McLaren’s first Formula 1 car embraced innovation and new technology in equal measure – setting the precedent for four decades of engineering excellence
The M2B and MP4-21 may look radically different, but they encapsulate the same traits of innovation and meticulous preparation that have underpinned McLaren’s Formula 1 programme for 40 years – attributes that have resulted in the marque winning 19 Constructors’ and Drivers’ World Championships, and which ensure that the MP4-21 is one of the quickest cars on the grid in 2006.
The M2B was born from Bruce McLaren’s conviction that he could build a better Formula 1 car than any existing constructor, and his determination to realise that ambition. Yet while the New Zealander was a talented engineer, he realised that in order for McLaren to successfully make the leap from race team to constructor he needed to recruit someone who could add an extra level of design ingenuity.
The man he chose for the job was Robin Herd, who at the time was working in the aerospace industry and had been involved in creating the most ambitious passenger aircraft ever conceived, Concorde. The pair were introduced by one of Bruce’s mechanics, John Muller, who had met Herd through F2 racer Alan Rees.
Rees had been at university with Herd and had introduced him to the world of motor racing. Bruce and Herd immediately hit it off,and, using the young designer’s aerospace knowledge, they set about designing a prototype McLaren Formula 1 car. Right from the start, Herd adopted quite a radical approach. He convinced Bruce that the team’s first single-seater should use a monocoque built from a then-new aerospace material called Mallite.
Manufactured by William Mallinson & Sons, Mallite was a composite laminate of special 26-gauge (0.5mm) aluminium sheets bonded to a sandwich filling of end-grain balsa wood. It had been developed for the floors and panelling of aircraft cabins and had the same tensile strength as plain 20-gauge (0.9mm) aluminium sheet. Yet it was also much stiffer, especially when one attempted to twist it, which was an immensely desirable attribute in a slender racing car chassis.
The embryonic McLaren team began construction of a one-off prototype formed from curved Mallite sheet at the team’s base at Colnbrook in London. Yet the manufacturing process proved far from simple, as Bruce’s long-serving personal mechanic Wally Willmott observes.
“In hindsight, I think we were onto a good thing with the Mallite, but we were hampered by our belief that a racecar’s surfaces had to be curved. If we’d used the material as carbon fibre was years later – in flat pieces – we would have been a full 15 years ahead of our time. The need to bend a material produced as flat panelling had us and the very co-operative manufacturer scratching our heads. But eventually the panels were tailor-made with different hardness aluminium on opposite sides of the end-grain balsa core, reversing sides three times over a sheet width to cater for the bends we would put in it. It was quite a conundrum to make.”
Power for the new prototype, christened the M2A, was provided by a 4.5-litre Traco-tuned Oldsmobile V8 taken from McLaren’s space-frame chassis M1 sportscar. The team began track testing in early summer ’65. Bruce was still being paid to drive for Cooper, who were unlikely to approve of him building a rival machine, so the M2A was officially nothing more than a vehicle to carry out lucrative tyre testing.
While the M2A’s Mallite structure was evaluated along with Herd’s preferred suspension system, Bruce was quietly sourcing a 3.0-litre engine suitable for use in a Formula 1 car. ‘The Return of Power’ was being loudly promoted for ’66 after five years of the series using 1.5- litre motors, and every team looking forward to racing in Formula 1 was seeking an appropriate engine.
McLaren’s choices were limited, but Bruce had driven for the Ford GT endurance racing programme, and his contacts in Detroit prompted the notion that the Indianapolis 500-winning four-cam Ford V8 could be modified from its standard 4.2 litres to 3.0 litres. Former Daimler-Benz engineer Klaus von Rucker was engaged to mastermind the project, with McLaren’s Gary Knutson later travelling to California to oversee the project.
Satisfied with the potential shown by the prototype, work began at Colnbrook on a new Mallite chassis, the M2B. The M2A had used Mallite for the entire monocoque apart from steel bulkheads. But to simplify fabrication, the M2B used the material only for the continuous inner and top skins. The outer skin was in 18-gauge (1.2mm) alloy. This new monocoque ‘tub’ was reckoned to be the stiffest Formula 1 chassis of the time. In all, three M2B chassis were laid down, though only two were completed.
McLaren’s Formula 1 project was still shrouded in secrecy, with the M2B not due to be launched until Christmas. However, in early November, a news story appeared in the motorsport press revealing the team’s intention to compete in Formula 1 as a constructor. By December, Knutson had two of the team’s five Indy V8s running on Traco Engineering’s test bed in California. But the original cylinder head and port design proved distinctly averse to 3.0-litre conversion. Where the team had hoped for 335-350bhp, all they found was around 300bhp – plus the V8 was huge and overweight.
Once two finished engines had arrived from America, Bruce tested the M2B at Goodwood. The chassis handled extremely well, but thanks to its monstrous engine the car was nowhere near as quick as it should have been. With no viable alternative available before the start of the season, McLaren had no choice but to head to Monaco for the first race in the hope that other teams were suffering from similar teething troubles.
The M2B certainly looked the part, with its sleek ivorywhite bodywork and a dark green stripe down its nose. The enormous Indy V8 was crowned by immense Hilborn fuel injection stacks and heroic straight-through exhausts, barking out a deep, sharp baritone that racketed back from the buildings all around Monte Carlo.
Unfortunately, McLaren’s debut ended prematurely when an oil pipe connector worked loose. It was not an ideal beginning, and what made it worse was the realisation that the M2B’s engine and gearbox combination weighed almost as much as Jack Brabham’s entire car. Changes needed to be made and fast – the Belgian Grand Prix was in three weeks.
Two days later, Muller and fellow mechanic Howden Ganley returned the oil-stained M2B to Colnbrook. They were met by Teddy Mayer, Bruce’s business partner, who greeted them with a simple instruction: “Don’t unload the car. You’re taking it to Modena tonight!” While development was to continue on the team’s Indy V8, an outdated but light and compact Italian Serenissima V8 had been lined up for the next race. Having just driven halfway across Europe, Ganley refused to make the trip and handed in his notice. Muller set off with Willmott and the team’s young American go-for, Charlie Scarano, for company.
“Monaco, Modena, Spa… I look back and wonder how we fitted it all in,” says Willmott. “It was my first experience of working in Italy, and I was amazed that the Italians could cast and machine a bell-housing overnight to adapt their Serenissima V8 to our contemporary ZF gearbox. It was a bit rough, but it did the job. While we were fitting it, it was warm like a loaf of bread straight out of the oven.
“My most lasting memory, though, is of not being allowed to load the finished car back onto the trailer for what felt like an age, while a priest was found in full regalia to come and – surrounded by children – bless it before it left the factory. An absolute must, of course, for all new racing cars!” Despite the priest’s efforts, the new engine ran its bearings at Spa and Bruce was forced to non-start. But at Brands Hatch for the British Grand Prix everything came on song. The Serenissima V8 lacked power, but it proved sufficiently reliable to bring Bruce touring home in sixth place, scoring the McLaren marque’s very first World Championship points, the first of many.
The gormless great Indy V8 was returned to service, with Bruce bawling home in fifth with it in the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, then it expired again at the Mexican round. For ’67, two different options were adopted. First was a 2.1-litre BRM V8 engine mounted in the ultra-lightweight McLaren M4A Formula 2 chassis. This was Bruce’s one-off M4B, with which he collected fourth back at Monaco one year on. By the time of the Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport Park, Bruce had a new McLaren with a full 3.0-litre BRM engine, the lovely M5A. The following season, a very different Ford V8 became available, the British-built Cosworth DFV. After that, there was no looking back.
A version of this article originally appeared in Racing Line, the McLaren Group's in-house magazine.
Bruce corners hard in his M2B on the narrow streets of Monte CarloCruising through the pits during practice for the 1966 British Grand PrixEn route to sixth place and McLaren's first championship point at the British Grand PrixEn route to sixth place and McLaren's first championship point at the British Grand PrixThe M2B attracted considerable attention when it made its debut at the Monaco Grand PrixThe M2B's massive Indy V8, complete with huge Hilborn fuel injection stacks and large exhaustsBruce in action at the 1966 Mexican Grand Prix at Mexico CityThe compact and lightweight Italian Serenissima V8 that was drafted in to replace the Ford V8