McLaren, Mercedes Have Winning Traditions at Indy

McLAREN, MERCEDES HAVE ESTABLISHED WINNING TRADITIONS AT INDY By Dan Knutson Special Correspondent INDIANAPOLIS, Feb. 19, 1999 -- McLaren-Mercedes, the reigning Formula One World Championship team, has winning ties with the ...


By Dan Knutson Special Correspondent

INDIANAPOLIS, Feb. 19, 1999 -- McLaren-Mercedes, the reigning Formula One World Championship team, has winning ties with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that stretch all the way back to the first 500-mile classic in 1911. McLaren and Mercedes also have a rich racing history throughout the world, including North America.

Driving a Mercedes, Spencer Wishart finished fourth in the inaugural Indy 500 in 1911 while a pair of Benzes ended up 18th and 19th. Mercedes cars took part in the 500 from 1911 to 1915 and in 1923.

Ralph DePalma led 196 of 200 laps in his "Grey Ghost" Mercedes in 1912 before stopping with engine failure. He and his riding mechanic pushed the car over the finish line to claim 11th place. DePalma won the 500 in 1915 in his Mercedes. Flash forward 79 years: Al Unser Jr. wins the 1994 Indy 500 behind the wheel of a Penske powered by Mercedes.

Benz, Mercedes and Daimler go back to the very beginnings of the automobile and auto racing. In January 1886, Germany's Karl Benz patented the first automobile--a three-wheeler. That same year, just 60 miles away, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach developed the first high-speed internal combustion engine and put it in a four-wheel chassis.

The first auto race, in 1894 from Paris to Rouen, was won by car using a Daimler engine. Three of the six cars in the first race held in the United States, in Chicago in 1895, were Benzes. Daimler and Benz never met, but their companies merged in 1926. By this time Daimler's cars were called Mercedes after one customer placed a large order on condition that the cars carry the Spanish name of his daughter, Mercedes.

In the United States, Mercedes and Benz cars won races from California to Georgia. The hard-charging Barney Oldfield turned 131 mph in his "Lightning Benz" in 1910 at Ormond Beach, Fla., and won races around the country. Known as the Silver Arrows because of their silver coloring, Mercedes-Benz machines dominated F1 and sports car races in Europe in the 1930s and 1950s. Mercedes withdrew from motor racing from 1956 to 1987. Since returning to the sport, Mercedes-Benz has been winning in the United States again, especially in the CART series.

McLaren, too, played a significant role at the Speedway, primarily from 1970 to 1980 when McLaren cars won the Indy 500 three times and the pole three times. Mark Donohue won the 1972 Indy 500 in his Sunoco Penske McLaren while Johnny Rutherford's McLaren headed for the winner's circle in 1974 and 1976. Rutherford took the pole in 1973 and 1976 while Peter Revson started in front in 1971.

Besides the Indy 500, McLaren cars--both the official factory team and private teams--won other USAC Indy-style races during that period. McLaren withdrew from the series in 1980 but its cars continued to run in the hands of privateers for several more seasons.

It wasn't just at the Brickyard that the two famous marques of McLaren and Mercedes were victorious in North America. At Sebring in 1959 New Zealander Bruce McLaren won the first United States Grand Prix driving a Cooper. The Indianapolis 500 was officially part of the F1 schedule from 1950 to 1960, but the Sebring race marked the start of classic F1 road racing in the USA ... a trend that will now continue on Indy's new road course. McLaren went on to found Team McLaren in 1963, and the team has won the United States and the Canadian Grands Prix 16 times between 1968 and 1998.

In the Can-Am, an unlimited series for two-seater open-cockpit prototypes, the orange McLarens, powered by thundering Chevy V8s, dominated with drivers such as McLaren, Denny Hulme, Revson and American Dan Gurney, himself a four-time Grand Prix winner who also competed in the Indy 500 nine times and finished second twice.

McLaren drivers won the Can-Am championship five times and racked up 43 victories between 1967 and 1972. McLaren drivers also won the SCCA's Formula 5000 series in 1970 and 1971.

Bruce McLaren died in an accident in 1970 but the team carried on. Ron Dennis bought the McLaren team in 1980 and continued its winning ways. Two people who were with McLaren in its Indy days are still with the team today. Ray "Tex" Rowe works back at the McLaren factory in England. American Tyler Alexander, one of the team's founding directors in 1963 and the Indy team manager, today works as a systems engineer for McLaren and travels to all F1 races. Now he will be heading back to Indy in 2000.

"The good thing about the new venue for the United States Grand Prix is that Tony George and IMS have the resources to make the race a success," Alexander said. "The city of Indianapolis has changed a lot since the old days. It has great restaurants and hotels. The F1 people will enjoy themselves there."

Other members of Team McLaren have more recent experiences at the Speedway. Adrian Newey, who conceived this year's McLaren MP4/14 F1 car in conjunction with Neil Oatley, also designed the March Indy car in 1985 and worked with drivers such as Bobby Rahal, Michael Andretti and Mario Andretti between 1984 and 1987.

Mario Illien is the technical guru whose company, Ilmor, designed the Chevrolet engine that won the Indy 500 six times and scored a total of 86 Indy-style victories between 1986 and 1993. After Chevrolet withdrew, Mercedes and Ilmor formed a technical partnership, and Ilmor designed the Mercedes engine that won Indy in 1994. These days, Mercedes and Ilmor build engines for the CART series as well as McLaren's F1 team.

Asked how significant it is for Mercedes-Benz that F1 is returning to the United States, Norbert Haug, the head of Mercedes-Benz Motor Sport, said: "It's very important. I think it's a great idea having it at Indianapolis. It's just fantastic because everybody knows Indy, and so that's a major achievement for F1."

McLaren boss Dennis also is thrilled about the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis.

"What is important is that F1 continues to develop and extend its global reach so, in that context it is important that it is returning to the USA," Dennis said. "What is also important is that whilst the USA has a wonderful motor racing heritage of its own, Formula One also enjoys a great history and is followed by enthusiasts around the world, so it is of benefit for America to once again be part of this sport.

"The Indy circuit has a special reputation of its own, and I think racing there next year will be an historical moment for all the teams. McLaren cars has enjoyed a unique heritage a this circuit with three Indy 500 wins -- it will therefore be good to return to Indianapolis once again."

Next year, the McLaren-Mercedes team competes in the inaugural United States Grand Prix at Indy. Will they again add their names to the Speedway's long list of winners?

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Al Unser Jr. , Michael Andretti , Bobby Rahal , Norbert Haug , Dan Gurney , Denny Hulme , Bruce McLaren , Ralph DePalma , Tony George , Adrian Newey , Mark Donohue , Johnny Rutherford
Teams Mercedes , McLaren