The clinical supercar
There is a clear vision at McLaren. It is all there in grey and white. Anyone who knows Ron Dennis, who formed McLaren into a multiple world champion Formula 1 team 30 years ago, recognizes his obsession with order, precision, detail, and doing things right. The spectacular McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, Surrey, 30 km from London, was designed by Norman Foster, one of Britain's most celebrated architects. Now there is a Production Centre alongside it, 32,000 sq m on two floors, connected to the MTC by a wide tunnel. Also designed by Foster+Partners, this is a car factory unlike any other.
All the surfaces are tiled in McLaren's trademark grey and sparkling white. When I was there, the equipment to assemble the MP4-12C had not yet been installed; this was simply a clinically clean and precise open space, like the world's biggest hospital operating theatre. A few days earlier, one of McLaren Automotive's 35 newly-appointed dealers had also paid a visit. He had been reluctant to refurbish his showroom as McLaren had asked but when he saw the quality of the surroundings where the cars will be made, he quickly agreed. The McLaren way, Ron's way, is a class act.
The same principles have applied throughout the development of the MP4-12C. The first prototype ran in 2007. In April 2009, Dennis announced the establishment of McLaren Automotive as a separate company to build a new generation of road cars and distanced himself from the Formula 1 team to become its executive chairman. He promised that the first car would be delivered in spring 2011.
We are used to these time schedules slipping, even in the big motor companies. Specialists making a few hundred cars a year are invariably late and the end product often turns out to be very different from the original concept. Dennis was determined that McLaren would be the exception and recruited Antony Sheriff, an Italian-American with wide experience in the Fiat Group, to develop and deliver the plan to build a new car â" and a new company â" on time and on budget.
The first MP4-12C will be delivered (to an anonymous customer) before the end of May. Sheriff admits that is four weeks later than originally planned but is confident that when car-build moves from the pilot plant in the Technology Centre to the Production Centre at the end of April, it will meet is pledge to produce 1,000 cars this year.
This achievement is even more significant because McLaren decided that the MP4-12C would use unique, purpose-built components. After testing available engines and gearboxes and finding that they all compromised the car's design, it linked with British engineering specialists Ricardo to develop and build a low and compact 3.8 litre V8 engine with dry-sump lubrication and twin turbochargers and commissioned Graziano of Italy to make a special seven-speed twin-clutch gearbox.
The new car was always going to have a carbon-fibre chassis. McLaren pioneered this method of construction in Formula 1 with the 1981 MP4 (hence the name adopted for the new car). The challenge was to reduce the cost and time in process for a moulded monocoque. For that it joined forces with CarboTech, an Austrian company, to develop a resin transfer moulding (RTM) process with carbon-fibre. The resulting McLaren MonoCell, a one-piece moulding, weighs 80 kg and is produced in three hours; the carbon-fibre monocoque for the 1993 McLaren F1 road car took 3,000 man-hours.
McLaren's objective was, as it is in Formula 1, to beat Ferrari. The MP4-12C is up against the mid-engined Ferrari and sells in the UK for ` 1.2crore (with all our taxes the Indian price is ` 2.56crore ex-showroom). The original target was the Ferrari F430 but during the later stages of development, the F458 Italia appeared and raised the game. I asked Sheriff if the F458 had made McLaren modify or improve anything: 'Only the door mirrors' was his reply. There is a serious point behind this apparently glib comment. Both the F430 and the MP4-12C prototype created wind noise at high speed but the F458 had found a solution. McLaren had its Formula 1 aerodynamicists devise a new single-arm mirror mount.
The facilities of a top-line Formula 1 team have helped make the MP4-12C the most sophisticated car in its class. The suspension design and settings and the many electronic systems that influence stability were all tested in virtual reality on the F1 simulator, saving a lot of prototype work. All the basics were finalized two years ago and the run-up to start of production has been to refine the details. So there were no excuses needed for the pre-production cars that customers, paid-up and potential, have been test-driving in recent weeks.
I drove two of those pre-production cars, PP9 and PP10, first at Silverstone race circuit and later on country roads and motorways in the south of England. John Watson, the winner of the 1981 British Grand Prix in the McLaren MP4/1, was at the same session at Silverstone and, comparing notes afterwards, told me that he was astonished by the acceleration and the cornering speed of the 12C, which he described as the fastest road car he had ever driven. Even if he hasn't tried all of the latest supercars, Wattie's few laps of the circuit were faster than mine, so I respect his view. Whatever your personal limits, this car seems to be ahead of you, with performance and capability to spare.
The numbers are impressive: 600PS at 7,000rpm and 600Nm from 3,000rpm; dry weight 1,300 kg; 0-100kmph in 3.3seconds, maximum speed 330kmph. What they don't tell you is how easily accessible the performance is. The MP4-12C is one of those cars that makes even indifferent drivers look good.
Electronics â" a McLaren speciality â" have quite a lot to do with that. Instead of a limited-slip differential, the MP4-12C has a suite of electronic stability, traction and braking aids. These include brake-steer, a system it used in Formula 1 in the 1990s which brakes the inside rear wheel as you accelerate out of a corner, counteracting understeer. A deployable rear wing raises to 32 degrees at 95kmph and acts as an air brake when braking heavily, the air pressure increasing its angle to 69 degrees.
Body control is by an electronically-controlled hydraulic system interconnecting adaptive dampers, taking the place of anti-roll bars.
Driven hard on a track, it is difficult to determine how much each of the systems is contributing but the car's speed through corners is breathtaking. Body roll, pitch and squat are negligible, steering is absolutely precise and the braking reassuringly strong.This is all achieved with the minimum of fuss. There is none of the Italian temperament or the sound and fury of its Ferrari and Lamborghini rivals, though the V8 awakens to glorious roar if you rev it up towards the red line with sport or track mode selected.
Some people will be disappointed by this lack of drama, and they will also look in vain for manettino steering wheel controls and fancy displays. By the standards of most premium cars, let alone supercars, the McLaren's cabin is plain and stark. There are no controls on the face of the steering wheel and only a few buttons and switches on the slender centre console. It comes back to the grey-and-white philosophy: keep it clean, tidy and efficient.But however good a car like this is on a smooth track, the real test comes in the real world: on normal roads, fast and slow; in traffic; negotiating everyday hazards and poor road surfaces. Sheriff said I would be surprised how well it handled ordinary driving conditions.He was right.
First, access: the dihederal doors open to clear a space between the wheelarches, so it is easy to get in and there is enough seat adjustment for the largest owners. Visibility, even at the rear quarters, is remarkably good. Control efforts are nicely matched. I remark that rocker-type gearshift lever behind the steering wheel requires a firm pull or push and was told that the effort required was exactly as the same system in an F1 car.
Start up â" red button on the centre console â" and the engine settles into a disarmingly quiet idle. The default position for the transmission is automatic and at town speeds it will change up and down between four of its seven gears unobtrusively. But when the road clears, flooring the throttle, or a pull on the rocker, will change down instantly and awaken the other side of the car's character. The only caution is that you must be ready for the speed of its reaction.
Two rotary switches at the centre tailor suspension stiffness, gearchange speed and throttle response and each has three modes: normal, sport and track. In track mode, you feel every road surface imperfection, as in a Ferrari or Lamborghini, but McLaren's special quality is the comfortable, level way it rides on bumpy country roads with the suspension set at 'normal': it is like a sports saloon, albeit one with quite a lot of road noise where bumps are heard rather than felt.
That, and the McLaren's compact dimensions â" it is shorter and narrower than a Ferrari 458 â" make this a wonderfully secure and rewarding car for a fast road drive. And that's the point of the MP4-12C: it is one of the world's fastest cars but doesn't require compromises.
It is not really a surprise that the MP4-12C drives so well â" just look at the credentials of the people who made it. Motor racing fans will know its heritage and appreciate its technicalities but it may take some time for McLaren to be regarded in same way as Ferrari by those wealthy people who just want to be seen in the most spectacular and exotic car. McLaren doesn't do flashy: its way is grey and white.