When Murray served up an ace

Designer Gordon Murray broke new ground when he planned McLaren’s first road car, the incomparable F1

It is hardly believable that it’s been 20 years since work first started on McLaren’s first production road car, the now iconic F1. Only 107 were built, including all racing versions, and they now change hands for seven-figure sums. Back then it cost £627,000, which now seems something of a bargain.

“There’s a fundamental difference between what I was doing then and what McLaren is doing now,” says the F1’s designer Gordon Murray (left), who needs no further introduction from me. “It was an ultra-exclusive car whereas this new car is medium volume. It’s good that they’re trying to hold onto some of the F1’s USPs – retaining the use of some carbon and striving to keep the weight down – but a supercar has to have a normally aspirated engine, otherwise you cannot get the throttle response. We knew it when we did the F1 and no technological changes since alter that fact.

“Designing a road car after being in Formula 1 was a huge release. Even then the sport was starting to be strangled by the rule book, yet suddenly here I was in a world where I could think ‘Active aero? Why not? Active brake cooling, fans to create suction under the car? Help yourself.’

“The F1 really did apply Formula 1 technology and for the first time. It was the first entirely carbon road car, the first with a carbon clutch. Take off the [carbon] airbox and you could see the inlet valves looking right back at you. It had a central driving position, right-hand gearchange, clear dials and good visibility, all lessons learned while racing. The gearbox gate was incredibly tight, only nine degrees across, and we were criticised for that but it was quite deliberate: if you knew how to drive it was no problem. Sorted the men from the boys, that did.

“That said, the F1 was never designed to be a racing car and if it had been I’d have done it differently, had much fewer creature comforts. It was designed as a long-distance road car which would take three people and their luggage as far as they wanted to go in complete comfort. If you were designing a racing car for the road, you’d never have done it like that.”

Even so, even Murray admits it was inevitable that customers would want to race theirs. “People like Ray Bellm and Thomas Bscher said they wanted to go racing and I discovered that, quite subconsciously, I had also designed a car that would be a fairly effective race car.” Murray is displaying a masterly command of understatement here. The F1 won the BPR championship in both 1995 and ’96 and, most significantly of all, it allowed McLaren to join Ferrari as the only manufacturers ever to win Le Mans at their first attempt.

“The first F1s were basically road cars with rollcages and fire extinguishers,” remembers Murray today. “But if you look at how they were designed, with a low polar moment of inertia, double-wishbone suspension, a low centre of gravity and extreme light weight in mind, I guess it was always going to be suited to racing.” How lightweight? “If anyone wanted to use more than a 10mm bolt, they had to come to me and explain, in person, why it was necessary.”

What, then, does Murray make of the MP4-12C? Perhaps sadly for those of us who once saw Murray and McLaren as indivisible, he now seems a distance removed from the company at which he achieved so much. It was his team, after all, that came up with the MP4/4 in which Senna and Prost contrived to win 15 of the 16 Grands Prix held in 1988. Has his opinion or advice been canvassed for the new car? It has not, nor has it been offered.

“To be honest, I’ve not really looked at the McLaren, I’ve been too busy with my own business.” Murray has recently revealed his T25 city car whose iStream production process could revolutionise small car design.

“When I left McLaren I was working on a new mid-engine supercar known as Project Eight. It had a normally aspirated V8 motor and a transverse gearbox. It also had a single-piece carbon-fibre tub, and it’s good to see that at least that’s survived. Everything else has changed.”

It is well known than the MP4-12C is just one of a range of new McLaren products that will be launched at the frequency of approximately one a year from 2011 until the middle of the decade, one of which is believed to be a top-end, ultra-exclusive supercar – a successor to the F1, no less. Not only will it be the most eagerly awaited new British supercar since the F1, it will also be the one with by far the hardest act to follow.