Wally Willmott, the first man hired by Bruce McLaren when he started his racing team, has died at the age of 78.
An auto electrician by training, Willmott raced and hillclimbed a 500-cc Cooper in his native New Zealand, until an accident put a stop to his activities.
Having got to know Bruce, in 1962, he travelled to England to take up a job as a mechanic for the High Efficiency Motors team, who ran Bruce’s Cooper in non-championship F1 races. The car was called into action for works Cooper driver Tony Maggs to use at Monaco – where Bruce won the race with Wally in attendance at his first Grand Prix.
Wally subsequently joined the Cooper works team. In 1963, Bruce began to put together his own team to race in the inaugural Tasman Series, in 1964. Wally was engaged as his mechanic, and was later joined by Tyler Alexander.
The fledgling team built up two Coopers with 2.5-liter engines and shipped them to New Zealand, where they were to be raced by Bruce and his American teammate Timmy Mayer. Bruce won the New Zealand GP, after many years of trying, but tragedy struck at the Longford round in Tasmania when Mayer was killed.
As Bruce’s plans began to gather momentum, Wally was involved in the construction of the first McLaren M1A sportscar, and then the first M2A single-seater, which was used as a Firestone test hack.
He was a key part of the team when it first entered Grand Prix racing, in 1966, with the M2B, when one of his tasks was to try to turn the Ford V8 Indy engine into an F1 contender.
Wally was far more than a mechanic, as his racing experience allowed him to shake down cars when the team went testing at Goodwood. He remained with McLaren until early 1968, the year that the team scored its first Grand Prix victory at Spa.
He spent some years in Australia pursuing various activities, including building camera car equipment for use by movie productions.
Eventually he returned to New Zealand. He pursued his love of sailing and after a break of many years he took up racing again back in New Zealand, competing with a Brabham BT21 in historic racing, while also preparing cars for others to his trademark high standard. He was also closely involved in the making of the acclaimed McLaren documentary.
All at McLaren mourn his passing and send their condolences to his family, friends and all who worked with him.