Fast company: Neil Patterson has played an integral role in the development of McLaren Automotive’s first sports car. Stuart Nathan reports
You enter the building through a glass cylinder that rises smoothly from the tarmac of the car park.
You descend a spotless white spiral staircase, out of sight from the outside world, and push open a towering set of featureless double doors — also white — that give onto a long, straight, white-walled, white-ceilinged corridor. The walls are interrupted occasionally by doors stencilled with cryptic codes and warnings.
At the end of the corridor is another large cylinder, floor-to-ceiling and featureless. Walk around this and doors open noiselessly to a glass-walled lift. It rises through the concrete ceiling and light suddenly floods the chamber, glittering off the enormous plate-glass window that forms an entire wall of the building beyond. The lift stops and opens onto a bridge, with a thick grey carpet that absorbs the sound of your steps as you approach the smartly dressed woman at the circular desk facing the lake.
’Hello,’ she says. ’Welcome to the McLaren Technology Centre.’
The immaculate headquarters of Ron Dennis’s McLaren organisation, just outside the unremarkable suburb of Woking, currently has a split personality. In one part of the building are the engineers, technicians and analysts of McLaren Racing, busy with the continuing development of the current season’s Formula 1 car and the other racing cars in the stable. Elsewhere, however, the staff of the fledgling car manufacturing company, McLaren Automotive, are in an exciting phase of the development of its first product, the MP4-12C sports car. Its low-slung, sharp-featured presence in metallic orange livery dominates the building’s marketing suite.
’We’re a quarter of the way into the year and it’s gone incredibly quickly,’ said Neil Patterson, the chief engineer on the MP4-12C project. ’We started production of the first cars that’ll go out to customers in January, on schedule, and we’re building up a stock of cars now. We’ll ship the first batch to dealers in Europe at the end of May.’
The first reviews of the car are now appearing, following press drives in January. This is the point at which Patterson sees the results of four years of work finally in the hands of strangers, who can judge whether the design of the car – the carbon-fibre monocell that forms the structural heart of the structure, the custom-designed engine produced by Ricardo, the wheel arches positioned so that their peak appears directly over the centre of the wheel from the driver’s viewpoint – translates into performance.
For Patterson, it’s a bittersweet experience. ’It does feel a bit odd; I thought it might,’ he said. ’There’s a sense in which I’m mourning all the development work, and another where I’m glad to be moving on to something else and leaving the car in the hands of the production guys.’
Patterson’s role has changed considerably over the course of the project, but he’s remained a hands-on presence. At the start, some four years ago, he saw his role as that of an architect, working with McLaren Automotive managing director Antony Sheriff and project director Mark Vinnels to translate the specifications of the proposed car into hardware. ’We had to look for ways to minimise weight, maximise packaging efficiency and make sure that everything on the vehicle works together,’ he explained. ’In car design, you can sometimes get into a silo mentality where one engineer will design a component that works very well for them, but doesn’t work with the components designed by their neighbours. My job as an architect was to set the big things, such as engine, transmission, the monocell and so on, into place to make sure that didn’t happen.’
This stage was followed by concept approval, which is where Patterson had the largest personal input into the project. ’I worked with all the different functions of the business – engineering, styling, purchasing, quality, service and aftersales, to make sure that the designs we were proposing to pursue met their targets. We had to be certain that the car wouldn’t be too difficult to service and that the cost would fit within the business case.’
At the prototype design phase, Patterson chaired a two-hour meeting three times a week to review the process of design and construction. ’I was more like a policeman there, making sure that everything was going as planned and looking at some of the factors that were an attribute of the whole car rather than a component, such as thermal performance.’
Now the car is into its pre-release production phase, Patterson is overseeing final component work such as tuning the body seals to ensure they block out noise and making final tweaks, such as the design of the fuel filler cap, which press drivers thought a little flimsy. ’We’ve had to get a team together to tackle that problem in six weeks, so it can be fitted to the cars before they go to the dealers,’ he said.
The first press reviews have been flattering, with motoring journalists praising the car’s speed (’like being kicked in the back’, apparently), braking performance and handling, with several praising the roomy feel of the car despite the engineering team’s insistence on minimising the width – this extended to placing the satnav screen in a portrait orientation in the central console, rather than the more usual landscape. ’What’s been really great is that the journalists have really understood the technical side of it – we get them next to the car and explain the philosophy of the design, the use of carbon fibre and why we use particular materials. It’s a great affirmation of the work we’ve been doing,’ Patterson said.
In fact, the only consistent negative in the reviews was a feeling that the MP4-12C isn’t quite as pretty as its main competition, the Ferrari 458. Patterson isn’t worried, however. ’Aesthetics is a matter of personal taste. We’ll always deliver a car where the form follows the function, and there will always be people who complain that it doesn’t look like a Ferrari. It’s not supposed to look like a Ferrari. It’s supposed to look like a McLaren.’
Q&A – In the driver’s seat
Are you comfortable being compared so directly with Ferrari?
The Ferrari 458 has been the clear benchmark car in our minds since it came out, so it’s no surprise to us; I’m happy to be compared with it. I’m really excited to see back-to-back testing of the MP4-12C against the 458 in the press; I can’t wait for that. I think that might see us becoming the benchmark in performance, which is particularly pleasing to me.
Might McLaren decide to challenge Ferrari in other parts of its range, such as a more extreme ’hypercar’ in a higher price bracket?
I can’t talk in detail about our plans, but we do intend to produce a new model every year for the next five years. There’s clearly more room to be much more extreme than the 12C and there’s also room to be more conservative.
Can you give any clues about the 12C’s successors?
We’re looking at using a modular approach built around the carbon-fibre monocell at the heart of the 12C. That platform is very adaptable and a lot of investment has gone into it as a structural system – it does all the work in all the crashes and in handling the chassis loads.
So it’ll be a two-seater, mid-engined sports car, within the wide bracket of variation allowed by that?
Yes, exactly. Clearly, we are working on new stuff; a car programme takes three to four years, and if we’re bringing out a new car every year, you can infer that we started on the next one a couple of years ago.
What’s the next big step for McLaren Automotive?
We’re producing the 12C at the Technology Centre at the moment, but the new Production Centre [a few yards away] is very nearly complete. The paint shop has gone in, as well as the rolling road and the monsoon chamber. We have a shutdown period planned when we’ll move the first body assembly stage fixtures over from another industrial unit in Woking, then we’ll switch production over there towards the end of May.
How do you see McLaren Automotive’s place in UK engineering, now your cars are hitting the road?
I think we’re maybe seeing a renaissance of automotive engineering in the UK, and it’s great to be in the lead of that rebirth. I met [business secretary] Vince Cable at the Big Bang Fair in London last month and he was pretty impressed with the technology. It was great fun, being there with our product and talking to young and old alike about it; it’s British engineering at its best. We had people from the Bloodhound SSC project coming over to check us out and we went over to them. I was also lucky enough to be on the judging panel for the Senior Young Engineer of the Year Award, and it was really heartwarming to see the fantastic stuff coming out of that.
Is working with young people important to McLaren?
Absolutely. Continuing to enga-ge with young people and talk about STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] in an enthusiastic way and showing them what they can do with these subjects is really important; everyone who’s an engineer should be doing that. I used to think that art and science were separate subjects, but as I’ve got older I’ve concluded that science is art with rules and engineering is just science with a budget. Engineering is as creative as composing music, and everyone should have a chance to be part of it.
1990 Patterson studied for an HNC in mechanical engineering at a technical college in Worthing while working for a company manufacturing components for the petrochemical industry
1990 Joins International Automotive Design as a design engineer
1993 Spends a year at Geodetic Machines
1994 Joins NedCar in the Netherlands as a design engineer
1996 Returns to the UK as principal engineer for closures at Daewoo
1999 Joins McLaren as a body engineer, working on Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren
2006 Chief engineer on Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren Roadster
2008 to present Chief engineer on McLaren MP4-12C