23 Nov 2023
Earlier this summer I was given the rare opportunity to take a look at McLaren’s best-kept secret for RACER.com, but later that day I took a look at what you could consider its worst-kept secret.
You see, while you can’t just stroll into McLaren’s Technology Centre in the Surrey countryside – getting in is like accessing a military facility from the 23rd century – the British Formula 1 team doesn’t keep quiet about the place’s existence or what’s inside either.
And why would they? It’s a sight to behold, and definitely something you’d want to show off.
Home to McLaren since 2003, the MTC is an architectural marvel, its glass and metal construction perfectly hiding the top-secret production facilities for its F1 and limited-run halo production cars (its other road-going cars being assembled next door at the McLaren Production Centre).
But while the building is futuristic and the vehicles built inside it very much at the cutting edge of current technology, it also celebrates McLaren’s storied history along its ‘Boulevard’ – a vast open expanse at the front of the building that serves as something of an evolving private museum.
McLaren was founded in 1963 by New Zealand-born racing driver Bruce McLaren, represented here in a sculpture produced by British artist Paul Oz, which has stood at the beginning of the Boulevard since 2020.
The artwork stands alongside an Austin 7 Ulster that McLaren restored in his teens, and is regarded as the first ‘McLaren’ racing car. A far cry from the space-age machines raced in F1 or the brutish monsters it conquered America with, McLaren entered it in his first race in 1954 – which he duly won – raced it in the 1950s, firstly in before he graduated to more potent machinery.
While McLaren is synonymous with F1 these days, the first full car the company built from the ground up contested sports car races. Sports car racing, primarily the Can-Am series, was big business in McLaren’s early days, with the prize money from it helping to fund the team’s other endeavours.
After winning the 1967 championship with the M6A, the M8A, M8B, M8D, and M8F would take the crown too as McLaren notched up five consecutive titles in the series. Pictured here is the M8D of 1970.
After company founder Bruce McLaren was killed testing an M8D at Goodwood in 1970, Denny Hulme went on to take that year’s championship with Peter Gethin and Dan Gurney, both of whom filled McLaren’s seat, winning races too.
McLaren’s most famous looks over the years have come as a result of title sponsorship agreements. But before Vodafone, West, and Marlboro, was Yardley, first seen on the 1972 M19C.
But title sponsorship wasn’t the only McLaren first on this car – it also featured the first six-point harness and first cooling ducts, and in the hands of Peter Revson, it took McLaren’s first pole position at the 1972 Canadian Grand Prix.
In the 1990s McLaren ventured into the road car arena for the first time since the stillborn M6GT of 1970 with the Gordon Murray-designed F1. It was widely regarded as the greatest road car of its time, and is still a fixture on many a top-10 list three decades later.
The F1 wasn’t supposed to go racing, but it did. And its race-ready offspring spawned another road-going variant inspired by the track, dubbed the LM, seen here in the ora… ahem, ‘papaya’.
Legend has it that Lewis Hamilton was promised this very car – the first prototype – if he could win three F1 titles with McLaren, with him even allegedly marking the car in a secret spot to ensure he got the exact car he was promised. Hamilton moved to Mercedes after a single championship victory with McLaren, with the car subsequently remaining at the MTC since.
A major theme during McLaren’s 60th anniversary year has been its Triple Crown – McLaren is the only team to have won the Indianapolis 500, Monaco Grand Prix, and 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Here we have the very car that won Le Mans with in 1995, alongside an MP4/2B, the car with which Alain Prost took to victory in the second of McLaren’s record 15 Monaco wins in 1985.
As well as being the name of a great Formula 1 podcast, it’s also an apt description of the MTC’s driveway, which passes along an artificial lake which completes the site’s circular footprint alongside the semi-circular building.
The lake isn’t just about form though, it’s functional, too.
The water in the lake helps cool the on-site wind tunnel and helps regulate the building’s temperature, too. That’s why this factory doesn’t have the outward appearance of one; the lake does the job of chimneys and cooling towers, and gives fish a place to call home as well.
McLaren’s ‘West’ era was book-ended by a pair of Finnish drivers – Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen, who are both represented on the Boulevard.
Hakkinen took championship honours for McLaren in 1998, as the team got the most out of that year’s regulations to get the leap on the competition with the MP4/13.
Seven years later, Kimi Raikkonen came close to joining his compatriot, finishing second in the 2005 championship driving the MP4-20.
The car won more races than any other car in 2005, including six in a row towards the end of the year, and its 11 fastest laps was also the best of the year, while its seven pole positions equalled eventual champions Renault. Sadly reliability woes cost it dearly.
Splitting the two on the Boulevard is the 2002 MP4-17. David Coulthard won his second Monaco Grand Prix in the car, while Raikkonen notched up the first of his 21 grand Prix victories in Malaysia the following season driving an evolution of the car, the MP4-17.
When you think of the Gulf colours, your thoughts will no doubt immediately turn to the Ford GT40 or Porsche 917 that conquered Le Mans, while McLaren might conjure up memories of cigarettes and mobile phones. But the relationship between the two stretches way back, beginning in the late 1960s as it supported McLaren’s efforts in Can-Am and IndyCar as well as F1.
The marriage was revisited in the ’90s at Le Mans, before McLaren fully embraced the oil company’s famous look at the 2021 Monaco Grand Prix. It might have only run a single race, but the livery from that race has already established itself as one of McLaren’s most famous looks from its 60-year history. It doesn’t look a bit out of place alongside the MP4-25 of 2010.
Speaking of the MP4-25 and its chrome paintwork…
The Boulevard isn’t all about history – a car from the present day is among the first you’ll see when you walk through the front door.
It’s another one-off livery, which paid tribute to the chrome look of the late 2000s and early 2010s. Often requested by current driver Lando Norris, the team ran the colour scheme at the 2023 British Grand Prix, with the help of sponsor Google, whose web browser Chrome is rather appropriately featured.
The Boulevard isn’t the only place where McLaren has cars on display at the MTC.
There’s The Spine, a dark, swooping corridor towards the back of the building where photography’s not permitted, and numerous other spots used as impromptu car parks – including here where a car from Hakkinen’s second title-winning season (1999) is joined by another MP4-20, this time in its papaya testing livery.
Why have a framed painting when you can hang an F1 car instead?
No, it’s not an F1 car, but it is a full-scale replica made of paper, made by artist Florian Weber. The former car design student designed the model on a computer, with the individual parts being laser cut before being assembled by hand.
As F1’s second-most successful team in terms of race wins, podiums, and drivers’ championships, McLaren has naturally accumulated plenty of silverware. It’s all housed at the MTC, along with trophies from the company’s IndyCar, Can-Am, Le Mans, Formula E, and Extreme E successes.
The trophy cabinets line the walls on the route to the staff canteen, apparently to remind the MTC’s 1,000 employees just what they’re working for. What better motivation do you need?
In 1981 McLaren became the first F1 team to successfully campaign an all carbon fibre car, something that’s the norm nowadays. The car John Watson took the first win for the car at that year’s British Grand Prix, and over the next two seasons, the car was continually refined, resulting in a further five wins.
Towards the end of the decade, McLaren introduced the legendary MP4/4. It wasn’t necessarily a groundbreaking car, with F1 about to outlaw turbo engines, it could have been just a stopgap. But since McLaren has never been the sort of team to shrug its shoulders, it and new engine partner Honda continued to push the limits. The end result was 15 wins from 16 starts in 1988, only a collision with a backmarker at the Italian Grand Prix prevented a clean sweep.
Just like how the MP4/1 rewrote the rules of how an F1 car was built, the MP4/4 rewrote the record books, and even today it’s regarded by many as the greatest car McLaren has ever produced.