Giant ovens and cake: The secretive world where McLaren F1 cars are made

CNN  — 

Visiting McLaren’s team headquarters is shrouded in as much excitement and mystery as a visit to Q’s top-secret gadget lab in a James Bond movie.

Invited guests are given a swipe card and code to get past security. They must then use these to access the correct door in the car park which leads to a silver spiral staircase.

Down and round guests go until another door swings open onto a bright white corridor. There are few clues where to go from here but pale green signs stenciled above doors warn: “McLaren Staff Access Only.”

It’s a dazzling, high-tech entrance, and a perfect welcome to the secretive world where Formula 1 cars are made.

“It’s still 20 years ahead of its time,” McLaren’s racing director Eric Boullier proudly tells CNN’s The Circuit on a behind-the-scenes tour of the facility which was unveiled in 2004.

When McLaren chairman Ron Dennis conceived the idea for the McLaren Technology Centre (MTC), built just 25 miles outside London in the leafy suburb of Woking, he wanted it to be an awesome monument to engineering and technology. The era of garages littered with oily rags and overalls was well and truly over.

“I’ve been to eight or nine team factories but this is so ahead of its time,” Boullier adds. “Most F1 teams are clean but this facility is hugely high tech and the way it has been designed is absolutely brilliant.”

The graceful building is dressed in cooling shades of grey and white and its steel and glass frontage nestles around a lake and newly planted reed beds.

The MTC was designed by award-winning British architect Baron Norman Foster’s firm and seems to effortlessly reflect the aerodynamic curves of the world’s fastest racing cars.

Inside the impressive facility hundreds of staff are working to echo the building’s perfect design as they build the McLaren racing cars driven by world champions Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button.

“September is a critical month,” says Boullier, who occasionally pauses CNN’s tour to catch up with members of his staff on the shop floor.

“Every team in F1 has a group working on next year’s car and, depending on where they are standing in the championship, they will play with pushing more development of the current car or will switch resources to next year’s car.”

The Frenchman, who joined McLaren from rivals Lotus last year, ruefully admits that as McLaren is at the wrong end of the 2015 title fight, the focus is already on the 2016 car.

“It will be an evolution,” he says of the new car design. “So we have a smooth transition between this year and next year’s car.”

F1’s regulations may not call for revolution – many teams, McLaren and partner Honda included, are still absorbing the huge engine changes introduced in 2014 – but that doesn’t mean the team is taking its foot off the gas when it comes to design and development.

The machine shop is humming, the giant autoclave, where the car chassis is cooked at 300 degrees Celsius (572F), is baking and, as we peek around the design room, blueprints are hastily furled and tucked away from prying eyes.

Elsewhere in the hidden depths of the MTC, Jenson Button, who comes to the factory after every grand prix, is preparing for the season’s final flurry of flyaway races in the team’s driver simulator.

“An F1 car is composed of 76,000 parts and we build a new part every 17 minutes,” explains Boullier amid the busy environment.

“There is a race on the track and there is a race off the track. We want the fastest machine, we want the fastest software. We want everything faster and faster.

“We try to reduce lead time every time, to bring more parts and more performance to the track quickly.”

Given the team’s ethos, it’s no surprise that McLaren is embracing new technologies, within the framework of stringent technical regulations set out by the sport’s governing body the FIA.

Boullier explains: “3D printing is something we are looking at for the future to make more complex parts.

“We are using 3D printing for the wind tunnel model (60% of the size of an F1 car). But to go from that scale to the final part on the car we need the technology to go another step forward.

“At the moment we still can’t build parts that are as strong or as light as carbon fiber but little by little we are helping the 3D printing team with that technology.”

Asked whether 3D printing could mean car parts could be actually made trackside during a grand prix rather than being flown around the world at great cost, Boullier said: “Yes definitely. This is what we want to achieve.”

Much like the character of Q in a Bond movie, there is a sense of British tradition which blends easily with the sophisticated gadgetry at the MTC.

The team may be driving hard to get back the former champions back to the front of the grid but there is still time for afternoon tea, which is served every day at half past three.

Even those working on the night shift are served sweet treats, which include bowls of blackberry and apple crumble and lemon drizzle cake.

The ultra-competitive world of F1 may require hard work and cutting edge technology but McLaren, winners of eight team titles and 12 drivers’ championships, is determined to find the right recipe once more and enjoy the sweet taste of success.

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