Inside the McLaren Technology Centre
Nestled off an innocuous roundabout on the A320 lies the McLaren Technology Centre. A bespoke building which, with its sister the McLaren Production Centre, makes up the beating heart of the company most famed for it's Formula One success.
It's barely visible from the road, sympathetically incorporated into the roll of the Surrey landscape, but cresting the horizon as you approach the centre, Normon Foster's building takes your breath away.
Like everything McLaren, nothing about its technology centre is down to chance. The precision in design of the building reflects the ethos of the company. Not only is this a fully functioning headquarters building for McLaren Racing, but also for McLaren’s other businesses, including McLaren Automotive, the arm behind the production cars.
There’s an order and extreme precision to everything that’s staggering to behold. The curved-glass front of the McLaren Technology Centre (MTC), the Boulevard, looks west out over the lake, bordered by the arched drive before running out into McLaren’s open parkland beyond. There’s a serenity, a calm, that comes from supreme confidence. This isn’t a company stuffed into offices, this is a company that’s built an environment around it that’s both inspirational and a technological marvel.
It’s no accident that the setting sun will bathe the interior of McLaren’s headquarters in a glittering array of colours. That lake isn’t just for decoration, it’s part of the cooling system for the building, dispelling heat generated by the wind tunnel while also feeding reed beds packed with wildlife. It was no surprise, then, that McLaren was able to declare carbon neutrality for it’s business, thanks in part to the design of the complex.
Pace across the tiled flooring of the technology centre and you’ll notice that the finish on everything is just so. The internal pillars transect the floor tiles perfectly, everything has its place, everything is considered and ordered.
In many ways, there’s a feeling that you’re stepping into something futuristic, even though the MTC is now nearly 10 years old. You also can't help thinking it's a little like a Bond villain’s lair: the precision of the Norman Foster's design lines, the perfection of finish, the cleanliness, all ensconced away from prying eyes.
"We’re seen as a secretive organisation. That comes from our Formula One side," said Alan Foster, operations director at McLaren Automotive. "At McLaren Automotive we have to be outward facing."
Foster oversees the sister building on the same site, the McLaren Production Centre (MPC). Opened in 2011, and connected via an underground umbilical tunnel, it’s within the MPC that McLaren Automotive’s vehicles are assembled. If you order a McLaren MP4-12C, it is in this building that the car will be built by hand - no conveyor belts, no robots, just people.
The production centre will produce nine cars a day on the manual assembly line. Why is it done by hand? All the highest-quality things are. Like a bespoke suit, it gives McLaren the chance to strive for perfection. Most of the cars, 80 per cent in fact, are exported with 50 per cent of those heading to the USA.
Again, precision, neat lines, attention to detail and order prevail in the McLaren Production Centre. The glossy refection of the polished floors and the high ceilings give a light and airy feeling to the space, in which the next generation, the McLaren P1 will also be built by hand.
Half the floor space is almost empty. "This will become the P1 supercar production facility," Foster said, spreading his arms, before telling us that the next seven McLaren Automotive models will also be assembled here in the MPC.
Through a secure door is the paintshop, where Foster specified that rather than small viewing windows in the dividing walls, he wanted glass, so that everything inside remains visible. As we stopped to watch a 12C being painted, Alan Foster explained that the glass is cleaned only once a week, because they’d managed to ensure that an air curtain will whip airborne particles away from the glass before it settles.
It’s mesmerising to watch, but the absence of noise is almost unnerving. Walking along the assembly lines we move from the carbon fibre tub that makes up the passenger compartment to an almost completed car. It all seems a little too clean and easy. No mess, no fuss, just efficiency. It's something that flows from the McLaren Racing side of the business over to McLaren Automotive.
The show must go on
In the MTC there’s a secret room. Hidden behind a rotating section of wall, and behind a further sliding wall panel, and it’s in here we’re introduced to the company’s latest model, the McLaren P1. It’s expertly staged. McLaren is every inch the showman, in cars, design and presentation.
As you step around the corner, the P1 is sitting, lit perfectly, on a floor finished in carbon fibre, centre stage, with soft seating so you can sit, talk and admire the flowing lines of the hybrid supercar.
Both the technology centre and the production centre give McLaren the chance to play showman. In both locations we saw how the company can hit you with the wow factor. "It's like a sorbet, calms the mind," says Foster, as he pauses in a quiet corridor before pulling open the door to the MPC and you step on to the mezzanine level overlooking the production lines, ready for your jaw to drop.
There's an admirable balance at play around McLaren's facilities, from the overt ecological concerns outside, to the pursuit of perfection inside. Both sides seem to mesh together perfectly, like the precision parts of one of McLaren's cars. It isn't some sort of hippy idealism though, performance is still very much at the forefront. As Alan Foster tells us, everything has been designed so that McLaren can "act with force and urgency".
Back out at the front of the McLaren Technology Centre, we up the dihedral door of the MP4-12C and slip into the carbon-clad interior. As the 3.8-litre V8 purrs behind us, we pull away from McLaren’s futuristic headquarters.
Those ethics reflected within the building are evident in McLaren Automotive design. Encased in carbon fibre, overlooking the serene beauty of the company's complex, we breeze past the lake, the reed beds, and out on to the open road. If ever we were looking for something to sell McLaren to us, it’s here, where design and ethics, science and technology combine.
So if you're ever passing that innocuous roundabout on the A320, just outside Woking in Surrey, it's worth popping into the park to take a look at McLaren's home. And if you ever get invited inside, it's an opportunity you should jump at.