McLaren has been racing in Formula One since 1966. New Zealander Bruce McLaren was discovered by Australian Jack Brabham in the late 1950s and went on to win Grand Prix for Cooper alongside Brabham in 1959, 1960, and 1962. However, McLaren was the consummate driver, designer, builder, innovator. He founded his own team in 1963, and it survives to this day as Team McLaren. Along the way, McLaren have also produced a few ground-breaking road cars to help finance racing and satisfy some well heeled customers. And that is where this episode begins. At the Radnor Hunt Concours, the local McLaren dealership was on hand to show off the new MP4-12C road car. To help do that, they brought along the 2011 Formula One car of Lewis Hamilton, the MP4-26.
Readers will know that I am a big fan of F1, so the opportunity to get up close and personal with this car was a real treat. It is not the first time I have been near an F1 car, but each time I am struck by how complex they are even just to look at. You are cute you aware that there is nothing, repeat nothing, on the car that is not there for a purpose. There’s also no part of the car that is exposed to air, that has not had a full makeover from an aerodynamicist. Air does not collide with a Formula One car in the same way that it collides with most of the cars we drive, rather it is directed across the surface of the car and into areas that need that air for cooling or downforce purposes.
Of course, that air is flowing over through and across a vehicle that is as light as possible. I was informed that without the drivetrain the vehicle weighs about 1300 pounds total! The Mercedes 2.4 Liter 8 cylinder engine only weighs another 210 lbs, which is the FIA minimum, and the 7 speed paddle-shifted gearbox is carbon fiber just like the monocoque. Using just a single finger on the top of one of the tires, I could rock the car back and forth with ease !! The cockpit was another surprise. It is obviously built for someone a lot smaller than me. The steering wheel is of course chock full of controls, and it would seem incredibly easy to push the wrong button or move the wrong knob while in the heat of battle. However, the driver is pretty confined, and actually moves in very limited ways during a race. The last area of surprise was the rear wing. You might expect it to be extremely stiff and wide using composites to ensure that the air forces it down. But you would be wrong. It is actually relatively flimsy and can easily be pushed side to side. However, viewed from the front as the air actually sees it, the side struts are almost invisible, and the actual top wing is very effective at F1 speeds.
All of this made me think about the older F1 cars. Aesthetically I’ve made no secret of the fact that the new cars just don’t seem as beautiful to me. It is hard to disagree with the old saying that the fastest car is the most beautiful, but that is a hard concept for me to come to grips with on today’s F1 cars. The first F1 McLaren was the M2B of 1966. It also had 8 cylinders and was a mid-engined open wheel car, but that is where the similarities end. It had an aluminum monocoque with steel (gasp) bulkheads. It had a 3 liter Ford V8, and a 5 speed manual transaxle. Brakes were 13″ discs, and fuel was carried in rubber bags inside the monocoque! Suspension was wishbone and coilovers, the kind of setup you can now find in any 20 year old sedan. It produced somewhere in the region of 350bhp and it was rear wheel drive. It weighed 1610 lbs, so it was actually comparable to today’s cars in that respect.
To look at though, there is a certain purity to the first McLaren as well. It too had nothing on it that was not functional. It looked seriously fast having just a sleek monocoque and 4 wheels. In fact, it was not that different in top speed compared to today’s F1 cars. It looked powerful with those 8 stacks coming off the carburettors , and those nostrils, and those exhausts straight out the back. If you asked which I would want to drive if I could only choose one, it would be the M2B. Of course, I am somewhat biased because I could not even fit in the other.