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Forty years ago, on May 22, 1966, McLaren made its Formula 1 debut at the 24th Monaco Grand Prix. This is the story of that special day

Bruce McLaren founded his independent team, Bruce McLaren Motor Racing, in late 1963. He was still officially a works driver for the Cooper Formula 1 team, but he had decided to go it alone and build his own racing cars, following in the footsteps of Jack Brabham. Bruce was just 26 years old.

Initially, the McLaren team ran Climax-powered Cooper T70 single seaters in the Antipodean Tasman Formula. Then, in ’65, while still persevering with the Tasman series, Bruce and his team-mates diversified to build and race sportscars in North America. They established a base at Colnbrook beneath the deafening approach path to London’s Heathrow Airport, and created the M1 sportscar, the very first McLaren.

But Bruce’s burning ambition remained to compete in Formula 1. He had done so as a driver since ’58, and was still racing for Cooper, but now he wanted to establish McLaren as one of grand prix racing’s premier marques. The ’66 season seemed to be the perfect opportunity. After five years of using 1.5-litre engines, Formula 1 was switching to 3.0-litre power. Everyone had to start from scratch, so it was as good a time as any for a newcomer to join the fray.

McLaren already had some backing from a tyre company, and thanks to Bruce’s connections in America the team also had an engine in the form of an Indianapolis 500-winning Ford V8. Bruce recruited a young aerospace engineer, Robin Herd, to design a car and before long the team had built a prototype chassis, the M2A, made from a composite material called Mallite. After months of testing and refinement, shortly before Christmas, 1965, McLaren revealed the M2B, the fledgling constructor’s very first Formula 1 car.

The M2B was beautifully turned out, every part polished to a high sheen. Bruce was a stickler for detail, and his teammates were known for their high standards of preparation at a time when things were often a little more relaxed. “We took it very seriously,” recalls mechanic John Muller. “We used to polish the cars until they were spotless. There wouldn’t have been a speck of dirt or a thing out of place. That’s the way teams are now, but it wasn’t like that then.”

Winter testing revealed that although the M2B handled extremely well, there was a problem: the 3.0-litre V8 Bruce had sourced from America was huge, overweight and, even worse, underpowered. The engine had been internally downsized from 4.2 litres to meet the Formula 1 regulations, and produced only 300bhp, far short of what was hoped.

“The engine was the biggest problem,” says Muller. “We couldn’t believe the size of it. It was absolutely huge. Plus it was an Indy engine, so it was designed for full throttle running. It had no power band, and just wasn’t driveable.”

But with no time to source an alternative the team headed off to Monaco. Bruce had hoped to run two cars, with him driving the first and Chris Amon in the second, but the team only had two engines ready, and Bruce needed a spare.

“McLaren didn’t have a transporter at the time,” recalls mechanic Howden Ganley, “so John, Robin and I took the M2B down to Monaco on a trailer behind a big American station wagon. There was little autoroute, so we used all the tree-lined A roads. It took us two days, although we did stop briefly in a little hotel, all three of us sharing one room.

“The back of the station wagon was so full of spares and toolboxes that with the trailer it ran permanently nose-up. The lights dazzled oncoming traffic on low beam, so I just left them on high so they shone over other drivers’ heads!”

There were no proper pit and paddock facilities in Monaco at the time, and teams had to arrange accommodation in garages all over the Principality. McLaren was based at a place called Nicoletti’s, in an alleyway near the Metropole Hotel. They were joined by mechanic Tyler Alexander, who had been away on McLaren sportscar business in America.

“The M2B had this new ZF gearbox, but no one on the team had taken one apart before,” says Alexander. “But we had a manual. When I arrived Bruce just said ‘I need third and fourth gear changed. See you later!’”

Thanks to its enormous V8 and massive exhausts, the M2B was the noisiest thing in Monte Carlo. The car wasn’t fast, but the engine’s added weight did at least ensure that the car put its power down well, which helped to propel Bruce out of the slower corners. The torque-curve was still incredibly peaky, though, and Bruce was out-accelerated, and out-climbed up the long hill towards the Casino.

“The engine was just not suitable,” says Alexander. “It made a horrendous amount of noise, and that was about it.” Nevertheless, Bruce was a Monaco specialist and he qualified 10th of 16, which was a reasonable result. Come Sunday, he made a great start, the M2B’s heavy engine giving good traction off the line. He jumped up to sixth, and with reliability always a big issue at Monaco, he knew he had a good chance of making progress from there.

“Bruce seemed to be going quite well early on,” recalls Ganley. “But on lap 10 he suddenly came in with his legs and feet drenched in hot oil. One of the unions to the oil cooler in the nose had come loose.

“Two oil pipes ran along the top of the monocoque, and connected to the cooler via 45-degree fittings. It was almost impossible to get the fittings to lie flat without twisting the steel braided hoses. We’d had several goes at getting them right, but it was far from ideal. Apart from the twisting force produced by the hose, they were aluminium /steel connections, with different expansion rates.

“It was easy enough to reconnect the hoses, but we couldn’t rejoin the race because so much oil had been lost, and the rules banned replenishment. It was a shame, but the system just needed a re-think. So did the engine, it probably pumped more oil than the rest of the grid put together!”

It was a humble start for McLaren. But four decades later the marque is one of the most successful in Formula 1, and has been for more than 30 years. For some, the time has flown. “It could be yesterday,” says Alexander, the only original crew member who will still be in action at Monaco this year – working for Team McLaren Mercedes, of course.


M2B stars in landmark film

In order to help fund McLaren’s first season in Formula 1, the team assisted in the making of John Frankenheimer’s movie Grand Prix. This ground breaking film starred James Garner and explored the lives of four fictional racing drivers as they battled to win the Formula 1 World Championship.

The production crew followed the teams through the entire ’66 season, with Bruce’s M2B standing in for the Japanese driver’s car. What made the film so special was the amazing action sequences, which were filmed using state of the art on-board cameras (shown below on the M2B), and from a helicopter. The finished film was nearly three hours long and won three Academy Awards.

A version of this article originally appeared in Racing Line, the McLaren Group's in-house magazine.

For more information about Racing Line click here


Bruce pilots his M2B past the marinaBruce pilots his M2B past the marinaBruce in actionBruce in actionThe M2B with Patty McLaren and Phill Hill on the pit wall behindThe M2B with Patty McLaren and Phill Hill on the pit wall behindPutting down the power out of PortierPutting down the power out of PortierBruce dices for position with Jochen RindtBruce dices for position with Jochen RindtCutting the apex at the Rascasse HairpinCutting the apex at the Rascasse HairpinBruce checks the M2B's oil-stained cockpit after retiring from the raceBruce checks the M2B's oil-stained cockpit after retiring from the raceThe McLaren M2B used in Grand Prix: The MovieThe McLaren M2B used in Grand Prix: The Movie