Art for the heart's sake

McLaren's stunning F1 sports car unleashed at Goodwood

Gordon Murray has a party trick. Behind his back the 6.1-litre V12 is burbling away happily at tickover, the needle just edging up as he snicks the gear lever into first and trickles out of the Goodwood pits. At 30 mph he moves the lever, a satisfying snickety-snick, and floors the throttle.

A shrill, vibrant noise fills the McLaren's cabin, and there's a giant hand at your back. Was there ever a motoring sensation like this? A giant cloud of spray swirls from the bespoke Goodyear tyres, twisted like wind-driven smoke by the underfloor venturi, but the F1 feels supremely stable and there's little sign of wheelspin.

Murray backs off, dabs the brakes and deftly turns in to the double-apex right at Madgwick. "That was sixth."

What?

"Sixth. If I'd taken second we'd have been back facing the way we came!"

I'd heard the word awesome used to describe the 600-horsepower road car, and now my respect multiplied by a factor of ten. If the McLaren F1 can give you the proverbial shove in the back in sixth gear on a wet track, just what might it be capable of doing in the dry?

Gordon Murray, who earned his formidable reputation for successful use of innovative design with Brabham, before McLaren acquired his services for, initially, racing and, now, road car projects, is in his element as he describes the McLaren F1 Grand Touring car, a machine that is surely the ultimate in sports car design.

It is, in all probability, a car that Bruce McLaren himself would have aspired to, and might even have designed had his life not been ended at Goodwood on June 2 1970. And now, 23 years later, the McLaren is taken to the historic old circuit for a spiritual approval.

Bruce McLaren knew all about power, reaching the peak of his fame in the brutal 8.1-litre M8F CanAm car. He talked the same language as Murray, who explains just how much power is available in the new GT.

"Okay, if you use this much throttle," he says, his thumb and forefinger half an inch apart, "your wife could use the F1 to go shopping. She could drive it in the dark, in the wet, in the fog, anywhere. This car has absolutely no vices. It's completely docile, and it isn't very big for parking.

"But on my way to Goodwood this morning I forgot for a moment. I was thinking about work, and I opened the throttle this much... " His thumb and forefinger are now one inch apart. "It gave me quite a moment, I nearly lost it, but luckily it was forgiving when I backed off."

And in the dry? Murray breaks into a great smile. "Oh, all hell breaks loose when you floor the throttle. It's wonderful!"

Luck is on our side, as the track dries gradually. Murray and Creighton Brown, McLaren's commercial director, take turns at the wheel, avoiding the puddles and gradually increasing the throttle openings. This is no time or place to take performance figures, but it does reach 125 mph in under 10 seconds...

And the top speed? "I'm not really interested in that, but I've calculated sixth for 225 mph. It's all so academic that it's not worth bothering about... but I'd love to see this car on a race track... at Le Mans or Spa, where we could really try the top speed."

From outside, the McLaren sounds silky smooth, like a giant vacuum cleaner. Paul Rosche, technical director at BMW Motorsport, and his team designed the V12 jewel from scratch, just for their old friends at McLaren. Only 300 will ever be made, and the cost doesn't bear thinking about.

"Our engine has no parts in common whatsoever with any other BMW engines," Murray insists. "It's much shorter than their V12, and lighter. They asked at the outset if they could use any common components such as valve guides, and I said 'sure, no problem, so long as the part can't be seen'.

But in the end they didn't do that, the engine is totally unique. And will remain so."

With variable valve timing and extremely advanced TAG electronic engine management, the V12 is easily capable of producing 100 bhp per litre. McLaren would only talk to firms which had made large capacity engines capable of producing such power, "and BMW was in another league when it came to the decision."

The minimum target, the one which is quoted, is 550 bhp, but this was exceeded at an early stage. By the time the third prototype, the silver test car, was built the output was over 580, and another was showing 630 bhp on the dynamometer.

And the torque curve... "a torque square, really 470 lb ft between 4000 – 7000 rpm. It's got 253 lb ft at 1500 rpm, and the graph is almost symmetrical."

When you stand in the pits the V12 makes the sweetest of sounds as the F1 rushes past, the tachometer sweeping round to 7,500 rpm in each gear. It isn't loud (a full silencing system, plus a huge catalytic converter which also serves as the rear crushbox, keeps the noise levels low), but inside the car this shrill, insistent warble from the inlet tract is predominant.

The air box, which feeds from above the car, has a leaf catcher, a rainwater separator and finally a big paper filter to ensure that nothing but the best goes into the engine. It costs at least 15 horsepower to achieve all this, and still the sound of four cams and 48 valves come through loud and clear.

On a long journey I might just opt for the stereo-tuned car muffs by way of relief; and on a wet day I might just ask McLaren to supply the half-inch throttle stop, to avoid any ultra-expensive repair bills. But other than that, how could anyone criticise the world's ultimate driving machine?

Even as a passenger (no journalist has yet been allowed to take the wheel) you get the full panoply of pleasures. The acceleration was strong enough to make it difficult for photographer Peter Robain to hold his camera steady, and the lateral forces built up to something in excess of 0.5g, even on a wet track.

Compromises are taboo with Gordon Murray, except in one area: tyres. These purpose-built asymmetric Goodyears, a cooperation between the race division and road tyre engineers, are pretty well ultimate in the necessary compromise between dry and wet grip and comfort, three equal priorities. Compared with race tyres, for instance, the sidewalls are very deep with pronounced curvature, a certain giveaway that compliance has been taken care of.

And so it feels. No matter that the F1 is built down to 1018 kgs with air conditioning, stereo, leather and carpet, it's superbly comfortable. The deep, hammock-style passenger seats are ideally contoured to support the body in every direction, forward, back and sideways (no fear of colliding with the driver in times of stress).

The transmission is a six-speed, full synchromesh transverse system, a completely new concept designed first by Gordon Murray and Peter Weismann, then in collaboration with Getrag and FF (Ferguson Formula) Developments. The beauty is that the diminutive lever can be shifted in milliseconds, despite the synchromesh, with the merest flick of the driver's right wrist.

As for the Brembo brakes, they're the best in the business. There is no servo assistance but a full application, even in the wet, jolts you into the seat belt. According to Murray the driver has absolute feel between his foot and the tyre contact patches, with the ability to feather the pedal to keep just below the point of locking.

ABS? "It would ruin the car! You'd get 90 per cent efficiency at best. I reckon that Jonathan Palmer, who's done a lot of test work, can get 99 per cent efficiency."

Can the McLaren F1 really be compared with anything else on wheels? Murray and Brown rack their brains, and think not. "I suppose the racing GT40s and Porsche 917s had this sort of power-to-weight ratio," says Murray. "But we'll be streets ahead on roadholding, cornering, braking, certainly on comfort."

No need to mention rival road cars. The men from McLaren have driven them all. Naming no names, a famous red car felt like the F1 with several plug leads disconnected, and was an ergonomic nightmare; a famous silver car had appalling turbo lag; a famous green car felt like a tank. "You have to drive them, though, then jump into the F1, to realise just what we've got here," says Murray. The car we rode in at Goodwood was prototype number three. Best not to ask about prototype number one, which was written off over a large area during hot weather trials in Libya. The BMW engineer looked down for a moment at the metering equipment while travelling at 170 mph, and the rest was history. A few small pieces were recoverable but the chassis, engine and transmission were destroyed. Happily the German was quite unharmed, which is a testimony to the structure.

Prototype number two, in carbon black, was being given its final check before going to Munich, where BMW will carry out the full type approval procedure on the powertrain. Number three is the first F1 to be painted, and will be followed by four more prototypes before the first production car, 01, is made in November.

One of the prototypes will go through the formal, planned-in-advance crash test, the virtual destruction of a £530,000 supercar. That's the ex-factory price, to which VAT must be added. We don't know the names of any customers, and the only item of information that Creighton Brown will disclose is that production car 01 will be retained by McLaren Cars.

Which ever way you look at the McLaren F1, it is simply superb. The chassis design is so advanced technically that Murray believes it will still be ahead of its time at the turn of the century, when the last of 300 cars will be made.

Like Concorde? Murray is delighted with the thought. "Maybe. Concorde was years ahead of its time, but lots of the technical features, like carbon brakes, have been adopted by the industry. We have lots of features on the McLaren which are probably too advanced for the industry right now, but may be developed in rears to come."

The first, most obvious feature is the one-plus-two seating, already copied by BMW M-Technic with the Z13 city car at the Geneva show, and by Fiat with an electric city car. How about the solenoid flaps in the brake cooling ducts, which open up when the brakes reach a certain temperature?

How about the 'air brake' flap in the rear bodywork? It isn't really a brake, but a computer controlled flap which rises under heavy braking, increases downforce on the rear wheels by 50 per cent, moves the centre of pressure forwards and completely eliminates the usual instability under heavy braking. Simple? In theory yes, but it takes a great brain to make it perfect.

How about the pannier boxes just behind the doors, which accommodate a useful amount of luggage just on the centre-point of balance? And here's an apocryphal story of Murray's much-loved Porsche Carrera, which suffered dreadfully from misting-up in wet weather,

"I vowed that the F1 would never mist up," says the designer. The screen and side windows have a mauve tint when viewed at an oblique angle, from outside the car, caused by a film of metallic plasma spray between the laminates. When 55 volts are passed through, a quarter-inch coating of ice can be melted in 25 seconds!

When this feature was offered up for type approval the inspectors practically fainted on the spot, because a family car needs up to 25 minutes (the maximum permitted) to accomplish the same test from cold.

But 55 volts is an awful lot of current. TAG designed and built a tiny ac/dc voltage regulator just to generate the current to do this job, while on the outside a huge, 18-inch, heavily foiled pantograph wiper clears the glass of water.

McLaren's brochure barely does justice to the multitude of brilliant technical features, and we will soon run out of space. But let us repeat Gordon Murray's original statement, that the F1 must symbolise the ultimate in driving pleasure. It must have no power steering, no servo for the brakes, nothing at all to come between the driver and the tyre contact patch.

He has worked for months on end to find the correct steering ratio, the correct damper settings, the correct master cylinders for the Brembo monobloc racing brakes, the correct switches, catches, gauges, bits and pieces that make up a motor car.

"I'm a perfectionist," he readily admits. "There are no compromises anywhere, and I'm exceedingly lucky to have found an environment where I can have my way."

Eventually, 300 exceedingly wealthy customers will be equally lucky to own McLaren F1s, Rembrandts in the world of motoring. M L C