When you work for McLaren and you turn up to the McLaren Technology Centre in the morning, yes, you've likely suffered through the usual commuting hell. The traffic was probably bad getting off the M25, officially the world's worst motorway. You're probably working behind a desk, just like millions of other people around the country. The difference here is that the moment you arrive you remember why you wanted to work for this company in the first place. Lined up along the waterfront aspect of the swoops and curves of the Norman Foster-designed building are vivid orange, white and silver reminders of why McLaren exists, why you do care when you walk into the office. A row of gleaming machines representing Formula 1, CanAm, Le Mans and IndyCar success along with the team's foray into cutting-edge road cars. A daily reminder of what your company lives and breathes.
As the team rolls on towards its half century, thre's no revisionist rewriting of history to remember only the current management's period. But then, there's a lot to celebrate. From founder Bruce McLaren in the '60s through the '70s with Teddy Mayer and then the '80s Project 4 period under Ron Dennis and on to the current time, the team is still called McLaren for a reason. This is a company that, if Bruce McLaren walked through the door, you feel he'd be led straight to the Managing Director's office and offered the seat.
McLaren's 15-year partnership with Mercedes-Benz might be almost over from a corporate stand-point, but the success achieved with the three-pointed star is just as valid and proudly displayed. After all, three Drivers' World Championships in Formula 1 and (until next year maybe) the world's highest selling carbon-based road car isn't a bad innings.
There are amazing collections of cars around the world on public display, such as the museum at Le Mans, the enormous Donington GP collection, the Indy facility or the Porsche and BMW museums in Germany, but unfortunately there are just as many cars hidden away in private collections that we'll never get to see. Although the MTC is hardly ever accessible, and even less frequently open to photographers, thankfully there's the odd public open day and the cars do take part in historic events – they all run, and likely better than they did in their original periods.
The collection isn't static; one priceless car is occasionally replaced by another. Drop one experimental F1 road car and add another; swap one '70s Formula 1 machine for an Indycar. The building might be modern stark white but in effect all that does is highlight the emotion of the cars. Welcome to the Church Of Car.
The kind of F1 that gets me excited has the word GTR at the end of it: the racing variant of the F1 road car project that radically shook up sportscar racing and was the last true road car to win the Le Mans 24 hours. Only 107 F1s were built, and less than 30 raced. At a recent auction one was sold for a mind-bending £2.53m.
The birth of the BPR Global GT Seriesin 1995 coincided with the launch of the F1, and teams immediately began knocking on McLaren's door to develop a racing variant (which is happening again with the MP4-12C and perhaps the new World GT1 Championship…). Only basic modification was needed for the car to meet the rules, such was its level of development, though strangely the golf-bag storage areas on the sides of the car were removed… The interior was stripped, a large rear wing added and, surprisingly, the BMW V12 engine had an air restrictor added that actually made it less powerful than the road car! But the lower weight and new aero meant it was faster still.
Despite the programme being so young, confidence was such that teams entered no less than seven F1s in the 1995 Le Mans 24 Hours. it was a great year for diversity: GT1 also featured Skylines, Supras, NSXs, Ferrari F40s, Corvettes, Jaguar 220s, hordes of GT1 and GT2 Porsches and a smattering of LMP prototypes.
At the time the road-going F1 was the fastest street car, meaning the race car had something to live up to: highest top speed on the Hunadières straight showed it wasn't hanging about and would give the slippery prototypes trouble in a straight line. But JJ Lehto, Yannick Dalmas and Masanori Sekiya qualified the fastest F1, the #59 Kokusai Kaihatsu Racing car, in 9th – 11 seconds off the pole LMP and behind five LMPs and three Ferrari F40s.
So, a good result was in no way guaranteed. But #59 won the race by a lap from the best of the fragile prototypes, and sister teams filled other top positions with 3rd, 4th, 5th and 13th at the flag. #59 was immediately retired from racing and has been at McLaren ever since.
F1s won the BPR Series in '95 and '96, and again seven cars were entered in the '96 running of Le Mans. The '96 variant was also the fastest F1 to race at Le Mans, hitting 330kph on the Hunadières straight. No overall victory this time, but still 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th, 9th and 11th.
The emergence of the homologation-special Porsche 911 GT1 and Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR meant the F1 needed some serious updating to remain competitive: hence the 1997 'Long-tail' F1 GTR.
Downforce was the goal: the nose and tail were extended and a wider rear wing added. More weight was stripped out, to give a result of 910kg, and the engine de-stroked to help with endurance.
10 fresh cars were built, whereas previously some older chassis had been upgraded with new kits. Six long-tails were taken to Le Mans in '97.
Driven by Pierre-Henri Raphanel, Jean-Marc Gounon and Anders Olofsson, the #41 Gulf Team Davidoff car finished second overall and won the GT1 category, with the BMW factory car finishing a lap behind in third. Accidents and fire claimed the other four cars.
Given the small number of cars produced, some GTR race cars have actually been converted to be street legal (in the technical sense at least), making the remaining authentic race chassis even more sought-after.
Standing next to the '97 long-tail are two oddities, but they both have resonance to the McLaren story. The orange Tron bike is actually the MP4-T5 Soapbox: this was driven (ridden?) by McLaren's Chief Test Driver, Chris Goodwin in the Goodwood Soapbox Downhill race at the Festival Of Speed in 2002, winning it and setting a course record. To its right stands a 1954 Austin 7: Bruce McLaren made his racing debut in this car, and secured his first victory at the age of 15.
Of course McLaren are most famous for their Formula 1 exploits. Since entering the Formula 1 World Championship in 1966, McLaren drivers have won 12 F1 World Championships, and most of the greats have driven for the team: Prost, Senna, Lauda. A stunning statistic is that the team have been on the podium on two out of every three races they've contested. The team have built 198 F1 cars in total. The most modern car on display is the MP4-23A that Lewis Hamilton took to the Drivers' World Championship in 2008.
Close-up, I'm just not feeling the look of these modern cars.
However… Give me the 1974 Ford Cosworth DFV-powered M23 that Emerson Fittipaldi became Drivers' World Champion in, and I could look at it all day. Simple. Classic.
Back to the MP4-23a and its complex array of suspension and steering arms. All the height of efficiency I'm sure, but the aesthetics? You want to adjust it, you use a super computer.
Whereas… the M23. You want to adjust it, you use a hammer.
Just behind these two Formula 1 cars is the XP1-LM prototype, housed on its own on a rotating altar in a glass room.
This was the production prototypic for the F1 LM, the car manufactured to celebrate the '95 Le Mans victory and the car that made Lewis go wobbly at the knees. Only five production LMs were built.
Next up, three street cars: a road-going F1, Mercedes-Benz SLR 722 and SLR Stirling Moss.
McLaren's Formula 1 car designer, Gordon Murray, aimed to make the ultimate road car. The F1 was naturally aspirated: originally a tie-up with Formula 1 engine suppliers Honda was planned, but eventually BMW signed up and their M division designed and built a custom 6.1-litre V12 for the project. The test car achieved the feat of 0-100mph-0 in 11.5 seconds. A production car was kept on display in a bespoke McLaren showroom on London's prestigious Park Lane for a decade before being sold 'as new' in 2004. Often I'd take a detour on the way home just to have yet another look at it…
The automatic, front-mid-engined SLR was conceived and styled by Mercedes-Benz before being handed over to McLaren to engineer, develop and manufacturer in 2003.
Sport, Leicht, Rennsport: 'Sport, Light, Racing'. The SLR featured a supercharged, aluminium V8 putting out 617hp.
In 2006 a new variant, the 722, was produced to commemorate 50 years since Mercedes' success in the 1955 Mille Miglia epic, when Stirling Moss and journalist-come-navigator Denis Jenkinson famously won. This is the 722 Stirling Moss, the final run of SLR to be produced by McLaren.
I love the roll-hoop on the speedster: really harking back to the racers of the '50s and '60s.
Basically, you haven't lived till you've seen a CanAm car on the track. Big, thunderous, thuggish weapons, built to destroy.
This is the M8D from the 1970 season, which started just after the death of team founder Bruce McLaren during a test session at Goodwood for this car. Denny Hulme partnered with Dan Gurney and Peter Gethin to clean up in the series: the Chevrolet V8-powered M8D won 9 from 10 races and Hulme was Champion. In total, McLaren achieved 43 CanAm victories and five titles.
Success also came at Indianapolis: three Indy 500 wins went the way of McLaren. On show is the Offenhauser 4-cylinder M16E from 1975. It was driven by Johnny Rutherford to second place that year.
It is all about the winning. A long trophy cabinet shows off the decades of silverware the team have amassed.
The final area shows off perhaps McLaren's most famous livery: its partnership with Marlboro and the day-glo red-and-white cars of the late '80s and early '90s.
Four epic cars are on show: this is the MP4-1 from 1981, which was piloted by Brit John Watson. The Ford Cosworth DFV V8-powered car won the British Grand Prix and pioneered the use of carbon and composites in F1 monocoques.
By its side is the 1984 TAG Turbo V6 MP4-2. Niki Lauda drove this car to become Drivers' World Champion, with McLaren also Constructor's World Champions.
The Senna name is inextricably linked with McLaren. In 1988 the Gordon Murray-designed Honda V6 Turbo MP4-4 won 15 out of 16 races at the hands of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. Senna was Drivers' World Champion after a controversial year of in-fighting with Prost, and of course McLaren were the Constructor's World Champions.
The Honda V12-powered MP4-5 took Senna to the Drivers' World Champion once more in 1991 – following Prost's title in '89 and Senna's second in 1990 – and again McLaren were the Constructor's World Champions. Like the team's founder Bruce McLaren, Senna lived and died behind the wheel of a racing car. The final words must go to Bruce McLaren: "To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy."