Overheard at breakfast: “I finally figured out how to get 4 seconds a lap.” The speaker, a senior official in the McLaren organisation, was discussing the Monaco Formula 1 Grand Prix, Monte Carlo.
To be accurate, he wasn’t referring to the actual F1 Grand Prix. It was, in fact, the simulator version – the one that we’d been racing on before and after dinner the previous night. Clearly, fierce competitiveness permeates a world champion team, never mind how apparently trivial the competition.
The winning habit was on prominent display during my brief visit to McLaren’s technology and production centre in Woking, situated in the countryside south-east of the English capital. (The reason for the visit “P1: The Workshop”, an opportunity for tech media to spend a day and a half having facts, figures and opinions about McLaren’s latest limited edition super-duper-ultracar rammed down their throats, drummed into their heads and generally beaten against their brows. In short, we spent the whole time being told about a car that stood mute – gloriously so, it must be said – stood mute barely an arm’s length away.)
Building a better widget that changes the course of history might be deeply satisfying in its own way, but there’s something infinitely more thrilling about strolling along the walk of champions in the foyer of this high-tech centre. From the founder’s first winner (an Austin Seven) to the racers that bore his name in his lifetime, to the subsequent needle-nosed and bewinged successors bred by the company that now bears his name, it is a jaw-dropping panoply of the quick and the extremely quick. The very car once occupied by Saint Ayrton Senna of Blessed Memory, by Professor Alain Prost of the Perpetually Twisted Nose, by world champions and pretenders, all the while being flogged within millimetres of their lives, lap after lap after lap.
A few brisk paces farther on, twice a day on their way to the cafeteria, every member of staff has to pass the world’s longest trophy cabinet. Every cup, platter bowl and bauble accumulated during McLaren’s 50 years of racing to date is on show. It kind of puts third place finish at the pre-school egg and spoon race into perspective.
Nearby, glass walls allow viewers to look down on the current F1 cars being taken to bits and, hopefully, being put back together again in anticipation of the next week’s racing. Our visit happened to coincide with a pit crew practice session in the workbay next door. It looks more or less like race day, except that the only sounds you hear are grunts and the rattle of pneumatic wheel nut wrenches: motive power is provided by three hefty blokes at the back who roll the car back… heave it forward… roll it back… heave it forward… “about 60 times”, our grinning host explained. This may be connected with McLaren having conceded the record for fastest pit stop – it now stands at just 2,05 seconds – to Red Bull. Competitiveness rules.
Which is, I suppose, why the person I overheard at breakfast was so keen to improve the lap time. For the record, the media winner of this impromptu race clocked a best time of 1:16. That’s uncomfortably close to the best effort recorded (in real life) of McLaren’s Jensen Button. Of course, it’s only virtual reality. Yeah, right…