McLaren’s car company: A new legacy in the making?

For years the prevailing notion, and truth, is that many of today’s road cars have benefited from the technology developed from Formula 1 racing. Teams have pressed the limits of what is achievable and come away with an array of innovations that have pushed the road car into the new century. Most recently companies like Ferrari, Mercedes, Toyota, BMW and Renault have all laid groundwork for their road cars in the racing divisions of their companies.

During the economic difficulties of 2008 and beyond, it has been difficult to justify the expense of a racing division, however, and BMW, Toyota and Honda have all pulled out of the worlds premier racing series. The reasons are varied but precious few believe it to be anything more than an economic decision at the board or “C” level. Four manufacturers remain in F1 and today, one of the took a major step in furthering that dream of road car applicable technology.

Although McLaren’s heritage lies principally on the race circuit, the blend of qualities such as ambition, drive and commitment, with more tangible assets such as aerodynamic skills, rapid development through simulation techniques, supreme electronics expertise and a ruthless quest for reliability, have equipped the company to turn Ron Dennis and his shareholders’ dreams into reality.

McLaren officially launched a new car company this week and with the first offering, the astoundingly good looking McLaren MP4-12C, they will begin the journey few other companies have taken before them. One company in particular comes to mind and it resides in Italy and is painted red on most days.

Many in F1 know very well who Ron Dennis is and what McLaren have achieved over the decades they have been racing. Many know also that Dennis stood down from the racing division to lead the road car initiative. With that mission in his pocket and the resources behind him, Dennis has taken his first step to becoming the British version of Ferrari but like Dennis, I suspect he will do things very differently than Ferrari and that’s a good thing. So how does Dennis feel about his new car company?

“McLaren’s first and founding principle was to compete successfully in motor sport and particularly Formula 1. That goal has taken us to great heights; from an engineering and innovation perspective, and by rewarding our people for their endeavours over many long seasons of top level motor racing.

“But despite all the trophies and great racing successes, there comes a time when the maturity of a company and its future development depends on broadening its activities.

“We have long held the dream of building a range of innovative McLaren sports cars. Sports cars that take the raw elements of Formula 1 principles, processes and performance and forge them into a unique package that adds the requirements of quality, efficiency, comfort and reliability – traditionally opposing goals that I know we can deliver.

“McLaren’s modern history began 30 years ago with an operation of 50 people dedicated solely to winning Grands Prix. Everything we have achieved as a well-honed and fiercely competitive team over the past three decades has prepared us for this moment.

“McLaren Group and McLaren Automotive now employ around 1,500 people – all dedicated and passionate about being the best. And launching a new car company and our first car, of which I am very proud. The 12C will support the long-term future of McLaren and our people.

“This new business will also bring into the UK new investment, a new manufacturing facility – the McLaren Production Centre – and new skilled jobs within the UK’s network of high-tech manufacturing and engineering businesses. I believe that McLaren Automotive is good example of how the UK can develop a new, innovative and globally influential manufacturing base, through technological innovation in design and build-processes.

“Launching a new car company is a great challenge that is exciting everyone at McLaren. Everything is in place and on schedule for the first of our new range of cars to go on sale in the first half of 2011. These are exciting times – for McLaren, for car enthusiasts and, just as importantly, for people who are passionate about technology, innovation and engineering,”

The natural evolution for McLaren may not be a stretch to many fans. The companies long history in racing and even road car development is well known but for those less familiar you may be surprised to know just how effective McLaren has been in its decades-long quest.

McLaren now has a heritage of 47 years, in 44 of which it has been represented at the pinnacle of motorsport. As of the end of the 2009 Formula 1 season, it has won 164 of the 664 Grands Prix in which the team has competed. It has been home to seven world champions (Fittipaldi, Hunt, Lauda, Prost, Senna, Häkkinen and Hamilton), who delivered 12 Drivers’ Formula 1 World Championships. It has won eight Formula 1 Constructors’ World Championships. McLaren has achieved 145 pole positions, 436 podiums, 44 double wins (one–twos) and 136 fastest laps. On average, McLaren has been on the podium on two of every three races in which it has competed.

In addition, McLaren has won 43 Can Am races taking five titles, and three Indy 500 victories, as well as the Le Mans 24 Hour race on its debut in 1995. McLaren has even won the Goodwood soapbox downhill race organised at Lord March’s Festival of Speed – in 2002, MP4-T5 won on its only appearance and set the course record, piloted by Chris Goodwin, McLaren Automotive’s Chief Test Driver.

However, this proud and unique motor racing record should not overshadow the achievements made by the company in road-going cars.

The McLaren F1 was, and in many eyes remains, the definitive sports car: the first road car with a carbon fibre construction. Only 107 examples of this supercar were made, but at a recent auction one sold for £2.53 million, almost five times its original retail price and unheard of for a modern car. It was also the last true road car to win Le Mans and the first to achieve this feat since the ‘60s. It was the most expensive, the most exclusive, the fastest and the best to drive.

The second car was the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren that completed its production run in December 2009.

The logical next question might be asked about the reversal of technology development for the F1 program born from the road car division. Could Dennis and his staff actually develop a two-way street for the technology migration path? F1 team boss Martin Whitmarsh believes so:

“Having delivered two very successful road cars in the F1 and SLR, McLaren Automotive is now in a strong position to move towards the full-scale design, development and production of a series of high-performance sports cars. The great engineering expertise within our Racing division is assisting that journey, and the whole McLaren Group is now also reaping the benefits of increasingly seamless communication within the MTC.

“Responsible financial housekeeping is becoming ever more important in Formula 1, and that has naturally led us to develop best practice when it comes to managing budgets, deploying manpower and optimising reliability in all areas. Working closely with their Automotive colleagues, our engineers within Racing are now looking at development and design with a fresh pair of eyes.

“More than that, though, they’ve been able to re-evaluate how we do business. In the vernacular of motor racing, supply chain management, lifecycle protectiveness, design for manufacture, and quality assurance and control are hardly common phrases, but we have seen how McLaren Automotive is achieving high quality across these areas – and Racing is following suit. Ultimately, that will leave us with greater budget and manpower with which to develop the best racing cars.

“So, in summary, the close relationship between McLaren Racing and McLaren Automotive is a win-win for both companies,” he concluded.

Antony Sheriff, McLaren Automotive’s Managing Director, summed up the relationship: “There is no doubt in my mind that 12C owners will benefit from the huge store of knowledge and experience we have gained in the world of Formula 1. Our new sports car has probably a closer connection to the pinnacle of motor sport than any car available today and it is the drive, creativity and conviction of our teams at Woking that will then bring a new driving experience from track to road for our customers.”

Ultimately it comes down to the desire, passion and dreams of hundreds of employees and investors in Woking. The chance to build something that rivals what can only be described as the benchmark of race to road success in Ferrari. Except this version will all British and that, if for any other reason, will be a tremendous difference as well as a fantastic legacy. Here is wishing them much success in their new endeavors.

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