McLaren P1: Design & Materials

It’s unusual for one car to break new ground in so many disciplines, but development of the McLaren P1 has seen real step changes in materials application, aerodynamics, performance, aesthetic design, and electric powertrain technology.

Visiting McLaren’s Norman Foster-designed Technology Centre (MTC) to find out more about the P1’s gestation period – which, at fewer than four years, has been quite frantic – gives an insight into the distinctive ethos behind the car. The seemingly unsympathetic vibe in Woking isn’t something that everyone appreciates yet the P1 is a remarkable piece of design. 

Just as Foster and McLaren chairman Ron Dennis exhibit similarly ironfisted personality traits, there are clear parallels between the P1 and MTC. The titanium louvres above the engine bay are there for a reason, for example, and the artificial lake outside the Technology Centre serves a purpose as well, helping to cool the entire complex.

A more vivid contrast to the hectic, flamboyant setup that exists at Maranello is difficult to envision. Ferrari’s manufacturing base is a lively industrial estate existing in complete contrast to the de-saturated calm of McLaren’s polished headquarters. That’s not a criticism, that’s just the way it is. The MTC is utterly unique, and bears a closer resemblance to the laboratories at CERN than anything the automotive world can offer. Maranello, it must be said, is also a magical place to visit.

The spiritual homes of these two automotive giants are directly mirrored in their current road cars. The Ferrari 458 Italia is loud, effervescent, hairy-chested and very, very fast. It’s closest rival on the other hand is quieter, aesthetically much more restrained and more discreet overall. The McLaren 12C is also quite ridiculously fast. Now both companies have upped the ante considerably, however, with the P1 and LaFerrari hypercars.

Ferrari and McLaren aren’t the only ones in the business of building ultra-low-volume, hand-built supercars, but despite such disparity in the way they go about doing it the end results seem fairly even. The LaFerrari is the only car that can stand toe-to-toe with the McLaren P1 at the moment, with Porsche frantically redressing the 918 Spyder’s bloated weight and relative lack of power. The word ‘relative’ is key here; Porsche’s Carrera GT replacement still develops 795bhp.

Nevertheless, if the supercar story of this era is to be a tale of two halves, then this ‒ the McLaren P1 ‒ is the objective chapter. 

Form follows function, or does it?

McLaren’s design team is tiny. Whereas BMW employs over 800 design staff there are just five based at Woking. This is partly because as a highly specialised outfit there are only ever a small handful of McLaren cars that actually need designing. The real reason for such a condensed design department, however, is more fundamental to the McLaren philosophy than mere numbers suggest.

McLaren’s aerodynamicists and engineers worked side by side with the 'traditional' designers from the off. They are the other half of the design team. Proof of this characteristically McLaren marriage lies in the shrink-wrapped pudding of the P1’s exterior design. After the original concept was unveiled in Paris last year there was some criticism that the P1 had been designed in a wind-tunnel and there’s certainly some truth in that accusation.

“Normally you would give the design studio several months of free sketching time. However, the performance criteria for the P1 was so great that we had the aerodynamicists and the engineers sitting with the designers, working together to ensure that what was being proposed could actually meet the performance targets,” recalls Paul Mackenzie, who as programme director has overseen the project since its embryonic stages in 2009.

The thought of a Formula One-calibre aerodynamic engineer breathing down your neck whilst you sketch is almost certainly the stuff of nightmares for most car designers. Still, it’s an image that sums up the P1 nicely.

The scale model McLaren used to develop the the P1's aerodynamic properties is meticulously detailed - even the brake calipers are accurate. Incredibly for a road car, the P1 develops 600kg of downforce at 150mph when the rear ring is deployed.

Designer Paul Howse, whose original concept theme was eventually chosen in February 2010, echoes Mackenzie’s sentiment. “It’s about design not styling. You could draw something that looked awesome, but it would be a show car with no function. It wouldn’t be able to achieve what this car achieves as a complete package”.

Howse’ father himself worked on the assembly of McLaren’s original supercar, the F1, and so for all the seemingly cold objectivity of the McLaren approach to building cars there is some romance after all. It’s also worth mentioning that the P1 is Howse’s first car since he graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2008.

Suppressing true creative thought whilst designing any car is hard enough but shelving artistic impulses during the conception of a supercar – the most evocative of automotive forms - requires designers to employ a completely different mindset.

That mindset sprung from turning the ‘persuasion of airflow’ – as Howse, who himself sketched the P1, puts it - into a design language and taking inspiration from hydroformed shapes commonly seen in marine environments. The broad, curved leading edges natural to Manta rays and sharks became the inspiration and if the P1 is biomimicry (as this is called) in the present-day then today’s Formula One cars surely preview the hyper-evolved natural forms of the future. It’s all very ‘golden ratio’.

Step one was to vacuum-pack the P1’s mechanical internals as closely as possible, only then could the designers work backwards until the car’s aesthetics were right. This is the complete opposite of standard practice, where beauty takes precedence and is then tweaked to facilitate the small matter of physics. As power and speed increase, and with them the stakes, however, the equilibrium shifts.

Whether you think the balance between functionality and beauty has been struck with the P1 is a delicate and personal issue, but there’s no doubt that the process was a painstaking as it’s possible for an automotive design project to be. The P1 is an exercise in organic geometry wholly implemented by the hands and minds of men. In this respect it’s a little humbling.

This is the P1's tight-fitting carbon fibre shell. A total of 200 separate components comprise just three moudlings. The heaviest moudling - the central monocell - weighs 90kg.

The close-fitting nature of the layered bodywork draped over the P1’s powertrain led to a need to integrate certain components. The metallic louvres directly above the engine, for example, double up as a heat shield and as such are wrought of titanium.  Simply put, McLaren squashed the body down so tightly that there wasn’t room for both louvres and a heat shield, so two became one using one of the only materials capable of doing the job.

The entire rear section of the exhaust is also clad in gold foil, again in the interests of heat management, which is just as well given that in race mode the air exiting the car is only just shy of 1,000°C. Gordon Murray employed the same seemingly lavish yet technically justified trick on the P1’s predecessor in 1992.

On the subject of exotic materials, it almost goes without saying that the P1’s body and interior is made entirely from carbon fibre. Over 200 separate components have been neatly merged into just three mouldings: the frontal bodywork, a central ‘monocage’ structure, and a larger but surprisingly flexible piece of rear bodywork. All are incredibly light; the front and rear sections can be lifted with one hand.

These carbon fibre panels serve as a poignant illustration of the depth of engineering McLaren has poured into the P1. When McLaren was sourcing materials for the project the lightest carbon fibre on the market weighed 1.7kg per square metre. Fast-forward three years and the P1 panels weigh 1.5kg per square metre. It’s the sort of commitment to a singular cause that you can’t help but admire, even more so if your business card says 'Ferrari S.p.A' on it, one must imagine.

Despite its dramatic looks there aren't very many edges on the P1. Air doesn't like edges, and so where possible a large leading edge has been used. The P1's front valance is the best example.

If aerodynamic efficiency is one major theme of the P1 then weight saving is certainly the other. The toughened glass that forms the jet fighter-esque canopy above the driver’s head is just 2.4mm thick. The windscreen is only marginally thicker at 3.2mm and even that incorporates a plastic interlayer that helps save 3.5kg over the 12C’s 4.2mm windscreen (since when was 4.2mm thick?). The thin carbon fibre shells that form the seats are filled with high-density foam and there are no carpets in the P1, either. Even the absence of a resin lacquer on the exposed interior carbon fibre saves weight as well as looking absolutely superb. That's 1.5kg less to carry around, if you’re counting.

One only gets to see a car for the first time once and it’s that initial impression that is is often most telling. Truth be told, the P1 doesn’t have the immediate presence expected of a supercar; it’s quite small, taut, and too neat. Its visual impact needs time to manifest, and it doesn’t take long to notice that the rear haunches are as dramatic as you’ll ever see on a performance car, riding high over the rear wheels before plunging downwards. The P1 has delicious hips.

Similarly, the rear is an abyss designed to get as much hot air out of the car as quickly as possible. The result is an open-worked effect in the style of a skeletonised watch - a comparison that befits the P1’s horological level of detail. The steep boneline that indicates the flow of air into the rear radiators, the wickedly smirking front graphic, indencently deep nostrils ‒ they’re all there. The P1 has theatre, but it’s more of a slow-burner. 


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