1/1/2001 | 6 MINUTE READ

McLaren: Its Drive for the F1 Crown

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By today's standards, it seems almost quaint to the point of absurdity that c the proprietor of a motor racing team, especially a Grand Prix one, might be prepared to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty.


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By today's standards, it seems almost quaint to the point of absurdity that c the proprietor of a motor racing team, especially a Grand Prix one, might be prepared to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty. To modern eyes it is risible that a driver would not only be prepared to drive for peanuts for the pleasure of just being able to race, but would also want to compete in support races even on the same day as the main race itself. And it seems utter madness to the point of lunacy that anyone involved in a Grand Prix team might actually be prepared to pay for the privilege of going racing rather than being paid a king's ransom just to attend.

Second to Ferrari in 2000, West McLaren Mercedes has been the F1 team to beat for the past three years.

Distant memories are the lock-up garages and unpaid telephone bills, the part-time work as used car salesmen, and the sleeping in the backs of cars. Nowadays, it is a world of personal jets and Monaco apartments, marketing departments and corporate strategies—changes that reflect the fact that Grand Prix racing is no longer a sport but is in fact a multi-billion dollar business.

One of the high flyers in this rarified world is the West McLaren Mercedes team that took second best in both the Drivers' and Constructors' championship this season to Ferrari, but which has been the team to beat for the last three years. Since making its debut in 1966, it has won 130 Grands Prix, just five fewer than Ferrari, which has been racing in the World Championship since its inception in 1950.

The West McLaren Mercedes team, or McLaren International as it is legally known, is located in Woking, stockbroker country some 10 miles to the south of London. However, it is not a single entity, but part of a much larger jigsaw.

The TAG Group, which was founded in 1977 to concentrate on those sectors of industry that pioneer advanced technologies and develop new products, became a major shareholder in McLaren International in 1985. Since then, the TAG McLaren Group, as it came to be called, has evolved considerably. It now comprises seven companies operating in a range of diverse, yet related, areas: McLaren International (Formula One); McLaren Cars (high-performance road cars); TAG Electronic Systems; TAG McLaren Marketing Services; McLaren Composites; Lydden Circuit (race track); and Absolute Taste (haute cuisine).

In January this year, though, another factor entered the equation in the shape of DaimlerChrysler (DCX). As the supplier of the Mercedes-Benz engine through its Ilmor Engineering subsidiary that has powered the cars since 1995, DCX has come to know and respect the team and organisation. So as part of a long-term strategy to safeguard the Mercedes-Benz marque in Formula One, it acquired a 40% stake in the TAG McLaren Group with an immediate spin-off being the joint development of the Mercedes SLR. Team principal Ron Dennis and the TAG Group, with 30% apiece, continue to be in charge of operational management control.

Top man Ron Dennis: rigorous control helps distinguish the company from the pack.

And that management control is rigorous. The thing that strikes you about the whole set up, whether it is the racing team, the supercar site, or the electronics section, is the incredible spotlessness of everywhere. Even the cars in the car park are clean—woe betide any director that has a spot of dust on his company Mercedes if it catches Ron Dennis' eagle eye! And it is this philosophy, the meticulous attention to detail—where even the butter served with lunch is crowned with the Nike-like TAG McLaren tick trademark—that distinguishes this company from any run-of-the-mill operation.

The hub of the empire, although Dennis and partners would deny it, is the racing team. Boasting a workforce of some 380 people who are employed directly on the Grand Prix cars, it is a hive of activity. For example, it boasts a machine shop that has a comprehensive range of 4- and 5-axis CNC machines that churn out components 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In another section of the factory is the fabrication department producing parts at an equally ferocious rate and yet in another part is the paint shop that is always on the go.

An important part of the team's activities and a major constituent of its success are the amount of resources that are put into testing. This is not just the physical testing of cars on a track, which is undertaken by a quite separate test team whose sole responsibility is just that, but the importance of verifying everything as much as possible, even before it reaches the car. The team has therefore invested substantially in all forms of test equipment, both physical and virtual.

Although it does not own a wind tunnel and is currently using a 50% scale one elsewhere, it has commissioned a full-scale wind tunnel at its new headquarters currently being built on a purpose-built site a couple of miles away on the outskirts of Woking. When completed in 2002, incidentally, the new building will cover the length of 11 Boeing 747s placed nose to tail; it will be the largest privately owned building in Europe. The team also has a 7-post rig on-site, although it has become redundant now that the cars have become heavier for regulatory reasons. There are rumors, though, that the team is investing in an 11-post rig in the future.

Before the model reaches this stage, though, it has been fully designed and tested in digital form as a “virtual” car. Using Sun Ultra workstations—the “battle stations” are reserved for the pits during race weekend—every one of the 4,500 CATIA drawings and 10,800 components that comprise the car are virtually tested. Naturally, computational fluid dynamics (CFD) plays an important part in proceedings; McLaren is using a massive 64-bit Solaris 7 server from Sun Microsystems to run the system.

Building a chassis in Woking.

In fact, while most people believe that the McLaren team has four cars, there is another one back at McLaren's HQ. Although it will never be driven, it has done as much as any actual vehicle to help the team stay ahead of the rest of the pack. This fifth car—this year it has been the MP4-15 in virtual form—is complete in every detail down to the smallest washer. So important has the virtual car become that it has completely transformed the way McLaren designs its cars. “We think of this pool of information as the car's DNA,” says Scott Bain who is part of the design team, “and know almost everything about the car before it is even built.”

“We can now design, test and—only then—build car components so quickly that the car in a mid-season race like Hungary contains less than 10% of the components that were in the previous season's car,” says Kevin Masterson, TAG McLaren's CAD/CAM manager. “That is a frighteningly short period of time to change a 220-mph car almost entirely.”

All this is a long way from the time when Formula One cars were designed by hand, although it has to be said that Adrian Newey, McLaren's technical director and the person credited with the team's huge success, still sketches out his visions by hand. It is only then that he passes them onto the design office to be digitally created.

The whole process—from designing the car to building it, from virtually testing it to the entire racing environment—is so totally different from what it was even 20 years ago that it still makes the heads of the older enthusiasts reel. Like it or not, though, this is business, big business, where the sole criteria is to win—and McLaren intends that it will be the one to recapture its lost crown from Ferrari next year.

Hand holding a crystal ball

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