Sunday, Jun 9 11:07am
AUTHOR: Simon Chapman

Vale: Wally Willmott, 1941–2019

Walter ‘Wally’ Willmott, the first man hired by Bruce McLaren in 1961 when he started his racing team, has died at the age of 78.


The Timaru-born mechanic was just just 21 years old at the time when he joined the fledgling Bruce McLaren Racing Team. Willmott was with the team from 1961 to 1968, an era imortalised in the film McLaren by Roger Donaldson.


Willmott was an auto electrician by trade but was a racer himself. Like many of the era, Willmott competed in hillclimbs and other race meetings in a 500cc Cooper Formula 3 car in New Zealand. However, an accident sidelined his racing ambitions, though he would return to the racing seat four decades later.



Willmott and his 500cc Cooper Formula 3 car 


Having to to know McLaren, In 1962 Willmott traveled to England and joined Tommy Atkins at High Efficiency Motors as a mechanic. It was there that he ran Bruce McLaren’s Cooper in non-championship Formula 1 races.


The car was called into action for works Cooper driver Tony Maggs to use at Monaco – where McLaren won the race with Wally in attendance at his first Grand Prix.


Willmott went on to work for the factory Cooper Formula 1 team. Meanwhile, McLaren was preparing his own team to race back home in New Zealand as part of the first ever Tasman Series in 1964. Willmott joined the team as a mechanic and was soon followed in by Tyler Alexander (1940–2016).  



Willmott and legends of New Zealand motor racing at the New Zealand Motor Cup meeting 


The team built and ran two 2.5-litre Cooper race cars in England, which were shipped to New Zealand for the series. McLaren and American driver Timmy Mayer raced them.


There was jubilation initially as McLaren won his first New Zealand Grand Prix at Pukekohe Park in only the second year at the circuit. However, tragedy struck at the end of the season at Longford Circuit in Tasmania, Australia when Mayer died in an accident.


Willmott was part of the first Group 7 sports cars built by McLaren, the M1A. He was also part of the M2A single seater that followed, a predecessor to the M2B that raced in Formula 1.




Willmott was a key part of the team when it first entered Grand Prix racing in 1966 with the M2B. One of his tasks then was to try to turn the Ford 3.0-litre V8 IndyCar engine into a contender in Formula 1.


He remained at McLaren until 1968 in the year that the McLaren team scored their first Grand Prix win at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.


Willmott lived in Australia for some time but eventually moved back to New Zealand. He raced a Brabham BT12 among other cars including the Denny Hulme McLaren M23 (pictured above) when the opportunity arose. Willmott also mentored young drivers in his later years.