Classic Bruce McLaren on F1: Before PR neutered the drivers

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In honor of the late Bruce McLaren’s birthday earlier this month, the McLaren F1 team has a bunch of stuff at its website related to the team’s founder and its first race winner.

One particularly nice piece is an interview with him from way back in 1968.

This one features the type of answers you just don’t see anymore. There’s no direct link but you’ll see it at the team’s site.

Most spectators tend to think of auto racing as a glamorous sport – a troup of hard men accompanied by their sexy women. How do you feel about this?

“Most of it is plain bullshit. There’s no glamour in working 12 hours a day trying to keep ahead of someone with the genius of Colin Chapman, or people with the guts and working ability of Jack Brabham and John Surtees, no glamour whatsoever. And if you asked any of the mechanics and engineers, who’re working from early in the morning until 11 o’clock seven days a week, and have been for 10 years, they’d tell you there’s no glamour in it for them.”

But what about for you as a driver and car constructor?

“There can be glamour in it if you want it, but if you start taking time off to get involved in glamour you’re not going to be a car constructor or a driver for very long. I personally have absolutely nothing to do with the glamour. And 10 years ago there was no glamour in it for me either: I worked on my own car.”

What does it cost you to make one of these Formula 1 cars?

“Enormous amounts of money. We built three cars this year and I would say that we’ll spend about £50,000 doing it and we do it, well, I would imagine that we do it as efficiently as anyone, apart from Brabham.”

What does an engine cost you, a Cosworth-Ford?

“Seventy five hundred pounds.”

And running two cars this season, one for yourself and the other for Hulme, how many engines have you had to buy?

“We’ve bought five for this year and at each race, I imagine the engine we’ll use will require a rebuild costing around three, four hundred pounds on average.”

In light of the cost and the danger, do you understand why you race cars?

“Yes, I certainly do, but it’s very difficult to explain. Every racing driver starts racing because he enjoys driving cars, or somebody he know seems to be having a lot of fun at it, or his father or uncle has done it. And so he tries it, and the first few times he likes it. After that, if he finds he’s any good at all – which obviously someone going to be a grand prix driver discovers fairly early – he wants to do a little bit better. He generally gets a liking for winning, for beating people, which is probably something in an athlete’s or a racing driver’s nature – a competitiveness.”

Can I interrupt you for a minute?

“Yes.”

This is a very dangerous sport?

“Yes.”

A very expensive sport?

“Yes.”

Time consuming? A total occupation? Why, then, do you get into a race car, which can kill you, and drive it week after week, year after year? Is it fun? Psychological necessity? Economic necessity? What?

“In a word, that’s a very hard question to answer… I think you probably do it either out of a desire to be successful, or to beat people – to beat your competitors – or from simply what’s normally described as ambition. Really, it’s just a question of what you get started in.”

The basic appeal of the thing for them, the kick of driving, is related to the kick of driving professionally, racing a Formula 1 car, driving in competition?

“Very definitely, it definitely does. Because the only thing that created Chris Amon, Denis Hulme, and myself is that fact that we used to do just exactly that. Denis Hulme had an MG; I had this little Austin 7 Special. And it’s a fact that most of our early driving was done on dirt roads, loose shingle roads, and from this at a very young age was developed a fairly considerable skill which helped us tremendously and in fact turned us into competent race drivers. It was that basic start there that made the three of us.”

Okay, let’s get concrete. As you’re approaching a slow turn at high speed at the end of a straight where you’re doing a 170mph and the unexpected happens, you lose your brakes, a wheel comes off, the steering goes dead…
“This has happened to me many times.”

What happens to you at the moment you realise something is out of the ordinary?
“You are thinking very clearly and carefully and doing a lot of things in a very short space of time to endeavour to minimise the accident.”

But what about your gut?

“Depends on the situation. If you still have control of the situation or there’s a chance of your retaining control, you probably don’t get very scared. In the event of, say, a wheel coming off and having no control, then obviously you’re apprehensive but you’re not frozen. You’re still in complete control of yourself. You’ve got your head down, you’re bracing yourself against whichever way the car is going to hit whatever it is it’s going to hit. You know, you’re ultra-alert even though you’re probably nervous.”

Nervous?

“Well, I can only think of one instance when I had a wheel come off the car – at Daytona on the banking – in a Ford GT. And the thing spun around a few times on the banking and I’m quite sure the hair on the top of my head stood up. But I was able to function. At the same time, I was getting snuggled well down into the seat belts and pushing myself back in the seat, waiting for it to hit.”

You’d given up controlling the car at that point?

“Oh yes. The car just spun, hit the wall a couple of times, then hit the bank down at the bottom once or twice and came to rest.”

At what kind of speed was all this?

“We started off at about 185mph.”

A hundred and eighty-five? The wheel came off at a hundred and eighty-five? What happened to you the moment you realised you’d lost the wheel?

“I tried to hold the slide for as long as possible. It was an outside wheel, so that the car started to turn. And the automatic reaction from years of training is obviously to start correcting the slide, which I did. On the other hand, I knew it was on the banking. Obviously the thought occurred to me right away that being in the middle of a banking, it wasn’t too bad a situation, since normally when a car spins on a banking it’s reasonably safe.”

And your reaction after it was over?

“My reaction after it was over was purely one of annoyance at the bad engineering that let it happen.”

Was the adrenalin pumping when that car came to a stop?

“Probably, yes. But I felt perfectly normal. I unstrapped myself fairly quickly. You jump out fairly quickly in case the thing it going to catch fire. That’s an automatic reaction, or ought to be automatic. And then, generally you forget to switch the switches off. I probably went back and switched the switches off. And then probably my next move was to look and see where the axle broke.”

How did you feel the next time you drove a Ford GT40?

“Well, obviously being reasonably sensible about my racing, I made sure that that particular area of the car was actually changed. Generally, most drivers would take this approach, particularly someone in the position of myself or Brabham, people who build their own cars.”

What about the element of luck, of chance, in mechanical failure?

“Generally speaking, you can analyse all your failures and breakages after that fact. And there will always be a reason for them. So the luck thing – really there’s no such thing as good luck. It’s good preparation and hard work. But in actual fact you get runs of good luck and bad luck. While you are using basically the same people, the same techniques, the same knowledge, and the same amount of effort, some months you can’t go wrong and other months you can’t go right.
“There’s no doubt about the imponderable of luck. Yet, psychologically speaking, I’ve been more scared in an airplane during a storm than I have been in a racing car. There is no average reason for a driver being a good driver, just as there is no average reason for a person getting involved in racing.”

The first answer is quite perfect, as are the rest. The answers to crashing strike me as especially keen and precise. Really brings those split second moments to life.

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