Updated: 14:13 EDT, 17 July 2010>
Where in the world would you find a man gambling a fortune in a recession on a spectacular new supercar (and a £40 million factory to build it in)? As Ben Oliver reports exclusively for Live, somewhere suitably secretive and chillingly futuristic... in Woking, Surrey
A prototype MP4-12C supercar chassis under wraps beside the production line at the McLaren Technology Centre. The body has yet to be fitted to the car; the lump under the sheet is the top of the driver's seat
Any resemblance between the McLaren Technology Centre (MTC) and a Bond villain's lair is entirely intentional. You can't see it from the road, but the really important visitors - racing drivers, shareholders, sponsors and customers - all arrive by jet or helicopter, admiring the yin-yang symbol formed by the building and its lake from above before being driven from the nearby airfield in a blacked-out Mercedes.
If you've driven yourself, you'll enter through one of the circular silver pods in the car park, descending to a long, wide, white and eerily empty underground corridor, the walls stencilled with space-age text, all straight from a Stanley Kubrick film set.
Another lift at the far end takes you back up into the 'boulevard', where you're likely to encounter your first human being since the guard on the front gate. This is the spine of the MTC; it houses McLaren's 50-yard trophy cabinet and tens of millions of pounds' worth of historic racing cars, the legacy of nearly half a century at the pinnacle of motorsport, in which time McLaren has clocked up 168 grand prix victories, 12 drivers' and eight constructors' world titles, three Indy 500 wins and the Le Mans 24-hour race at its first attempt.
A finished MP4-12C supercar. As well as electricity sockets and air lines, the inspection bay also features computer connections as standard
McLaren's headquarters is meant to impress and intimidate, and it works. Officially, the £300m building was designed by Lord Foster, but everyone knows that it was really the work of McLaren's own Bond villain, the terrifying and infamously detail-obsessed Ron Dennis. Dennis started as an F1 mechanic in the late Sixties; in 1981, aged just 34, he took control of the struggling McLaren F1 team and by 1988 he had made it so dominant it won 15 of that year's 16 races. The brilliance that made him sign Lewis Hamilton at just 13 has also made him a personal fortune estimated at £200m, and he still owns 15 per cent of the business.
A mobile programming and diagnostics unit for the car's onboard computer and electrics
Now he is leading McLaren on its riskiest venture yet; gambling up to £800m on turning his F1 team into a full-scale supercar maker, a British rival to Ferrari on the road as well as the track. But he's doing it amid a global downturn and tanking sales of high-end cars. Is Ron mad? He says he has no choice.
'There's one really frightening statistic that has been burned into my brain,' he says. 'Since 1966, when we entered F1, 106 teams have come and gone. Only us and Ferrari are still in the pit lane. So staying solely a grand prix team leads to extinction. We need to broaden our business.'
The first in what will be a three-supercar range goes on sale in a year, but McLaren already has 2,500 ' qualified' customers lined up. 'Qualified' means it knows they can easily write the cheque for the £175,000 the 200mph McLaren MP4-12C is likely to cost.
The first 500 or so cars will be built here, inside the MTC, while work is completed on the McLaren Production Centre (MPC), the new £40 million factory being built next door. But don't think for a moment that the cars built in the MPC will be constructed with any less attention to detail than those we're about to see being built under the same roof as Hamilton and Jenson Button's racers. Ron simply wouldn't allow it. His obsession with detail is such that he has already altered the floorplan of the new factory slightly so that his chosen floor tile - plus grouting - will fit without needing to be trimmed.
Alan Foster is McLaren's genial Liverpudlian operations director. He had 30 years' experience building cars for some of the world's biggest marques before being hired by McLaren. Supercars might be beautiful and desirable but they're often surprisingly shoddily made; Dennis is demanding a car that is as exciting as a Ferrari but exceptionally reliable.
The underground corridor that brings visitors into the MTC. Unsightly half tiles won't exist in the new McLaren Production Centre - floor tiles that will fit without any trimming
Foster waves his security pass at a card reader and the double-frosted glass doors sigh open like something from Star Trek. The 'factory' is unlike any other I've been in. It's small - about the size of three basketball courts - almost entirely silent and the white-tiled floor is surgically clean.
'Forget eating your dinner off this floor,' says Foster. 'I'd be happy for you to operate on me in here.' Dennis's obsession with cleanliness means most of the walls are glass.
The cars being built here are still prototypes.
'We're going to crash that green one as soon as we've finished it, and the black car is for Ron and the other directors to test,' explains Foster. Live has been granted very early access, not least, you suspect, because McLaren wants to communicate the close links between its F1 cars and its road cars, its main selling point over its rivals.
The front brake disc is made from an iron/aluminium composite, which McLaren says is lighter than carbon
The link is undeniable. The MP4 starts life at another McLaren facility nearby, where the ultra-lightweight carbon-fibre 'monocell' chassis is assembled, and fitted with the aluminium structures to which the engine and suspension will attach.
'It's where the McLaren Formula 1 cars of the Eighties and Nineties were made,' says Foster. 'It's a holy place for us. You can feel Ayrton Senna's ghost in the place.'
The spray-painting booth is the same one used for McLaren's F1 team. All of the car's panels are sprayed together from the same batch of paint to guarantee colour uniformity
Carbon was the only choice for the MP4. A full carbon-fibre structure like this is usually only seen on F1 cars, or hypercars like the Bugatti Veyron. But McLaren's two previous road cars were both made of carbon fibre. The McLaren F1 of the early Nineties was, at the time, the world's fastest, most expensive car and remains arguably the greatest ever made, despite the fact that the recession meant just 107 were built.
The McLaren Mercedes SLR - more than 2,000 examples of which were built in this hall for Mercedes - was the world's best-selling carbon car, but cost at least £300,000. Making a full carbon car profitably at this price will be difficult, but McLaren can't be seen to be going backwards. Every F1 car it has made with Ron at the helm has been carbon fibre.
The body is then brought into the production hall and placed on a stand on castors. There's no production line; the cars are just pushed between workstations where two or three technicians fit another helping of beautifully tooled and very expensive components. Compared to other car factories it is oddly undramatic; no angry-looking orange robots spewing showers of sparks. Instead the MP4 is slowly, painstakingly handmade. Even the noisy air tools are absent; every bolt is tightened by hand with a torque wrench.
'If you keep everything calm and quiet people can concentrate harder on their work,' says Foster. 'This is the way these guys are used to working. Nobody here has less than five years' experience with McLaren, and most of them started in F1. Take Metin over there. He used to change Alain Prost's offside front wheel.
Part-assembled cars are moved by hand between stations within the MTC. Half a dozen cars are being used at any one time
'When we bring our most valued customers in here for a tour, they just get it straight away. Of the potential buyers we've shown around, 98 per cent have immediately ordered a car.'
Stripped naked, you can see the details that McLaren hopes will give this car an edge over its very capable Italian and German rivals. Car batteries are usually heavy, awkward things, but the MP4's is astonishingly light because it uses the same lithium-ion technology as your laptop or mobile phone. It saves 10kg, a massive amount in supercar terms.
But as Dennis says, 'We're all about the grams', and McLaren seems to have missed no opportunity to shave off weight. Foster points to the McLaren logo stamped into the lightweight aluminium beam that will support the dashboard. 'In the original design that logo was raised, but we realised that by embossing it instead we could save 2.4g. So we did.'
Bright uniform lighting allows for any minute paintwork flaws to be spotted easily
It's this kind of attention to detail that could make the MP4 a benchmark supercar, but also makes Dennis so terrifying to work for. Denim is banned in the MTC, as are Post-it notes, and employees may only have one item on their desk at a time.
Dennis's obsession with tiling means the centrepoint of each of the columns supporting the roof over the boulevard aligns with a join in the tiles, and he even designed the typeface used throughout the MTC. I decide to try a few other Dennis urban myths on Foster. Is it true that he redesigned the soap dispensers in the toilets so they wouldn't drip?
Brake discs ready to be fitted to the car
'Yes, I believe he did.'
Did he order one of his more hirsute employees to shave twice a day?
'Yes. That was a guy who worked for me, actually.'
And is it true that he once interrupted a meeting when he spotted a flock of birds that had been fouling his glass walls, rang his maintenance team and screamed, 'I thought I told you to shoot the geese'?
Foster shakes his head. 'That one will have to stay an urban myth, I'm afraid.'
It will take all of Dennis's iron will to turn McLaren into a credible rival to Ferrari. Having expanded six-fold since 2000, the market for supercars costing more than £100,000 shrank back even faster when the credit crunch hit.
Global sales are down 38 per cent from their peak. Ferrari, McLaren's chief rival, did better than most, its sales dropping just five per cent to 6,250 in 2009, but without the launch of the sensational new California, its numbers would have looked much gloomier. British rival Aston Martin fared much worse; having sold 7,000 cars in 2007 it slumped to 4,000 in 2009, and had to lay off a third of its staff.
Dennis plans to sell up to 4,000 McLarens each year, and seems unfazed by the challenge.
Naked prototype chassis exposes the black carbon-fibre monocell at the heart of the car. At the centre of the triangle is the engine, which sits low in the chassis to improve heating
'A lot of small car companies have come and gone and we're not going to be one of them,' he says. 'There will inevitably be a resurgence and we intend to catch that wave. We've been able to push down dramatically the cost of the new factory. We couldn't have had a better environment to do business in. We said to our suppliers, don't bother looking at us as a profit opportunity. Look at us as a bridge to survival.
'So I don't see this difficult environment as anything other than an opportunity. Given the circumstances, true profitability is four or five years off, but we have a lean programme and we're only targeting four per cent of the market. Those are conservative numbers.
'I think we're being realistic.'
Water in the lake constructed alongside the MTC is used to cool the wind tunnel
Source : http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-1292513/Sssh-Youre-looking-Britains-800m-supercar-secret-weapon.html