McLaren: the whole package

McLaren is utilising its exacting standards for more than just a new sports car, as Kevin Hackett finds out.

Not only have Lewis Hamilton (left) and Jenson Button helped develop the MP4-12C, they also each have plans to buy one.
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It's not every day that a new car company is launched. When you consider the vast amounts of investment required, not only financially but also in research, development, engineering, staffing and all the rest, it's hardly surprising that new start-ups are few and far between, and even less are successful. Ron Dennis, chairman and chief executive of McLaren Automotive, is all too aware of this.

McLaren Automotive is a brand-new car manufacturing company. And before you start reminding us of the seminal F1 supercar and the various collaborations with Mercedes, this is different. This is a new, all-encompassing business that's wholly independent from any other car company. Even the peerless F1 had its magnificent V12 engine supplied by BMW. Yet, the road car officially unveiled to the world's media this week at McLaren's headquarters in Woking, England, has been entirely developed in-house. And unlike the F1, the new model will be sold and serviced by a completely new worldwide dealer network.

In its first year, McLaren expects to build and sell 1,000 of its MP4-12C supercars when it begins production next spring, and it's only the first in a diverse range of McLaren cars. Dennis expects up to 6,000 cars a year to be built here once the range is complete. This, then, is the real deal. And the Middle East will factor greatly into McLaren's plans. Dealers are planned for both Dubai and Abu Dhabi, as well as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. A service centre is planned for Beirut. The Middle East is expected to account for 20 per cent of the MP4-C12's global sales.

A stone's throw from McLaren's Technology Centre, groundworks are underway to build the dedicated road car factory, known as McLaren Production Centre. Here, according to Dennis, the same, exacting standards applied to everything McLaren does will be employed in the manufacture of the range. "We have long held the dream of building a range of innovative McLaren sports cars," Dennis says. "Sports cars that take the raw elements of Formula One 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."

Ron Dennis is not a man to be messed with. He rules the company with a rod of iron, refusing to tolerate second best in any aspect of McLaren. A quick look around the clinically clean production hall, where the prototype MP4-12Cs are being lovingly pieced together, is enough to tell you all you need to know about the man in charge. There are no radios playing, no tools lying around, no photographs of the kids on the desks of the workers, no mess, no possible distractions from the task in hand: building the world's best cars.

"Good enough is not good at McLaren," remarks Anthony Sheriff, the managing director. "The overriding principle that has driven us to where we are today is that every car will be 'pure' McLaren. This means that each and every component has been conceived, designed and produced to McLaren's specification to meet the extreme requirements of the 12C. There are no carry-over components, because they were not good enough. Similarly, our test programmes, production processes and after sales plans are also brand new and bespoke to McLaren. We have considered everything from a blank sheet of paper to be the best. Being 'as good' as everyone else is not good enough; we need to be the best."

Before the car is unveiled by Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton, Sheriff stresses the importance of the customer experience with McLaren. "With the 12C, we have taken technology not just to the edge, but to the edge of the edge of what's possible. There's no point in us doing this if the support network doesn't live up to our standards, so we're intending to redefine the customer experience with a dedicated, totally unique dealership network."

Each dealership, says Sheriff, has been chosen from a list of more than 600 interested parties. That number has gradually been reduced to just 35 organisations that share the same demanding standards as McLaren's top brass. "One of the fundamental flaws in the ownership experience with small-volume car manufacturers is parts availability," he adds. "We will be different. Parts availability will be 100 per cent at our dealers, meaning customers will never have to wait for spares to become available. To succeed, we need to be better than our competitors in every respect, and this is one that's almost always overlooked."

Then there's the car itself. As the two most recent F1 world champions removed the satin cover from the MP4-12C, there's no sense of drama. After all, we already knew what the car looks like because images have been doing the rounds for months. Unlike the shock and awe of a Lamborghini, the sheer, heart-stopping beauty of an Aston Martin or the sophisticated glamour of Ferrari's 458 Italia, the MP4-12C looks quite anonymous. This is no surprise to anyone familiar with Ron Dennis - form follows function with everything he does.

By the autumn, potential buyers in the Middle East will be able to see the car up close for the first time. Globally, 1,600 people have said they were more than interested in buying it through McLaren's website and Ian Gorsuch, McLaren's regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, says about 10 to 12 per cent of them were based in the Middle East. "We think [the number of buyers is] low here not because they are not showing interest, but the very nature of the customers here don't tend to want to go on a website. In this region, from our past experiences, was that the customers here want to physically see it. There is interest, they know about McLaren coming but they won't physically commit until they see the car. What we know is the dealers have pots of prospects and as soon as the dealer is appointed we can start working those prospects," says Gorsuch.

Under its skin lies genuinely revolutionary technology. Using racing knowledge so readily at its disposal, McLaren has given the 12C a carbon fibre tub for a chassis that weighs just 80kg, helping keep the entire car's mass at 1,300kg. "We haven't built a race car out of metal in over 30 years," quips Dennis, "and we've never built a road car from metal. McLaren is a centre of excellence in carbon fibre technology."

This approach, the pursuit of perfection in design and manufacturing, would mean nothing if the driving experience was a let-down, and we'll have to wait another year or so before we're able to get behind the 12C's wheel. In the meantime, though, it's gratifying to note that McLaren's current superstars, Button and Hamilton, are playing a role in developing it. They've also put in bids to purchase the car themselves.

As well, the McLaren team spent one week in Bahrain testing the car on the Formula One track and on the city's roads to make sure it met up to the harsh Arabian summers. The intercoolers on the car were reworked as a result of last summer's heat. "Obviously there were findings and tweaks have been made to the car," says Gorsuch. "It enhanced our confidence and we didn't find anything disastrous. I think we will be doing some more Middle Eastern testing in the next few weeks."

With a 200mph-plus top speed and a three-second 0-to-60mph time, the 12C will take the fight to its competitors armed with a racing heritage that's second to none. "Since entering Formula One, McLaren has won 25 per cent of all Grands Prix," Dennis states. "This is a company that wins; we will leave nothing to chance in anything we do." If this man wasn't at the helm, McLaren wouldn't be what it is today, and he's right in his insistence that diversification is essential for survival. For McLaren Automotive, his principles and guidelines should see the company poised to become a world-leader in no time at all - it would be a brave man that bets against Ron Dennis.

* with additional reporting by Eugene Harnan