McLaren: Winning Formula

SLIDESHOW: Click above for an exclusive look inside the 57,000sqm McLaren Technology Centre, where F1 alchemy is worked, and the interconnected facilities of McLaren Automotive, where the marque’s latest supercar, the P1, is currently in production.

McLaren’s Formula One and production car workshops are an exercise in pristine high-tech automotive innovation.

The whole gamut of exotic supercars will scorch up the drive past Goodwood House during July’s Festival of Speed, but it is unlikely that anyone will make it to the end of the 1.1-mile course in less time than Nick Heidfeld did back in 1999 when he completed it in a record 41.6 seconds at an average speed of 100.3mph.

The car he was driving was a McLaren MP4/13, a machine that wiped the floor with the opposition during the previous year’s Grand Prix season, clocking up nine wins and eight seconds out of 16 races in the hands of team drivers Mika Häkkinen and David Coulthard.

Such achievements have helped the McLaren name achieve legendary status in the car world since the team was founded in 1963 by 26-year-old New Zealander Bruce McLaren, whose parents ran a service station outside Auckland. His insistence on hanging around the workshop led to them giving him an Austin 7 to use in hill-climb events when he was just 14 and within five years he was runner-up in the New Zealand championship series, driving a home-tuned F2 Cooper-Climax.

McLaren’s talent was spotted by Australian driver Jack Brabham and, in 1958, he became the first person to be selected for the New Zealand GP association’s ’Driver in Europe’ scheme, which gave him the opportunity to race with and against some of the top names in the sport. After that, he never looked back. The Cooper team signed him in 1959 and McLaren immediately won that year’s US Grand Prix at the tender age of 22, established his own Grand Prix team in 1965 and won his first race in his own car at Spa in 1968.

Along the way, he clocked up records for being the youngest driver ever to score points in a Formula One race, the youngest to set a fastest lap and the youngest to achieve a podium position.

But it was in the Can-Am series of sports-car races that the McLaren name truly dominated, winning 11 out of 11 races in 1969; and it was a Can-Am car in which McLaren died the following year after the rear bodywork of his M8D came adrift, causing the car to spin and hit a bunker during testing at the Goodwood circuit. He was just 32.

The McLaren team nevertheless forged ahead, winning the Formula One championship in 1974 and 1976 with drivers Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt before its performance waned and it merged with Ron Dennis’s Project Four Racing.

Dennis went on to buy the team in 1981 and it is under his influence that McLaren turned from just another car marque into an international, high-end brand, linked not just with racing cars but road cars, too.

Now, 32 years later, it seems hard to believe that UK-based McLaren had its origins in a tiny garage on the other side of the world. Its headquarters in Woking, Surrey (the town where Dennis grew up) is as far from looking like a conventional car plant as it is possible to imagine.

Known as the McLaren Technology Centre (MTC), it was designed by Lord Foster and opened by Her Majesty the Queen in 2004. Home to the seven companies in the McLaren Group, the 57,000m² building is just the sort of place in which a James Bond nemesis such as Dr No would have been most at ease. Clinically clean throughout, it represents the highest of high-tech: no food or drink other than water is allowed anywhere near a workstation and, according to Dennis, “the interior is maintained at the optimum temperature for human productivity”. Yikes.

With its acres of glass and sweeping curves, the MTC incorporates soundproof windows behind which technicians work on Formula One components that will be used several seasons hence. There is also a multi-million-pound Formula One simulator that is said to be indistinguishable from driving the real thing, a 145m wind tunnel and an underground visitor and learning centre, with the whole place being cooled by 50,000m³ of rainwater that circulates through a natural reed bed. Indeed, the building is so remarkable that many of the suppliers of the lavish materials that went into its construction provided their goods for free, just so they could say they had a part in it.

Linked to the MTC by a network of pristine underground corridors, meanwhile, is McLaren Automotive. This is where half a century of Formula One experience manifests itself in some of the world’s most technically advanced, road-going sports cars with the eerily quiet, super efficient assembly line currently being occupied by the MP4-12Cs, which now roll out at the rate of around six cars per day following the start of production in 2011.

Costing upwards of £176,000 and available in coupé and spider form, the MP4-12C follows McLaren’s ethos of bringing race-track technology to the road by featuring a lightweight but strong carbon-fibre tub, a V8, 3.8-litre, twin-turbo engine that produces 592 horsepower, a seven-speed gearbox, state-of-the-art adaptive suspension and a top end of 205mph.

By the end of this year, however, the focus will be on building the even-more impressive P1, McLaren’s limited-edition supercar that is being seen as the successor to the now-legendary F1 road car, 106 examples (including race versions) of which were built between 1992 and 1998.

When new, the 240mph F1 cost £540,000 plus tax — but its status as a true ’modern classic’ has caused prices to soar to around £2 million and owners include stars such as comedian Rowan Atkinson, talk-show host Jay Leno, Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason and style doyen Ralph Lauren. The most paid for one so far is £2,530,000, which is what RM Auctions achieved in 2008 for the F1 that for several years graced McLaren’s showroom in London’s Park Lane.

And, to the dismay of some enthusiasts, it is the investment potential of the P1 that Dennis was pushing as much as its build quality and performance when he unveiled the car at the Geneva Motor Show in March.

Just 375 will be made with a starting price of £866,000, for which buyers will get a car brimming with Formula One technology and powered by a 727-horsepower, 3.8-litre, twin-turbo V8 engine matched with an electric motor producing a further 176 horsepower — good enough for an electronically limited top speed of 217mph.

Dennis describes the P1 as “the fastest and most technologically advanced series production car ever built in the UK” — a statement backed up by a zero-to-180mph time of less than 17 seconds.

Formula One influences can be seen in the extensive use of carbon fibre to keep weight to a minimum, the KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) electric motor that enables the car to be driven for up to 20km at slow speeds without the petrol engine, and the Akebono brakes that feature discs made from a type of carbon ceramic previously used only in the space industry.

But perhaps the most significant carry-over from McLaren’s Formula One experience is in the use of an adjustable rear wing which, combined with the wind-tunnel developed bodywork, has resulted in up to 600kg of downforce — more than any current road car and as much as most current endurance racers.

Despite the huge price tag, McLaren has already accepted around 200 firm orders for the P1 and is said to be carefully vetting potential purchasers of the remainder to ensure they don’t plan to sell the cars on for a quick profit.

Not for a few years yet, at any rate.

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SLIDESHOW: Click above for an exclusive look inside the 57,000sqm McLaren Technology Centre, where F1 alchemy is worked, and the interconnected facilities of McLaren Automotive, where the marque’s latest supercar, the P1, is currently in production.