First Look: 2011 McLaren MP4-12C – The Really Big Mac

Will the longest, deepest recession since the Great Depression ever end? The twinkle of headlights from a bevy of 200-mph-plus supercars at the end of today’s dark tunnel says “yes” and “soon.” Next year, Ferrari will launch its 458 successor to the F430, and Mercedes-Benz will roll forth the tantalizing SLS AMG Gullwing. The McLaren MP4-12C should nudge leading economic indicators upward sometime in 2011.

Thus far, McLaren has granted only brief access to an MP4-12C mock-up as the appetizer for the technological feast it plans to serve in less than two years. Decoding the not-at-all evocative name hints at what’s on the menu. The MP4 part comes from the chassis designation McLaren has used on all its Formula 1 cars since 1981. The 12 is an internal index related to the company’s dedication to power, weight, aerodynamics, and overall efficiency. And the C celebrates a commitment to carbon-fiber technology for future sports cars.

Bruce McLaren planted the seeds of what blossomed into the McLaren Group in 1963. Shortly after he arrived on the British racing scene in 1958, the New Zealander proved he was one of the world’s quickest drivers. McLaren won Le Mans (co-driving a Ford GT40 Mark 2 with Chris Amon in 1966) and earned victories in categories ranging from dainty formula cars to thundering Can-Am machines.

Colleagues took up the cause after McLaren died following a 1970 testing accident, and the organization he founded grew into one of the world’s premier racing teams. McLaren Racing has won eight Formula 1 constructors’ world championships and twelve drivers’ titles. The most recent constructors’ crown was added to the trophy case in 1998, and Lewis Hamilton piloted a McLaren MP4-23 to the driver’s championship last year.

No stranger to road cars, McLaren manufactured 100 F1s (twenty-eight in racing trim) and more than 2100 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLarens (including 722, Roadster, and Stirling Moss variations).

American expatriate Antony Sheriff, McLaren Automotive’s managing director, proudly guided our tour of the nonproprietary areas of the McLaren Technology Centre, a NASA-grade engineering facility in Woking, England, where MP4-24 Formula 1 racers and SLR road cars are manufactured and where work on the MP4-12C commenced in 2006.

To raise the $400 million needed for a new assembly plant, to underwrite production tooling, and to complete the MP4-12C’s development, the automotive arm was recently spun off from the parent McLaren Group. The five remaining divisions — Racing, Marketing, Electronic Systems, Applied Technologies, and Absolut Taste (a catering enterprise) — are owned by Daimler (40 percent), a Bahraini holding company (30 percent), investor Mansour Ojjeh (15 percent), and McLaren Group chairman Ron Dennis (15 percent).

Although Gordon Murray, the brilliant engineer who designed several successful Formula 1 racers and the F1 road car, left McLaren before MP4-12C work began in earnest, his demanding standards of weight and packaging efficiency are clearly evident in this new project. Power is provided by a twin-turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 3.8-liter V-8 engine buried deep in the center of the car behind a roomy two-place cockpit. Many details are still secret, but Sheriff did reveal that the engine will rev to 8500 rpm and maximum output will be about 600 hp, with 80 percent of the 440 lb-ft of peak torque available at 2000 rpm. There’s a dry-sump lubrication system, a flat (180-degree) crankshaft, and variable valve timing, but direct fuel injection did not make the cut. Britain’s Autocar magazine recently speculated that this engine may be a Mercedes V-8 modified by the German engineering firm Mahle.

A seven-speed dual-clutch transaxle delivers thrust to the rear wheels. Getrag, Oerlikon Graziano, and Ricardo top the list of potential development partners, but Sheriff refused to identify the transmission specialist that will be responsible for manufacturing the gearbox for the MP4-12C.

McLaren pioneered the use of carbon-fiber composites in key structural roles for its 1981 Formula 1 monocoques and for its 1993 F1 road car, so that expertise naturally trickles down to the MP4-12C. The central tub is a 175-pound hollow-sill molding made with proprietary resin-transfer processes. Supplementary aluminum spaceframe structures at both ends of the car support chassis and powertrain systems. The butterfly-hinged doors are another detail that is handed down from the F1. They should provide ready access to the two-seat cockpit and the arrival drama that exotic-car owners expect.

To keep curb weight below the 3100-pound target, the MP4-12C has a mix of aluminum and fiberglass outer panels, two magnesium reinforcement beams, magnesium seat frames, and a custom-designed climate-control system. The centrally located radiators are fed by huge side scoops equipped with turning vanes. A-pillars are reinforced by high-strength steel tubes. To save the heft and complexity of antiroll bars, body motion (both pitch and roll) is checked by actively controlled dampers. The rear wing not only helps stick the drive tires to the pavement, it also serves as an air brake. Carbon-ceramic brakes are available as an option. The nineteen-inch front and twenty-inch rear tires will be supplied by Pirelli. Performance targets include acceleration to 60 mph in less than four seconds and a top speed of at least 217 mph.

Cockpit furnishings feature a narrow touch screen at the top of the center console, a small-diameter steering wheel, and a reconfigurable electronic display in the compact instrument binnacle. Steering-column stalks that command the trip computer and cruise control are custom aluminum castings. An integrated pair of shift paddles rock about a central steering-column pivot point. Instead of using the mouse-and-menu approach or multiple buttons to command important systems, one knob manages chassis variables and another changes powertrain settings. Climate controls are located on the door panels.

After “driving” a virtual MP4-12C on the company’s simulator for eighteen months and extensive testing of candidate shapes in a 60-percent-scale wind tunnel, McLaren personnel built two dozen prototypes for testing. The trial by fire was 1000 continuous hours (twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week, for six weeks) of track testing. Verification prototypes using mainly production parts will be built next year. A planned volume of twenty cars per day in some as-yet-unconstructed manufacturing facility should yield approximately 4000 cars annually. U.S. sales are expected to account for one-quarter of the production volume.

With the Ferrari 458 dead-center in its sights, McLaren expects the MP4-12C’s price to fall somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000. Follow-up projects include a convertible, a higher-performance edition patterned after theF1, and a hybrid capable of transferring current Kinetic Energy Recovery System technology from Formula 1 racetracks to the road.

Our part in this pageant is to pray that the world economy recovers so that McLaren’s ambitious dreams come true.