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Carving a slice


by Executive Staff

There are few markets more obstinate to penetration than the automotive industry. To compete with the giants of East and West — Korea and Japan on one side, Europe and the United States on the other — you need either a massive resource base to fund your start-up operations or a full nelson on regional sales, and preferably both, as is the case for government-run manufacturers such as China’s Zhongxing.

So when a new, independent automaker of limited size crops up in a region already thick with competition, take-off is going to be a measured and gradual process.

This has been the story for Britain-based McLaren Automotive, which has worked for two decades to extricate itself from the larger milieu and gain traction as a truly independent manufacturer. From its debut in 1989 to the release of its last road car, the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, the high-performance automaker has always preferred to partner with better-entrenched, more fully equipped brands in the production of its vehicles. Its first car — the McLaren F1, celebrated for almost a decade and a half as the world’s fastest road vehicle — flowed naturally from the McLaren Group’s experience in Formula 1 racing in terms of design and dynamics, but was powered by an engine designed and built by BMW. Later models were built with and distributed by Mercedes-Benz.

The McLaren MP4-12C, set for launch in early summer 2011, breaks this trend. At last the world has access — albeit extremely limited access, as only 1,000 cars are to be released in the first year of production — to a road vehicle that is solely and completely the work of the company that brought the world the F1. Enthusiasts seem unanimous in their predictions that the MP4 will compete with the best in its segment, including the Lamborghini Gallardo, Audi R8, Mercedes-Benz SLS, and most notably, the Ferrari 458 Italia.

At first, this fact seems antithetical. The massive overhead costs of design, testing and development that go into producing a supercar mean that, as often as not, sales of the finished product barely compensate for the resources poured into its manufacture. On some occasions, a supercar costs a company more than it reaps in benefits. So how is it that a micro-manufacturer like McLaren can hope to build its own supercar from scratch, relying exclusively on their own facilities and team, and still profit enough to carry out their stated aim of expanding operations in the future?

The answer: they’re not building it from scratch. The MP4 draws not only inspiration, but much of its technology from its F1 predecessor, including brake steer — a technology which applies the brake to the inside rear wheel during sharp turns, tightening the radius — and a seven speed ‘seamless shift’ dual clutch gearbox. It is a highly scientific car, with every ounce of weight accounted for, in accordance with the company’s oft-repeated motto “everything for a purpose,” and uses a chassis molded from a single piece of carbon fiber, reducing weight without sacrificing strength.

Even the new developments in the vehicle were designed, tested and retested before McLaren fastened a single rivet: a virtual vehicle was built and tested in McLaren’s F1 simulator, which was readjusted for the MP4’s own parameters.

“By the time we began production of our first prototypes, the car was already 60 percent complete,” Ian Gorsuch, regional director for the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific, told Executive at a recent media roundtable in Beirut: “We cut our costs down dramatically by simulating the car before we ever physically built it.”

From its earliest beginnings, McLaren has been a piecemeal innovator. It has been a producer of parts, some of which ended up in road cars, others in racecars, and some which found their way into the late Mars Orbiter (after the Orbiter’s unfortunate crash, those pieces now dot the surface of the red planet, while McLaren insists that their technology had nothing to do with the crash). Finally it has come up with enough parts to assemble a complete vehicle.

It’s still a modest step — in the Middle East, the company will limit its distribution to dealers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, restricting its operations in Lebanon to a single service station — but for a maker just stepping out in its own shoes, even modest steps are important ones.

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