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Why Bruce McLaren was an exceptional F1 driver and designer - as are the supercars that bear his name

Jeremy Taylor
Bruce McLaren at the 1970 Race of Champions - LAT Photographic

Fifty years ago, on June 2, 1970, one of motorsport’s brightest talents died on the racetrack at Goodwood. Bruce McLaren wasn’t just a brilliant driver, he ran his own successful racing team and even designed the cars – imagine that in modern-day Formula One.

McLaren was the youngest driver to win a Grand Prix and later victorious in endurance races at Le Mans and Sebring too. After his death, McLaren F1 went on to claim six Constructors’ World Championships and became one of the sports’ greatest ever teams.

Bruce McLaren celebrates his win at the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix

Less well known is the fact that Bruce McLaren also designed his own road car in the 1960s. The M6GT never went into full production but there’s no mistaking the similarities with the company’s first ever grand tourer, the new GT.

Compared to other McLarens, the GT is quite a departure. It’s still built at the company’s futuristic Surrey headquarters but focuses around a more luxurious interior, equipped for longer spells behind the wheel on a grand tour of your choice. 

The McLarens GT

Few other supercar makers build anything like it, apart from the more conventional Bentley Continental GT, or the often overlooked Aston Martin Rapide.

They may be decades apart but the McLaren GT and M6GT are both lightweight and blisteringly quick – the 2020 car a more comfortable, quieter tourer that also happens to handle and drive like a McLaren supercar. 

The svelte coupe costs £163,000, features a softer suspension set-up but is driven by a powerful 620bhp V8 turbo. On that road that translates to a top speed of 203mph and a 0-60mph time of just over three seconds.

And while it does feel longer than its siblings, the GT is simply thrilling to drive on the country backroads of New Zealand. Switch to ‘sport’ mode and a raft of driving aids keep it in line, upping the tempo and the thrills as hydraulic steering allows the lightweight McLaren to be thrown around like a go-kart. 

The McLarens GT

The engine sits behind the passenger seats and under an enormous glass canopy, which is cleverly side-hinged to allow access to a large luggage space. This complements a stowage area already found under the front bonnet of every McLaren.

Practical isn’t a word normally associated with supercars but a combined luggage capacity of 570 litres means the GT can actually swallow up a decent number of bags. This is a good thing as I’ve travelled halfway around the world to put the McLaren through its paces in Bruce’s homeland.

 Bruce and Amanda at their Muriwai home

It’s just ten days before New Zealand will go into virus lockdown but Auckland is still business as usual. McLaren grew up in an apartment here, above the family garage in suburban Remuera. His father, Les, repaired vehicles and the young Bruce was soon getting his hands oily.

Bruce left New Zealand when he was 22 on a racing driver sponsorship scheme that would allow him to exploit his incredible talents in Europe. But he never forgot his homeland, as daughter Amanda McLaren explains.

Amanda McLaren - Chris Brown 

“Dad was a very proud Kiwi and went back home as often as he could,” she says. “It’s 50 years since he died but his memory still lives on in New Zealand – he was a national hero.”

New Zealanders love cars but you’d be lucky to spot a McLaren here. The GT gives me superstar status on the three-hour drive south to Taupo and the Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park. The racetrack was renamed in Bruce’s honour in 2007, although he never competed on the circuit.

En route, I stop at the Hampton Downs Motorsport Park, an hour south of the capital. The Bruce McLaren Heritage Centre is run by enthusiast Zeta Panton and boasts a treasure trove of memorabilia, including a 1929 Austin 7 Bruce learnt to drive in.

Zeta Panton at the Heritage Centre

The town of Taupo is a favourite destination with driving enthusiasts and tourists, with a network of sparkling rivers, geothermal valleys and Lake Taupo itself providing the backdrop. New Zealand has a population of under 5 million people and the dramatic Lakeland area is perfect for enjoying any supercar. 

The GT is in its element and as it’s the first McLaren with a boot large enough to hold a set of golf clubs, I’m playing a round at the Kinloch Manor links course designed by Jack Nicklaus. The futuristic, minimalist hotel would have appealed to Bruce McLaren’s design ethos.

Bruce McLaren in the McLaren M6GT

Inventor, engineer, race-car design and driver, it’s unlikely McLaren would have found the time for a round of golf in his busy schedule. He was only 32 when he died but few people could have crammed so much in and achieved such a lot. 

In a prophetic article he famously wrote: ‘it would be a waste of life to do nothing with one’s ability, for I feel life is measured in achievement, not in years alone’.

Jeremy Taylor stayed at the avant-garde S/OAuckland Hotel  and Kinloch Manor hotel near Taupo, New Zealand. 

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