Is this the world's most desireable sportscar?

McLaren lends its F1 expertise to the creation of its first roadcar for 23 years

”I want people to feel as if they are driving Formula One technology on the road.”

Behind Gordon Murray’s simple statement lies three years of solid research and development into the latest of the supercar genre to ease its way into the crowded market

McLaren Cars’ long awaited F1 emerged amid dry ice and cacophonous rock music in Monte Carlo’s Sporting Club during Grand Prix weekend, as lazer lights strafed an expectant audience. This is not the first McLaren roadcar. Bruce McLaren himself built that back in 1969, when he planned to market elegant coupe versions of his successful CanAm M6A for around £12,000 at a time when a Ferrari Daytona was less than £9000. The idea was subsequently shelved because of fears that it was simply too expensive, but Bruce loved the car he used frequently.

The new F1 is a very different proposition, though some fear it may share the same fate. Former Brabham design genius Gordon Murray – who produced the machines that took Nelson Piquet to his Brabham-mounted World Championships in 1981 and ’83 – has done a superb job in fulfilling his aim to ‘rewrite the mid-engined supercar rule book’. The result of his labours, and those of a talented design team, promises to embrace all of the dynamic qualities one would expect from one of the world’s two best Grand Prix teams, allied to the sort of sheer practicality one rarely associates with this sort of supercar.

It was not enough for the South African to create something as quick as a Ferrari F40. It would have been all too easy to emulate Yamaha by merely sanitising a racing car as the Japanese company has with its OX-99, but that would have cut across McLaren’s basic philosophy. Instead, it aspired to create something more urbane, the fully usable supercar. The occupants had to be comfortable, the driver had to be able to see out without the usual hopeless blindspots that render his machine a liability in town driving. The driving position is unique: Matra’s Bagheera and Murena featured three abreast, but the F1 places the driver centrally, with a passenger at each elbow. “So you can take the wife and the girlfriend and get aggravation from both sides,” said Niki Lauda when he saw it. Access is via forward-opening ‘dihedral’ gullwing doors. The fine engineering of these taxed minds for some time, including those at Lotus. The McLaren driver and his passengers also enjoy another rare luxury in such cars: sufficient accommodation for 8cu ft of luggage. This is manufactured in handcrafted leather by Golf Brothers, which is owned by former Pirelli man Nigel Wollheim, until recently the man taxed with the task of finding sponsorship for Giovanna Amati. Yet more F1 influence…

The technical heritage from F1 is everywhere. For the bespoke engine, Murray turned to his old friend Paul Rosche at BMW, the man whose production-based four cylinder unit kept Brabham at the forefront in the turbo era. His 86 x 87mm 48 valve, four cam 570/2 power unit is a beautifully crafted piece of engineering. Thanks to the basic efficiency of its design and its TAG Electronics Systems fuel injection and engine management, it already exceeds the requirements of California’s stringent 1995 emission regulations Complementing its 550bhp at 7500rpm is 600Nm of torque in the wide rev band between 4000 and 7000and even at 1500rpm it produces 350Nm! The gearbox’s final drive has been offset alongside the clutch to optimise the wheelbase, and as you would expect. F1 practise is evident in the carbon clutch, the Brembo brakes and the tyres. Goodyear developed them specifically from its racing rain products.

Suspension mounted directly to the tub, in racing form, would have produced an unacceptably harsh ride, but equally rubber bushing would have been an unacceptable compromise. Murray has taken care of that with his new Ground-Plane Shear Centre (GPSC) design in which each front suspension is connected to a subframe via plain bearings. The frame itself is then mounted at four points to the carbon monocoque via deformable rubber bushes. Similar lateral thinking is evident aft, where torsional loads are absorbed via innovative Inclined Shear Axis (ISA) mounts into shoulder beams each side of the engine.

With the current preoccupaiton with aerodynamics in racing it is hardly surprising that Murray has sought to stretch the roadcar frontiers. Nor that the F1 was developed in McLaren’s moving ground wind tunnel. Former Lotus stylist Peter Stevens was heavily involved throughout this genesis, producing hundreds of body designs as each batch of aerodynamic data was processed, until the final shape evolved. Reaction to it has been mixed, and from head-on it bears traces of the Repco-engined Marcos Mantis that raced at Spa in 1968, the roadgoing Ford GT40 MkIII and the Matra Djet. It is nonetheless distinctive.

The F1 generates true ground effect downforce by utilising a three-part diffusor which incorporates a central surface beneath the engine/gearbox unit and two reflex shapes either side. “The centre of pressure is the truly significant aerodynamic factor affecting stability and handling,” says Murray, and in an attempt to control its movement two fans simultaneously suck away boundary layer air from these reflexes. Seeking further control, particularly under heavy braking, he has incorporated a small Brake and Balance ‘Foil in the rear deck. Electronic sensors automatically deploy this small spoiler, slightly raising the Cd but generating extra downforce and keeping the CoP in its correct location even under maximum retardation.

The patents for the aerodynamics, like those of the unique seating position and the methods by which the carbon fibre composite chassis is manufactured, have been applied for.

The ‘Foil also exposes the rear brake cooling intakes to control the increased heat generated by heavy use of the middle pedal. The system has allowed Murray to eschew anti-lock braking, something he believes detracts from the driver’s enjoyment, and similarly four-wheel drive was never planned as part of the specification.

Sheer driving pleasure has been a prime consideration at all times, even down to Gordon insisting to Rosche that his engine be noisy enough to get the blood coursing through the driver’s veins every time he fires it up. What Commercial Director Creighton Brown calls the ‘tactile experience’ extends to the stubby manual gearchange, with the first five ratios taking the F1 from rest to 160mph, and sixth looking after things until well over 200. Not for them the temptation to use the semi-automatic concept with which Senna won the Monaco GP.

McLaren Cars was formed, and the F1 project initiated, in 1989, when the Ferrari F40 was the universally recognised champion of the supercar category. Now many other contenders have thrown their hats into the ring: the Yamaha, the Bugatti EB110, Jaguar’s XJ220. This sector of the market is technologically much closer to the sort of products that have won McLaren its racing reputation, than it is to other manufacturer’s normal products, which augurs well. And McLaren International has proven awesomely on the track that it can deal with the best the world can offer, including Ferrari. If the F1 is built as well as the race cars, and half as reliable, it should set new standards. It also includes an emergency get-you-home facility, and a ‘spy in the cab’ device that will record things such as how many cold starts the car has made, how hard it’s been gunned in first gear, whether it’s been over-revved. “It will be a little bit of a watchdog as well,” admits Ron Dennis with his slow smile.

His desire to create the perfect roadcar is an understandable extension of McLaren’s racing philosophy, even as it was Enzo Ferrari’s, and has earned him the soubriquet Ronzo in some circles. “The first thing you have to remember is to regard it as a work of art,” he stresses. “A lot of people pay a lot of money for all sorts of works of art, so why not the world’s most desirable sports car?”

The F1 goes into series production at the end of 1993 at a rate of 50 per annum until the year 2000. That means building a car per week – itself a pretty tall order and one that promises high overheads – and then selling one a week too, for six years. It’s a tall order, at £535,000. It remains to be seen whether there is a strong enough market to absorb that sort of production rate, whether or not it is regarded as a work of art. Ron believes it can: others suggest he may have made his first serious mistake since taking control of McLaren.

“There is no question of us allowing the F1 project to interfere with our racing programme,” he says. “That is our showcase and we have total commitment to it.

“We have diversified into roadcar production because it is an accurate reflection of what this company is doing technologically anyway, whereas the other trademark exploitation opportunities that we could have considered were things that we rejected, such as furniture, perfumes and the like.” Creighton Brown acknowledges that the market has changed since the F1 was conceived, but counters, “The main production is going to continue from the end of 1993 until the year 2000, so I think that really it’s almost irrelevant what the market has been, or is now, because it could be different again. The only thing that I would say is that the response we’ve had so far, even prior to the launch, has been better than we’d ever anticipated.” Shrugging off paddock suggestions that the order books haven’t exactly overflowed in the current recession, he added: “We have accepted deposits from people who’ve been quick to get on the list, but because they haven’t seen the car we’ve said that’s fine, but we’ll make the deposit refundable so that if you don’t like it we’ll give you your money back. It’s only now that the car is out in the open that people can judge for themselves.”

“We have taken in several million dollars already,” said Ron, who otherwise gave little away and declined to provide any break-even figures.

Monitoring the progress of the order book could produce an interesting index to the entire future of McLaren Cars.