A new headquarters for an up and coming brand
The MTC was opened in 2004 by none other than Queen Elizabeth II – its Woking location isn’t far from her majesty’s weekend place in Windsor – and was built to Ron Dennis’s exacting standards. It was originally called “Paragon”, before the McLaren Technology Centre name stuck.
It is estimated that the MTC cost around £300m to build in its first phase – the McLaren Production Centre has been added since – and the company apparently paid all of its bills in cash. Well, bank transfer probably, but you get the idea…no mortgages for this flush outfit.
No expense was spared to get the detail right on the factory build – take snakes, for example. Would you be bothered about looking after them? Before anything could be done on the site of the MTC, huge efforts were made to relocate adders from the area. Plastic fences 1.2m high were erected around an area about a kilometre square, and corrugated iron laid on the ground to warm the earth and attract them to the surface. Then they were asked nicely if they’d go somewhere else. Like Maranello.
Thinking about every detail
Designed by Norman Foster (Wembley Stadium, the Gherkin, Hong Kong airport), the building is full of beautiful touches – partially sunk into the ground, it has been kept low so as not to ruin the greenbelt, the steps when you visit the conference venue are carefully spaced so that you can’t go down them too quickly.
You arrive at the McLaren reception desk after a long drive around the front of the MTC that allows you to take in every detail and arrive suitably cowed by the scale of things.
Not just an ornamental pond
The lake isn’t just for show – the water is run through a series of heat exchanges in order to dissipate the heat required by the wind tunnel. There are around 50,000 cubic metres of water contained in the lake and it’s around three metres deep.
But of course, with Ron Dennis in charge, of course the lake had to continue the sphere started by the rest of the MTC – from above the outline of the building and lake is a perfect circle.
Carrying on the family name
Amanda McLaren is our tour guide – she is the only daughter of company founder Bruce. She and her husband Stephen used to run a farm in their native New Zealand, but a few years ago they moved over to the UK to be ambassadors for the business carrying the family name. “It’s such a pleasure to know that all the cars with my father’s name on continue what he wanted to do.”
A grand collection
In the atrium of the MTC, you'll find the cars grouped into the early Bruce McLaren days, and then by sponsorship eras – Marlboro, West, Vodafone and the more recent troubled times.
Seeing all of the cars in one place you're instantly reminded of the company's powerful back catalogue – it's a shock and awe strategy from McLaren, and it works. Even better, all the cars that McLaren has in its archive are kept in working order, and can often be spotted at the Goodwood Festival of Speed and Revival events.
Behind this area are the hundreds of workshops, offices and meeting rooms that make up the day-to-day business of McLaren. It's not just racing – the applied technologies division tries to bring the company's knowhow to some unlikely ventures. Just recently they helped GSK's toothpaste division to speed up factory processes to the tune of 6.5m more tubes of toothpaste a year.
The windows around the MTC’s famous curved frontage are suspended from the ceiling, because the glass was so heavy and then-CEO Ron Dennis didn’t want supports blocking the view out.
Suspended walkways offer an express route between different parts of the HQ building, but the effect that Dennis wanted from Norman Foster was to have the ceiling floating above the main building. View the MTC from a distance and it certainly has a lightness to it that belies its size – you could fit seven jumbo jets under this roof.
Up by the reception desk the team will usually have one of his current F1 cars on display to impress visitors. The company might have become more known for being silver with flashes of dayglo, but orange is the historical McLaren colour.
The distinctive hue has an interesting story behind it – Amanda tells the story of a moment in 1968, where the team had got fed up with its red cars getting mistaken for the *other* red cars. Team boss Teddy Mayer sent a mechanic out to find the brightest and cheapest pot of paint he could find, and came back with a load of Ryland’s traffic yellow, the same paint that local councils used to use on belisha beacons.
You won't find any of that in the McLaren Technology Centre though – this palace of precision engineering is a riot of silvers and grey, and no doubt very expensive paints.
The kiwi bird was a feature on early McLarens – the symbol of Bruce’s native New Zealand. He gradually lost weight and got faster and faster as the years went on. Interestingly, it seems he snuck back on to the 2017 F1 car, with mechanics putting the decal in different places every race to give fans something to get excited about.
A cheeky joke
One car that doesn’t carry the Kiwi but does have a curious animal decal is Ayrton Senna’s MP4/8, the car in which he won the 1993 European GP at Donington in epic style. The Williams cars of Alain Prost and Damon Hill wore Sega sponsorship that year, and the iconic cockpit sticker that made it look as though Sonic the Hedgehog was driving.
Senna's squashed hedgehog sticker was a cheeky dig at Prost and the gang, but in an ironic twist his Donington win saw him heaving aloft a Sonic the Hedgehog trophy, thanks to the firm's sponsorship of the race.
Celebrating the good times
There's understandably a lot of love for any of the racing drivers who have managed to nab a world title for the team, but Ayrton Senna and Mika Hakkinen are perhaps the two most celebrated pilots. Lewis Hamilton's 2008 title win is an outlier, but the trophy cabinet has been getting a little on the dusty side since Hakkinen's 98/99 double header.
The first road cars
This is the McLaren F1 XP1 LM – when McLaren won Le Mans in 1997, five special edition modified versions of the firm's F1 supercar were built to celebrate the win, based on this prototype version. The LMs knocked 75kg off the standard car’s weight – no mean feat – and were the fastest iterations of the million pound rocket ship.
When Lewis Hamilton signed his McLaren deal in 2007 he asked Ron Dennis what he would have to do to get his hands on this car. Win the championship, replied Ron. Hamilton lost that year by one point. Apparently, the story goes that Lewis has put a mark on the car somewhere so that he’d know it was the genuine article. Did he not trust Ron?
Wall of trophies
As well as the team’s F1 silverware, there are 71 trophies from CanAm, seven from the Indianapolis 500 and a further four from the 24 Hours of Le Mans. There’s even a nice trophy from the mayor of Woking commemorating the team’s 1998 F1 title win.
In the middle of the trophy corridor is the door to the staff canteen – you won’t be able to smell the daily special, however, because the refectory is kept at a lower pressure than the rest of the facility to ensure that whiffs can’t escape.
There's a storm brewing...
Opposite the canteen entrance is a small window that offers a glimpse of the wind tunnel facility. It's carefully insulated from the rest of the building to ensure that work isn't disturbed when the expensive breeze machine is fired up.
The rectangular wind tunnel has a 145m closed-loop rectangular layout, with the wind created by a giant fan with four-metre blades that rotates up to 600rpm. The wind tunnel itself is a 60 percent scale unit, which needs 3MW of electricity just to get going – so it’s best not used when the locals are trying to make a cup of tea.
Just opposite the windtunnel next to the canteen on our visit was the Lego McLaren 720S, which Amanda McLaren says was officially the most photographed car at the 2017 Goodwood Festival of Speed. This car is evidence, if it were needed, of McLaren's increasingly assured place as a bona fide brand, and not merely a car maker or F1 racing team.
These bricks are the key to the MTC's elaborate cooling system – water is cycled through the whole building to modulate temperatures, but the wind tunnel in particular is rather heat intensive, so the water cooling process goes into overdrive. The warm water cascades down this long wall back into the lake out front, oxygenating the water and helping the wind tunnel to be as efficient as possible.
The latest addition
The business end of McLaren’s HQ is shrouded in secrecy – from the MTC you have to walk through a long tunnel and then up in a lift before passing through sliding white doors into the rafters of a Bond lair-style facility partially submerged in the surrounding landscape. Tourists are allowed as far as this balcony viewing area along one wall of the vast factory space while dozens of cars pass through a winding assembly line. As we watch at the end of the line, a 720S is pushed into an area marked “monsoon test” for a good soaking before final sign-off.
Everything built by hand
Every model in the McLaren range follows the same line – and there are no robots to be found here either. Clamps hold the chassis down while various parts are bonded to the monocoque. The closest thing you’ll find to robot help is the checking station where 200 points on the car are measured to within 50 microns to ensure build quality.
The Woking factory has a 5,000-unit ceiling on production, but the company says it doesn’t have aspirations to chase volumes by building something as louche as an SUV, for instance. And Amanda McLaren says that “we have no plans to build cars anywhere but here”. So that’s that then.
Every car is given a test run at a track not far from the McLaren factory, albeit fitted with temporary floor pan, tyres, splitter and diffuser to save wear on the customer's wheels. That’s the final touch on a process that has taken three weeks from start to finish.
Room to expand
Before 2011, McLaren had been building its cars back in the MTC, but that year saw the launch of the new MP4-12C sports car and the need for proper space for bolting these things together. The original F1 in the 1990s and the McLaren SLR that was produced in conjunction with Mercedes-Benz were both comparatively small fry. The ambitious firm needed proper space to launch the new P1 hypercar in 2013 and the 650S in 2014.
A bigger factory
The McLaren Production Centre (factory to you and me) was officially opened in 2011 by then-prime minister David Cameron – this place was a snip compared with the MTC, it only cost around £50m to build the new factory.
It produces all 3,340 of McLaren’s cars each year – at least that's how many the place pumped out in 2017 – and was built to the same mad standards as the MTC. Around 218,000 ceramic tiles were ordered for the factory – a bespoke design to McLaren’s requirements.
Amanda McLaren says that unlike certain other competitors that make similar claims, these cars really are built by hand – “we even paint our cars by hand.”
To ensure a consistent finish, each car is painted in an exploded version of how it will be assembled, with all the parts that will eventually be fitted painted at the same time.
There are three million possible variations in the cars that go through the McLaren production line – a mammoth job to keep track of. And that’s before you factor in the bespoke demands of the more discerning clients.
Amanda McLaren says that previous requests just for paint jobs include the same pink as a customer’s hairbrush, the bright white of the morning sun flashing across the Alps outside another customer’s Swiss chalet, and one customer who asked for crushed diamonds in their paint: “Yes, it destroyed the paint guns, but that was factored into the cost of the job.”
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