The racing lineage

It’s no surprise that F1 know-how informs every aspect of McLaren’s new MP4-12C road car, from concept to build

You don’t need even to see the McLaren MP4-12C to know it’s going to be unlike any supercar made by any other manufacturer. You just need to walk into the building. You enter via a white cylindrical pod in the car park which sinks silently underground, releasing you into a vast white corridor, looking more like a Stanley Kubrick film set than the entrance to a car factory. It seems surgically clean, noiseless and slightly intimidating. Vast double doors lie at its end – the thought of a master criminal stroking a cat on the other side as unworthy as it is inescapable. But there’s not. There’s just another pod to lift you into the heart of the McLaren Technology Centre, a place like none other on earth.

I am greeted by Neil Patterson, the MP4-12C’s chief engineer, and led into a vast white cavern where the first 400 cars will be assembled next year before production transfers to the new factory being built next door. There are no pictures on the walls, no radios, just immaculately presented engineers quietly going about the business of realising Ron Dennis’s dream of doing on the public road what he has achieved already on the track: making McLaren the standard to which all others aspire.

My purpose today is to evaluate how differently a pre-eminent constructor of racing cars goes about the business of building a supercar compared with a conventional manufacturer. We know how hard high street marques try to link their racing activities to their road car products, and we know even better that almost all of it is cobblers. Will the Peugeot 908 HDi Le Mans car really influence the design of the next 207? It’s not a question that needs answering.

But McLaren is demonstrably different. Even if, for some perverse reason, it had wanted to exorcise all racing influence from the MP4-12C, it would be hard to see how it could. Racing protocols affect every single aspect of McLaren, more even than at Ferrari, perhaps more than McLaren at times realises. Even the interview is conducted Formula 1-style, PR man present to make sure no one slips off record or message.

“It’s not just the physical properties of the car that benefit from racing,” explains Patterson, “it’s the entire approach, the way people from Richard Felton worked in electronics on the racing car and is now doing the same on the road car… I could go on and for some time, but you get the picture.

From its very conception in 2005, Formula 1 influence permeated the new supercar and did so at a genetic level. All the CFD processes and modelling techniques came straight from F1, from the most fundamental design principles to the software used to set up the suspension.

Then, a full year before an MP4-12C turned a wheel under its own power, its genome was racking up thousands of virtual miles in the very same F1 simulator Glover used to run. “What it meant,” says Patterson, “is that the very first mule car drove exceptionally well straight out of the box.” And the simulator continues to divide its time between the road and race teams. “Get a problem in F1 and you recreate it in the simulator, analyse it, fix it, analyse the fix and only then alter the hardware. It is exactly the same process with the MP4-12C.”

So let’s now look at the car itself. Its design is understated, particularly in comparison to Ferrari’s flamboyantly beautiful 458 Italia, but I like its subtlety now as much as I admired the same quality in the McLaren F1 15 or more years ago. It’s a car lacking entirely in ostentation. Like the F1 it’s smaller than you’d think too, which should make it easier to position on the road and to thread through gaps.

At its heart lies a carbon-fibre tub or ‘monocell’, a material eschewed by rival Ferraris and Lamborghinis presumably because of its hideous attendant costs. But carbon fibre has been a core element at McLaren ever since it introduced the carbon chassis to F1 racing in 1981 with the MP4-1 (though the unraced twin-chassis Lotus 88 was around at the same time). “Formula 1 cars, and the McLaren F1, all use hand-laid pre-impregnated carbon fibre which is an incredibly time-consuming process. But with our moulded monocell we can load the parts into the press, close the tool, inject the resin and cure it in just four hours.” It is a revolutionary process and, as Patterson says with a smile, “it will be interesting to see how our rivals react to it”.

It’s clever because not only does it reduce the weight of the tub by 25 per cent, it also improves its torsional rigidity by a similar amount compared to a conventional approach. This not only brings all the attendant dynamic advantages of a stiff structure but also means the front and rear subframes need to make a smaller contribution to the car’s stiffness and can therefore be lighter themselves. The monocell itself weighs just 80kg or, as Patterson ruefully puts it, “rather less than me”. Or me.

Surprisingly, perhaps, there is no carbon fibre in the bodywork. The front fender, bonnet and roof are aluminium, the remainder an exceptionally low-density glassfibre. As the body panels are entirely unstressed this solution allows McLaren to keep the weight down, create exotic shapes and replace them affordably when they’re damaged. Clearly aluminium or glassfibre parts are also an order of magnitude cheaper to produce than carbon. Overall the dry weight of the MP4-12C when specified with the lightest options is 1300kg, around 70kg less than the Ferrari 458 when weighed the same way.

More F1 thinking lies in the engine. Ask Patterson about it and he’ll not talk about the way it looks or the sound it makes, but its size, packaging and efficiency. The fact that it has the highest horsepower to CO2 ratio of any production engine, whether hybrid or not, is a matter of intense pride. That is why the 593bhp V8 is a relatively small-capacity twin-turbo motor (it displaces 3.8-litres) rather than the larger, normally aspirated units preferred by its rivals. Whether it will also possess their electrifying throttle response or their inspirational exhaust notes remains to be seen. But what can be seen very easily now is just how low the engine is mounted in the car – I’ve never seen another road car with a V-formation engine like it. No prizes for or guessing where that idea came from.

Impressively, too, the engine is entirely new and has been developed by British engineering consultants Ricardo. In charge of its testing and development is Marcus Waite, another racing refugee who used be in charge of the F1 test team, and his crew’s target is to complete a million kilometres of durability testing before the first car finds a customer next year.

However, and despite its paddle operation, its transmission bears little relation to an F1 gearbox, the seven-speed double-clutch design sharing more conceptual ground with something you might find under the bonnet of a VW Golf than in the back of a Formula 1 car. But even here, there’s F1 DNA in the detail. It has seamless shifting, a technique pioneered by McLaren in Formula 1 where there is no interruption in torque between ratios, and also a facility to allow the driver to pre-load the next gear by half pulling the relevant paddle – much as you would in an old pre-selector ’box. Then when you want that gear, engagement is as near instantaneous as makes no practical difference.

I’m fascinated to know whose gearbox this is and venture that it might be Ricardo’s work as it also makes a double-clutch seven-speed ’box for Bugatti. But a swiftly interjected “we’re not communicating that at present” from the Patterson chaperon tells me that particular line of enquiry has reached its conclusion.confirm that its body produces downforce at all speeds and is happy to talk about the deployable rear wing which, like in the SLR and F1 before, doubles as an airbrake. “When you put the brakes on hard at speed the car’s centre of pressure is thrown forward and the wing helps drag it back, making better use of the rear tyres.”

As for the brakes themselves, carbon ceramics are not standard as on all Ferraris. Instead they are optional, Patterson insisting the standard iron discs are more than adequate for most purposes. “Only people wanting to do extensive track work will need the carbon brakes,” he says. Unusually, they’re actually slightly heavier than the standard discs because, in line with their anticipated use, they are much bigger, so their benefits are restricted to the realm of fade resistance and durability.

Given where it has come from, McLaren was never going to stray far from racing best practice in the suspension, and not only is there real beauty in its elegantly sculpted wishbones but proper innovation too, for this is a supercar without anti-roll bars. Instead it uses hydraulic pressure to regulate body roll according to whether the driver has selected normal, sport or track mode on the dash. In track mode, body roll is all but eliminated.

To further enhance handling, the McLaren uses another trick first learned by the race team on the track, in the 1997 MP4-12 to be precise: when the car is in an extreme cornering condition, the inside rear brake is applied to increase the yaw rate, reducing the car’s inherent desire to understeer, making it more responsive and stable. McLaren says this system is so effective the need for a limited-slip differential, with its extra weight and mechanical complexity, is obviated entirely.

I can barely wait to drive it. The more time you spend in its company, the more pure its purpose seems to be. It’s true that some of the F1 guys have found adapting to the road car arena a real challenge – Marcus Waite says “This is a car that needs to ride beautifully and I’ve never done comfortable before – racing drivers put up with anything so long as it’s fast” – but you sense that by any other standards it will be a driving machine without compromise.

Just talking to Patterson about weight saving shows how different McLaren’s approach has been. “In the beginning we sat around with components from the F1 road car and various racing cars, looking at their ultra-lightweight construction for inspiration. We then each came up with a list of 10 ways to reduce weight in our own areas and another 10 from other areas.” To this end the McLaren logo on an already pretty light magnesium alloy crossbeam was engraved rather than embossed and the foam that protects the back of the instrument pack lovingly cut away until not a gram more than necessary was left. And if they chose not to lighten a component it was almost always because the money saved leaving it alone could be spent making a greater reduction in weight on components elsewhere.

Finally, Patterson shows me the cabin, accessed via trademark dihedral doors. It’s spacious, even for my 6ft 4in frame, and comfortable too. You place your hands on a steering wheel designed only after detailed computer analysis of the grips of several McLaren World Champions and view perhaps the clearest instrument panel I’ve seen. There’s nothing showy in here: at McLaren form will never rule over function.

I ask Waite where the project currently stands and, as expected, the reply comes in F1 metaphorical speak: “We’re three-quarters of the way through winter testing and can see the first race approaching very fast over the horizon”, which is code for ‘it’s all but done, bar fine-tuning work to the launch control, spring and damper rates and other details waiting to be signed off’. He spends a large chunk of his life at the Idiada test facility near Barcelona, where his team jockeys for track space with other car manufacturers. And it’s the McLaren boys who tend to start earlier, finish later, run around the clock and stay out when the conditions are most foul, learning what they can while others take cover. He says he is trying to create a car with the durability of a Porsche and the desirability of a Ferrari, something that’s never been done before.

But I don’t doubt McLaren’s ability to deliver it, and nor would you if you’d also spent a few hours in that extraordinary building with that extraordinary car and the extraordinary people who are building it. They aim to build 1000 of them next year, but this is but the first of a series of new McLarens. By 2015 up to 5000 McLarens will be coming out of the new factory.

Yet in the interim there remains another job to do, one where no amount of F1 technical know-how can help.

From what I now know of the MP4-12C, I would be astonished if it turns out to be anything less than exceptional. Indeed I am quite prepared for it to re-write the rulebook. But even that might not be enough. Those driving die-hards and purists who can afford to spend around £170,000 on a car will, I have no doubt, form an orderly queue. But what about those who currently buy its rivals not for their driving dynamics, but their image?

You will guess correctly how I feel about people who treat cars as wealth statements or fashion accessories, but their money is as good as anyone’s and they make up a huge proportion of the global market for such cars. And are they going to desire a rather discreetly styled McLaren, however good it is? It says everything about them and nothing about the MP4-12C, but it will remain interesting to see.

The McLaren brand is respected like few others in the world, and rightly so, for the dedication, focus and professionalism of the organisation at times beggars belief. But do people feel passionate about McLaren the way many feel passionate about Ferrari? Can a McLaren have the character of an Aston Martin, the cool of a Lamborghini? Or will the car end up being perceived as the ruthlessly efficient progeny of a ruthlessly efficient organisation, a thing more to be admired than adored? That is the biggest challenge that now lies ahead.

As I climbed into the pod to descend back down to those vast double doors and the vast white corridor beyond, it was with a sense of genuine awe at what has already been achieved in the building receding behind me. But if the incredible car they have designed is to reach an audience as wide as I imagine its talents will deserve, more still needs to be done. The good news is I sense McLaren knows it too.