I am at the headquarters of the Formula 1 team that has won one out of every four grands prix it has participated in. Since its inception in 1963, the team has made its way to the podium in 50 percent of the races it’s taken part in, and is one of the most successful racing teams ever. Yes, I am at the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, UK. And if you’re thinking it’s just another factory visit, well, you’ve got another thing coming.
A narrow country road leads to the factory gate. You’ll think you’ve entered a wildlife sanctuary, but that’s only until you turn a corner and see the main technology centre building. Set amid the British countryside with a lake in front of it, the building looks straight out of a sci-fi movie. And with only staff and select visitors being allowed access, the premises exude an aura of exclusivity.
Once inside the hallowed halls, it’s hard to believe that McLaren manufactures anything at all in here. Even for corporate offices, this would have been remarkably glamorous – the place is spotless and futuristic, and looks like a giant display case of what future factories on Earth will be like. Mesmerised, I walk through the boulevard, where all the championship-winning and important cars are parked. In front of me is the resting place for McLaren cars all the way from the sixties to the present – cars that have been driven by the likes of Niki Lauda, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. But the car that catches my attention, and holds it, is my absolute favourite – the MP4 from 1989, the most successful F1 car in history. In that year, it won 16 of the 17 races and led 92 percent of the laps in the whole season.
Once I pass the boulevard, I see a large glass cubicle – this keeps getting more and more sci-fi-like. In here are the engineers, preparing the cars for the next Formula 1 grand prix. Within their sight are all the trophies that McLaren has won in its illustrious history. Very motivating indeed, and there’s a palpable sense of pride among the employees working within these glass walls.
As I pass another section, I see the MP4-12C supercar being constructed. The production and assembly lines are unbelievably neat – this is certainly no place for grease monkeys. There is a reason behind all this cleanliness, and that is Ron Dennis, executive chairman of McLaren. He is a thorough professional and hates anything that is less than perfect. His personality reflects in every millimetre of this facility, from the special soap dispensers in the washrooms to the inbuilt dustbins in the cubicles.
The first area to be constructed at this facility was the wind tunnel, where cars are tested for aerodynamic efficiency. When switched on, it pushes air at about 295kph to create friction, turbulence and heat. This heat is dissipated using water from the lake – not just ornamental, then. The water is later purified and used to irrigate the plants on the premises. Since the wind tunnel is subjected to very high pressures, it sits on separate, much stronger pillars than the rest of the building.
But it’s not just the state-of-the-art facility and the wind tunnel that keep the F1 constructor at cutting edge. Every little detail, however miniscule, matters in F1. And it’s this attention to the finer details at McLaren that has made it one of the most successful teams in Formula 1 history. Although this facility is almost 10 years old now, it doesn’t look it, and in terms of design and technology, it’s at a whole other level. One that competitors will find hard to match.
Among the partners vital to the success of McLaren is Mobil, a company that has been associated with it for 15 years. In Formula 1, performance developments are computed in milliseconds and even a one percent improvement in performance can prove to be a winning margin. As you can imagine, the Mercedes V8 engine in the back of the car is a vital part of the overall equation, and because it’s considerably more complex than the four-cylinder in your hatchback, it requires that much more care to run it to its full potential. The V8 has more than 300 moving parts and has to withstand engine forces of around 8.5g and temperatures from -50 deg C to over 300 deg C. There is simply no margin for error. A large part of keeping all these forces in check is the engine oil, which has been specially developed by Mobil.