Bruce McLaren removes his helmet and retraces his steps, examining the debris strewn on the otherwise pristine Goodwood racetrack. The hopeful, dreamy sunshine is broken only by the rising black smoke from the stricken Can-Am sports car in which, just a few moments earlier, he had died. It is June 2, 1970.
“What might be seen as a tragic end was in fact a beginning,” intones an uncarnate voice, echoing consciously the eerily prescient words of McLaren himself. “As I always said, to do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy. Indeed, life is not measured in years alone, but in achievement.”
We are watching Courage, the first of three short films by music video maker Marcus Söderlund: an affecting eulogy to a man light in years – he was just 34 when he took his last, fateful drive – but laden with the fruit of achievement, both on and off the track.
And it’s the McLaren Group, the Woking based firm that he founded in 1963, that provides his most enduring legacy: a household name in the world of Formula One and beyond.
“From even the greatest of horrors,” wrote HP Lovecraft, “irony is seldom absent.” This month, as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations, McLaren returns to the scene of its creator’s untimely demise, exhibiting a host of its heritage collection models at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. More than four decades on from the crash, the spirit of the departed New Zealander still beckons towards the unhallowed spot.
And so, in the grounds of Goodwood House, beneath the watchful gaze of the Sussex downs, generations of McLaren cars will rev up. One of its original Can-Am (Canadian-American) racers will make the famous Supercar Run – centrepiece of the Festival – along with the recently launched 12C GT Can-Am Edition, of which only 30 will be built. And the P1, McLaren’s newest model of all, will also make its global debut, lining up among the 43 supercars taking part in the annual hill climb at this, the largest motoring garden party in the world.
It’s a weekend of sparkle and speed in a demi-centenary year which has already covered plenty of exhilarating laps. In January, the new MP4-28 Formula 1 car appeared, followed shortly afterwards by McLaren’s 50th global dealership and a new range of merchandise sporting the McLaren 50 logo.
Most exciting of all, perhaps, is the chance to buy one of just 100 highly coveted, special edition MP4-12C Coupe and Spider supercars – for those with a spare £200,000 to splurge.
It’s all a distant roar from the small South London lock-up where McLaren began in 1963. Making its competitive debut three years later, at the 1966 Monaco Grand Prix, the team has since evolved into a podium-hungry colossus, winning more F1 races than any other constructor in history.
Ambitious and cutting-edge, it is an outfit in the image of its creator; who, in 1959, became the youngest ever winner of a Grand Prix, at Hendricks Field, near Sebring in Florida. He was just 22. It was the first of four F1 wins in a career that also included 11 seconds, 12 thirds and a championship runner-up spot in 1960.
Following his death, it was Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi who initially kept the candle burning, winning the team’s first Drivers’ World Championship in 1974. But it was an Englishman, the decadent and debonair James Hunt, who sealed McLaren’s place in public acclaim. His duel with Austrian Nikki Lauda during the long hot summer of 1976 restored sporting pride to a nation battered by West Indian supremacy at the wicket and Olympic mediocrity in Montreal. Hunt secured the title by a single point.
From 1984-91, under the leadership of Woking-born Ron Dennis, McLaren dominated the track, as three of the best drivers in history – Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and, ironically, Nikki Lauda – mopped up seven F1 Championships in eight years. And the team can also boast five consecutive Can-Am Championships (1967 – 1971), alongside wins at the legendary Indy 500 in 1974 and 1976.
But the miracle of McLaren is not measured purely in titles: it is a mechanical marvel too. At home in Woking, far from the roar of the madding crowds, the McLaren Technology Centre incubates the triumphs of the track. The road to the chequered flag begins here at the £300m, mostly underground facility completed in 2003 and employing around 1,000 people. Today, every single car in F1, Indycar and NASCAR (stock cars) relies upon McLaren’s standardised electronic control units.
From the acorn comes the oak. Norman Foster’s large, semi-circular, glasswalled building – shortlisted for the 2005 Stirling Prize – was built on the unpromising site of a former ostrich farm. It was, by some estimates, the biggest privately funded construction project in Europe.
Decades on from his death, Bruce McLaren’s monument sits proudly amid the Surrey fields. As the man himself predicted, his tragic end was a kind of beginning, in a story with no end in sight.