Released from his F1 responsibilities, McLaren boss Ron Dennis has been focusing his energies on production of the new MP4-12C
By Rob Widdows
When Bruce McLaren died in the summer of 1970 he left many dreams unfulfilled. One of these was to design and build the ultimate high-performance road car.
A year before Bruce died while testing his Can-Am car at Goodwood, he built the McLaren M6GT and the M6BGT (the M6A was a Can-Am car). But these were road-legal racing cars – very quick but noisy, impractical and uncomfortable. Truly, the first road car was the F1 in 1993, a masterful and sophisticated machine with staggering performance. Bruce, himself an engineer, would surely be fascinated by, and proud of, much of what is happening at McLaren these days. The Kiwi badge has gone, but the passion and the values remain.
A new car, codenamed P11 and to be designated the MP4-12C, already looks like being another quantum leap forward for McLaren Automotive, the road car division of what has become so much more than a maker, and racer, of Grand Prix cars.
The concept had been maturing in his mind for three years but when Ron Dennis, chairman of the McLaren Group, resigned as principal of the Formula 1 team he threw his not inconsiderable energy and determination into this new project.
Mr Dennis is not, and never has been, a man to look over his shoulder. What’s done is done. The past is just that – the past. Of course he has missed running his F1 team and, in the months following the Hamilton ‘lie-gate’ controversy, not attending Grands Prix left a gap in his life that needed to be filled. But more of that later.
On a late-summer morning he is in his office at the McLaren Technology Centre bright and early, bouncing on the balls of his feet. I am momentarily dazzled by the shine on his shoes. Real leather, nicely made. Charcoal suit, white shirt, grey tie smartly tied. Everything fits. Perfectly. Would you buy a new car from this man? You would.
Outwardly then, nothing seems changed. But it has, and he’s ready to talk about the cars that he hopes will make a dent in Ferrari’s dominance of the sector. He does not, however, refer to the cars from Maranello, does not use the F-word. Not at this stage.
Ron looks out across the lake that laps at the edges of his empire, considers what he likes to call the ‘rules of engagement’ of our conversation. Ron Dennis does things properly, takes his time, feels no compulsion to give snappy sound bites. Not his style at all.
“We’ve been working on this for five years, intensively for the past three years, and a year ago we were in a position to either call a halt, or go ahead,” he begins, “and clearly the world going into a downward economic spiral did not make that decision any easier. But we see opportunity in adversity, especially in the knowledge that our competitors have downscaled their R&D and cut back overheads. In this phase of the project we do not have to shoulder distribution costs, or costs caused by inefficiencies associated with slowing production, and managing the effects of recession in the same way as our future competitors. We intend to apply the high levels of quality control and production efficiency that we have learned through our partnership with Mercedes-Benz.
“Of course the new car is a challenge, but we have never swerved from challenges, and this car will be positioned differently from the F1 or the SLR. There was absolutely no point in McLaren producing just another ‘supercar’. It had to have elements which would not only be innovative but which would also actually deliver a performance benefit. For example, the primary structure had to be carbon, and the car had to look right and reflect the McLaren values of ‘everything for a purpose’. Some people may have thought the car would look more radical, but it’s radical where it matters which is under the surfaces. If it didn’t have Formula 1 DNA, how could it be a McLaren?”
The MP4-12C has F1 DNA in spades, and already there are 20 prototypes, some in the wind tunnel, some on simulators and some testing in various extreme conditions around the world. How on earth have they kept it under wraps?
“Well, it might have been more convenient to have had Fiorano outside the door,” he smiles, “but they are heavily camouflaged and look pretty vanilla… I mean, people are fairly disinterested. None of them have the same bodywork and they’re painted with zebra stripes, that kind of thing.”
Has the chairman driven one yet?
“Ah, well, there’s a range of views on my competence as a driver depending on who you ask,” he grins. “It would be a luxury at this stage; the development drivers are the ones with the expertise to develop the car. Nobody wants me to make judgements on a car that is not yet a complete package. You know, I am a relatively sanguine, mature individual these days and much as I enjoy driving performance vehicles it’s not the beginning and the end of my life. There will be an appropriate time for me to drive the car but right now I have other responsibilities and obligations which, by their very nature, give me a greater return on my time investment. I will certainly own one, and I will use it extensively, but not until later next year.”
You might be thinking that you’ve heard of a McLaren MP4-12 before somewhere. You have. It was the car in which Mika Häkkinen and David Coulthard contested the F1 World Championship in 1997. But nothing is ever that simple at Woking.
“That has no relevance at all,” Dennis says, amused at my simple logic. “You can say that MP4 captures our racing history, yes, but the 12C comes from somewhere else. The 12 comes from an algorithm that we use to determine the performance of our vehicles, using the four primary values of aerodynamic efficiency, weight, CO2 emissions and horsepower. So type numbers in future won’t be sequential, they will go and up and down as they emerge from this formula we use at McLaren. The C signifies that we are using a carbon structure. The point is, we define performance in a new way these days. It’s no longer just power and speed, it’s as much about efficiency, and saving weight is a priority.”
While I am digesting this slightly impenetrable algorithm, a cup of tea mysteriously appears, quietly and deftly placed on the otherwise empty surface of the table. Mr Dennis hates clutter. White cup, white saucer, what looks like builders’ tea. He does not acknowledge its arrival, staring out across the lake, preparing his next response. I’ve reminded him that Häkkinen and Coulthard’s MP4-12 had brake-steer just as the new road car has this technology.
“Absolutely irrelevant,” he smiles patiently. “On the road car it is simply a weight saving that allows us, combined with other electronic controls, to do away with a traditional limited-slip differential. And brake-steer, along with our own McLaren seven-speed twin-plate clutch, is an efficient way of controlling understeer.”
One of the more exciting aspects of the MP4-12C is that, unlike previous road cars from Woking, it will have a McLaren engine. An all-new V8 with twin turbochargers. This came as something of a surprise bearing in mind that Mercedes-Benz supplies engines for the Grand Prix team and owns a 40 per cent stake in the McLaren group.
“The truth is that the only engines that might come close to meeting our criteria are those used by our competitors. [Again, he does not use the F-word.] We could have developed a variant of a Mercedes-Benz engine and of course we considered that with them. We learnt a very great deal from Mercedes with the SLR, and those lessons will be optimised in the manufacture of the new car. But we are striving for a relatively high level of perfection with MP4-12C and any development we required with Mercedes would have slowed down their own programmes and targets. The power plant has to be tailored to the vehicle and we are absolutely focused on all performance contributors.”
He sees the tea, takes a sip, looking slightly impatient now. Time is marching on outside the office door. I push on. How will the McLaren Group look in years to come? Racing team or car manufacturer?
“Both,” says Ron very firmly. “But more than that, we want to be a company that produces high-performance vehicles with absolute regard for the environment. We are looking for efficiency and low emissions as much as outright performance. Formula 1 teams come and go, as we know from history, and the business moves in cycles. Some may last for 20 or 30 years, others may not be around so long. You only have to look at the record books – the likes of Lotus, Brabham and Cooper had long life cycles whereas the likes of Simtek were far shorter. If you look back to the pitlane in 1966 [the year of Ron’s first Grand Prix, with Cooper] you will see that only two of those brands remain today, and that’s McLaren and Ferrari, and there’s a reason for that. Diversification away from a pure Formula 1 team, as I have said for many years, is an absolute economic essential. I believe that we have achieved this successfully with McLaren Electronics, Applied Technologies, Marketing Services and now McLaren Automotive.
“This is simply the logical way forward, and our objective is to excel at it. We have gone up a learning curve and we have a firm commitment to making it happen. I know the old adage about winning on Sunday and selling on Monday, but our Grand Prix team exists first and foremost to win races. Our on-track successes will inevitably also promote the marketing of our production cars. What is critical to McLaren is that we are not producing a so-called ‘supercar’, we are producing a car with a far higher level of performance than is normally available at the price. We can mathematically prove this to ourselves, but while we can create the desire, we cannot control the customer’s capability to buy.” He sounds frustrated.
We are briefly interrupted. Ron instructs his PA to make sure the new car is ready for me to see, display lights on and rotating on its platform downstairs. On my way there I pass the orange F1 that Lewis Hamilton will be given should he win three world titles for McLaren. Jeez, no wonder the young man is trying so hard.
I may as well tell you right now, the MP4-12C is utterly sensational. Touch-sensitive dihedral doors. No handles. No clutter. I slide in behind the wheel. It’s already a thrill, and the car isn’t even moving. The carbon monocell is on display. I lift it with one hand. Then I am offered a smart grey armchair from which to view the car. I prefer to stand in awe. Sorry Ron, I have the desire, but sadly not the capability.
Time now to explore how the man has coped with staying at home at weekends, not being with the F1 cars he loves. Ron is a racer at heart, a man immersed in the sport for 40 years of his life. Since the team’s first Grand Prix, there has been, on average, a McLaren driver on the podium once in every three races. Extraordinary.
“We started the season in a very difficult place,” he begins, treading with care, “and we’re not yet where we want to be. But we have come back from a poor start very strongly, for which I’d like to pay tribute to the great work done by Martin [Whitmarsh] and his team. Do I look back on this year and say McLaren failed? Well, yes, of course. But then I try to analyse why we failed. First, there were many distractions arising out of negotiations over the new Concorde Agreement between FOTA, FOM and the FIA, and from our efforts to control our own costs. But the overwhelming reason was that our R&D resource had been largely focused on beating Ferrari to the World Championship, right to the end of last year. It is clear to see from Ferrari’s performance at the start of ’09 that they suffered in the same way.
“We won that title and thought we’d done a good job of developing a car for this year, but clearly there were people who had spent significantly more money over a longer period of time than we had, focusing on a very different set of new rules. So that was another thing we underestimated – just how much of the data and information that was relevant to the ’08 car was irrelevant to the new car. So it was almost a clean sheet of paper in terms of aerodynamics, plus the complexities of KERS and the packaging issues that went with it. And, with hindsight, that was another reason why we struggled.”
He has not been to a race since March. How has he adapted to a very different life?
“Running the group has always been more exciting than being the team principal. Going to Grands Prix were the most relaxing weekends I had,” he says firmly. “I’m absolutely serious. It’s like having a big Scalextric set or a Meccano set – you have what you have, and you can really get focused and you’re not having to juggle all the things you have to deal with back at base. You go to the race, you focus on winning, you don’t have problems with human resources, or with supplies, or with money, like all our executives have every day. Of course it’s always unpleasant if you get caught up in the politics and all the other things that can create unpleasantness. But generally, the experience of going racing is exciting and relaxing, and yes, I do miss that.
“But life moves on, life is always changing and the past is the past. Now, relaxation at weekends is far more personal for me, my quality of life has improved and I’m able to look after myself more. I don’t have the arduous travel schedule and I’m able to enjoy… enjoy other things that in the past had to be squeezed into a very narrow band of time. Now I can expand and have a more fulfilling experience. But my passion for McLaren, for the people, is undiminished.”
Surely he can’t resist looking at the TV coverage as the season unfolds?
“Yes, I do watch it on television. But not with the level of attention that you might think. I like to look at it and form opinions – you can be so much more subjective watching on TV, as long as you turn the sound off, that is the most important thing for me. You’ve got to look carefully at what’s happening, and the quality of the coverage does vary significantly from race to race. But you can piece it together, and it helps enormously if you have the lap times and sector times – then, if you have the experience and the expertise, you can read the race properly.”
You may not always agree with him. You do not have to like him. But there is never a dull moment with Ron Dennis and he is still a long way from completing the journey he began in the Cooper pit in Mexico City in 1966. More boundaries to be pushed, more conventions to be defied in his relentless pursuit of perfection. This is no ordinary man. And the MP4-12C is very far from being an ordinary automobile.
Every part of the MP4-12C seems to be a technological marvel…
The heart of the MP4-12C is its one-piece carbon monocell chassis (below). The car is powered by a new McLaren ‘M838T’ 3.8-litre, V8 twin-turbo engine producing 600bhp, driving through a McLaren seven-speed seamless-shift dual-clutch gearbox, and delivering the highest horsepower to CO2 ratio of any car on the market today.
The new engine revs to 8500rpm, while 80 per cent of the torque is delivered below 2000rpm. Cooling comes from rear-mounted radiators alongside the engine. Air flow to the radiators is through large side air-scoops and integrated turning vanes.
The brakes have been developed from a McLaren composite braking system that uses a forged aluminium bell attached to a cast iron disc, while carbon ceramic brakes will be available as an option. An active air brake system uses hydraulic power from the gearbox.
Lightweight cast alloy wheels (19-inch front, 20-inch rear) are shod with bespoke Pirelli tyres developed in conjunction with McLaren specifically for the car.
Brake-steer, an electronic system developed for F1, brakes the inside rear wheel when entering a corner too fast, and on acceleration out of a corner, replacing the need for a limited-slip differential.
A McLaren proactive control suspension system, based on double wishbones with coil springs and with dampers interconnected hydraulically, responds to both road surface and driver preference. Roll control is adjustable electronically, and, as with the powertrain, there are three modes – normal, sport and high-performance.
The exterior features single-hinge dihedral doors without handles. Exhaust pipes exit high and in the centre of the car, above the rear diffuser. The engine is visible through the top deck while the car’s rear end is open for evacuation of hot air from the engine bay.
The MP4-12C will go on sale in 2011 for between £125,000 and £175,000.