The launch of the McLaren MP4-12C wasn't just about the on-stage presentation – there was also unprecedented access to the production floor where the prototype cars are being assembled, and where the first customer cars are due to roll off at the beginning of 2011. As a factory, it's perhaps a little disappointing. Grease? Pools of oil? No. More like hospital levels of cleanliness; stark white walls, ceramic tiled floors and gleaming work surfaces. Everything is white and sparkling. McLaren's approach: if it's white, it's either clean or it's dirty. And everything has to be all clean, all the time.
From the beginning of the Ron Dennis era in 1981, when the Formula One team started the season with just 30 staff, the McLaren group has grown exponentially and now employs over a thousand personnel. During the launch presentation, team boss Ron Dennis was clear that remaining 'just' a Formula 1 team wasn't an option for long-term survival. The electronics business is now a big part of the McLaren group, and the new car company looks to secure the company's future.
The team moved to the Norman Foster-designed McLaren Technology Centre in 2004, and the immense 500,000 metre-square site houses all the various parts of the McLaren group in one big, virtually open-plan building surrounded by five artificial lakes.
Prototypes of the MP4-12C, known as XP-Betas, are currently being assembled at the MTC. Almost another year of testing and development is planned before the first cars are delivered to customers.
The McLaren Technology Centre is tucked away in leafy Surrey – surprisingly an area which is no stranger to motorsport. The world's first purpose built racing track, Brooklands (1907-1939), is only just down the road.
The opening of the MTC brought together the group under one roof, as it was previously split over 18 sites. Talking to team personnel, the advantage of being under one roof is clear: the F1 guys can walk across the corridor to the carbon manufacturing facility and the engineers on the MP4-12C project are located directly above the production hall.
The interior of the MTC is made-up of 18-metre wide sections separated by 6-metre wide corridors. Its 700-seat restaurant sits at the end of the display of historic cars on the water-front side of the building; a swimming pool and fitness centre are also tucked away.
Five prototype XP-Betas are up on trolleys being worked on in the production hall. Hydraulic lifts are built into the floor and the hall is lined with parts lockers.
The McLaren 'swoosh' logo is visible on everywhere: on the more obvious parts you'd expect, but even on benches, trolleys, pens… Everything is proudly branded, reinforcing the company's pride in its independence.
Technology might be at the heart of the car, but mechanics still need traditional tools to get the job done.
The one-piece moulded carbon-fibre MonoCell is the heart of the car: everything is bolted onto that core component. The 80kg MonoCell is created in a huge custom-built press, made to take the tool that forms the complex shape and hollow internal sections.
A Resin Transfer Moulding process is used, where dry, pre-formed carbon-fibre pieces are cut and laid out in a metal former and then all the different parts of the tool close simultaneously: this allows the unique hollow tub to be created. The tool is placed in the press and epoxy resin injected at very high pressure, permeating the whole tub.
The press exerts a couple of tons of pressure at a constant temperature, allowing the tub to cure; a completed tub can be produced every every four hours. By comparison, the pre-pregnated carbon tub for the F1 sportscar took 3,000 hours to prepare and 100 people. Only two cars came off the assembly line each month. The McLaren-built Mercedes-Benz SLR had a tub made up of six pieces, which took 400 hours to make…
A computer-controlled milling machine then finishes the tub with the mounting points for the front and rear crash structures. Accuracy of the result is pretty insane too: in any plane of dimension every MonoCell will be within half a millimetre of accuracy. This exactness is even extended to wiring and tubing: a lot of it is custom-built to the exact shape and length for easy fitting. These parts hang on frames to the side of the production hall.
If you're going to end up on wreckedexotics.com, you might as well make sure the driver is able to say he walked away without a scratch. The car passed its first crash test without any damage to the tub. So they repaired the front and rear 'sacrificial' structures' damage and put it through again. Still no damage. So the test car went through an unprecedented three high-speed crash tests, unscathed and unscratched. Even the windscreen was undamaged. Suffice to say McLaren are confident this a very safe car.
The nose is low and narrow, as the radiators are mounted longitudinally along the side of the car. This means there is space up front for luggage, but I'm sure that just means two toothbrushes rather than the usual one for this kind of car.
Carbon, carbon, carbon… McLaren were the first racing team with a carbon chassis (the 1981 MP4/1) when carbon was really only being used for aerospace applications. The rear wing is fully adjustable from the cockpit and can be manually over-ridden to add downforce or reduce drag. For heavy braking the wing flips up fully vertically, creating a solid air brake and further increasing the already huge stopping power of the AP brakes. It pushes the rear of the car into the ground when the brakes are being fully applied, keeping the car level and far more controllable – no diving on the nose and light rear wheels under braking.
The driver and passenger sit close together towards the centreline of the car – not quite the centre driving seat of the three-seater F1, but what McLaren claim is the ideal two-seater driving position. The MP4-12C has a rather non-standard 43:57 weight distribution, which the team say makes for better traction and a neutral balance.
The obsession with weight-saving is intense. On top of the embossed logo story mentioned in the launch story, even things like the wiring have been specifically made to save weight: four kilos is taken off by using hexagonal rather than circular wiring! The car has benefitted from wind tunnel and CFD know-how straight from the F1 team, and also used the state-of-the-art simulator backed up by on-track testing.
Whereas McLaren have used BMW (in the F1) or Merc engines in the past, another break is that they're using their own block, with additional development from engine specialists Ricardo. The mid-mounted M838T 3.8-litre twin-turbo V8 has a cylinder block and heads made from aluminium and intake manifold and cam covers from high-perfomance plastic.
The MP4-12Cs seamless-shift gearbox features a 'PreCog' function, where you can prime the gearbox for an even faster gearchange. The paddle-shift is mounted on rockers behind the steering wheel. The wheel is modelled on McLaren's Formula 1 drivers' hand-grips: CAD was used to map past world champions' grip and the MP4-12C's wheel thickness replicated to match!
Tech acronyms like PCCU (Powertrain and Chassis Control Unit), ADP (Active Dynamics Panel) and SSG (Seamless Shift Gearbox) have been liberally sprinkled over the car to add to the BrakeSteer, PreCog, MonoCell and other various terms that cars seem have to feature nowadays.
One of the camouflaged prototypes was awaiting attention, still sporting its dazzle-pattern livery to make the outline of the car more difficult to distinguish when out on the public road.
By Spring McLaren will have racked up over a million miles of testing with around 20 mules, with further programmes in Arizona and New Zealand planned. If being out in the 50° heat of Bahrain or -50° in the Arctic wasn't enough, the production hall even has special facilities to automatically exact automotive torture on their unfortunate prototypes.
Monsoon and environment rooms are located at the top of the hall. The Monsoon room can throw down 16,000L of water onto a car, to make sure your first bill isn't for having to replace all the carpets. Essential for English buyers. In the Road Simulator is a full chassis dyne and shaker rig, used to both ensure the car doesn't fall to pieces and that there aren't annoying noises like squeaky leather or rattling panels.
The pre-production MP4-12C was rolled out in the traditional McLaren orange, though with a metallic citrus twist. Orange has been the McLaren colour back to the '60s and the original Formula One and CanAm cars. But there's a full range of colours available, displayed on models at the front of the hall.
The production hall at the MTC will be moved to a new £40m, 32,000 square-metre factory being built just a few hundred yards away, dedicated to the street car business: the McLaren Production Centre. The MPC will be able to handle the planned 4,000 cars they aim to build by 2015, and is planned to be as efficient and environmentally sensitive as a car factory can be.
35 dealers for McLaren Automotive have been selected globally, from an original list of 500 applications. Each will deliver a fully tailored McLaren experience to potential customers, with automated inventory replenishment. And likely really nice coffee. Another clear sign that the Mercedes/McLaren relationship is over is the sales pitch that the MP4-12C will be half the price of the SLR they built for Merc… Ouch.
Between the Formula 1 team and the MP4-12C production hall is a carbon component manufacturing area. With the hairdryers at every station I thought it might be an official McLaren hair-dressing unit, but it turns out they're used by the technicians for moulding the carbon elements…
All kinds of carbon parts are being precision made and handed off to the F1 or car manufacturing teams.
As with the production hall, the Formula 1 area isn't what you'd expect. Admittedly this was a lunch break, so there were no people at work, but the place is open and spotless. A couple of last year's cars were lined up, with the 2010 cars in bays just to the side and offices at the top.
Plans haven't been officially announced to race the MP4-12C but there was a tacit admission that it's likely, as Ron Dennis said he was sure there would be customers who would want to take them to the tracks. With the rise in popularity of sportscar racing, and high-level rumours that Ferrari and McLaren are working on taking their F1 rivalry to Le Mans, I hope that it happens! Maybe that race livery render will become reality. Next up I'll take a look at McLaren's glorious past, with the display of its historic cars lined up along the front of the MTC.