McLaren’s MP4-12C The pinnacle of automotive design
The McLaren MP4-12C is revealed as the first in a range of high -performance sports cars from McLaren Automotive, the independent car division based at the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, England. The 12C, and future models within the range, will challenge the world’s best sports cars, benefiting from the expertise and virtuosity of the McLaren Group.
Twenty years of sports car design, engineering and production combined with inspirational success in Formula 1 have driven Ron Dennis, McLaren Automotive Chairman, to announce his plans for the ultimate line-up of technology-led and customer -focused performance cars for the 21st century. The rules in the sports car world are about to be re-written.
Through a rich modern history, McLaren’s automotive division has already built the world’s most critically acclaimed supercar, the McLaren F1 (1993-1998) and the world’s best-selling luxury supercar, the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren (2003-2009). McLaren Automotive now looks to the future with a new range of revolutionary sports cars.
“It is a long-held dream of mine to launch high performance sports cars that set new standards in the industry,” said Dennis.
“We began designing and building cars for aficionados of thoroughbred sports cars 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,” he concluded.
The McLaren MP4-12C design follows similar principles to McLaren’s Formula 1 cars, and the legendary McLaren F1, where everything is for a reason and all lines, surfaces, and details are designed with a job in mind as much as styled. This ensures that the 12C communicates its engineering through its styling and will remain timeless as a piece of automotive design.
Frank Stephenson, McLaren Automotive Design Director: “Many sports cars and super cars present an ‘in-your-face’, ‘look-at -me’ image that can become wearing and boorish; 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.”
The 12C’s body has been styled to support sector-leading levels of downforce; downforce that then subsequently contributes to sector-leading levels of lateral grip and stability. Air flow has 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. However, this results in a huge challenge of ensuring ample air flow to the radiators. The result? The large side air scoops and integrated turning vanes that are dramatic, but purely functional. No larger or smaller than required.
The designer’s challenge is to then take that styling purpose driven by engineering aspirations and add personality. That’s why the air scoops resemble the McLaren logo in form, as do other features around the car.
Just two ‘pure’ lines flow round the car and, when combined with the integration of several dramatic convex and concave surfaces, present a car that looks compact, low and well proportioned.
The McLaren MP4-12C has been designed around a demanding mechanical package that puts emphasis on aerodynamics, compact dimensions, performance and efficiency, practicality and comfort. Although the design of the 12C was driven by aerodynamics, it aims to remain contemporary and elegant throughout its lifetime as well as distinctive among its peers.
Frank Stephenson: “Like most designers it’s a boyhood dream to work with high performance sports cars. They are the purest expression of speed and purpose and, with increased consumer demand in this market and environmental aims to the fore, offer designers the ultimate challenge.
The 12C design was therefore led by aerodynamics. At McLaren we have been able to use the Formula 1 techniques and the huge expertise that the company has amassed at the pinnacle of the sport,” explained Stephenson.
“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 air dams. 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 overall design theme supports engineering aerodynamic ambitions. Purity of lines then give the car its character. Successful car design is based on proportions and McLaren’s styling team, whilst driven by the demands of the purest airflow, honed a mix of concave and convex surfaces that present balanced proportions and a feeling of lightness. Nothing is out of place on the car and surfaces interact smoothly and with purpose; surfaces that are integrated into the whole of the car along two continuous lines that flow round the body.
The front is very low since it does not have to house large engine cooling radiators, two of which are mounted longitudinally at the sides. This offers the added benefit of segment-leading space for storage under the bonnet.
The 12C’s face is dominated by large and distinctive air intakes and bi-xenon headlights with LED running lights inspired by the form of the McLaren logo. The McLaren logo itself also graces the bonnet of a car for the first time.
Illumination from the running lights bleeds into three distinctive gills just above the headlamps. The windscreen is deep and low for superb forward visibility and redolent of the McLaren F1: in wet weather it is swept by a single weight-saving pantograph wiper blade, as was the F1.
Stephenson again: “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.”
From the side, the 12C cannot be mistaken for another sports car. The dominant side air inlets act as turning vanes and help direct cooling air over the side radiators. This shape was designed and optimised using McLaren’s extensive computational fluid dynamics capability. Likewise, the scalloped shoulders drive airflow to the airbrake, thereby enhancing its effectiveness in the aerodynamic package.
The other prevailing design characteristics are the dihedral doors (a hereditary gene from the McLaren F1), which has a clear purpose, like every other element of McLaren’s design ethos.
The concept of dihedral doors is simply to allow the driver and passenger to get into and out of the car as easily as possible as well as allowing a smaller door opening than would otherwise be necessary.
The simple act of moving the door forward and upwards invites the driver to step across the sill and sit in the car more easily. In tighter parking situations, dihedral doors allow ingress and egress in a situation where another car has parked too closely. In traditional door systems a huge parking space is necessary to permit the doors to open wide enough.
With its single hinge, the dihedral doors offer weight-saving features and are unique to the McLaren brand. As is the unique handle-free door entry system.
The 12C’s rear is unique. It has an aggressive, business-like appearance with its downforce-optimised rear diffuser. The exhaust pipes exit high and in the centre of the car and the rear end is open to ensure efficient evacuation of hot air from the engine bay. The engine itself is visible through the top deck. The LED tail light clusters do not dominate the rear and are hidden behind horizontal black bars. They are only visible when illuminated: the two upper bars light up as LED brake lights and turn indicators.
Aerodynamic efficiency drove the 12C’s design. High downforce helps maintain traction, cornering ability and stability while low drag aids top speed and acceleration. It has a completely flat underbody and smooth upper body surfaces to yield a highly effective drag coefficient and generate very high levels of balanced downforce at high speed.
A nose splitter gives more downforce at the front while guide vanes near the front and rear wheels help to increase downforce with minimal drag penalty and direct air towards the all-important diffuser at the rear.
The active Airbrake is another innovation that made its debut on the F1 supercar and was also incorporated into the SLR. It deploys hydraulically under braking, or when the driver wants to trim the car for increased downforce by using a switch on the Active Dynamics Panel.
Under braking, a piston operated by transmission hydraulics raises the Airbrake to a certain angle. Once a small amount of wing angle is pushed into the airflow, the centre of aerodynamic pressure forces the bottom of the ‘wing’ back. In this way, it raises the airbrake to maximum angle using the ‘free’ airflow rather than relying on another mechanical device.
The Airbrake moves the centre of pressure of the 12C rearwards, whereas it would normally move forward under braking. It improves yaw stability under braking and allows the brakes to work more effectively due to increased downforce. It is also a weight-saving solution that took almost 50 per cent of weight out of the mechanism.
Overall, the 12C is lower, shorter and narrower than key competitors, but has much shorter front and rear overhangs due to its longer wheelbase - a layout that promotes stability and assists handling response.
First Published in Men's Passion Issue #22 May 2010