ickx was Amon's teammate at Ferrari. He did not have wings attached to his car and he would end up nearly six seconds slower around the 8.77 mile circuit.
The M7As of Hulme and McLaren would fare even worse. Hulme would be on the second row being some seven seconds slower while McLaren would be starting from the third row of the grid in the 6th position overall after posting a best lap time that was about nine seconds slower.
It was clear heading into the race the McLarens would not win the race on outright speed and handling. They would need help. McLaren had been in this position before. He had been in cars that were competitive but still needed that little bit extra. This time, however, it was his own cars. Still, he had been here before.
While the situation at McLaren seemed clear, the skies the day of the race were anything but. Overcast skies and being located in the heart of the Ardennes certainly weren't a good recipe for pleasant weather. In fact, the day before had been a complete washout as a result of heavy rains. The mood around the paddock wouldn't be any brighter either when it became known that Ludovico Scarfiotti had been killed in the Rossfeld hillclimb driving a Porsche. Scarfiotti would be the third Formula One driver to be killed in 1968 alone and his death would be just another reminder in the backs of the drivers' minds.
But despite the terrible news from Germany and the overcast skies in and around Spa, the weather forecast seemed to promise that the rain would stay away and that the race would be dry and fast.
Despite starting from the second and third rows of the grid, the new McLaren was showing promising speed around the Spa circuit. And while the car would certainly need some help to succeed, the drivers could be confident they at least had a car unlike the previous couple of years. This would become evident throughout the course of the race.
The race would start with Amon leading the way at the start followed by Surtees making a good start from 4th on the grid. At the end of the first lap, it would be Amon leading with Surtees right behind with Ickx following closely behind Surtees. Hulme would be away well in the second McLaren-Ford Cosworth. He would be in 4th place while McLaren himself would be struggling at the end of the first lap. Though Bruce would start the race from 6th on the grid, trouble at the start would cause him to be found all the way down in 11th at the end of the first lap. However, with the speed of the M7A and the power of the Cosworth DFV engine, he would not stay there very long.
By the end of the 8th lap, McLaren will have made his way up to 8th place while Hulme was in 3rd place and poised to take over 2nd from Jackie Stewart. Chris Amon, who had been leading throughout the first few laps of the race would be out of the running when rocks would puncture his radiator and take him out of the race.
Just before Amon's unfortunate departure, Brian Redman would be fortunate to escape without more serious injuries. Pushing 190 mph, Redman's suspension would fail on his Cooper causing him to fly off the circuit. He would end up crashing into and rolling over a concrete barrier. However, Redman would manage to extract himself with just a broken arm and some minor burns. A course worker that would be in the area at the time of the accident would also suffer a broken arm but would also manage to escape with his life.
So much action would take place during the first 10 laps of the race that just eleven cars would be remaining despite there still being 18 laps left. Unfortunately, that would also not be the end of the retirements.
Just when it seemed Hulme was going to make a move and really make his presence known at the front of the field his driveshaft would fail and he would be forced out of the race. Hulme had managed to take the lead a couple of times during the race during a spirited battle with Jackie Stewart. And while it seemed Stewart had the stronger car, Hulme was certainly making the Scot work hard to hold onto the lead.
Though Hulme would be out of the race, McLaren would be helped up the running order and would find himself in a battle for 2nd place with Pedro Rodriguez and his BRM heading into the final 10 laps.
Stewart had led the race since getting back by Hulme on the 16th lap. He was in the lead and had a very comfortable margin over McLaren and Rodriguez. McLaren was by no means in a comfortable position battling with Rodriguez each and every lap. Rodriguez would manage to get by and would take the position for a couple of laps. But, heading into the final 6 laps of the race, McLaren would manage to push his way past once again and would seem strong enough to hold onto the 2nd place position in the running order.
Stewart seemed destined to take the victory. However, the Matra team would make a serious miscalculation. The team had expected Stewart's mileage to be more than it actually was and as he rounded the Clubhouse and headed toward the La Source hairpin, his car was sputtering for a lack of fuel. Stewart's advantage before the trouble had hit had been nearly forty seconds. Therefore, when McLaren led Rodriguez and Jacky Ickx around La Source, he would not notice the fact that Stewart was still in the pits getting more fuel. Therefore, McLaren headed up the hill at Eau Rouge oblivious of the fact he was now in the lead of the race.
Nine years previous the last lap had handed McLaren the lead and his first Formula One victory. Nine years and 8.77 miles later, Stewart's misfortunes heading into the final lap of the race would give McLaren what would end up being his last victory in Formula One, but it would also give McLaren its first of many Formula One victories as a team.
While many would consider the victory in the Belgian Grand Prix a 'gift' handed to McLaren as a result of a mistake by Stewart's team, a look at the results reflects that the achievement was anything but a gift. The fact was, McLaren and the cars driven by Rodriguez in 2nd and Jacky Ickx in 3rd would be the only ones to finish the race on the same lap. McLaren's margin of victory by the end was just over twelve seconds and nearly forty seconds over Ickx by the end. What's more, out of the eighteen that started the race, there would only be seven that would still be out on the circuit still running by the end. Therefore, McLaren would actually drive a masterful race and it would just happen that Providence would be on his side that day.
Amidst the gloom of the Belgian Ardennes, there was a beam of sunlight shinning down on McLaren on that 9th of June in 1968. McLaren had finally achieved the success he had been searching long and hard for since starting his own team in 1966. Though it seemed to take a long time, the fact that the team would come through to experience victory in just its third season of Formula One was still an incredible achievement in such a short period of time.
Though many would believe the victory to have been a 'gift', the achievement would prove to open up the gates for the team as Denny Hulme, McLaren's supporting actor in the Can-Am 'Bruce and Denny Show', would go on to score two back-to-back victories in the Italian and Canadian Grand Prix later on in the 1968 season. It was clear Herd's design with the powerful Cosworth DFV engine were a compelling combination.
Unfortunately for McLaren, his team was catching its stride at the same time Matra-Ford was in its all-out sprint. And, as a result, McLaren would come away with just a single victory in 1969 as Jackie Stewart went on to score no less than six victories out of eleven rounds of the championship.
Then, of course, in 1970 McLaren would somewhat lose its way with the tragic and untimely loss of its namesake. However, everyone associated with the team knew what Bruce's end goal would have been. As a result, the team would carry on and would become the dominant manufacturer of the 1980s, late-1990s and continues to be a veritable powerhouse in Formula One to this very day. But it would all be born out of those early days when it was founded in 1966, and then, when it achieved its first of many Formula One victories in 1968.
In retrospect, it was only right that it was Bruce McLaren that carried his own team to its first victory. Had it been Hulme that earned that first victory it probably just wouldn't have felt right. It was McLaren, the talented and technically astute racer that had made the bold move to start the team and provide opportunities for other talented drivers to strut their stuff. Therefore, it was only right that McLaren had been the one 'gifted' with the victory on that overcast day in Spa.
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