Young pretender: built in its own production centre, McLaren’s MP4-12C is taking on the aristocrats of the supercar world
If you want the epitome of gleaming hi-tech – the ultimate in engineering glamour – head over to Woking. Nestled in sculpted curves of grassy parkland sits McLaren’s technology centre: in white, chrome and glass splendour. Inside the main doors, two world-championship-winning Formula 1 cars – their first, driven by Emerson Fittipaldi in 1974, and their most recent, Lewis Hamilton’s from 2008 – head a line-up of racing cars interspersed with the few sports cars that Ron Dennis’s outfit has produced; an array of engineering form and function.
The white-tiled production area of the technology centre now houses another piece of streamlined sculpture: the first models of a car from a new manufacturer. Branching out from motorsport, Dennis has launched McLaren Automotive, a company dedicated to producing two-seater sports cars. The new firm has led to McLaren buying out the majority of the 40 per cent stake that Mercedes, the racing team’s engine provider, previously held in the company, to avoid the German firm owning part of a commercial competitor.
So was the new car – the MP4-12C – worth the hassle? Launched in an appropriately lavish event starring McLaren’s two F1 drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Jensen Button, the car is a smooth, pared-back chunk of aerodynamics.
“Every component on this car is bespoke”
Antony Sherriff, managing director, McLaren Automotive
The MP4-12C is intended to compete with the aristocrats of the supercar world – the Ferrari 458, high-end Porsche 911s, the Lamborghini Gallardo – and will be priced accordingly, at around £150,000. But unlike its competitors, it doesn’t have a lineage of decades of sports-car design and the expectations of such traditions. What it does have is the McLaren name and the heritage of the race circuits.
Accordingly, the car has been developed from scratch and designed in-house, albeit with inputs from specialists. ’Every component on this car is bespoke,’ Antony Sherriff, McLaren Automotive’s managing director, said at the launch event. ’There are no carry-over components – they fundamentally compromised the performance and concept of the car.’
Neil Patterson, chief designer of the 12C, said: ’The biggest change for us was that this car was being designed to a budget, for a specific market segment and it was a clean sheet of paper design. Previously, we’d designed for onecustomer – such as the SLR that we designed for Mercedes. Most companies – when they launch a new car – they’re using an existing engine, or a new engine in an existing chassis. We had the chance to do all of that at the same time.’
The car didn’t have to be designed for a particular factory set-up in mind: McLaren is building a production centre specifically to make the car. ’We did try engines from other producers, but we had to do so much refitting on them to get them into the position and configuration we wanted in the chassis, it just made more sense to design a new one from scratch.’
The result was a collaboration with Ricardo, which came upwith the 3.8l V8 twin-turbo M838T engine that sits towards the rear of the car, behind the fuel tank. The company will also build the engine, delivering it to Woking for final assembly.
“Most companies use an existing engine when they launch a new car, or a new engine in an existing chassis. We had the chance to do all of that at the same time.”
Neil Patterson, chief designer of MP4-12C
One of the biggest design drivers was reducing the weight of the vehicle and Patterson thinks that the final result – the car’s lightest configuration weighs 1,300kg – is a major success. ’It’s significantly lighter than anything in its category,’ he said. The car is based around a lightweight carbon fibre-reinforced resin tub known as the monocell, with aluminium beams forming the rest of the chassis. The electrical system uses hexagonal-section aluminium wiring that packs more closely and is 4kg lighter than conventional cylindrical copper wires.
As an example of the weight-reduction drive, the cross-beam that supports the dashboard bears the company’s logo, which was originally supposed to be raised from the surface, but Patterson’s team insisted on it being engraved instead. ’There was no point adding weight to the structure,’ said Sherriff, ’We saved a whopping 2.4g’
The monocell is at the heart of the car and was the first part of the design to be considered. It protects the driver and passenger, and provides all the structural integrity of the car; the body panels are only there for aerodynamics, which has allowed them to be made very light. The carbon-fibre tub is so strong that it – and the windscreen – survived completely intact after three 56km/hr crash tests.
’You can’t separate performance from manufacturing”
Claudio Santini, monocell designer
Claudio Santoni, who was in charge of designing the monocell, said that the car’s performance and the manufacturability of the component were integral to the design process. ’McLaren’s design process starts with the driver, so the ergonomics of the driving position were the first thing that was designed,’ he said. ’The next thing was the environment around the driver and passenger; the architecture of the monocell.’ The lack of constraints on the design meant that Patterson and the team could adopt an inside-to-outside approach, he added.
But manufacturability was also key. ’You can’t separate performance from manufacturing,’ Santoni said. ’Otherwise you end up with a fantastic design principle that delivers great performance but you can’t make it at all, or it takes ages, or it costs a fortune.’
McLaren’s strategy for the new company is to produce a range of different cars based upon the monocell as a common component, which means that it had to be designed so that the full target output of the company – 4,000 units – could be made each year. That dictated the choice of manufacturing process: resin transfer moulding, a relatively fast process.
The carbon fibre is shaped into a 40-tonne steel mould inside a 400-tonne press and resin is injected under pressure. Two hours later, the resin is cured and can be removed from the mould, ready for machining on a computer-controlled mill. The whole cycle, carried out by a specialist in Germany, is complete in four hours, Santoni said.
Further development at McLaren is clearly on the agenda. Once the production centre is completed, work can continue on different versions of the 12C and other new cars. Patterson is confident that all new technologies will be considered, including hybrid and electric drive trains. ’The best decisions, be they about racing or design, are made with the most information,’ he said. ’That process, the gathering of information and acting on it – that is the most important thing we can bring from Formula 1.’
McLaren’s production centre could theoretically build 20 cars a day
The McLaren Technology Centre doesn’t look like a place where cars are built and it’s certain that the new production centre, currently taking shape a few yards away, won’t either.
Ron Dennis isn’t the sort of man who leaves fingerprints – famously detail-obsessed, he’d almost certainly wipe them away. But his metaphorical fingerprints are all over the production centre design. ’The walls and floors of the shop floor are going to be tiled in white,’ he said. ’White is either clean or it isn’t. And it will be clean.’
Most of the components for McLaren Automotive’s cars will be made off-site and brought to the production centre’s paint shop and assembly line. Storage for components will allow the centre to build 20 cars a day – a theoretical total of 7,300 cars a year, though that’s more than is planned.
’We’re looking to build 1,000 MP4-12Cs in the first year, across the facilities in the technology centre and production centre,’ said Neil Patterson. ’In total, we want to be making about 4,000 cars a year, but the capacity is clearly there to be able to expand comfortably if we need to.’
Ferrari typically produces about 6,000 cars a year and McLaren is being cast as a ’British Ferrari’. But there are clear differences. Ferrari is an offshoot of the Fiat Group; McLaren, although seeking partners, stands alone. That’s the position Ron Dennis has stood in for his entire working life and he seems very comfortable with it.