McLaren Technology Centre trip report

One of the ‘perks’ of my job is we’ll occasionally get to go out of the office for a filming shoot, and sometimes this involves actual television shows (like The Gadget Show where one of the cars we sell set a Guinness World Record, or a Fifth Gear show where one of our cars raced a supercharged Mini Cooper on a karting track). Last week we got a call to ask if we wanted to go to the McLaren Technology Centre to supply cars and technical know-how for a race with Lewis Hamilton, 2008 Formula 1 World Champion and McLaren-Mercedes F1 driver.

The production company that called up is the one that does the Vodafone viral videos like Lewis and Jenson building an F1 car, visiting Senna’s MP4-4 the McLaren car warehouse, racing on a slot car version of Silverstone and other videos. They’re clearly an advert but they’re not super cheesy – the guys are shown being themselves for the most part, I think.

What follows is a longer version of what I posted on the forums for the other Formula 1 fans on there. I’ve added a couple of links and cleaned up what I type out on my phone for the initial post about my visit. So here’s the full trip report!

Basically, it’s badass.

You can’t even approach the building without going past security and giving a contact name, who you’re seeing, car plate number, etc. The security guys give you a map with instructions on the back that vary depending on the company you’re visiting – every department in a normal company (manufacturing, marketing, etc.) is a separate company and has their own reception desk.

We were filming at the end of the ‘boulevard’ where all of the heritage (ex-Senna, Prost, etc. cars are). We didn’t get time to look at them until after we were done filming. More on that later.

We got there a little after 3 and started setting up the track with the film crew. Lewis was expected at about 5:30 and we were told we’d have 20 minutes and no more with him. Most of the time before Lewis arrived was taken up driving the cars around while the camera guys got various shots, including on-board and cutaway shots.

We set up the track using ex-demo tires, car axles, wheel guns, fitted seats (made into a tunnel) and some car aero parts. One of the seats had a ‘JB’ on the back of it, so it was definitely Jenson Button’s. Both seats had the buckles and straps attached. The car aero parts were the small fins that sit vertically next to the sidepods, and we also had a couple of the radiator ‘bungs’ that stop up the air intakes at the front of the sidepods. The tires were the old grooved style (used recently up to 2008) fitted on the Enkei racing wheels, and were surprisingly light – I chuckled at the ‘Not For Road Use’ notification on the sidewalls.

In between filming setups we were able to look around a little, but we had to stay close.

Facing the boulevard and all the entrance corridors are workshops and stations where the gearboxes are built, carbon weave is laid (they’ve already started on next year’s car), parts are designed, CNC machines are working, etc. The next floor up (2nd floor if you’re American, 1st floor if you’re not) is where the offices for marketing, strategy, etc., are – you can’t look into those if you’re on tour. There were tour grips going around the whole time, you could see guys in dark blazers leading groups of about 5-7 through the engineering sections, and in the heritage car bay nearest us was an ex-Prost F1 car that belongs to one of the shareholders. It was being rebuilt so it would stay in good condition, but I was told that it’s probably not run very much by the owner. The car bays are the same ones where Lewis and Jenson did their other videos, all the tool drawers, floors, worktops and walls are a bright white in the engineering sections.

I didn’t actually race Lewis like we originally thought (I even put stuff in my hair and shaved!), that was going to be his strategist, one of the guys who stays behind in the factory and communicates with the race engineer st the track. I had to give him a crash course in driving an rc car, and if he was sucking too bad in the race I was going to be called in. When Lewis came out we had 20 minutes and that was it, so the cameras were rolling the whole time and we had to get right to racing, after showing him how the track was laid out. He’s used to more organized racing and the random look of the tires and parts made it hard to figure out at first. Anyway, Lewis was way faster than Carl the strategist but I wasn’t called in to replace Carl. Lewis easily won but the had a bit of banter going, the same thing you’d heat if two guys were paying a video game side by side, and then a bit of an interview with Lewis and Carl, then Lewis was pulled away for a sit down interview so I chatted with Carl. The engineers have a karting league, do bowling, etc. (i was asking if they ever have team bonding things with the drivers), and he said out can get a bit frantic in the strategy room at the factory during a race, and taking out refueling made the job much more think on your feet than before. He seemed to have a mathematical background instead of engineering, so maybe that gives an idea of the kind of job they have.

After that Lewis was led to the marketing department for a couple of meetings, and we were given a tour of the ground floor while we waited for him to come out – I was trying to get a couple of things signed.

Starting at one end of the building, the first thing on the tour is the wind tunnel, or rather a window where you can look at a big white metal box. It provides all the heating for the building – there no heating system at all in the centre. Massive airshafts take in air and the generators take in water from the lake and hot water comes out over a cascade of bricks to cool it before it’s drawn in again at the opposite side of the lake. Around the corner from the one window where you can see the wind tunnel are ex-Mika Hakkinen cars lined up against a window.

Next were the huge trophy cases with race-winning trophies from all the F1 races they’ve done, including a replica of Lewis’s WDC trophy, loss of other trophies including this year’s winning constructor and the LeMans trophy for the F1GTR, the super intricate painted pottery trophies from Hungary, and many more. I told the guy giving us the tour ‘I know they’re your sponsor but the Santander trophies don’t look as…intricate as some of these other ones’

Then we were shown all the ‘heritage’ cars on what they call ‘the boulevard’, which faces the lake. Cars driven by Bruce McLaren, Senna, Prost and others were all there, including Lewis’s 2008 car right near the VIP entrance. The Honda cars can’t be started without engineers coming over from Japan, so they aren’t often run, and apparently the Senna car that Lewis drove on Top Gear had to be almost completely rebuilt, even though he only drove it for a few laps around Silverstone, he drove it that hard. (See the first part of the Top Gear Ayrton Senna tribute here, it’s fantastic – the image is flipped because of copyright issues.)

Across from the VIP entrance there is a turntable display of the new McLaren road car, stripped down to the chassis and carbon tub (the same car that was at Goodwood), and we were told that that area used to be a showroom for the SLR car where customers could special order all the details.

Other bits:

  • All of the car bays had grey countertops, white tool drawers, white walls and white floors, just like in this video. The spiral staircase that we incorporated as part of the RC car track can be seen in that video at the 13 second mark. A huge elevator with sliding glass doors takes the cars from ground level down to the car bays.
  • You can also see in the video the McLaren restaurant, where the workers can eat – everyone is given an ID card they can top up with money from the ATM in the building (yes, there’s a cash machine in McLaren) and they can use the card to get food at the employee restaurant.
  • The carbon parts build/fabrication room had two copies of the chassis for next year’s car. One guy was putting the finishing touches on one that had 3 laser measurement machines angled over it on sliding tracks. The green lasers were constantly measuring everything and he was checking the measurements as he went along on a screen nearby.
  • The fabrication people had really cool-looking shirts on, all black with bright red accents around the shoulders. You can see the shirt on the big guy at the right at 1:44 of this video. I asked why those shirts weren’t sold to fans and didn’t really get a good answer, just that Hugo Boss (one of the sponsors) likes to have everyone wearing Boss gear when the tour groups go by.
  • Most of the office guys work there wore clothes in standard British office standards: almost pointy-toed or straight-toe shoes (I hate these shoes!), black trousers/slacks and a longsleeve dress shirt, no tie. I’m not sure if they have to wear ties every other day of the week or not, maybe it was ‘no-tie Friday’.
  • Ron runs a super-tight ship – everything was utterly spotless and basically perfect (whether you like the taste or style of the building is up to you, but everything was clean). I imagine it’s similar at the other F1 factories, but Ron is famous as a perfectionist. Employees aren’t allowed to bring tea or coffee to their desks, and have to use alternate routes to get from one place to the next when VVIPs are in the building. I still left more than a few burnouts on the floor though! We were given a strict area where we could run the cars and we had a senior marketing guy watching over us the whole time. When Lewis came up, about 1.5 minutes of his 20 minutes was spent in discussion with a guy on an overhead walkway/bridge about whether his cap was the right cap to be wearing.
  • Lewis  wasn’t super friendly with us (no hugs, no time for a handshake for everyone, he didn’t give me his watch), but he was professional and able to smile and honestly laugh and have a little fun while he was driving. When the cameraman was repeatedly in his way and blocking his view of the track, he just said, ‘Cameraman, I really can’t see, can you stand back further,’ etc. I did ask for a couple of things to be signed, the F1 LM bodyshell I mentioned earlier and my rocket red ‘victory’ shirt, and the senior guy popped his head into a marketing meeting Lewis was in after the shoot, and we waited, and he went into another marketing meeting, so we left and I left the stuff behind to get signed, and McLaren will send it to me if/when he’s able to sign it.
  • The old cars on the boulevard have the tires filled with foam so they don’t have to keep pumping them with air.
  • Had a super up-close look at Lewis’s 2008 WDC car, that thing is the pinnacle of aero development and it’s just crazy finding fins and strakes and whirly aero bits where you simply wouldn’t expect to find them unless you’re Adrian Newey.
  • Dotted around the offices and the flying walkways are glass sculptures from a local artist, Ron took a fancy to them and the artist needed somewhere to store them, so he was told that if he insured them they could be stored at McLaren.
  • Cool cars spotted (every car/racing fan has their eye out in parking lots/car parks for any cool cars): The McLaren road car drove past us in the loading area, a fleet of of silver Mercedes, a matte black Mercedes wagon (think the V12 F1 medical car), and that was all I could spot in the loading area.

That’s it, we should see the finished video in 3-4 weeks.

We weren’t allowed to take pictures or video at all, but some journalists and websites have been: