In celebration of James Hunt’s 1976 Formula 1™ Drivers’ World Championship, we meet Gordon Coppuck, the man who designed his incredible M23 race car.


Gordon Coppuck joined McLaren in 1965, recruited by Chief Designer Robin Herd with whom he’d worked as a draughtsman at the National Gas Turbine Establishment. Together they designed race-winning Formula 1™ cars and the unstoppable Can-Am machines, with which McLaren ruled the fearsome Canadian American Challenge Cup from 1967.

When Robin left, Gordon became Chief Designer and the team went from strength to strength. He designed Bruce McLaren’s first road car, the M6GT, his creations continued to dominate the Can-Am series, and even today Gordon remains the only person to have twice designed the winners of the Indy 500 and the Formula 1™ World Championship. The M16’s radical wedge shape caused astonishment at Indianapolis, and McLaren was victorious at ‘The Brickyard’ in 1974 and 1976, while in the same two years Emerson Fittipaldi and then James Hunt took the Formula 1™ Drivers’ World Championship.

Forty years after James Hunt’s 1976 Formula 1™ World Championship victory, we meet Gordon Coppuck to discover more about that dramatic season.


What was your first job at McLaren?

‘I started in 1965 at ‘the old shed’ at Feltham on the edge of London, working with Robin Herd and Bruce McLaren, then we moved to new premises in Colnbrook where I worked for Robin on the M2 Formula 1™ car. Then Robin horrified all of us by leaving. This was a body blow, Bruce was distraught, but I stayed with the Can-Am and Indy cars until 1973 when I started on the M23. I always ran an ‘open door’ policy, we were such a small team, so I worked closely with people like Team Manager Alastair Caldwell, Don Beresford and the guys on the shop floor.’


Prior to its departure for the 1972 Indy 500, driver Peter Revson and Chief Designer Gordon Coppuck (far right) pose with the McLaren M16B.


What made the McLaren M23 a winner for so many seasons?

‘It was a fairly radical car for the time – the wedge shape was based on our Indy car, and the chassis was the full width of the car. I worked hard on torsional stiffness, building the chassis to include the side radiators and the sidepods, so the M23 was much stiffer and lighter than our previous Formula 1™ cars.

‘The chassis was robust, it gave us a structure that was very stable, and over the years we kept abreast of all the regulation changes very successfully without making big changes. We did move the oil coolers to just in front of the rear wheels, which gave us much more downforce, and we developed a six-speed gearbox, which was ahead of its time and meant we sacrificed far fewer revs. Emerson Fittipaldi was a great test driver, improved the M23’s performance, and played a big part in its development. Over five years the basic chassis remained the same, so it was always the M23, but we made many other changes as the car was never designed to last so long.’


Gordon examines the M8D Can-Am racer during his recent visit to the McLaren Technology Centre. 


How did you feel when James Hunt joined the team for 1976?

‘Firstly, it was a huge shock when Emerson left, late in the winter of 1975, and it was John Hogan of Marlboro who put together a deal for us to replace him with James. He was much taller than Emerson, so we had to cut a hole in the chassis to make room for his feet, but right from the first test I was immediately impressed with his speed. We wanted him in the car once we’d seen how fast he was and we laboured the point that he must stop crashing, that he should remember our McLaren adage which was “to finish first, first you have to finish”. We did miss Emerson’s application in testing because James got bored very quickly, but he was great fun, and none of us were surprised by the girls and the partying – his reputation had arrived ahead of him.

‘He had real charisma, people wanted to be with him, but he was very serious, very professional when it came to the actual racing. He was the ultimate competitor. The battle with Ferrari in ’76 was very intense, but James never let it get him down, and it didn’t reduce his nocturnal activities. He was a good team player, determined to beat the politics of Ferrari, especially when they claimed we had illegal fuel at Monza, which was total rubbish. And I can tell you, only James could have gone out and won the Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport hours after we learnt that we’d lost our appeal against disqualification at Brands Hatch in the summer. It made him so determined to win – even though he’d been partying all night, and some of the morning, before the race. He was made of different stuff to most other people.’


The M7A Formula 1™ car, designed by Robin Herd and Gordon Coppuck, gave Bruce McLaren his Grand Prix win as a driver and constructor at the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix.


What are your lasting memories of that 1976 season?

‘We didn’t really get on terms with Ferrari in the early part of the season. The first time we moved the oil coolers, to where they were in ’75, that hurt us, but we got it right when we realised the performance improved by moving them to the back of the car. Because Ferrari had bullied us with their politics and protests we were more determined than ever to beat them, and James was very driven by his fantastic personal battle with Niki Lauda. They socialised together a lot, but on track they were both so competitive, and although James should have got a win in Japan he did enough to win the Formula 1™ Drivers’ World Championship for him and for McLaren.’





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