There’s no doubt, McLaren Automotive are about to turn the performance car market on its head. Ground-breaking technology and advanced design has allowed the new MP4-12C to claim the ultimate status some 18 months before it hits the streets. It represents the unprecedented transfer of F1 construction, technology and development from track to road and it’s what the Woking-based operation knows best. With the economy struggling and trillions of pounds worth of debt mounting, sub-£200K road cars are nevertheless booming and MTI is at McLaren Automotive to take a closer look at its new supercar.
McLaren set its sights on becoming a solo supercar manufacturer back in 2003. Although tied-in with Mercedes Benz the two would soon part company with the latter keen to continue its front-engined strategy (now seen in the Mercedes SLS AMG) yet the partnership allowed McLaren to effectively hit the ground running thanks to manufacturing the Mercedes SLR supercar.
The MP4-12C was never a Mercedes project that morphed into what we see here today. The Woking outfit completely started from scratch, sourcing its own components with no carry-overs whatsoever. That’s no surprise considering what else the McLaren Group has under its umbrella. For instance its electronics arm supplies standardised ECU’s not only to the entire F1 grid but also to IndyCar and for a new generation of piston-engined aircraft. McLaren Applied Technologies sells its telemetry know-how beyond motorsport to, amongst others, the medical sector. That’s not a bad portfolio all operating out of an, at first glance, impossibly futuristic headquarters.
Ron Dennis, McLaren Automotive CEO and astute businessman, is about to embark on a personal ambition and has already planned the twelve years not only with the “12C”, but a three-car line-up including a new breed of hyper car to rival Pagini. To kick start production, 2011 will see the MP4-12C emerging from a brand new factory alongside the existing Woking HQ at a rate of 1,000 cars per year. With 35 dealers appointed around the world McLaren is insisting its dealer network puts a lot of investment into their plush showrooms and is keen that more money is spent on aftersales as it sees this as a better way to build brand loyalty in the long-run. For instance, dealers will be expected to have every single component in stock ensuring owners don’t have to endure having their cars off the road because of parts unavailability. All appointed dealers are required to have a proven track record in selling cars in the premier division, with three in the UK, one in central London and two more to serve the rest of the country.
Yet McLarens, or Ron Dennis’ obsession, only started three years ago when he was stood in the pit lane and started to think about all the teams that had been around since 1966 with Ferrari being the only one that sprang to mind. That’s when he realised that to protect his workforce, protect the brand; he had to broaden the brand’s horizons. With the Porsche 911, Audi R8, Lamborghini’s Gallardo and Ferrari’s latest 458 Italia a target to not only beat but better, the journey began.
Standing in the former SLR handover suite in McLarens hi-tech HQ with a MP4-12C just about to be pushed away from a previous VIP visit, (I hear American TV star and fanatical car-nut Jay Leno has recently been over) I’m probably the last journalist to see one before its debut in 2011.
Jay Leno behind the wheel of the McLaren MP4 12C
Starting with a clean sheet of paper, its rivals won’t be able to copy its advanced carbon core overnight because it would mean decommissioning existing manufacturing technologies, although you wouldn’t think so just by looking at one. Frank Stephenson, McLarens design director, was only appointed last year but it was just in time for him to make some subtle changes to the look of the ‘12C before the design needed to be signed off.
After his success with the 2001 BMW-Mini, Stephenson went on to Ferrari and had a hand in finishing the F430 and 599 before moving to parent company Fiat. Among the changes he managed to put through on the ‘12C were updated headlights and a more dramatic nose which now look completely different to when he first arrived. Finally he set about creating new panels designed to “tidy up” the engine bay.
Every hole and every vent on the car is completely functional, something Ron Dennis insisted on right from the start. The ‘12C is compact in its dimensions but is pure in every sense, something you only realise when you’re up close. Its pure Formula 1 in the sense of its construction: a rolling chassis with non-structural bodywork draped over it. That not only makes it incredibly light and strong but something every rival in this sector would have if they could afford to. The carbon monocoque chassis moves the game on in the ‘junior supercar’ sector like nothing else, too. The whole construction of the ’12C is completely different to that of any other car that’s ever been built. Although it may have a similar layout to its closest rivals, the MP4-12C will be the most technologically advanced supercar on sale under £200k.
With an unlocked prototype and nobody around, it’s too tempting not to get inside. The gull wing door opens easily and feels remarkably similar to its predecessor, the McLaren F1 road car. Slide inside and the supportive driver’s seat is positioned very upright, as is the steering wheel. There’s certainly nothing bland about the cabin design which looks ultra-modern – not unlike Ferrari’s all-in-one 458 Italia. The dashboard divides the passenger compartment like a late 60s Corvette and the centre console is dominated by a 7-inch touch-screen information centre / sat-nav, whilst lower down five other dials enable the driver to adjust stability control, gearshift speeds, suspension settings and down force. Even on this prototype the high quality is evident, helping justify its estimated £170,000 price tag. McLarens quality control will only allow five minor faults per car along the production line whilst Mercedes allowed 150 per 100 SLR’s, things like specs on the alloy wheels, something you need a microscope to see.
McLaren MP4-12C dashboard
Dick Glover, McLaren Automotive’s head of mechanical research, has driven thousands of miles in the MP4-12C. The set-up is a mix of comfort levels, body control, precision and agility both on road and on track. The use of active systems on the car will enable the driver to select a track or road biased set-up and the passive systems are optimised to give excellent grip and bump absorption. In testing, McLaren have even gone as far as saying that they now need new benchmarks to compare the car with. The ‘MP4 sticks with the traditional wishbones and coil springs but the dampers are hydraulically interconnected and allow the car to do away with anti-roll bars altogether by providing three levels of roll control. One McLaren technician told MTI “It’s what’s been known as proactive suspension. This is the first road car it’s been fitted to and gives complete control over the level of body roll. The ride comfort and grip levels are fantastic and the suspension was developed and tested using the same simulation programme that we use for our F1 cars”.
McLaren’s MP4-12C is powered by an all new, purpose-built 3.8-litre twin-turbo V8 which unlike a traditional eight-cylinder layout that sounds like an American Nascar, this compact unit has a flat-plane crank and will sound very similar to its rival, the Ferrari. Designed and developed with an as yet unnamed partner, it produces 600bhp, whilst 80 per cent of its power is available from just 1900rpm. The breadth of its power band promises to be outstanding, even more so when you think that it only has to haul 1300kg’s around. It’s even more remarkable as it produces more horsepower for every gram of CO2 emitted per kilometre than any other car with an internal combustion engine on the market including all hybrids. There is no confirmation as yet on performance figures but we’re told ‘nothing in this segment gets close’, so it’s probably safe to say that it should crack 200mph flat out and around a 3sec to 60mph margin.
To deal with this sort of performance McLaren have fitted a dual-clutch seven-speed transmission. Rather than have two separate paddles behind the steering wheel the ‘MP4 has just one rocker that’s mounted on a central pivot. When you pull one you can feel the other move in the opposite direction, just as in a McLaren F1 car. The system also has a function called ‘pre-cog’ which can be felt as a detent on the rocker-shift. The first level of travel pre-sets the hydraulic functions so that the transmission knows you’re about to shift into the next gear. The second level activates an immediate shift. The claim is it understands the driver’s intensions and feels more fluent than conventional double-clutch systems.
The McLaren MP4-12C is going to re-write the supercar rule book and having seen how committed everyone assigned to this project is, there’s only one rival that they seem to want to beat, and that’s Ferrari. The new 458 Italia is Ferrari’s most advanced road car of all time and whilst Audi and Lamborghini might focus on raw driver talent, McLaren and its Italian rival have both extensively used their F1 know-how to produce two very exciting road cars. In less than eighteen months time a new page will be turned on the book of automotive supercar supremacy and every other rival will have upped their game, but with Ferrari and
McLaren so far ahead with technology it will be another five years or so before everyone else catches up.
For the last fifty years it’s always been Ferrari vs. Lamborghini but in 2011 it will be McLaren vs. Ferrari and I, for one, can’t wait.