McLaren supercars: research and development

McLaren P1 Supercar

Supercars don’t just go fast, they evolve quickly as well. Just look at McLaren, which has come a huge way in fewer than five years.

Mind you, things didn’t get off to a great start. At the 2011 press presentation of the clumsily named McLaren MP4-12C, McLaren boss Ron Dennis assured journos it would be the best-handling car in the world “because we’ve got the numbers to prove it”. It was a fascinating insight into the way Ron’s mind tries to quantify things, but also a tacit confirmation of the lack of ultimate soul we found when we did get a chance to properly fang it.

For all its staggering speed, the 12C really struggled with the whole emotional appeal of supercar ownership. Its twin-turbo V8 sounded like an angry food-blender when worked hard, build quality was distinctly iffy, and the styling was bland enough to make the new Macca look more like a windtunnel testing buck than a finished car.

Yet McLaren responded quickly to early criticism, and the company has continued to adapt at a similar pace.

What was meant to be a mid-life facelift was turned into a more serious revision, turning the 12C into the far better-looking McLaren 650S. Ron was kept away from journalists and – after a bust-up saw the sudden departure of MD Anthony Sherriff in 2013 – the company scored an outstanding ambassador in the form of new CEO Mike Flewitt, a former senior Ford exec.

But the crucial change was to the product, with new models offering far more right-brain appeal. The part-hybrid P1 was a genuinely dizzying achievement, a 674kW megacar that managed to make the Porsche 918 feel a bit too sensible.

Things have improved dramatically further down the order as well. For me, the transformation was encapsulated when I got to drive both the ‘entry level’ 570S and track special 675LT back-to-back earlier this year. Both feel vastly more accomplished than the early 12C, and also completely different from each other. Not bad considering all three cars share the same core architecture.

But you don’t need to be a thrill-seeking millionaire to feel grateful to the boffins in Woking. We all owe some gratitude for the way it pretty much dropped a depth charge into the supercar segment, causing an arms race as Ferrari and Lamborghini struggled to keep up with its rate of technical development.

Mainstream makers often try to credit new performance innovations to their expensive race programs, but the truth is that competition tech almost always makes the transition to the road through a top-end supercar, where high costs can be offset against high prices and buyers wanting the latest and best. This is the segment that gave us carbonfibre bodywork, composite brakes, adaptive suspension and active aero – all of which have subsequently moved into cheaper cars. Now they are leading the way on the high-output hybrid systems that will transform the next generation of performance cars. Would the new NSX be a hybrid if it wasn’t for the pioneering efforts of Porsche, Ferrari and McLaren?

McLaren’s ongoing commitment to invest a third of its revenue into R&D means there are plenty more goodies on the way, not least the prospect of the company’s first pure EV.

Who wins in a fight between supercar-makers? That’s an easy one – we all do.

Apple takes a bite?

Rumours that Apple was set to take over McLaren sent the internet into a tizzy in September, and were quickly denied by the company. The truth is more interesting. Ron Dennis attempted to find new investors willing to buy out the stake in McLaren owned by long-term collaborator Mansour Ojjeh, the two having apparently fallen out. Ron didn’t succeed and it now looks as if he’ll be ousted himself, reports suggesting his contract as chief exec isn’t going to be renewed when it runs out next year. If that’s true, the motor industry will lose one of its great characters, if not one of its best communicators.

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