Making 'the best driver's car in the world': A closer look at McLaren's P1 hypercar

DNP Making 'the best driver's car in the world', taking a closer look at McLaren's P1 hypercar

McLaren's base of operations for both car development and production lies a few minutes outside of Woking, an unassuming mid-sized town in the middle of the UK. The low-rise, stylish facilities appear from nowhere, and as I sit inside a company car, waiting to get waved through one of many security checkpoints, it dawns on me that the entire complex looks like a work of science fiction. The combination of keycards, white anonymous corridors and multiple lifts that follow add to the top-secret atmosphere. Imagine somewhere between Portal and Men In Black and you're about there. There's a "no cameras inside" rule, as development for future cars, not to mention continuous improvements to its F1 race cars, are progressing in rooms nearby.

Following a protracted series of teasers, leaks and its eventual official reveal last year, it's the company's P1 that I'm here to take a closer look at (with or without a camera). McLaren is pitching its "hypercar" as a step above your typical supercar, with an unprecedented focus on engineering, design, materials and black carbon-fiber paneling so tight you could see the car's veins, if it had any. When you see the vehicle in real life, those black accents on the doors and bumper are made even more eye-catching by the signature McLaren yellow that surrounds them.

That muscular body also encases the company's new petrol-electric V8 engine, one that's capable of running on charge alone. The P1 is one of several high-end, high-performance supercars that are going hybrid, and its electric motor is integrated to the primary motor to augment the overall driving performance. It should drive better because it's a hybrid, not despite it. If you factor in the tech drip-down from McLaren's Formula One arm, encompassing the car's structure, design, brakes and engine, you start to see exactly what McLaren's offering for that $1.3 million price tag.

Chrome cars and grand-prix winners

Before my tour officially began, I had some time to walk around the Technology Center, which has Grand Prix-winning cars in every direction. A rare (and prohibitively expensive) chrome-decked 12C caught my eye almost immediately. Here, as on the P1, the looks of this special edition are the result of hundreds of hours of research and development. McLaren teamed up with paint and coating experts AkzoNobel to craft this chrome finish, which weighs a third of the original paint prototype. It's now used on both the nose and body of McLaren's Formula One cars, where such weight reductions truly count.

DNP Making 'the best driver's car in the world', taking a closer look at McLaren's P1 hypercar

The Technology Center is filled with reminders of McLaren's F1 racing heritage.

Weight was also a hugely important consideration during the genesis of the McLaren P1. Its combined V8 engine and electric motor is capable of up to 903 horsepower, which is plenty more oomph than the 12C at 616 bhp. But combining electric and petrol engines comes at a (literally) weighty cost. That electric engine has to be accompanied by an 86kg battery to power it, meaning that McLaren had to shed pounds elsewhere within the vehicle in order to offer what it believes is a premium driving experience. As Chief Design Engineer Dan Parry-Williams put it, the aim was to make "the world's best driver's car." So it may not be the fastest supercar, but it's a vehicle that McLaren wagers will offer the very best driving experience to its 375 lucky owners. The P1 will have a very limited run.

Combining electric and petrol engines comes at a cost, though.

Amusingly, the material that helped to solve the weight issue is carb-heavy. A carbon fiber "monocoque" (which includes the safety cage) encompasses the roof structure and sides, while the car's panels are crafted from yet more carbon fiber, this time woven. Both inside and out, these panels are an integral part of the car's design, running along ledges built into the car's sculpted doors. The dihedral doors of the McLaren P1, which swing upwards and outwards, pack a pair of hinges each, because, perhaps counterintuitively, two smaller hinges delivered the same utility as a single one, but with less weight. The doors are also shaped to channel air through to the side-mounted radiators.

DNP Making 'the best driver's car in the world', taking a closer look at McLaren's P1 hypercar

One of several conceptual sketches of what would eventually become the P1.

Crafted in carbon fiber

Discussing the P1's development, McLaren Design Director Frank Stephenson explained how its carbon paneling came to look almost vacuum-sealed. Imagine the car lowering its body fat, leaving a taut, lean shell, one where the doors are sculpted for airflow. Stephenson called it "shrink-wrapped."

The concept started off as a three-dimensional surface model, which had its roots in Le Mans design principles. From there, the team refined it, while attempting to balance aerodynamics, cooling and manufacturing constraints. Yes, that final proviso still exists for $1 million-plus cars. It was during this phase that McLaren added a roof snorkel (seriously) that drew air toward the engine from the apex of the car. While engineering focused on aerodynamics, it was up to Stephenson to make it look "as beautiful as it was a pleasure to drive."

DNP Making 'the best driver's car in the world', taking a closer look at McLaren's P1 hypercar

Design progression on just a single part of the P1.

A good example of McLaren's approach to how the P1 looks is found, oddly, on the inside of the car. The dash is understated, covered in (once more) black carbon fiber. The aim was to reduce reflections within the car that might detract from those outer curves.

The importance of paint

About those outer curves and reflections: "It's less about the surface color, [than] how it communicates through light," Stephenson said later, as I stared at a P1 inside McLaren's hidden showroom -- behind a revolving door, of course. Before that, we had toured the paint shop. I could immediately see the shimmering color selection that McLaren offers on its road cars. Samples were hung right next to the door, facing several see-through paint rooms. The P1 will arrive in even more hues than its 12C predecessor.

DNP Making 'the best driver's car in the world', taking a closer look at McLaren's P1 hypercar

The application itself is done by the production workers, not machines, as humans are apparently far more capable of painting the panels and negotiating around the frame of the car.

Stephenson added that the new chrome-based paint is a major part of the P1's design. The company goes for impact when it reveals new cars, forgoing black (which "shrinks car design and makes surfaces harder to discriminate") and white ("which looks like an appliance ... boring.") and choosing deep oranges, McLaren's traditional team racing color, and yellows whenever it has a new road car to show off.

On closer inspection of the P1's painted surface, within the "volcano yellow" paint, you can discern minuscule flecks of green: a nod to legendary racer Ayrton Senna's helmet. Stephenson told the crowd huddling around the car that this is what adds depth to the color, a shade that is measured in numbers so it can be recreated again precisely. He added that this is really only the start. "The 12C was the first part of our new design language," and the P1 is the extremely polished next chapter.

As the tour headed back through the facility to reach the production line that puts together McLaren's road vehicles, the focus shifted to what goes on underneath the glimmering surface and back to Parry-Williams, McLaren's chief design engineer. He credited that petrol-electric powertrain engine for both those high power levels and instant torque. The addition of an electric motor "allows [for] larger turbos and an all-new pressure-charging system [for] more top-end power." I asked, given its status beyond that of a normal supercar, whether McLaren was happy with the top speeds it was getting (currently electronically limited to around 217MPH/350KPH). Parry-Williams reiterated what I'd heard already: "It may not be the fastest car in the world in absolute top speed, but that was never our goal."

"We wanted to create the fastest-ever production car on a racing circuit."

"We wanted to create the fastest-ever production car on a racing circuit," Parry-Williams said. He added that this focus is a more important technical statement that's "far more relevant for on-road driving." In short, numbers aren't everything. It's a stance that reflects the calm confidence of every McLaren employee I met. Between the Technology Center and Production Center, the corridor leading to the giant staff canteen ensures that everyone walks past row upon row of McLaren's racing awards, its history. It'd be pretty difficult not to be proud, right?

DNP Making 'the best driver's car in the world', taking a closer look at McLaren's P1 hypercar

The business cards of McLaren employees include a schematic of the P1 on the back. It connects with a companion AR app.

Reading up on the stats offered by McLaren about the new engine inside the P1, I had to wonder how the car balanced that power with stability and traction. Fortunately, the P1 endeavors to keep the power in control with seven different throttle calibrations.

​Yes, it has a boost button.

Engineers have honed the feel of the accelerator pedal to behave consistently across the gears, whether in IPAS (Instant Power Assist System) mode, which uses the petrol and electric engines at the same time, or when you press the Boost button. Yes, it has a boost button. Parry-Williams added: "When the button is pressed, the power from the electric motor becomes available through the steering wheel-mounted IPAS button. This feature gives a consistent, instantaneous throttle response, no matter which mode the car is running in."

Development of McLaren's hybrid engine system didn't stop with the P1 either. Parry-Williams believes that similar engine designs will continue to spread across the car industry, from entry-level vehicles to the dizzying performance heights of the P1, Ferrari's LaFerrari and Porsche's 918 Spyder, offering the environmental savings of an electric mode alongside the instant gratification of petrol-based driving.

DNP Making 'the best driver's car in the world' A closer look at McLaren's P1 hypercar

McLaren's first road car, the F1.

The 20 years between the F1 and P1

In 1992, years before building this relatively new Production Center, McLaren launched its first-ever road car, the appropriately named F1. It even established a new company (McLaren Cars) two years prior to the launch. In March 1990, the team held a 10-hour design meeting for the car, demanding the highest power-to-weight ratio in any production car at the time and a vehicle that was "practical and usable on an everyday basis." The resulting F1 could seat three people, with the driver upfront and alone. The supercar was also the first road car to include carbon composite within its structural base.

McLaren's website describes how the first prototype took 6,000 man-hours to complete. The company estimated it would only craft two vehicles a month. The end result, in May 1992, was a 1,140kg vehicle that went from 0 to 60 in 3.2 seconds and an engine that required around 20 square meters of gold foil for peak thermal insulation. The supercar cost £634,500 at launch -- roughly £1.1 million in 2013 prices. At 1,500 revs per minute, the F1 was also capable of producing 280 pound-feet of torque, to ensure that the driver remained firmly in control of the car, and the car featured a new, patented suspension system to smooth out any in-transit bumps.

Predecessors aside, McLaren's racing years have also contributed plenty to its latest road car.

However, despite critical acclaim, 72 road F1s and 28 GTR race editions, things went quiet at McLaren Cars. It was almost a 20-year gap before it announced its next supercar, the MP4-12C, and a convertible version, the Spider, soon after that. Predecessors aside, McLaren's racing years have also contributed plenty to its latest road car. The P1's adjustable rear wing is a direct nod to its race heritage (specifically the 2008 championship-winning MP4-23) and can extend from its original position by around 300mm (11.8 inches), increasing downforce when needed. Outlawed for competitive reasons in Formula One, these active aerodynamics include both wing and underbody devices to give extra pull to the track, while in addition, adjustable suspension softens any roll and pitch.

The P1's race mode apparently stiffens the suspension springs by 300 percent, which means the car will be able to take corners with incoming forces of more than 2g. The suspension engineering also forgoes any need for anti-roll bars within the design and reduces the overall weight even further. Another banned Formula One addition, brake steer, also improves cornering speed by pressing on the inside wheel harder than the outside. The aforementioned IPAS is an evolution of the KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) from F1 cars, while the drag-reduction system (another button-based feature) also makes the transition.

DNP Making 'the best driver's car in the world', taking a closer look at McLaren's P1 hypercar

McLaren's Production Center in action. Note the lack of robotics.

'Anomaly confirmation'

These high-level features and systems require a similarly high standard of quality testing and McLaren dedicates lengths of its production facilities to ensuring everything works how it should. Buyers can even watch as their cars are assembled, and if they think something feels a little off, it's returned here until it's resolved. About 30 percent of the floor (most of the left side) is occupied with "anomaly confirmation." Other companies might call it "quality assurance" or "quality control," and from what we were told, the process encompasses both. Perhaps the wording delivers more confidence. If there's a problem, McLaren's team will find it.

Both McLaren's racing and consumer cars are made within this same facility. I'd normally say it was a production line, but this was unlike any car production line I'd seen before. Photos of the facility might look like renders, but it really is that clean, that... white. The floor measures 200,000 square feet and is so very quiet. Admittedly, my first visit was during a lunch break, but it didn't get much louder when the employees returned. A lack of noisy assembly tools and robots makes for some very quiet vehicle production. Close your eyes, and it'd be very hard to tell people were making cars.

Constructing the 12C's frame takes 45 minutes. However, that doesn't include the battery of quality tests that it passes on its way. As I stood on the open-plan floor, I could see almost the entire production process. Operations Director Alan Foster said that he made it that way because it offers him both flexibility on how production progresses and the ability to survey everything that happens from anywhere on the floor. In the center, however, there was one big, empty space.

DNP Making 'the best driver's car in the world', taking a closer look at McLaren's P1 hypercar

An empty space within the production line, ready to begin production on McLaren's P1.

This is where the P1 production line now lies. At the moment, the center currently rolls out 2,800 cars a year, but will expand to 4,800 in the near future. When plans were drawn up for the facility, it was designed with the capacity for McLaren's "next seven cars." The incoming P1 (and the cars that come after that) get the same attention to detail I saw on the 12Cs, with iterative improvements to the design and construction beamed directly to individual stations. Production has now begun, and McLaren will continue to produce both the 12C and 12C Spider alongside the new hypercar. Each P1 will take 17 days to craft, from start to finish and given the limited production run (and that price), it's going to be a very rare day when you spot the P1 in the wild. That is, unless you happen to be driving through Woking. That McLaren yellow is pretty hard to miss, especially when it's not going at 218MPH.