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:


Goodwood Festival of Speed pictures and mini-report

Result: very cool!

Google photo album from Friday

Google photo album from Saturday

Google photo album from Sunday

Just to illustrate the ridiculous types of things you can buy there, it’s like a damn motorsports swap meet almost, but here’s the stuff I got:
F1 carbon brake disc, probably Honda, £20, gonna be a spiffin’ clock if I get around to it
Honda F1 ‘chimney top’, painted white, £5 (was going to have Button sign this, I’ll bring it next year) – they had boxes full of random carbon parts, plus wheel nuts, etc.
Super Aguri T-shirt, looks cool, huge logo wraps around the side, size M but still fits me fine, £2
2009 McLaren ‘rocket red’ ‘victory’ shirt, £15 (cheaper than exercise shirts I just got recently)
Rossi blue/yellow #46 shirt, £20
Red Bull cap, £25 – the official team stands were selling all the current season stuff at full whack, I was hoping to get this signed by Webbah

Stuff I wanted to get but didn’t have the money:
Targa Florio history book, £95 for out-of-print English
Honda F1 wheel, £50 (better examples were £95+ or £300+ for tire/wheel combo)
old mechanic’s shirts, £15 and up, pot luck on the size/team/condition
Gulf Aston Martin T-shirt
Porsche 917 T-shirt (the shop wanted £45 for it because they sell a bunch of Steve McQueen branded stuff!)
Lotus cap (but I rarely wear my caps anyways)

Also saw and kinda wanted:
‘orginal’ Renault Turbo black/gold jackets from the 70’s
Spyker team hat (to put in the back of my Saab, since Saab is owned by Spyker now)
West T-shirt (was trying to find old-school McLaren mechanic’s shirts, this was the closest I could find)

F1 drivers that were there over the weekend (probably missing a couple):
Saturday: Hakkinen*, Trulli, Senna*, Chandhok*, Button, Rosberg, Surtees, Bell, Stewart*
Sunday: Hamilton*, Heidfeld*, Kovaleinen, Gene*, Fittipaldi, Surtees, Bell, Hakkinen, Senna, Chandhok, Stewart

* means I got their autographs, cool

Other folks I got autographs from: Ken Block, Kevin Schwantz, Chris Vermuelen, Kerry Earnhardt, James Toseland, quite a few others.

Normally on Sunday the GF and I go to the hilltop area to grab autographs, but we didn’t realize that Button and Webbah were there for Saturday only. Last year Button was there both days but he’s teamed with Lewis so I guess the McLaren PR people had them there for a day each and that was it.

Meeting Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok was really cool, they aren’t as well known as the other drivers like Hakkinen and Hamilton, so they were walking around without a horde of people shoving things in their faces.  I was able to have a very short chat with Lewis, which was nice. The first time he came through, in the modern F1 car group, I gave my GF a copy of F1 Racing magazine with him on the cover, and he signed it and said, “What’s this? I haven’t seen this, I never get to read these.” I told him he should get a subscription. I should have added McLaren could set him up with one – one of those ‘stair wit’ moments.

He then came up in the next batch driving the new McLaren road car (which looks awesome, have pics of the bare frame display, saw the same car on a country road on Thursday…was awesome) and the crowds were much much less and he came through and signed more stuff. He was taking his time signing a mini helmet (the lady behind me was nearly crying with pleasure, like a tiny dog about to piss itself) and he signed the programme for me next and I told him “Keep sticking it to Alonso, Lewis, we love to read about that stuff in the press.” By ‘we’ of course I meant us goons.

He gave me a smile and said something like “I’ll keep trying” and had to move on. Everyone around us laughed, so…I think he was being diplomatic. You never know where these conversations will end up online. As last year, though, he was very cool and calm about the whole thing. His brother came up the hill with him in the McLaren, too.

Hopefully that counts as ‘chatted with’…it’s easier to say “I met Mika Hakkinen” than have to explain I had to get in a paparazzi scrum surrounding him as he walked to the paddock with a press lady saying “He’ll be back! He’ll be coming back!” as some old duffer gets almost knocked off his feet and he PUSHES the wrong dude back as he’s yelling “Watch where you’re going!” – then Mika made a fist and said something like “now we have to fight for autograph!”…then he signed my programme and said “And now I must go”. *sigh*

Formula One Singapore

Watching the live video stream of the second practice from Singapore, and OMG does this track look so much better than the Valencia street circuit. I never was much of a fan of street circuits for CART or Indy or sport cars in the US, but the Singapore street track looks great. I have always loved the way the lines go by super fast, and the drivers ignore the direction arrows, etc.

Should be an interesting race, it’s supposed to rain! F1 is always good for some big surprises in the rain.

Some pictures from the Goodwood Festival of Speed

So I’ve finally gotten around to uploading some of the pictures I took at Goodwood. I’m happy with most of them 🙂

Check them out on my new Picasa web album. If you’re into classic grand prix cars, pre-war cars, rally cars, modern F1 cars, endurance racers, supercars and most other types of cars you’ll want to check out the pictures. I’ve got more to upload soon, including pictures of all the autographs I got!

It looks like I’ll be moving most or all of my pictures over to Picasa from Flickr because you get 1gb free space, and if you want more it’s just $20 per year (or £10 in my case). With Flickr you get a lot less space for £12 a year, but it is more popular with many folks so I’ll keep my account there open, just not upload stuff as much.

Rally stage notes

I’ve always loved watching rally racing, and I found a site for a team that runs old Saab 900 rally cars. They have a really good, short page that describes all the various pace notes you’ll hear on rally broadcasts and video games, pretty cool if you’re a rally dork like me: check it here.

Honda gets some Brawn

Wow. This is major. Ross Brawn (formerly of Ferrari) has decided to work with Honda after taking a year sabbatical. I think the whole F1 world was wondering a little about where Ross Brawn would fit in at the new-look Ferrari, and didn’t figure on him moving to Honda!

I certainly wasn’t expecting Honda to pony up the cash for someone with as big a name as Brawn, but it makes sense for them (or anyone, for that matter – Red Bull and Toyota would love to have someone like him running the team). There’s a lot at stake for Honda, they’ve spent loads of money on the team, just like Toyota over the past several years.

It’s shaping up to be an interesting 2008 already! I look forward to it all over again. 🙂

On a less exciting note, it looks like the McLaren spy scandal continues into a new chapter, with a slim chance of Lewis Hamilton (admittedly the most exciting new driver in many years) taking the championship away from Kimi (I’m still a fan of his, and had picked him to win this year’s title at the start of the season) because of fuel irregularities in the BMW cars at the last race of the season. I don’t think anyone really wants Lewis to win this way, especially Lewis himself, but we’ll see what the FIA say.

Also, Renault is now accused of having McLaren intellectual property on their 2007 cars, and like says, this sort of thing could just spiral out of control because this type of thinking that teams should exist in a vacuum and not pinch ideas from anyone else, which is what leads to wholesale innovation and experimentation. So let’s hope this doesn’t sink Formula One too much!

Colin, you shall be remembered

Colin McRae is dead.

Another motorsport legend goes out, not in a blaze of glory on the racetrack, but in a helicopter accident which also killed his 5-year old son and two family friends, one of whom was a young lad as well.

I don’t remember the first time I heard about Colin McRae, but I certainly remember eagerly scanning the World Rally Championship highlights for  ‘Colin McCrash’, who  seemed to be able to set the world on fire with a normal-looking street car on wet, gravelly roads. It’s a pity his run of success wasn’t longer, but he did get to enjoy his fame and fortune, which I certainly didn’t begrudge him.

I’m sure that many folks will be firing up their rally console games this week and in months to come and remembering fondly all the antics, crashes and wins  of Colin…I certainly will!

Here’s to you, Colin!

Formula 1 v Moto GP

This weekend was a great opportunity to crystalize my feelings on Formula 1, the top level of car racing in the world, and Moto GP, the top level of motorcycle racing.

Formula 1 (meaning, Bernie Ecclestone, Max Mosely the FIA president, the FIA and others) has been under immense pressure since the run of Michael Schumacher success to increase the sporting enjoyment and viewing pleasure for many of its fans. With Michael (a German) doing so well at Ferrari (an Italian company), Germany hosted 2 Grand Prix races and Italy still hosts 2 races as well. With Michael not winning the driver’s championship the past two years, the demand in Germany has dried up so that only one race will take place in Germany, and of course with Bernie continuing to court non-European race locations like India, China, another US race possibly and other places, Italy is at risk of losing one of its two races. And then along comes Fernando Alonso, who has ignited the Spanish racing passion and invigorated Renault’s car sales. His two championships have triggered a second race in Spain, so you can see where this is going.

Now all credit to Lewis Hamilton. The guy is a fantastic competitor, very quick, lightning fast, gutsy as hell, and is totally blowing away all the other British drivers and at times even his twice World Champion teammate. I love to watch the races even more now with fresh talent like this. Lewis is the embodiment of the hopes of ALL the recent F1 rookies, rolled into one hyper-competitive package. He looks unstoppable. Right now I think only Alonso can have any chance of stopping him. Maybe Massa and Raikkonen will have a chance if Ferrari sort things out in design and both drivers pull their heads out of their asses.

Now, all that said, Sunday’s race in Canada was thrilling, exciting and joyous – just not because of the racing.

Safety cars are a matter of course in Canada, with walls everywhere and a little-used racing surface. Lewis did get lucky with safety car timing and Alonso somehow tried pulling off a bonehead move into turn one, which gave Lewis plenty of breathing space. After that, I think the race would have been won at most other F1 circuits. At other circuits, Alonso and possibly others would probably have been able to leapfrog Heidfeld in the pits and try to push Lewis into a mistake in one-on-one, mano a mano, wheel to wheel action. But somehow I dont think Lewis would have budged. If Raikkonen is the ice man of F1, Hamilton is the arctic yeti, the ice *mountain*, if you will.

So. A big crash, plenty of smaller crashes, a couple of disqualifications, a couple of penalties. Sounds like normal for Canada, right? So the only major development of the race was really Lewis winning. And he deserved it, I must say. From the third race on, the entire F1 community and all the fans were basically thinking, “Okay, third in his first race, second in his second race, a win’s gotta be next for this storybook tale.” So, truthfully, a TQ and win is not entirely surprising considering what we’d seen in the first few races. A great result for Lewis and customary grumbling from Fernando.

But…contrast the entire Canadian F1 experience with the Moto GP race in Catalunya that took place a few hours before.

You’ve got Valentino Rossi, who, like Michael Schumacher, won many titles in a row and only recently has lost the crown. Rossi, of course, has a personality that he’s not afraid to show in public (unlike Schuie), so he has fans not just because of his accomplishments but also because of his off-track persona.

You’ve got Danny Pedrosa, only into his second year in the Moto GP but totally eclipsing his Championship-winning teammate this year because it’s taking poor Nicky Hayden ages to get used to the handling characteristics of the new 880cc class. Danny is tiny, so he can accelerate faster and brake later than other riders.

Everyone tipped the title battle this year to be Rossi and Pedrosa, totally ignoring every other rider in the class. Until Casey Stoner’s Ducati absolutely smashed all other bikes down the main straight at the first race of the year. Casey is new to the Ducati team and only a couple of years in the Moto GP class. The Ducati is OHMYGODITISFAST quick on long tracks but notsofast in the twisties, which makes for absolutely compelling racing when he’s nose to tail with any other bike on the track.

Ignoring for now the super close and compelling races of the 150cc and 250cc races (well okay, the 250cc race wasn’t close for the win, but the race for the podium was edge-of-your-seat worthy), the last 7 or 8 laps of the Moto GP class were absolutely worth watching the previous 18 or so laps of the race for. Rossi was leading going into the last few laps after testing places to pass Stoner, then Stoner re-took the lead with a couple of laps to go using his Duck power as Pedrosa hung on for dear life and hoped either of the others would go wide or make a mistake. Rossi kept the pressure on, pushing more and more trying to get past Stoner in only a couple of spots he could possibly get a drive on him, but the corners ran out and Stoner crossed the line first, with Rossi in second.

I was gutted for Rossi but thrilled at having watched all three of the riders push their bikes and tires to the ABSOLUTE limit for the entire race.

And in the 150cc and 250cc races, you get JUST as much racing action in each race, plus the added bonus of inter-team rivalries to go along with the usual manufacturer, tire and team rivalries.

All in all, with F1 you get about two and a half hours of usually somewhat interesting racing, but if you watch the three Moto GP classes you get two and a quarter (or so) hours of absolutely gripping race action, with more breathtaking (literally, I’m not just using superlatives here for the sake of using them) and can’t-take-my-eyes-off-the-TV action.

So, Moto GP still wins. Even with Lewis’s first win.