At least that’s McLaren’s ambition, as the project to turn its latest road car to pacesetter on the track steps up a gear
By Rob Widdows
The McLaren MP4-12C GT3 is a beautiful racing car. In Gulf colours it’s the best-looking car in the paddock. So, it’s new, it’s beautiful and it’s fast. But does it have both the speed and endurance to be a regular winner? Well, this is McLaren, a company that races to win, not to be the first of the losers, to quote the chairman.
But this is not Formula 1. This is something totally different. Endurance racing is a whole new box of challenges. Hard into a development programme, the MP4-12C GT3 is promising much but has yet to deliver its full potential, according to the hierarchy at Woking.
There are 25 cars racing in no fewer than seven championships in the UK and in Europe. These are customer cars, built by CRS Racing, the team founded by former racer Andrew Kirkaldy. They are raced by a variety of independent teams including Gulf McLaren, Apex, ART, Hexis and United Autosports. Later this year the GT operation will move to the ever-expanding McLaren Technology Centre at Woking, where the programme will come together under one roof and benefit from engineering input from other departments, including the F1 team.
In the famous blue and orange of the Gulf oil company, the car evokes memories of glories past. And when a car looks that good, it’s also quick. That’s what they say. In charge of the programme at Gulf McLaren racing is veteran team manager Dave Price, a man with more experience than he cares to remember, and who ran the original McLaren F1 GTR at Le Mans in 1995. McLaren demands results, expects to win, and if anyone knows how to get the job done it’s Price. He spoke to me from his home in Southern Spain after the Spa 24 Hours.
“To be honest,” he begins, “reliability was a problem but we’re on top of that now. At Spa we had no mechanical problems, it was accidents that let us down.
“You have to remember we’re turning a road car into a racing car, and this has its challenges. More importantly, the regulations prevent us from making many of the improvements we’d like to make. It’s a homologation formula, and the FIA imposes rules that are very prescriptive compared with when we ran the F1 GTR. This is one reason why Stéphane Ratel’s Blancpain series has been a success, with 60 cars on the grid. We only have three sets of springs, we’re limited in what we do with the dampers and we can’t change the rear wing. Somebody also thought the car was too quick so the ride height has been jacked up and the car no longer works within its ideal aerodynamic configuration. That’s been a frustration.
“It’s not just the specification of the car that we can’t change, it’s also things like re-fuelling and wheel changing at pitstops. With the F1 we re-designed the fuel tank so we could get it to fill faster, whereas on this we can’t do that within the regs and it’s slow to fill. Yes, the field is quite evenly matched, but I’ve never seen the sense in a ‘balance of power’ formula; it doesn’t seem like real racing because it’s a device to equalise the cars.”
So how does McLaren get on terms with Audi – and to a lesser extent, with BMW – the pacesetters in GT3 racing?
“Audi is the benchmark. It’s a great team; Wolfgang Ullrich always looks for every small improvement. And sports car racing is what they do, it’s what they focus on. But remember, the Audi is coming off the production line almost ready to race,” says Price. “It’s perfectly suited to the category, and they have impressive reliability and years of experience, while McLaren is new to this particular formula. The factory gives us a great deal of support and the car has proved to be very responsive to set-up changes during the course of an event. But, as I’ve said, there are few changes that we can make within the regulations as they stand.”
What might he say to Ron Dennis if the famously ambitious chairman was to inquire as to why the car is not a regular winner?
“Well, yeah,” Price laughs at this. “I don’t think he’d make that call now. At Monza a year ago he might have done, and we’d have a three-hour conversation, but we are much more competitive now and the MP4-12C is a good car and getting better. Remember, it’s a very new programme, still in its early days, and this car has been a huge undertaking for McLaren, not only designing and building both the engine and chassis for the road but then building 25 cars for racing. Of course they want to win, but it takes time to get everything right.
“The McLaren people are a great bunch, full of enthusiasm, but it’s not easy to put together such a big operation. It will be even better when the entire thing moves back into Woking. And, to be fair, nobody’s going to start beating Audi and Porsche in their first year.”
Drivers are a crucial part of the equation and Price has lined up a team he believes can get the job done.
“I wanted Rob Bell. I ran him in single-seaters, and I always said he’d make a great sports car driver – I was right,” he says. “He’s a GT champion, he’s quick, he’s very experienced, and I know he’ll always put in the times when we need him to. There’s a lot of experience in the team and you need that, especially in a big field like there often is in the Blancpain series.”
What is the car actually like to drive? More importantly, perhaps, does it have more potential? A double Le Mans Series champion with a huge amount of GT experience, Bell is well placed to judge the McLaren.
“We’ve worked hard with CRS, and we’re at the stage where the 12C feels more and more like a racing car,” he tells me. “The road car has fantastic balance anyway, but we’ve improved both the aero and the suspension so that it feels really good on the track. The straightline speed is excellent, the gearchange is phenomenal, better than anything I’ve driven, and the electronics are very good. It’s not a stiff car so it’s a comfortable racing car and that’s good in GT3 because we have gentlemen drivers as well as the more experienced among us. We’ve worked on the engine; it wasn’t perfect at the beginning, but now there’s no turbo lag.
“The race car has less horsepower than the road car, because of the regulations, but then it has to last for a 24-hour race.”
How, then, does the car compare with the opposition? Are they at the point where the McLaren can be a regular winner?
“Yes, we are. The car has won races, and I believe we can now take on the very best. But both Audi and Porsche are impressive; they do everything well, and have far more experience. And for the future, the Ferrari 458 GTE is a very good racing car. There’s much more we could do with the McLaren as a GTE car. Right now, in GT3, we’re aiming at beating Porsche and Audi. We’re the new kids on the block. McLaren is fully behind the partnership with CRS and the more I work with McLaren, the more I appreciate just how much they want to win. If you were to cut any of their personnel in half, you’d find ‘win!’ written right down the middle; it’s part of the culture. The car will succeed, and it will win more races.”
So will McLaren build a GTE car for Le Mans? All they will say, on the record, is that they are looking at all the opportunities available in GT racing. Read into that what you will, but given the importance of Le Mans it seems inevitable that a McLaren will line up on the grid again one day.
McLaren factory driver Chris Goodwin, who has done a huge amount of development work on the MP4-12C and who raced the F1 GTR, knows the potential better than anyone. He has lived with the project since its inception and continues to be closely involved.
“It’s all about the raw ingredients, the basic design, the people involved,” Chris begins. “The F1 was the best that those people could do 20 years ago; it was a great car, and the MP4-12C is the best that people can do now with many more resources and cutting-edge technology. With the MP4-12C GT the weight distribution, the aerodynamics, the suspension geometry and the dynamics of the car come from the people who design the Formula 1 car, as it was with Gordon Murray and the F1, so you’re starting with the right raw materials. You’re starting from a good place. Remember, the F1 cost a million dollars and they did what they wanted. They had much more freedom. If we could do what we wanted, the car would be a lot faster, but we are selling customer cars and they have to be affordable.”
So where are the strengths of the MP4-12C GT3 on a circuit? What makes it an effective racing version of a road car?
“The high-speed cornering is very good,” Goodwin says. “It’s a very driveable racing car, it is extremely nimble and changes direction very sharply, and the braking is excellent. Its lap speed comes from its sophisticated handling and cornering rather than from its horsepower. At Spa it was good in the fast stuff – Eau Rouge and Blanchimont were huge fun – and it was nimble in the slow corners. You can’t say that about many of the cars on the grid. We’re in our first year and we are learning how to do GT3. We know we can’t win every race, but our customers are happy with what we’ve achieved in a short time. We’ve won already and hopefully we will win some more.”
The view from the boardroom at Woking is equally upbeat. Ron Dennis, as you might expect, keeps in close touch with the project.
“Like everything McLaren does, we have approached the GT championships with the ultimate goal of winning,” Ron declares, “and we’ve already seen success in several of the championships we’re racing in.
“We’d like to build on these performances and fight for more pole positions, race wins and overall championship victories. It’s been fantastic to see the car competing with some famous names in European GT racing, and the GT operation’s relocation to Woking will strengthen the links to the teams at the McLaren Technology Centre. We have worked hard with the teams to continue to develop the car throughout the season and we are now seeing this pay off in the shape of results and performances.”
It is safe to say that Bruce McLaren would not recognise the kingdom over which Mr Dennis rules these days. Eager to become a ‘global brand’, this is a company in a hurry, but it is still a company with engineering firmly embedded in its roots. Bruce would no doubt be pleased to see the new Can-Am edition of the MP4-12C launched at Pebble Beach in August, the car finished in McLaren orange in tribute to the founder. Whether or not the GT cars can emulate the success of the Grand Prix cars remains a question that cannot yet be properly answered.
The MP4-12C is beginning to prove itself in several series
Now that many of its early reliability issues are behind it, the McLaren MP4-12C GT3 has taken pole positions and outright victories in both the UK and Europe.
At the demanding Spa 24 Hours the car claimed pole position in class, with another four cars qualifying in the top 20 on a very closely matched grid of 60 competitors.
Several teams have achieved success with the MP4-12C. Hexis Racing has been a winner in the FIA GT1 World series, most recently locking out the front row of the grid and scoring a 1-2 in Moscow. Meanwhile, reigning British GT champion Jim Geddie’s Apex team has claimed the car’s first victory on home soil.
But the highlight so far has to be the weekend of the Italian GP. As Lewis Hamilton took victory at Monza, ART Grand Prix and United Autosports were claiming wins for the MP4/12C in France and Britain, while Lapidus Racing was conquering the Barcelona 24 Hours. Significantly, it was the first round-the-clock victory for McLaren since Le Mans ’95.