McLaren: Earn it to drive it, even if you are Hamilton

One of the perks of running a company that makes sports cars should be that you get one for free. After all, if the boss isn't driving the company's product then what sort of message does that send to potential customers?

That, however, is not the philosophy of Ron Dennis, the executive chairman of McLaren Automotive – the road car division of the McLaren Formula 1 team. McLaren launched its new 200mph, 600 horsepower, £160,000 (Dh882,346) supercar last week but Dennis will not be walking out of the company's futuristic headquarters near London with a set of keys.

When I caught up with Dennis after the official launch of the sleek MP4-12C last week he explained the origin of this philosophy. Many years ago, the McLaren boss had been at a grand prix in the United States where mechanics were allowed to drive the racing cars from the garages down to the starting grid.

On one occasion, Dennis watched as a mechanic steered out of the way of a reversing van, clipped a lamppost and ripped the back wheel off. From that moment on, he vowed that nobody would drive his racing cars unless they had earned the right to do so. That means no free rides for anybody, even Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button – the F1 world champions who drive for McLaren.

Both men were needling Dennis at the launch of McLaren's new supercar because, understandably, they want one. Lewis Hamilton joked that when he stepped out of the 12C for the first time, he immediately called his boss to find out when he would be getting a free car. "That will depend on results," grumbled Dennis. Clearly, Lewis and Jenson are going to have to earn their McLaren supercar just like everyone else.

The launch of the 12C was a big move for McLaren as it represents the company's first foray into volume car production – it's previous road cars have been either limited editions or done in partnership with Mercedes.

It is also a difficult time to be launching a supercar given that worldwide sales of luxury vehicles fell by about half to 70,000 last year but McLaren is hoping that its brand and heritage will enable it to compete with the likes of Ferrari.

McLaren's £750 million investment in its road car project has only been made possible because of the company's links to the Middle East. Mumtalakat, Bahrain's sovereign wealth fund, owns 30 per cent of the McLaren and it has leapt at the chance to take a stake in the auto division, which is being run as a separate operation to the F1 team.

Mumtalakat, Dennis and Mansour Ojjeh, a French-Saudi Arabian businessman, will own 52 per cent of the new car company and they have been seeking other external investors and are close to announcing a deal. I understand they have signed up a number of rich individuals plus at least one more Gulf sovereign wealth fund to invest £260m in the business.

Given Mubadala's stake in Ferrari and Kuwait's investment in Aston Martin, it is becoming clear that the Middle East is putting some serious money into its passion for fast motorcars.

While these financial negotiations are going on, McLaren's engineers have been busy developing a car that they believe will be better than the best Ferraris, Lamborghinis or Aston Martins. As a result, McLaren's F1 pedigree is noticeable throughout the 12C and the car is packed with interesting design features, many of which will filter down into normal cars in the future (even ones I can afford).

For example, the 12C is built around a carbon-fibre pod, similar to the cockpit in an F1 car. This is very strong but also makes the driver's area more spacious as there are no beams or ridges intruding into the pod.

Given the need to increase fuel efficiency, lightweight carbon fibre vehicles could become a lot more common over the next decade. The new McLaren also sends telemetry readings from numerous sensors back to a control centre in the same way that F1 cars and aero engines do.

The author is Business Correspondent of The Times of London

 

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