A view to thrill
Our motoring man goes where few car guys have gone before. The McLaren Technology Centre, to be precise
It's Monday morning and I'm feeling decidedly stupid. Not for lack of sleep or anything physiological like that, no, but because I've just walked into a building that is apparently home to more than 300 PhDs.
You see, this is a place known for attracting some of the brightest triple-digit IQs the world has to offer. And also for triggering sudden inferiority attacks in people who, like myself, squandered their tertiary years on some terrible, throwaway diploma.
"Welcome to the McLaren Technology Centre, Sir," says a man in a black suit, quickly waking me from my stupor.
One of the most impressive corporate structures the world has ever seen, the semi-circular McLaren Technology Centre (MTC) in Woking, Surrey, UK, is to petrolheads what California's Googleplex is to Silicon Valley fanboys: a monument to innovation and pushing technological boundaries beyond their reasonable limit.
Designed by the architect Norman Foster, it is inside this futuristic study in glass and aluminium where all the current McLaren Formula1 racing cars are designed, built and developed - a process which, unlike with other teams, takes place under one roof.
Commandeering a generous portion of the 5295 square-metre MTC, the inner workings of McLaren Racing are a closely guarded secret. Now this may seem strange to some, but in the multibillion-dollar industry that is Formula 1 - where the difference between winning and losing can come down to a single component - the science that goes into shaping Lewis Hamilton's next racing car is just as classified as the most cutting-edge military project.
Consequently, as with the US government and Area 51, McLaren Racing does everything in its power to limit the threat of prying eyes. Fortunately it seems that they trust me, so my guide is prepared to show me where some of the engineering magic happens. Well, not before I turn off my iPhone, that is.
Satisfied that none of what he's about to show me will land up in the hands of Ferrari, I'm led to the humbling vastness of the room that houses the firm's wind tunnel. Assembled using 400 tons of steel, it is inside this 145-metre-long tube where McLaren's aerodynamicists make their race cars slice through air and stick to asphalt.
I notice that one of the walls is open to the elements. I ask the man in the suit why. Basically, because the tunnel sucks in outside air at such a tremendous rate, there has to be an aperture present in order to prevent the creation of a vacuum: a phenomenon that would shatter the walls in a catastrophic implosion.
Kept at a constant 6°C, I'm kind of glad when we turn around and spill back out into a stark, clinically lit hallway en route to the Laminating Room.
Being one of the most important links in the McLaren Formula 1 production chain - a carbon-fibre wonderland in which everything from the car's chassis to its wings are moulded and finessed - I'm not allowed inside. But I can watch through the glass walls as a team of men works on components that will eventually be bolted onto one of those shark-nosed, slick-wearing racers that stun the world every other Sunday.
While staring in at the goings-on, I'm told that the Laminating Room is never empty. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Whatever. There will always be a team busy building and fettling and evolving. It's a place in which development carries on ad infinitum. Scarily, everything is filmed, too. From the smallest cut to the biggest casting, McLaren Racing insists on documenting the creation of every single component, so that any future failings can be properly investigated and dealt with. Wing No 345 disintegrated on the straight at Monaco? The team suspects a dodgy laminate adhesive? No worries, one flip through the archive will reveal all.
I n between all the lasers and laptop-driven technology of the present, lies an immaculately preserved tribute to all the successes of the past. Indeed, walking along a large perimeter corridor known as The Boulevard, I'm met by a chronological line-up of the best McLaren-built racing cars history has ever known: such as Denny Hulme's 507kW M8D Can-Am car, a beast so loud it shakes light fittings from the ceiling. Needless to say, the staff are banned from starting it while it's parked inside .
Then there's the radical red-and-white MP4/4 that won 15 out of 16 F1 races back in 1988. Designed by South African Gordon Murray, this one happens to be extra-special because it's the actual car Ayrton Senna can be seen driving in Asif Kapadia's 2010 documentary, Senna.
Peering inside the cockpit, my face reflecting against the giant perspex tachometer, it's rather humbling to think that the great man's hands once gripped that steering wheel, his feet danced between those three pedals. Transported back to this bygone era devoid of driver aids and ridiculous Kers braking devices, I could happily spend the whole day poring over these proud old warhorses.
But the clock is ticking and there's something else that the man in the suit wishes to show me.
It's called the McLaren Production Centre (MPC for short) and it is linked to the MTC via a long underground tunnel that feels like it was pulled from the frames of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Formally opened by UK Prime Minister David Cameron in November last year, this 32000 square-metre structure is where nine of the firm's new road cars, the MP4-12C, are assembled every day.
Now I've been on plenty of automotive plant tours in my time, but none can compare to what I'm about to witness.
Firstly there is not a single robot or conveyor-belt in sight. Seemingly at odds with the whole McLaren engineering philosophy, everything is done by hand. From wheeling the basic chassis to the start of the production line, right up to the final painting of the finished product, no process can be completed without a brain and a set of digits being present.
Secondly, the MPC is eerily quiet. In your mind you would associate such a place with the incessant hum and whine of machinery. But here, while walking towards something called the Monsoon Test tank (where cars are inspected for leaks), you actually feel the need to whisper.
Finally, it is clean. And I mean hospital clean. White floors and walls may seem completely absurd in an industrial environment, but here they actually encourage the workers to keep their respective work bays extra-spotless. Never mind eating, you could probably perform open-heart surgery off the tiles sparkling beneath my takkies.
After snaking through various lines, my MPC visit comes to an end at the wash bay, where, following a quick wash and dry, each and every MP4-12C is dolled up in an unflattering protective bib (to prevent stone chip damage) and taken for a shakedown run around the country roads of Woking. After that, they are ready to be shipped off to one of the 35 McLaren dealerships worldwide.
Sensing that my brain is on the verge of technology overload, my guide leads me up to the Mika Hakkinen (yes, really) conference room for a quick luncheon. En route he points out a long, swooping handrail that runs from one end of the MTC Boulevard to the other. "See this? The story goes that Ron Dennis (McLaren Group chairman) asked the architect to make it from a single piece of stainless-steel tubing. The architect said it couldn't be done. Eventually a compromise was reached and it was divided into two. Look, here's the join."
Now some people may scorn this engineering fanaticism, this corporate obsession with form following function, but McLaren simply wouldn't be McLaren without it.