As the Formula 1 season hits its stride, Paul Markillie finds McLaren entering another race ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2010
The Boulevard is a large glass-fronted atrium looking out over a curved lake which mirrors the symmetry of the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, Berkshire. The building may have been designed as a sweeping mirage by Norman Foster, but its engineering features were perfected by his fastidious client, Ron Dennis, just as McLaren’s boss influenced many of the historic racing cars that line the walkway. Even the reflective lake serves a purpose beyond the aesthetic—helping to cool the headquarters of Britain’s leading Formula 1 team.
As the F1 season works it way around the world, the animal spirits are particularly high. Jenson Button, the current world champion, has joined McLaren from Brawn and everyone is watching for a tussle with Lewis Hamilton, his new team-mate and predecessor as champion. But there is more. Dennis has given up managing the F1 team and has been busy overseeing the final touches to a new car that was unveiled on March 18th. This is the MP4-12C, an unwieldy name for a car, which follows a convention used by McLaren for its racing cars. Whereas McLaren will build only five F1 cars a year, Dennis wants to make some 4,000-5,000 12Cs and derivative models every year. And he is busy appointing dealers around the world to sell them.
This changes the game. Instead of just racing cars, McLaren will be taking on Aston Martin, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and others on the road as well. No quarter will be given, or expected. Mercedes responded by selling its 40% stake in McLaren and buying Brawn so it can run an F1 team in its own name. It has even, in a risky move, persuaded the seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher out of retirement.
Carmaking is a gamble by Dennis at a time when the motor industry is going through momentous upheaval, both economic and environmental. But he says he is “very risk-adverse” and it’s an opportune moment to make his move. That’s what a racing driver does—plots carefully and then overtakes you on the inside when you don’t expect it. And Dennis has been racing a long time. He started in 1966 aged 18 with Cooper Racing and was later Jack Brabham’s chief mechanic. After managing teams, Dennis moved to McLaren in 1980 and honed it into a multiple F1 winner.
During this time a broader commercialisation of motor racing was under way. It began after the second world war when garage tinkerers and amateur speed demons, with plenty of disused airfields to try their hand on, got serious about competing—especially against other Europeans. Motorsport grew and it is now a £6 billion business in Britain with 4,500 firms involved in racing, rallying, engineering and event management. The talent pool is so deep that more than half the F1 teams are based in Britain.
Besides developing its F1 cars McLaren has also been flogging camouflaged 12C prototypes around roads from the Arctic to the Middle East to iron out any problems. The first production versions are now being built at the Technology Centre with their assembly transferring to a purpose-built factory when it is completed next door. It will employ more than 800 people.
McLaren has built road cars before, but in tiny numbers. Last year it ended a limited run of SLR roadsters for Mercedes. McLaren’s best-known model is called the F1. Just 106 of these three-seaters (the driver sits in the middle) were made in the 1990s. With a top speed of 240mph the F1 remains one of the fastest sports cars ever. One was sold at auction in 2008 for £2.5m, about five times its purchase price. It had just 484km (278 miles) on the clock. Such vehicles tend to be treated like works of art, locked up in air-conditioned garages for private viewings and only the very occasional outing.
Certainly some wealthy petrol-heads will want a 12C for their collection just because it is a McLaren. And provided Button and Hamilton can win enough chequered flags, the attraction will remain. But 4,000-5,000 cars a year? That’s mass production in supercar terms. So it means going for a broader market with the 12C priced at around £160,000 and a cheaper model to follow. And it means taking on some fearsome rivals.
Cars in this price range tend to be driven more often and harder by enthusiastic owners. Will they be enthusiastic about the 12C? Most likely. It is not as big as some of its rivals but looks the part, with a hunched and flowing profile. The doors, which swing forward and up, provide a touch of flamboyance. Inside everything is tidy and purposeful; there’s good visibility and even some luggage room. The excitement is provided by a twin-turbo 3.8-litre V8 engine and a seven-speed automated gearbox with racing-type shift paddles on the steering wheel. Other race-track technology is hidden, but no less impressive. The area in which the driver and passenger sit is made from a unique single-moulded lightweight carbon-fibre tub attached to the aluminium chassis. Enthusiasts like to know these things, not least because it is a similar arrangement that allows racing drivers to walk away from horrendous crashes.
Dennis has recruited help, including Antony Sheriff, a former Fiat executive, as managing director. Sheriff says he was attracted because “we can start with a clean sheet of paper and do this in a different way.” That means using some of the rapid development methods and flexible skills that a racing team relies upon. So the 12C was not only computer-modelled and wind-tunnel-tested, but extensively driven in an F1 simulator to ensure it handled well even before the prototypes took to the road. On many supercars you can find things ranging from gearboxes to door handles borrowed from more humble models, but every part of the 12C, Sheriff promises, is designed and manufactured by McLaren.
Dennis sees carmaking as a natural extension of the McLaren brand and necessary to ensure its future. Not for him thoughts of the supercar becoming a dinosaur in a more restrained world. Even so, the 12C will try to score some green points with its lightness and, relative to its performance, low CO2 emissions. One day there may be a hybrid version too; electric motors have the potential to produce startling performance and so may preserve the breed. But that will be for another season. Dennis has to win this race first.
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Illustration: Nick Hardcastle