McLaren CEO fast-forwarding technology-centric McLaren Automotive

  • 29-May-2014 01:09 EDT
Mclaren05-14 M. Flewitt factory.jpg

CEO Mike Flewitt on McLaren Automotive's assembly line.

It’s a very long way from building $10,000 Ford Escorts to being responsible for a company making $1.5 million super cars, but Mike Flewitt, CEO of McLaren Automotive, has completed the journey.

“Basically, building one car is similar to building any other,” he says modestly. Up to a point, perhaps, but the journey from the humble Escort to the 664-kW (890-hp) McLaren P1, marks him out as someone special.

And at McLaren (which will see the launch next year of a less expensive super car, designated P13 but using the two-seat carbon fiber tub technologies of the marque) he looks set to underscore the fact.

Flewitt does not come from a background of oily fingered artisans, nor of businessmen; his father was a high school headmaster. But Flewitt junior’s entry into the working world was hesitant, his initial steps at university education demonstrating a start almost as hesitant as that of the elderly Triumph Herald convertible he bought when he was 17 years of age. But the battered car gave him his early understanding of how an automobile was built and, in the case of the Triumph’s mechanicals, rebuilt….several times.

So in his early 20s, he decided that building cars was what he wanted to do. Ford gave him a technician apprenticeship, and he started work on the Escort production line at Halewood, Liverpool. Later, he gained mechanical and manufacturing engineering qualifications and complemented these with a business studies university course, which led to senior posts at Ford.

He was to broaden his experience, achieving senior manufacturing and operations roles with TWR Group, AutoNova AB, and Rolls-Royce and Bentley Motor Cars. Returning to Ford in 2003, he subsequently became Vice President, Manufacturing, Ford of Europe.

Spinning off

Then came the chance—and the challenge—in 2012 of joining McLaren Automotive, a spin-off business from the Formula One company and barely a year old. Initially Chief Operating Officer, Flewitt became CEO in July 2013.

Founded in the 1960s by New Zealand-born F1 race driver, engineer, and designer Bruce McLaren (who was killed in 1970 while testing a McLaren M8D Can-Am sports racecar in U.K.), the company dabbled with road car designs, most notably with the three-seat F1 in the 1990s and later via a joint development with Mercedes-Benz of its SLR.

But in 2009, McLaren Automotive was formed with the aim of becoming a serious designer and producer of very high technology super cars. Major components are manufactured by suppliers (the engine by Ricardo) with final assembly at the McLaren Production Center in Woking, Surrey, U.K., now employing 450 engineers. Its debut model, with 3.8-L 459-kW (616-hp) V8 mid-engine and with carbon-fiber tub (Mono-Cell), was designated MP4-12C, MP4 being a long-established McLaren F1 chassis identity.

A Spider version followed in 2012, and the 650S (Coupe and Spider) arrived in 2014. Between these launches came the limited edition P1 (“Total 375 and queues formed; we could have sold more,” says Flewitt), still with 3.8-L, but now a plug-in electric hybrid with a combined (ICE and electric motor) power output of 664 kW and delivering 900 N·m (664 lb·ft) of torque. Curb weight is 1490 kg (3285 lb).

Road and track P1s

“We will also produce an exclusive run of track-only P1 cars with aerodynamic and low-weight enhancements, available only to P1 owners,” revealed Flewitt. The application reflects his own classic car combination: two 1960s Lotus Elans, one for road use, the other track exclusive.

The P13, due to be revealed during Q2 next year, will be around 2/3 the price of the 650S, reveals Flewitt: “It will be aimed at being the best driver’s car on road and track in its segment.” It is about as “cheap” as McLaren wants to go if it is to retain its highly exclusive image, although Flewitt anticipates the company’s total output rising from this year’s circa 1600, to 4000 or more in the short to mid-term but with an absolute maximum production figure of 5000. In the mid-term, every model could be a hybrid but not necessarily plug-in: “Hybridization is inevitable. We can’t achieve the required rate of improvement without it.”

Pure electric McLaren?

Impressed by the Tesla, he does not rule out a pure-electric McLaren and, in-tune with changing environmental pressures, indicates that engine downsizing is inevitable, so a four-cylinder McLaren with hybridization on all four wheels may be in the cards; V10s and V12s are not.

Hybridization would have to be in the design team’s mind from day one, stresses Flewitt.

But any lower-capacity engined models are not likely to have markedly lower price tags: “We can’t drop the price and still be a leader in technology.”

All future McLaren models will continue to have the same emphasis: “A two-seat sports car with the focus on driving dynamics is how we see our products; fundamentally they are a driver’s car. In China, I’m always being asked if we’re going to do an SUV; we are not!”

However, Flewitt stressed that he would never say never to a four-seat McLaren, although there are no plans at present and nothing of the sort in development. As for a P1 replacement/successor, Flewitt is noncommittal: “There would have to be some significant technology development in aerodynamics, battery technology, and software controls to allow another step-change. We don’t want to build a P2 that is just 5% better.”

But McLaren is considering another exotic model—tentatively referred to as P15. Flewitt explains: “We have talked vaguely about a car that would sit above 650S but below P1—but not launch for a few years.” However, as there is nothing vague about Flewitt, the chances are the car will be launched in 2017.

There is a tremendous breadth of opinion at McLaren, with specialists encouraged to debate the finer points of design and engineering: “For example, about how fast steering should be. Some want a less direct rack for added stability at speed, others like a very fast, ultra-communicative turn-in, but this can be quite wearing. Our steering is typically not as fast in turn-in as some but is free of friction and does not have a lot of self-centering. It is probably positioned a little less direct than Ferrari but more so than others. We can debate such things all day long. Decisions have to be made, of course and they are, by specialists who lead on vehicle definition; I certainly would not try to over-rule our head of vehicle technology.”

Although there is what Flewitt agrees is “some cannibalization” between models, each retains different characteristics, but he admits that sticking to a mid-engine and very similar tub design does make it harder to differentiate between models: “However, the 650S will justify its premium over the P13.” Engines use the same block and bore center dimensions but “very little” is the same between the units in different models. The 3.8-L engine design is only about 3 years old, and there is plenty of development potential remaining.

Cool brand

A particular challenge of a mid-engine configuration concerns cooling. Explains Flewitt: “Adequate cooling is one of the most significant challenges of a mid-engine design. We have done everything with side-mounted radiators, but we are constantly considering if we can get enough air into them; doing that dictates a lot of the styling. Then we consider if at some time we will need to move to supplementary front-mounted radiators…which again will dictate styling.”

Flewitt cites aerodynamics as another highly challenging technology for his design teams who must deal with not only cooling, downforce, and grip, but pure aerodynamic efficiency. “The P1 is extremely strong on low drag for performance and fuel consciousness; ours are the only super cars in the U.S. not be subject to a gas-guzzler tax. But then it's that cooling, and of course the need to look beautiful, that we must consider.”

For McLaren Design Director Frank Stephenson’s teams, working with aerodynamicists is very challenging.

Active aerodynamics

Despite the huge amount of time, money, and expertise channeled into aerodynamics, Flewitt believes it remains one of the least developed technologies on any car, with the crossover from CAD/CAE to actual aerodynamic cooling performance leaving “much to be desired”.

Active aerodynamics will become ever more important, he stresses: “Everyone will have to use them.”

Although McLaren Automotive has access to its F1 parent’s wind tunnel facility and race simulators, aerodynamics’ crossover with F1 is limited, says Flewitt. “I believe our needs are even more complicated. We have to take a design and homologate it globally, and that means something different in the U.S. to China. We have to make our cars practical and useful. That is a very different end result to building something that has to win a race. The challenge for F1 is to build something that is the extreme in competitiveness in a very short time; an F1 a car is ‘developed’ every two weeks.”

Another challenge is one that faces every OEM: weight savings. Getting weight out of a car that already uses exotic lightweight materials is particularly tough. McLaren did so with the PI, which weighs about the same as the 650S but carries the penalty of 100 kg (220 lb) of joint battery and electric motor mass.

Joining up the dots of Flewitt’s career from Escort to P1 is an interesting piece of automotive education.

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