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McLaren's battle with Ferrari growing fierce

A race last weekend in Melbourne, Australia, kicked off what many are predicting could be the most competitive year in decades on the Formula One circuit, where the Red Bull team hopes to regain its crown and Ferrari is looking for a comeback.  But perhaps no team will be fighting harder to restore its good name than McLaren, the British brand that long dominated the sport and has, in its nearly half-century, won one of every four F1 races it has entered.

But while McLaren, founded by New Zealand expat Bruce McLaren in 1963, has taken a number of checkered flags in recent seasons its last big year was 2008, when Lewis Hamilton took the F1 driver’s championship, and while it continues to land on the podium, that’s not good enough for Managing Director Antony Sheriff.

“We consider it a bad year when we come in second, and an awful year when we come in third," he said. "Second place is just first place for losers.”

Even as McLaren battles it out on the track it is also taking aim at the street.  Over the years, the maker has tried its hand several times at entering the consumer market, first with a million-dollar supercar not so coincidentally named the F1, and then, in the middle of the last decade, with the SLR AMG, which it produced as part of a joint venture with former Formula One team partner Mercedes-Benz.

First drive: New $250,000 supercar challenges Ferrari

Now McLaren is planning to go it alone with an audacious plan to take on rival Ferrari on the pavement as well as on the F1 circuit.  Its all-new MP4-12C supercar recently rolled into a select group of showrooms in the U.S. and abroad -- and more products are in the works.

“We’re a 50-year-old start-up,” says Sherriff, with a hint of a native New York accent.

The MP4-12C has received something of a mixed reception since its introduction. Few fault the two-seater’s 600-horsepower, 3.8-liter V-8, which can propel it 125 mph in 8.9 seconds and a top speed of 205 mph.  More controversial is a styling strategy one might call function over form.  “The MP4 suffers from an obvious lack of sex appeal,” sniffs Car and Driver magazine in an otherwise rave review.

For his part, McLaren design chief Frank Stephenson downplays such criticism, contending that with the MP4 he went for “timeless efficiency.” Also, as an American who has spent a lot of time overseas, Stephenson insists he didn’t want to simply repeat the work he did as styling boss at Ferrari, where he oversaw efforts such as the Italian maker’s 612 Scaglietti. The goal was to focus on maximizing performance, Stephenson describing the MP4 as “a ground-hugging, aerodynamic missile.”

Whether it can blow competitors like Ferrari and Lamborghini out of the way remains to be seen, but McLaren’s ambitions are only slightly less single-minded than they are on the track. Sheriff readily acknowledges his company won’t outsell Ferrari anytime soon, but it intends to give a good chase.  

The British maker already has the capacity to produce about 1,500 vehicles annually at what could loosely be called an “assembly plant,” a spotless facility near its U.K. headquarters. Eventually, he declares, “We’ll have the capacity to build three times as much.”

Development work on the MP4-12C and subsequent models is handled at a striking, virtually all-glass facility in Woking, Surrey, England designed by Lord Norman Foster and meant to look, with the surrounding, carefully manicured grounds, like the yin/yang symbol. 

Traditionally, automakers justify their involvement in motor sports, at least to some degree, by suggesting their street cars benefit from the lessons of the track, and Sheriff insists that’s clearly true for McLaren.

“This interchange between F1 technology and road technology is real,” he says, noting the racing and production car teams “are 50 yards away from one another.  This encourages a very different approach to developing cars.”

As on the track, he contends, McLaren “has to be courageous,” willing to take aim at new technologies that can give it a clear advantage over the competition.  “If we came to market just doing the same things as everyone else, why would you buy a McLaren?”

The MP4 introduces a new hydraulic suspension system that actually does deliver go-kart like handling.  But perhaps the most significant breakthrough is the work the maker has done with ultra-light carbon fiber, a high-cost material that has, until now, seen only limited use in production cars. 

To craft the cockpit “tub” on the old McLaren F1 required 3,000 hours of labor -- a major factor in the supercar’s 7-figure price tag.  On the $400,000 SLR it still took 400 hours.  “Believe it or not, we got it down to four hours on this car,” boasts Stephenson, noting that the material has not only resulted in a rock-stiff chassis but helped hold the overall weight of the MP4-12C to about 2,900 pounds.

“We’ve got a car that has to be driven to fully appreciate,” contends Tony Schwartz, who operates McLaren’s Beverly Hills showroom, one of 10 in the U.S.

One product might make it difficult to support a business case, but Managing Director Sheriff reveals, “We’re actively developing five or six variants and new models that will be rolled out at the rate of one a year for the foreseeable future.”

Few would argue with the performance bona fides of the new MP4-12C, even if they quibble over its styling.  The question is whether McLaren can crack into the exclusive world of high-performance supercars dominated by the likes of Ferrari, Lamborghini and Aston Martin.  But if there’s one thing obvious it’s that the British brand has a long tenacious history.  And the willpower behind its efforts on the track is readily apparent as it takes its skills to the street.