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First look: McLaren’s majestic 450kW MP4-12C

Bring it on: The supercar gloves come off with the unveiling of McLaren's MP4-12C at Frankfurt.

British supercar firm takes on Mercedes-AMG, Ferrari with its brilliant new supercar

10 Sep 2009

CONSERVATION and the environment might well be motivating most of the world’s car manufacturers at the 2009 Frankfurt motor show, but the prestigious exhibition will long be remembered as the moment when the famous supercar collaboration between McLaren and Mercedes turned into a fierce competition.

As Mercedes-Benz uses the Frankfurt show to launch its all-new SLS supercar, having gone in-house to produce a stunning gullwinged replacement for the (McLaren-built) SLR, McLaren Automotive has unveiled its magnificent MP4-12C two-seater mid-engine coupe, which when it reaches the road in 2011 will count Mercedes and the SLS among its main competitors – along with the Ferrari 458 and Porsche 911 Turbo, both of which debut in Frankfurt, and others from Lamborghini (Gallardo), Bentley (Continental GT) and Aston Martin (DB9).

Under the direction of Ron Dennis, who left Formula One eight months ago to devote his full attention to the burgeoning road-car business, McLaren has created a car that it promises will “rewrite the rules” of supercar design though F1-inspired engineering, a new MonoCell carbon-fibre chassis structure and an “absolute focus on efficiency” in terms of power delivery from its circa-450kW ‘M838T’ 3.8-litre twin-turbocharged V8.

McLaren said the 12C was the first of a number of new models to come from its facilities in Woking, England, prompting speculation that a convertible derivative and an all-new smaller, more affordable series are also under development.

42 center imageFor now, our attention rests on the awesome MP4-12C, which is the first all-McLaren road car since the 1993-1998 F1 and the next McLaren-built model after production of the swansong $1.5-million-plus SLR Stirling Moss – limited to 75 examples – winds up in the coming months.

McLaren claims the 12C will cost between £125,000 ($A240,600) and £175,000 ($A337,000), although it could be much higher than what current exchange rates indicate when it is sold here through a dedicated McLaren retail network sometime in 2011.

“It is a long-held dream of mine to launch a range of high-performance sportscars that set new standards in the industry,” Mr Dennis said.

“We began designing and building cars for aficionados of thoroughbred sportscars almost 20 years ago. Incorporating the leading-edge technologies that the McLaren Group has built up within its various companies, I believe we are now perfectly placed to open up this new chapter in McLaren’s history as well as play a part in the regeneration of high-tech manufacturing in the UK and global automotive environment.”

McLaren claims the 12C is a “pure” vehicle, with no carryover parts from any other car – be it the engine, switchgear or any other part one cares to name – and that, with the MonoCell, it is the first car in the world with a one-piece carbon-fibre structure.

The once-piece moulding for the chassis is said to be a much more affordable and quicker method than the usual practice of bonding several components together, offering the same advantages of carbon composite – light weight (the 12C chassis weighs less than 80kg), high strength/torsional rigidity, longevity – while also enabling a narrower structure overall and therefore a more compact car which is more rewarding to drive.

Other chassis points of interest include the use of ultra-lightweight composite brakes with forged aluminium hubs (carbon ceramic brakes, said to be heavier, will be optional), and a suspension based on double wishbones with coil springs at each end.

It also features a Proactive Chassis Control system, which includes variable damping (with normal, sport and high-performance modes) and a pioneering ‘adjustable roll control’ system that replaces mechanical anti-rollbars. According to McLaren, the latter allows the car to maintain precise roll control under heavy cornering while decoupling the suspension in a straight line for more wheel articulation and compliance.

Electronic aids include ABS, ESP, ASR traction control, EBD, Hill Hold and a new one known as Brake Steer, which is a development of the device fitted to McLaren’s 1997 MP4/12 Formula One racing car and, in a nutshell, brakes the inside rear wheel when the car is entering a corner too quickly.

Another feature first seen on the F1 supercar and later incorporated into the SLR is an active Airbrake, which is basically an adjustable spoiler that deploys hydraulically to improve stability under braking.

Cast alloy wheels (19/20-inch front/rear) with bespoke Pirelli tyres are also part of the standard package.

The 12C’s 90-degree V8 features dual variable valve timing, revs to 8500rpm and produces around 600hp (447kW) and 600Nm of torque, 80 per cent of which is available below 2000rpm.

No acceleration or consumption/emissions figures have been released, but, based on a horsepower-to-CO2 ratio, McLaren claims the 12C delivers its power at greater efficiency than any other car on the market with an internal combustion engine, petrol and diesel hybrids included.

The power unit is said to be compact, lightweight and stiff, with a dry sump and flat plane crankshaft allowing it to be placed low in the chassis, which in turn lowers the centre of gravity and improves handling. It also has lightweight composite cam covers and intake manifolds, and Nikasil-coated aluminium liners.

The engine drives the rear wheels through two wet clutches and a McLaren-developed seven-speed Seamless Shift dual-clutch gearbox (SSG). Changing gears via an F1-style pivoting rocker shift, the driver can move between ‘normal’, ‘sport’ and ‘automatic’ modes, while launch control and winter modes are also available. A ‘Pre-Cog’ (pre-cognition) function is also incorporated into the rocker, which primes the gearbox for an imminent gear change and makes for a faster shift.

“It (Pre-Cog) is a little bit like the first pressure on a camera shutter button,” said McLaren Automotive technical director Dick Glover. “There’s no requirement for the driver to use it but it is more satisfying and engaging if you do. The SSG also promotes seamless shifting in which the driver doesn’t have to reduce engine power at all – rather than the gearshift slowing you down, it actually speeds the car up by recovering the energy of the crank spinning as it drops engine speed.”

Leading the design of the 12C was ex-Ferrari (and ex-BMW) design chief Frank Stephenson, who resisted the temptation to create a wild new look for the aluminium-skinned, dihedral-doored supercar.

“Many sportscars and supercars present an in-your-face ‘look at me’ image that can become wearing and boorish,” Mr Stephenson said. “The ultimate backhanded compliment becomes, ‘It was of its time.’ Great design, however, is timeless and looks relevant years later. Take the McLaren F1 as an example. I hope that with the 12C we have produced a car that looks great today and will still look great in years to come.

“All the fins, vents and the flat underbody are there for a reason. No styling addenda have been incorporated for appeal or style alone. This aerodynamic purity explains why this car can hit top speed with great stability without resorting to tea tray wings or deep front airdams.

“I really feel that the styling communicates the 12C’s engineering integrity and technical benefits –and it is this purity that makes the design timeless.

“The 12C does not reproduce the F1 design but it unashamedly builds on its functionally driven engineering and design highlights such as the large, deep windscreen and the low cowl to give the driver good visibility for accurate placement on the road. Any similarities are there for a reason.”

Mr Stephenson said airflow had been “manically managed” to support all performance figures and light weight targets. For example, placing the radiators adjacent to the engine keeps the car narrow and reduces weight, but creates a huge challenge in ensuring ample airflow to the radiators.

The result is the large side air scoops (resembling the McLaren logo) and integrated turning vanes that are dramatic, but functional. “No larger or smaller than required.”

The narrow design brief also caused its fair share of challenges in the cabin, but the result, according to Mr Stephenson, is a “real step forward in the packaging of a sportscar”.

“Moving the driver and passenger closer together improves driving control and moving the pedals improves the problem of wheel well intrusion,” he said. “We also repackaged many of the major components that normally sit under the dashboard to allow for more space and a unique form.”

And the name? MP4-12C might be a mouthful, but it is loaded with meaning for McLaren.

‘MP4’ has been the chassis designation for all McLaren F1 cars since 1981 it stands for McLaren Project 4, which in turn derives from the merger of Ron Dennis’ Project 4 organisation with McLaren in 1980. The ‘12’ refers to McLaren’s internal Vehicle Performance index, though which it rates key performance criteria for both rivals and its own cars. Power, weight, emissions and aerodynamic efficiency are all used to come up with an overall performance benchmark, which in this case is 12. Finally, the ‘C’ refers to carbon and highlights the MonoCell structure.

McLaren believes the 12C and derivatives will enable it to take a significant share of the supercar sector, which it expects to soon return to pre-GFC 2007 levels of around 28,000 sales per annum worldwide.

“By the time the 12C is launched in 2011 we expect the economic conditions to be much improved,” said McLaren Automotive managing director Antony Sheriff. “We have already seen significant interest in the car and the supply of the 12C will be relatively scarce. In its first year we plan to produce just 1000 cars, which represents only 3.5 per cent of the ‘core’ market.

“We have created ground-breaking new technology, lightweight engineering solutions, and harnessed real-world motor racing applications. It brings new levels of performance, fuel efficiency and practicality to the 12C’s segment. And it will be more exclusive than its principal competition with a price that reflects its lack of ubiquity.”

McLaren anticipates that 25 per cent of sales will be made in the UK, and a further 25 per cent in the US, with the remainder spread across the rest of the world.

Ron Dennis: “This is the start of an exciting new chapter in McLaren’s history, in British high-technology engineering and manufacturing, and in global sportscar design. We aim to be the best, but will leave that ultimate judgment to our first customers in 2011.

“Until then, we will strive to put one name at the top of the ‘most wanted’ list for buyers of high-performance sportscars: McLaren.”

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