Storied New Zealand driver and manufacturer Graham McRae has died at the age of 81.
A trained engineer, McRae made his initial forays into racing in local sports car events and hillclimbs during the 1960s. The 1.5 twin cam formula in which he competed used old F3 chassis, and after starting out with an ageing Brabham, he switched to a self-built McRae National Formula car. He used it to great effect, dominating the 1968-69 seasons and also showing well in the Tasman Series rounds on the tight layout at Levin, where he qualified 1.8s down on Jochen Rindt despite being 160hp down on power, and came very close to matching the time set by Graham Hill, who was struggling to tame the handling in his Lotus 49.
But it was in Formula 5000 that he made his name. He competed in the European F5000 championships in 1970 and ’71 and finished sixth on both occasions in campaigns peppered with wins and crashes.
He fared better elsewhere, securing a hat-trick of Tasman Series titles between 1971 and 1973, and also winning the U.S. F5000 crown in 1972 against a field that included David Hobbs and Sam Posey.
More strong performances against deep field followed, but better-supported efforts for drivers like James Hunt and Jody Scheckter made it increasingly difficult for McRae to remain a contender at a global level. Also working against him was his reputation for being a handful to deal with, and that, coupled with his being in his early 30s, may have worked against his ever finding a full-time spot in Formula 1. He turned down an opportunity to substitute for an unwell Jackie Stewart at the Belgian GP at Nivelles in 1972, and made what would prove to be his only F1 start for Williams at the British GP the following year. Despite being saddled with an uncompetitive car he made a decent start, only to be one of the nine cars wiped out in an accident on the first lap.
That same year, he made his sole appearance at the Indianapolis 500, qualifying on the inside of the fifth row in his Eagle-Offy and completing 91 laps of the rain-shortened race before dropping out with a broken header. He was still classified 16th, and claimed Rookie of the Year honors.
Lack of funding hampered his later years, although he managed to add a fifth F5000 title to his resume when he won the 1978 Australian Drivers’ Championship.
McRae’s main impact as a manufacturer came in the form of the McRae GM1, which was designed with the help of Malcom Bridgeland and F1 designer Len Terry. Fourteen examples were made, many of which continue to race in F5000 events in New Zealand today. McRae himself claimed Australian GP victories in the GM1 at Sandown in 1972, 1973 and 1978.