McLaren MP4-12C

The 600bhp MP4-12C is McLaren’s first solo-built supercar since the incredible F1. We get the full story on this all-new Ferrari-frightener and talk to the men behind the project

McLaren MP4-12C. Few cars can ever have had a name that lays it on the line quite as explicitly. The much-snapped sequel to the F1 – which even in the age of the Bugatti Veyron many still regard as the greatest supercar ever made – has shed its P11 code tag, shape-disrupting disguise panels and much of the secrecy surrounding the advanced design and technology that has allowed McLaren to confidently claim ground-breaking status some 18 months before it hits the streets.

Unleashed and loaded, its mission, if McLaren is to be believed, won’t be to slug it out with Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche and Audi in a still-recovering supercar market, it will be to teach them a lesson. The clue is in the name. MP4 has been the chassis designation for all McLaren Formula 1 cars since 1981. McLaren hasn’t used it lightly this time. It reflects an unprecedented transfer of F1 construction, technology and computer simulation-aided development from track to road. It’s what the Woking-based operation knows best; you’d expect nothing less. The ‘12’ is an internal vehicle performance index that has been used throughout the car’s development to rate key performance criteria. The calculation combines power, weight, emissions and aerodynamic efficiency to generate the figure. Future McLarens may hit higher numbers. No one at the Woking HQ is prepared to say if any of the competition made it into double figures.

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Perhaps predictably, ‘C’ stands for carbon, specifically the car’s spectacularly light and strong carbonfibre ‘MonoCell’ tub, which brings the technology of F1 to a sub-£200K road car where it has usually been the preserve of just a few hypercars like the Veyron, Zonda and Koenigsegg.

Here are some more figures. The MP4-12C is powered by an all-new, purpose-built 3.8-litre, dry-sumped, twin-turbo V8 with variable valve timing and a flat-plane crank. Designed and developed with an as-yet-unnamed partner, it produces 600bhp, while 80 per cent of its 442lb ft of torque is available from just 1900rpm. Yet this compact, lightweight powerplant, which sits extremely low in the chassis, revs to a Ferrari-matching 8500. The breadth of the powerband, sliced up by a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, promises to be galactic, but its propulsive burden is a mere 1300kg. That gives it a power-to-weight ratio of around 469bhp per ton – Enzo territory.

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It’s all the more remarkable when you consider that it also has more horsepower for every gram of CO2 emitted per kilometre than any other car with an internal combustion engine on the market, including all the hybrids. McLaren isn’t talking performance figures just yet, other than to say ‘nothing in the segment gets close’, so it’s probably safe to expect a breezy margin over 200mph flat out, around 3sec to 60mph and somewhere in the sixes to 100mph. It would hardly be a coincidence if the key acceleration figures matched the F1’s.

BACK TO THE FUTUREMcLaren set its sights on becoming a solo supercar maker once more as long ago as 2003. Ron Dennis hired ex-Fiat/Alfa product guru Antony Sheriff to head up what has now become McLaren Automotive and put together the strategy. Sheriff explains: ‘We started looking at different concepts and it became quite clear that what we needed to do wasn’t to think up a new car but decide what was necessary to make a sustainable company capable of building cars that would be benchmarks in their segments. We needed to have enough critical mass to make sure that every car we built was absolutely world class. If you’re designing just one car, there isn’t enough work to sustain people for a long period of time.’

Although McLaren and Mercedes would soon part company, Mercedes keen to perpetuate the front-engined strategy begun with the SLR and now seen in the gullwinged SLS (see page 74), the years of continuously refining the development processes put into place with the Roadster and Stirling Moss SLRs indirectly fed into the new venture, allowing McLaren Automotive to hit the ground running and effectively re-imagine the F1 for a wider, less well-heeled audience in an eco-conscious world.

‘The P11 was never a Mercedes project that morphed into a McLaren project,’ states Sheriff. ‘True, there was a stage when we were looking at different engine alternatives, and what we decided – not just with the engine but every single component in the car – was that trying to design a highly efficient, purpose-built, high-performance sports car while taking a lot of carry-over components, whether it be from Mercedes or any other car company, actually became too constraining on the design of the car.’

Sheriff goes on to recount the story of the apparently light and compact carry-over heating and ventilation system that skewed the meticulously space-efficient, ‘shrink-wrapped’ packaging regime so badly it would have added over an inch to the width of the car. But then the car was designed ‘from the inside out’. The fundamental components were not the powertrain, chassis and carbon tub but the driver and passenger. Their close-coupled seating positions were the starting point and everything flowed from that – filtered through McLaren’s well-documented obsessional attention to detail.

It informs every nook and cranny of the design and its execution, from the thumb scallops of the steering wheel, which have exactly the same radius dimensions as those on Lewis’s F1 car, to the strip-style LED tail- lights that are set into one of the filaments of the straked grille that runs across the rear and are cooled by the exiting flow of air so meticulously channelled through the car.

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‘Everything you see on the car – every hole, every vent – is completely functional,’ says Sheriff. ‘Ron said, right at the beginning of the project, “A high performance car for me is all about breathing: how you get the air in, how you get the air out.” So in the front we have two air intakes, partly for brake cooling, but we have two intercoolers in there for the turbos. The intercoolers run at relatively low temperatures and have relatively little fluid, and having those circuits travelling the length of the car is the most efficient way of doing it.’

Even the driver’s sight lines came in for close analysis. ‘You want good visibility, but good visibility that means something,’ says Sheriff. ‘When you look over the front wing, whether it’s the left or right, the top point of the portion of the wing you can see through the windscreen is directly over the centre line of the front wheels. So at all times you know exactly where the front wheels are.’

It’s for the same reason that the driver and passenger are positioned far closer to the centre of the car than normal, with a slender centre console between. ‘The closer you are to the centre of the car, the better the perception you have of the extremities,’ says Sheriff. ‘It’s the next best thing to the F1’s central driving position.’The F1’s legacy is ingrained in the DNA of the MP4-12C. Its efficiency, its compact dimensions, its purity. As well as being faster than any rival, McLaren claims that the 12C will be shorter, narrower, lower and lighter, too. Like the F1, it has a carbonfibre body with a very low, deep windscreen and a lean rear end, the C-pillar joining the rear deck quite far forward, a trait driven by aerodynamics. Sheriff: ‘Flow of air is very laminar over the rear of the car and allows the three-position air brake to work extremely well. And this is what’s generating all the rear downforce on the car.’

The F1’s central driving position also provides inspiration for the cabin, with controls either side of the driver. Stowage is generous, too. There’s a huge boot in the front (unlike the F1), and room behind the passenger seat for squashy bags. ‘There’s no wasted space,’ says Sheriff, ‘or we’d have made the car smaller.’

NEW TRICKSThe carbon monocoque chassis of the MP4‑12C seeks to move the game on in the ‘junior supercar’ segment like nothing else. ‘The construction of the car is different to that of any other car that’s ever been built,’ asserts Sheriff with deadpan certainty. ‘The principle is pure Formula 1: a rolling chassis with non-structural bodywork that’s draped over it.’ The bottom line is an incredibly light and strong structure that treats the normal measures of torsional rigidity with a large measure of contempt. The so-called MonoCell is designed to be absolutely rigid. The claim is that the level of crash event at which it starts to rupture is so extraordinarily high that it emerged from the toughest legislative tests with barely a scratch. The energy absorption happens around it, just as in an F1 car. The killer stat, though, is that it weighs just 80kg.

Such an immensely strong and stiff structure is something everyone in this sector would have if they could afford to, says Sheriff. Not least because it provides the best possible platform for the suspension. Here, it’s ostensibly a conventional double-wishbone set-up with coil springs. The twist is in the dampers, which are hydraulically interconnected and allow the car to do away with anti-roll bars altogether by providing three levels of roll control. Sheriff elaborates: ‘It’s a kind of “proactive” suspension. On a car like this it’s never been seen before. It gives complete control over the level of roll on the car. You can dial in what you want from a control on the centre console: little roll, very little roll and, basically, no roll at all. And it works in a dynamic sense as well. Depending on what the car’s doing, it adjusts the roll stiffness in real time. The advantage of this is when you’re going in a straight line and you don’t need any roll control, you basically have the wheels completely decoupled so you have fantastic wheel articulation. It has the suppleness and articulation of a car that doesn’t have any anti-roll bars.’ Not only should this mean the car has the best ride comfort in its class by some stretch, it should also result in a car with grip levels and handling prowess that, according to Sheriff, are ‘just fantastic’.

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The suspension was developed and tested using the same simulation program that McLaren uses for its F1 cars. As Sheriff reveals, the benefits were significant: ‘When we had our first full handling prototype, which was built at the beginning of this year, we took it to the test track, had one and a half days of shakedown and setting up the suspension and, out of the box, it exceeded our objectives. So then we set more ambitious objectives. It really works.

G levels are 20 to 30 per cent up on its nearest competitor. The car is massively stable, enormously responsive and delicate.’

A PARADIGM SHIFTThe MP4-12C has a rearward-biased weight distribution, with 57 per cent of the mass on the back wheels. ESP, traction control and launch control are standard, with multiple settings for the ESP and TC. There’s no limited-slip diff, though. F1 transfer steps in again here, even though the tech in question was outlawed 12 years ago. Sheriff: ‘It’s called Brake-Steer. In essence it’s a system that brakes the inside rear wheel when the car is entering a corner too quickly, trimming the car’s line back towards the apex. So we actually use the brakes to help steer the car. It provides the sort of functionality you might normally have from an active diff to help the car turn in. The beauty of it, if you get the software to work properly, is that it feels completely natural and you eliminate all of the weight and mechanical complexity of an LSD, as well as the losses through friction in the system.’

The dual-clutch seven-speed transmission for the MP4-12C is, like the engine, very compact. McLaren’s main objective was to reduce the length of the transmission, to avoid having a huge mass hanging off the rear of the car that would wreak havoc with the polar moment of inertia, and the resulting twin layshaft design is one of the reasons the car has such a short rear.

Flappy paddles? At first glance, yes. But with a major difference. Rather than having separate paddles, the MP4-12C has just one rocker that’s mounted on a central pivot. When you pull on one you can feel the other move in the opposite direction, just as in a McLaren F1 car. ‘Sometimes our drivers find it more convenient to flick out with the other hand,’ says Sheriff.

The system also has a function called ‘pre-cog’, which can be felt as a detent on the rocker-shift. The first level of travel pre-sets the electro-hydraulic functions so that the transmission knows you’re about to shift into the next gear. The second level activates an immediate shift. The claim is it understands your intentions and feels more fluent than conventional double-clutch systems.

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The brakes comprise cast-iron discs attached to forged aluminium bell housings to reduce weight. Carbon-ceramic discs will be available as an option and are recommended for sustained track work, but McLaren admits the metal stoppers have better pedal feel and, thanks to the aluminium bell housings, weigh less, reducing unsprung weight.

‘Right now,’ Sheriff concludes, ‘the MP4-12C has already massively exceeded our ambitious objectives for grip, stability and comfort.’ Ron Dennis’s focus may have shifted from track to road, but it looks as if McLaren is going for Ferrari’s jugular with undiminished ferocity and ruthless efficiency.

How do I buy one?

McLaren is planning to appoint 35 dealers around the world, only choosing those who have a proven track record in selling cars in the premier division. Here in the UK, expect one in London and two more to serve the rest of the country.

McLaren is differing slightly from other manufacturers in that rather than insisting its dealers put a lot of their investment into very plush showrooms, it is keen for more money to be spent on aftersales, as it sees this as a better way to build up loyalty to the brand in the long-run. For example, dealers will be expected to ensure every single component on the car is always in stock, thus ensuring owners never have to endure their cars being off the road because of parts unavailability.

Potential customers can register their interest in the MP4-12C now via McLaren’s website, www.mclaren.com, where you will also find a car configurator and updates on how the company is progressing with bringing its new model to market.

Specifications

EngineV8, twin-turbo
LocationMid, longitudinal
Displacement3800cc
Max power600bhp @ n/a rpm
Max torque442lb ft @ n/a rpm
TransmissionSeven-speed DCT gearbox, rear-wheel drive, Brake-Steer, ESP, ASR
SuspensionDouble wishbones front and rear, coil springs, interconnected dampers
Weight (kerb)1300kg
Power-to-weight469bhp/ton
0-62mph3.0sec (est)
Top speed200mph+ (est)
Basic pricec£150,000 (est)
On saleEarly 2011
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