When it comes to motor racing, McLaren needs no introduction. With a legacy forged by its namesake driver and designer, Bruce, the automotive manufacturer has been producing some of the finest, and fastest, British racing cars for more than half a century now.
The eight best McLaren racing cars
Then a works driver for British Formula 1 team Cooper, with three race wins and silver in the 1960 World Championship to his name, the New Zealander Bruce McLaren founded the manufacturer in 1963, in order to compete in the Australasian Tasman Series. Ever since, it has made history across countless race series, not least Formula 1, where McLaren machines have registered 864 race starts, 487 podiums and 182 race victories, contributing to eight Constructors’ and 12 Drivers’ Championships.
And while McLaren may have fielded many incredibly talented drivers, much of its success has been down to its brilliant cars, from the elegant M7A to the modern day MP4-27. With so many to choose from, here are our favourites.
M6A – 1967
Designed by Robin Herd and Gordon Coppuck to replace the outdated M1B, the Chevrolet-powered M6A was McLaren's very first monocoque sports racing car.
Powered by a sub-six litre, heavily-modified version of Chevrolet's popular small-block V8, it produced in excess of 500PS at the rear wheels, with a Lucas Fuel Injection system and a five-speed Hewland gearbox. The fibreglass-bodied car featured cutting edge tech including independent suspension and vented discs at all four corners.
Debuting in the hands of Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme in the 1967 Can-Am season, the cleverly engineered car dominated the series, winning all but one off the six races, with McLaren himself ultimately taking the crown.
While the manufacturer went on to develop a new car for the following year, in order to campaign Chevrolet’s big-block V8, the M6 lived on as the M6B, production models built by British specialist Trojan for privateers. While only three of the M6As were ever built, the 26 M6Bs were contested by the likes of Dan Gurney, Vic Elford and Marc Donohue.
M12 – 1969
Bryan Adams unintentionally encapsulated McLaren’s reality when he sung: “Those were the best days of my life, back in the summer of '69”. For young Bruce had the world at his feet. His company was a couple of years into Can-Am domination, and the M7 variants weren’t doing badly in Formula 1, either. And following the 1968 success of the big-block M8A, customers were crying out for privateer cars. Not one to disappoint, McLaren rose to the challenge, developing the open-cockpit M12 by combining two of its most successful racing cars, taking the M6B chassis and the M8A style bodywork.
Reportedly, the M12 was ‘originally built for an assault on Le Mans’, however homologation rules dictated otherwise, and the Trojan-built models found themselves conscripted to Can-Am.
Despite being very much the support artist to Bruce and Denny’s M8Bs, the M12 saw reasonable success, most notably in the hands of John Surtees, who demanded the Chaparral team buy him a McLaren until their 2H was ready. Surtees led several laps at the opening event at Mosport and finished on the podium.
M8D – 1970
Celebrating its 50th birthday this year is the M8D, another legendary Can-Am challenger, and the car in which Bruce McLaren tragically lost his life at Goodwood during testing. Just one of a series of incredibly successful M8 models, the M8D has made our list for epitomising the resilience that McLaren showed to even continue to race that season, let alone achieve such success, winning all but one race.
Ultimately developed from the 1968 M8A – the successor of the M6A – and launched following the M8C – the first M8 customer car – the M8D featured a larger 7.6-litre big-block producing 680PS. A new, wide body and huge wing rising between fins from the rear fenders earned the M8D the nickname 'Batmobile’.
Dan Gurney and Peter Gethin stood in for the remainder of the season following McLaren’s death, winning three races between them. Despite suffering severe burns to his hands after a fire during practice at Indy, Denny Hulme took six victories that year, along with the Driver’s Championship.
M23 – 1973
Throughout its history, McLaren has excelled at multitasking, and for many years successfully fielded cars in four major championships: Formula 1, Can-Am, F5000 and Indy. And in the space of less than five years, from the late ‘60s to early ‘70s, the manufacturer had won three of them, as well as the Indy 500.
Two years after its 1966 Formula 1 debut, the M7 racing cars began to see relative success, with both McLaren and Hulme achieving race wins in the M7A. However, the Championship remained elusive, and so the manufacturer tasked Gordon Coppuck to create a F1 winning machine, combining the monocoque of the 1972 Indy 500-winning M16B and the suspension of the M19 F1 racer. The result went down in history as one of the most successful F1 cars ever constructed.
Powered by a stressed-member Cosworth DFV, and with the addition of a large airbox, the M23 made its debut in the third race of the 1973 reason, with Hulme promptly placing on pole in the first and second races, before achieving the car’s first victory seven races into the season. With teammate Peter Revson taking another two victories, McLaren finished third in the constructor's championship, behind champions Lotus and Tyrrell, with Revson and Hulme finishing fifth and sixth in the Driver’s Championship respectively.
Over the next four years, the M23 went through various guises and mechanical evolutions, and was contested by the likes of Emerson Fittipaldi, Jochen Mass, James Hunt and Niki Lauda.
It was ultimately replaced by the slimmer M26, but not before it had taken 16 victories, two Drivers’ and one Constructors’ Championship and made it name for itself as one of the 1970s most successful Formula 1 racers.
MP4/4 – 1988
It reportedly took Alain Prost just a few laps behind the wheel of the MP4/4 for the French driver to know that McLaren was on to a winner.
Another of Gordon Murray’s masterpieces, the 1988 car wore its weight low in the chassis – forcing the drivers to lie almost horizontally – and was propelled by the 1.5-litre turbo Honda V6 – the most powerful engine on the F1 grid, putting out in excess of 700PS. With the frontal area reduced by 10 per cent, its low line lent handling benefits and aerodynamic advantages compared to the MP4/3, allowing air to flow more cleanly to the rear wing and greatly improving its efficiency.
The carbon-fibre, honeycomb monocoque was surrounded by high-spec kit, with double wishbone suspension and carbon-ceramic disc brakes used at all four corners.
Piloted by Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, the MP4/4 won 15 out of 16 races that season, losing only at Monza. Despite having been disqualified in the season opener in his home country, Senna started on pole 13 times and won eight races, earning himself the Drivers’ World Championship. With seven rounds to his name, Prost was just three points behind his teammate, and the pair’s combined effort earned McLaren the Constructors’ Cup with 199 points, almost three times as many as runner-up Ferrari.
F1 GTR – 1995
Perhaps the most famous of McLaren’s historic stable, the F1 GTR was derived from the Gordon Murray-designed F1 road car.
Despite Ron Dennis’ adamant denials at launch that there would ever be a racing variant, customer demand spurred McLaren on to create one ahead of the 1995 GT season. With just months to go, a racing program was devised, and seven slightly-modified 220-mph F1 GTRs went to Le Mans in June. Steel roll-cages had been fitted, the steering rack ratios increased, the rubber bushing in the suspension removed and the discs and callipers largened. Reportedly, Murray had just one day to perfect the car’s aerodynamics in the wind tunnel.
Incredibly, one of those hastily-modified F1 GTRs, campaigned by Tokyo Ueno Clinic Team and piloted by JJ Lehto, Yannick Dalmas and Masanori Sekiya, went on to win the revered endurance race that year in appalling weather, with four others coming in third, fourth, fifth and 13th.
That year, the model also went on to win the 1995 Global GT Championship, with the championship-winning car of Thomas Bscher and John Nielsen proving reliable, throughout the season, despite just winning two races.
Production of the F1 ultimately ended in 1998, after seven prototypes, seventy-two street-legal examples, and twenty-eight full-on race versions. The 1,000PS track-focussed P1 GTR was launched in 2015 to pay homage to the incredible racer.
MP4/13 – 1998
Ten years after the MP4/4’s remarkable success, the MP4/13 debuted, with Adrian Newey, who had joined the team from Williams the previous year, influencing the monocoque and its aerodynamics.
New rules initially threatened to scupper any hope the team had at the championship, but Newey and his team dedicated a huge 12,000 man-hours to finding new ways to recover the downforce. Combined with the new Mercedes-Benz F0 110G V10 powerplant and a switch to Bridgestone tyres, McLaren quickly found its pace.
Drivers Mika Häkkinen and David Coulthard were incredibly quick, and the model proved consistent throughout the season, despite a few reliability issues and a controversy in Brazil forcing McLaren to ditch its assymetric braking system.
Throughout the season Ferrari’s Schumacher put up a good fight, but proved no match for Häkkinen, who eventually stormed to his first Drivers' Championship and McLaren's first Constructors' title since 1991. Coulthard, whose MP4/13 recorded the highest speed of the season, when he was clocked at 353km/h (219 mph) at the old Hockenheim circuit, wasn’t far behind in third, with one win, six second-places and 56 points to his name.
MP4-23 – 2008
Which brings us to out most modern car on the list, and the last one to win the Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship.
The MP4-23 was unveiled at the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart-Untertükheim on Monday, 7th January 2008, Lewis Hamilton's 23rd birthday. The car was an evolution of the MP4-22, with some 14,000 engineering man-hours, and the same again in manufacturing time, invested in its development. It had been finished just evening before its launch, and within 48 hours it began rigorous testing in the hands of drivers Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen.
Housed in the manufacturer’s own moulded carbon-fibre, aluminium honeycomb composite chassis was the 2.4-litre V8 Mercedes-Benz F0 108V, coupled to McLaren’s seven-speed gearbox.
After 2,000kms of testing without any major issues, Hamilton began the season on a high, with a win from pole at the Australian Grand Prix, with Kovalainen knocked from second to fifth following the third safety car intervention.
Hamilton went on to secure four more wins, two second places, and three thirds that season, enough to secure him his first Drivers’ Championship. Combined with Kovalainen’s one race win, one second and one third, McLaren totted up 151 points, and took a second in the Constructors' World Championship.
Which is your favourite McLaren racer?
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