Bruce McLaren’s achievement at Sebring in 1959
Written by Michael Clark
It is inevitable that part and parcel of sport are records which set a challenge for others to beat. Some sporting records are broken regularly. In swimming one might hold a world record for less than half a day while a year ago much of the sporting world watched with interest to see whether a new record would be set for the most home runs in an American baseball season. The previous record had stood since 1961.
Motorsport is no exception. There was a time when it seemed Fangio’s record of 24 Grand Prix victories would never be broken but by the end of his career Alain Prost had achieved more than double that number – most of them in a McLaren!
Emerson Fittipaldi, a world champion for McLaren in 1974, eventually broke Jim Clark’s record as the youngest ever World Champion
On the 12th December 1959, motor racing history was set when Bruce McLaren won the first ever American Grand Prix to count for the world driver’s championship. He was 22 years 104 days old, the youngest driver ever to win a Formula 1 Grand Prix. The record stood for 43 years and 8 months until Fernando Alonso won in Hungary in 2003. Alonso was 22 years and 26 days old. This record was then broken by Sebastian Vettel in the 2009 Italian Grand Prix after 6 years and 1 month. Vettel was 21 years and 73 days old.
In the early years of the world driver’s championship following its inception in 1950, the majority of races were in Europe, but in 1959 the circus ventured across the Atlantic to Florida and the inaugural United States F1 Grand Prix. For the first and only time the event was run on the Sebring track better known for the 12-hour sports car race. The 8.36 kilometre circuit was laid out on a disused military airfield and the race would be run over 42 laps or 218 miles.
Three drivers went into that final round with a chance of becoming 1959 world champion but never before or since in the history of the championship would the cars battling out the title be so extraordinarily different. Third in the title standings going into the final round at Sebring was Tony Brooks on 23 points piloting the big front engined V6 Ferrari. The former dentist was destined to be a real threat on Sebring’s long straights, the Ferrari punching out around 290bhp, the most powerful car at the time. It would also be the last year a front engined car would be in serious contention for the championship.
Leading the championship race on 28 points was Jack Brabham followed by Stirling Moss on 25 and a half points – both driving the small lightweight and nimble rear engined Cooper Climax T51s – Brabham driving for the ‘works’ and Moss in the navy blue colours of his patron, Rob Walker.
In such circumstances it is the role of the number two driver to support the team leader’s quest for glory and in the fledgling Cooper Grand Prix team that role fell on the young but broad shoulders of Bruce McLaren. Moss had pole position and led for the first five laps before the transmission went and with it his chance for the championship. It was a hot, sunny day – good news for the Coopers and Brabham took the lead following the retirement of Moss, the world championship in his grasp.
His deputy was right there to support him running in second place – surely history would be made with the first world champion in a car that was not only rear engined by painted something other than red or silver. Brabham and McLaren had broken the Ferrari challenge although Brooks was still strongly placed and if both works Coopers retired, the Englishman needed only a second place to take the title by one point.
On the last lap Brabham’s car slowed dramatically, the tanks dry. If this malady could befall one green Cooper it could happen to the other and perhaps Brooks could still steal the title. No problem however for the young Kiwi who flashed home to win while his team leader baled out and physically pushed his car home for fourth place and the championship.
Bruce McLaren didn’t lead much of the 1959 United States Grand Prix but he led the lap that mattered most. He became a star overnight as the press made much of his age.
As a matter of interest Bruce's daughter and his younger sister Jan McLaren were also holders of a Guinness record. In 2000 they were part of the Honda team that achieved 103 mpg in and around Britain during the Fuel Economy Challenge.