McLaren F1: Design and Equipment
In isolation. each innovation is worthy in itself; taken together, they constitute a holistic design concept that is breathtaking in its clarity of purpose.
— 5th Autocar Motor Awards
Chief engineer Gordon Murray’s design concept was a common one among designers of high-performance cars: low weight and high power. This was achieved through use of high-tech and expensive materials such as carbon fibre, titanium, gold, magnesium and kevlar. The F1 was the first production car to use a carbon-fibre monocoque chassis.
Gordon Murray had been thinking of a three-seat sports car since his youth. When Murray was waiting for a flight home from the Italian Grand Prix in 1988, he drew a sketch of a three seater sports car and proposed it to Ron Dennis. He pitched the idea of creating the ultimate road car, a concept that would be heavily influenced by the company’s Formula One experience and technology and thus reflect that skill and knowledge through the McLaren F1.
Gordon Murray on the McLaren F1 idea:
During this time, we were able to visit with Ayrton Senna and Honda’s Tochigi Research Center. The visit related to the fact that at the time, McLaren’s F1 Grand Prix cars were using Honda engines. Although it’s true I had thought it would have been better to put a larger engine, the moment I drove the Honda NSX, all the benchmark cars — Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini — I had been using as references in the development of my car vanished from my mind.
Of course the car we would create, the McLaren F1, needed to be faster than the NSX, but the NSX’s ride quality and handling would become our new design target. Being a fan of Honda engines, I later went to Honda’s Tochigi Research Center on two occasions and requested that they consider building for the McLaren F1 a 4.5 litre V10 or V12. I asked, I tried to persuade them, but in the end could not convince them to do it, and the McLaren F1 ended up equipped with a BMW engine.
Albert and Edward
Later, a pair of Ultima MK3 kit cars, chassis numbers 12 and 13, “Albert” and “Edward”, the last two MK3s, were used as “mules” to test various components and concepts before the first cars were built. Number 12 was used to test the gearbox with a 7.4 litre Chevrolet V8, plus various other components such as the seats and the brakes. Number 13 was the test of the V12, plus exhaust and cooling system. When McLaren was done with the cars they destroyed both of them to keep away the specialist magazines and because they did not want the car to be associated with “kit cars.”
The car was first unveiled at a launch show, 28 May 1992, at The Sporting Club in Monaco. The production version remained the same as the original prototype (XP1) except for the wing mirror which, on the XP1, was mounted at the top of the A-pillar. This car was deemed not road legal as it had no indicators at the front; McLaren was forced to make changes on the car as a result (some cars, including Ralph Lauren’s, were sent back to McLaren and fitted with the prototype mirrors). The original wing mirrors also incorporated a pair of indicators which other car manufacturers would adopt several years later.
The car’s safety levels were first proved when during a testing in Namibia in April 1993, a test driver wearing just shorts and a T-shirt hit a rock and rolled the first prototype car several times. The driver managed to escape unscathed. Later in the year, the second prototype (XP2) was specially built for crash testing and passed with the front wheel arch untouched.
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Chassis and Body
The McLaren F1 was the first production road car to use a complete carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) monocoque chassis structure. Aluminum and magnesium were used for attachment points for the suspension system, inserted directly into the CFRP.
The car features a central driving position – the driver’s seat is located in the middle, ahead of the fuel tank and ahead of the engine, with a passenger seat slightly behind and on each side. The doors on the vehicle move up and out when opened, and are thus of the butterfly type.
The engine produces high temperatures under full application and thus causes a high temperature variation in the engine bay from no operation to normal and full operation. CFRP becomes mechanically stressed over time from high heat transfer effects and thus the engine bay was not constructed from CFRP.
The overall drag coefficient on the standard McLaren F1 is 0.32, compared with 0.36 for the faster Bugatti Veyron, and 0.357 for the SSC Ultimate Aero TT, which was the fastest production car from 2007 to 2010. The vehicle’s frontal area is 1.79 square meters, and the S·Cd figure is 0.57. Because the machine features active aerodynamics these are the figures presented in the most streamlined configuration.
The normal McLaren F1 features no wings to produce downforce (compare the LM and GTR editions); however, the overall design of the underbody of the McLaren F1 in addition to a rear diffuser exploits ground effect to improve downforce which is increased through the use of two electric Kevlar fans to further decrease the pressure under the car. A “high downforce mode” can be turned on and off by the driver.
At the top of the vehicle, there is an air intake to direct high pressure air to the engine with a low pressure exit point at the top of the very rear. Under each door is a small air intake to provide cooling for the oil tank and some of the electronics. The airflow created by the electric fans not only increases downforce, but the airflow that is created is further exploited through design, by being directed through the engine bay to provide additional cooling for the engine and the ECU. At the front, there are ducts assisted by a Kevlar electric suction fan for cooling of the front brakes.
There is a small dynamic rear spoiler on the tail of the vehicle, which will adjust dynamically and automatically attempt to balance the centre of gravity of the car under braking – which will be shifted forward when the brakes are applied. Upon activation of the spoiler, a high pressure zone is created in front of the flap, and this high pressure zone is exploited—two air intakes are revealed upon application that will allow the high pressure airflow to enter ducts that route air to aid in cooling the rear brakes. The spoiler increases the overall drag coefficient from 0.32 to 0.39 and is activated at speeds equal to or above 40 mph (64 km/h) by brake line pressure.
Interior and Equipment
Standard equipment on the stock McLaren F1 includes full cabin air conditioning, a rarity on most sports cars and a system design which Murray again credited to the Honda NSX, a car he had owned and driven himself for 7 years without, according to the official F1 website, ever needing to change the AC automatic setting.
Further comfort features included SeKurit electric defrost/de-mist windscreen and side glass, electric window lifts, remote central locking, Kenwood 10-disc CD stereo system, cabin access release for opening panels, cabin storage compartment, four-lamp high performance headlight system, rear fog and reversing lights, courtesy lights in all compartments, map reading lights and a gold-plated Facom titanium tool kit and first aid kit (both stored in the car).
In addition, tailored, proprietary luggage bags specially designed to fit the vehicle’s carpeted storage compartments, including a tailored golf bag, were standard equipment. Airbags are not present in the car. Each customer was given a special edition TAG Heuer 6000 Chronometer wristwatch with its serial number scripted below the centre stem.
All features of the F1 were, according to Gordon Murray, obsessed over including the interior. The metal plates fitted to improve aesthetics of the cockpit are claimed to be 20 thousandths of an inch (0.5 mm) thick to save weight. The driver’s seat of the McLaren F1 is custom fitted to the specifications desired by the customer for optimal fit and comfort; the seats are handmade from CFRP and covered in light Connolly leather.
Bespoke Seating Position
By design, the F1 steering column cannot be adjusted; however, prior to production each customer specifies the exact preferred position of the steering wheel and thus the steering column is tailored by default to those owner settings. The same holds true for the pedals, which are not adjustable after the car has left the factory, but are tailored to each specific customer.
During its pre-production stage, McLaren commissioned Kenwood, the team’s supplier of radio equipment, to create a lightweight car audio system for the car; Kenwood, between 1992 and 1998 used the F1 to promote its products in print advertisements, calendars and brochure covers. Each car’s audio system was especially designed to tailor to an individual’s listening taste, however radio was omitted because Murray never listened to the radio.
Every standard F1 also has a modem which allows customer care to remotely fetch information from the ECU of the car in order to assist the customer in the event of a mechanical vehicle failure.
Production and Support
Only 106 cars were manufactured, 64 of which were the standard street version (F1), five were LMs (tuned versions), three were longtail roadcars (GT), five prototypes (XP), 28 racecars (GTR) and one LM prototype (XP LM). Production began in 1992 and ended in 1998. At the time of production each machine took around three and a half months to make.
Although production stopped in 1998, McLaren still maintains an extensive support and service network for the F1. There are eight authorized service centers throughout the world, and McLaren will on occasion fly a specialized technician to the owner of the car or the service center. All of the technicians have undergone dedicated training in service of the McLaren F1. In cases where major structural damage has occurred, the car can be returned to McLaren directly for repair.