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Published 3 September 2020

Phil Kerr’s involvement in McLaren Racing’s formative years makes him the ideal chronicler of the remarkable achievements of Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme and Chris Amon.

Phil’s story of his years inside Formula 1, Can-Am and the Indianapolis 500 makes fascinating reading.

To Finish First, which was published late last year by Random House New Zealand, is a liberally illustrated 384-page book.

Kerr and McLaren met as Auckland teenagers and began a friendship that extended into a working relationship lasting until Bruce’s death in 1970.

Phil remained a key figure in the McLaren team for another five years, but his management career had also included the Brabham team and Denny Hulme, plus the early Cooper days.

What’s fascinating about this book is the behind the scene look at some of the politics and problems running an international motor racing team.

In one of his many spats with McLaren director Teddy Mayer, Kerr signed up 21-year-old South African Jody Scheckter in 1972 without Mayer’s knowledge.
The American lawyer was initially unimpressed “but the main problem seemed to be that it hadn’t been Teddy’s idea”.

An accident at the start of the 1973 Indy 500 saw Salt Walther’s privateer McLaren M16B launched into the safety fencing.

Several weeks after the race, McLaren received a letter from a group of lawyers representing the families of spectators injured in the accident.

The lawyers were suing the team for building a car insufficiently robust to withstand a 250kmh impact into steel fencing.

The lawyers alleged it was failure of the car’s design and manufacture that caused it to break up and spray burning fuel over their clients.

Kerr and Mayer were appalled to discover the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had no insurance, no public liability insurance and nothing to cover spectators and teams.

“I was astounded,” wrote Phil. “This was all standard practice at the time in Formula 1, and it had never occurred to me that in a litigious society like the United States, the same practice wouldn’t be applied.

“McLaren was unprotected and in the sights of American lawyers chasing a large sum of money. We had never enquired about insurance at the circuit, and had never signed any form of release acknowledging that we competed there at our own risk.”

McLaren hired American lawyers and began receiving monthly bills, each equivalent to the cost of a Formula 1 Cosworth V8 engine!

The problem looked a financial threat to the team until Goodyear settled the lawsuit out of court, even though they rightly saw themselves as having no part in Walther’s accident.
Kerr experienced an entertaining trip to the 1973 Swedish Grand Prix with Hulme and team supporter John (Mac) MacDonald, using Mac’s two-door Park Ward Rolls-Royce as transport from Britain, across Denmark to Sweden.

It wasn’t so much Denny won the race but the eventful drive home when the trio rushed to catch the ferry in Denmark back to England. Twenty minutes were wasted when the boot refused to shut and within 80 kilometres Denny (who was riding passenger in the back seat) diagnosed a shot wheel bearing.

Denny was at his absolute best during a stop at a small Swedish garage. “He knew a proper repair wasn’t going to be possible but he got the guy (the genial proprietor) to fetch a big drill and then announced that he was going to drill right through the hub and guess where the bearing was.

“If you were ever in a crisis, the first person you would want with you is Denny Hulme. Like Bruce, he was so good at coming up with practical solutions. He attacked the hub and amazingly drilled the hole in exactly the right place.”

After stuffing the hub with grease, the travellers pressed on slowly, hoping to make the ferry. Slow was not good enough, however, so Mac upped the cruising to about 130mph (210kmh) on the straights.

They arrived at the ferry as the loading ramp was being pulled up – but the crew lowered the ramp and the Rolls-Royce drove on board. The car had averaged more than 122kmh crossing Denmark, a record that probably still stands.

Mike Hailwood’s 1974 German GP accident in the works McLaren resulted in a leg broken in three places and an end to the talented Englishman’s F1 career.

The cause of the accident was unknown until Kerr spoke with Mike in hospital. Hailwood had been having trouble sleeping and had begun increasing his dosage of sleeping pills – first one at a time, then two and three.

Mike began to realise that at certain times of the day he couldn’t remember what had happened, and he didn’t recognise the signs as being the effect of the pills. With hindsight, Hailwood wished he’d never started the pills that almost certainly caused him to slam into a guardrail at the Nurburgring almost head-on.
On a lengthy Brazilian Grand Prix charter flight back to Britain in 1974, Kerr recalled almost the entire Formula 1 circus was on board a Boeing 707 when the plane ran into strong headwinds and was short on fuel.

Alternative European airports were closed because of poor weather and the plane was given priority landing at Gatwick, landing with barely 20 minutes’ fuel left in the tanks.

The late Walter Hayes, a vice-president of Ford who masterminded the Cosworth V8 engine, happened upon Kerr, Mayer, Hulme and Yardley executive Dennis Mathews at a London dinner during delicate early discussions about sponsorship.

Hayes said McLaren was great at Can-Am but would never make it in F1. “They should stick to Can-Am and Indy, and I’m amazed they are continuing in Formula 1,” said Hayes.

Kerr was outraged and told Hayes F1 was still McLaren’s priority. Despite the intervention by the Ford man – who would later be proved very wrong – Mathews said he would make up his own mind and didn’t need to be told by other people. Yardley went on to co-sponsor McLaren in F1.

During the Reynolds Aluminium association in 1970, an M8D Can-Am McLaren was presented at the Reynolds headquarters.

Hulme demonstrated the McLaren sports car in the company carpark before boss Bill Reynolds asked for a ride. Denny took Reynolds for a gentle run, conscious that the American had suffered a heart attack the previous year.

“Faster!” said Bill Reynolds. “Denny, I wanna see what it really feels like.” What followed were quick laps of the carpark with wheelspinning moments to demonstrate the car’s sheer power. Reynolds was delighted.  

When Ford asked what would it take for McLaren to change from Chevrolet to Ford engines for the Can-Am series, McLaren came up with what they thought was a bold figure of $1.4 million which would include development of the motor.

The proposal was eventually turned down, not because the figure was too high but because Ford couldn’t see how McLaren could do it that cheaply. Ironically, had the deal been for two, three or even four million dollars, the Ford board would have approved the proposal.

Phil Kerr has captured the golden years of racing in a worthy book that’s good value at $49.99. Icing on the cake is the use of Michael Turner’s magnificent paintings.
If there is one criticism, it’s the detailing of races. Although they provide a common thread to the story, much of this information, of course, can be found elsewhere.