A nondescript building in Woking houses an astonishing collection of McLarens
Talk about building the suspense: even though I know where I’ve come today, a nondescript building and car park in Woking is gloriously understated.
A single personnel door leads to a typically light-industrial-building corridor, ladies and gents bogs off to each side. The paint on the walls is a bit knackered in places, the carpet worn here and there, as the rabbit-warren hallway continues to weave around, 1980s-style strip lights overhead. There are literally no clues as to what we’re about to see, not even a poster on the wall. And then wham… through the final unremarkable door and holy moly: what a sight!
Racks and racks of whole Formula 1 cars, stacked three high and gloriously hidden from view under dust sheets but with obvious aero features giving the game away.
Four modern-era cars, from Mika Häkkinen’s 1999 MP4/14A-04 ‘West’ car to Lewis Hamilton’s 2007 MP4/22 ‘China’ machine (the latter so called because it was the car in which he hit the barriers there and effectively denied himself the championship in his rookie season), both stripped to the basics in front of the three-storey racks. There’s even a 1974 Indy car tub on the polished floor (from Johnny Rutherford’s Indianapolis 500 winner no less), which illustrates how enormous F1 cars have become.
Wheel guns are left casually on the floor by various boxes of parts, with the legendary coding ‘MP4/4’ writ large across the plastic crates. Mechanics are wandering around, oblivious to Autocar circulating, as they try to get to grips with the pinnacle of F1 technology.
Welcome to McLaren Heritage, possibly the most rarefied car-service centre in the world.
It’s not stretching things to describe it thus, as quite a few of the cars on display are customer cars back for a fettle before they go off testing. But more on that shortly. First, let’s meet the man in charge.
Indy Lall is a McLaren veteran, having started work on the F1 team back in 1981. He was Alain Prost’s number one mechanic in his title-winning 1986 season, a moment Lall describes as “feeling genuinely on top of the world”. His official title nowadays is heritage and promotional events manager and, perhaps unsurprisingly, he runs McLaren Heritage much like a race team. There are schedules to keep, cars that need repairing in a certain order to hit particular demonstration deadlines and even targets to hit.
Lall and his team are tasked with quite literally keeping history alive by maintaining a selection of these wonderful machines, from Bruce McLaren’s first race car, an Austin Seven, right through to a 2013 MP4/28A-04 (later MCL35s are there but as statics only). There’s the Le Mans-winning McLaren F1 in the collection, M8 CanAm racers and even a Porsche 911 Turbo (930), the test bed for Hans Mezger’s legendary Tag-badged V6 twin-turbo screamer of the 1980s.
The F1 cars are the highlight, but wandering around reveals all sorts of amazing parts, such as a stack of seats that hosted drivers from David Coulthard to Nyck de Vries and piles of bag tanks labelled and ready to go into a car. Even two of Hamilton’s karts are here.
It’s surprising to learn how unplanned the genesis of all this was, because back in the day, the previous season’s car was sold off to pay for the next season. No thought was given to any legacy: a car was designed to go racing, and as soon as it couldn’t do that, it was merely the automotive equivalent of a large cash deposit. Clearly, though, the Ron Dennis era brought a greater sense of brand heritage.
Lall explains: “In different guises, it has existed for some time. But obviously it takes energy and it costs money to run it, so at various stages it was deemed that maybe we will stop it now. But then it also got to a stage where there were a lot of cars here. And we do want to see them running. We have Series One and Series Two cars, the prime cars [see panel overleaf], but of late, with the idea of refurbishing and selling to private customers, it has started off as a new venture altogether.”
Those customer cars are the key for the future. Now that things are more settled at the top of McLaren after Dennis’s tumultuous departure, it seems that McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown has identified a commercial opportunity. Series One and Series Two cars are not for sale, but other, less victorious cars are available. And that’s where money is to be made, not only in the initial sale but also in the ongoing upkeep and running.
Each presents its own challenges. Lall points to Rutherford’s 1974 Indy car, which has been through various owners before ending up back at McLaren for a full restoration.
“It has been exchanged many times and, depending on the level and competence of the person who has owned it, it’s quite shocking to see how poor it is. So it’s a big, big project for us,” says Lall.
You can’t expect to see any of the modern hybrid-era cars in here any time soon, though, simply because of the complexity of the engine.
Lall says: “It takes a small army to run them. We’re quite capable of running these [pre-hybrid cars] with the help of Mercedes, but for anything current, I don’t think you’re going to be seeing those running other than with the team itself.”
Software is another big issue. Julian Coates is a systems engineer specialist and the man responsible for that most thankless of tasks: getting old computers to work. From 1993 onwards is better for him, but before that, he doesn’t have any sight of the Honda code for the engine.
“We’re working blind,” he says. There are hacks around it, even using multimeters to try to understand what’s going on, but it’s time-consuming and can throw up occasionally unexpected problems.”
Like when he set all the alarms off at the McLaren Technology Centre because he plugged an old computer into the network that had some ancient malware on it. How did Coates resolve that? “Just quickly unplugged it.” So there you have it, folks: the answer to Terminator 2.
It’s interesting that despite this not being a race team, it still operates with that mentality. Not only in the skills and preparation that go into the engineering but also in the mindset. I mention the Fernando Alonso/Jenson Button/Honda era (there are a couple of example cars under dust sheets) and it’s clear that there’s little love lost for those among the people who work on the shop floor. The winning cars are the ones that are held dearest.
And behind all this is the human element. There’s a huge range of ages working here, with a real fixation on both helping the other. People like Gary Wheeler (see panel on left) and Coates are… well… a more distinguished age, while young guns like Chris Cousall hold the youthful fort, but with little sense of hierarchy.
I get the distinct impression that Wheeler is just as open to ideas from Cousall as the other way around: both worked on different eras of car, so both bring their own expertise.
That’s key to the way McLaren operates: without the generational element, skillsets would get lost in the mists of time. Goodwood Festival of Speed 2035, here we come.
Chris Cousall, heritage build technician associate
Given the age of some of the cars in McLaren’s heritage collection, it’s remarkable how young some of the people here are. Chris Cousall is one such mechanic. An apprentice six years ago, he worked in various departments, such as car build and vehicle dynamics, before landing this role three years ago.
“There wasn’t a job on the race team, so McLaren kind of created one on the heritage team. It’s an amazing experience, and I’m so glad I got to do it,” he says.
The later cars are the most challenging, according to Cousall: “It’s because the packaging is more complex. Everything becomes so much more detailed, and it’s harder to work on.”
Not that Cousall is under any illusions about the older cars, “where the installations are all so different to what I’ve grown up with. It’s stupid stuff, like I’m used to working on metric cars, so I have to get my head around the imperial measurements.”
The value to Cousall and the other younger members of the team is the experience that people like Lall and Wheeler can bring, with the older hands even remembering details like which socket fits which nut or which way a particular thread runs.
That level of detail can only come from working on a car 24/7, living and breathing it, just as Lall and Wheeler did back in the day.
Gary Wheeler, heritage build technician senior associate
As a 38-year McLaren stalwart, Gary Wheeler has been around long enough to be a good judge of who was the best. His answer? Ayrton Senna, without any hesitation.
Wheeler started out at Emerson Fittipaldi’s eponymous race team in 1982 and got to know Senna there. It was before Senna broke into F1 with Toleman, but the Brazilian knew Chico Serra, and the South American connection meant both men used to visit Emmo’s team.
In 1984, Wheeler moved to McLaren and bumped into Senna at a pizza restaurant. The racing driver was hiding around the corner, trying to avoid his media engagements. Wheeler spotted him and told him he wouldn’t say anything so long as Senna asked for Wheeler to be his mechanic if he ever raced for McLaren.
Four years later, Senna kept his word. As Wheeler says: “When he was negotiating with Ron [Dennis] and Hogie [John Hogan, boss of Marlboro], Senna told them he wanted me mechanicing for him.
“I was sad to see him leave [McLaren], but I always thought he would come back. We just couldn’t give him the car he needed. He was incredibly loyal. He kept the same mechanics throughout his time at McLaren. But he was on another level as a driver, in the way he seemed to be able to make the car float.”
The most important cars
There’s no strict rule as to what constitutes a Series (or Tier) One car. It’s more a gut feeling McLaren has about a car, obviously helped if it has been more successful. There are currently 10 of these in the collection.
Indy 500 winner with Johnny Rutherford in 1974. He had started the race in 25th, the farthest back for any winner since Louis Meyer in 1936.
Took Emerson Fittipaldi to McLaren’s first world championship in 1974. This was also the first title for a team sponsored by Marlboro.
Niki Lauda drove this car to his only non-Ferrari world championship in 1984. He beat team-mate Alain Prost to the title by just half a point.
Not only an Ayrton Senna car but also one of the most successful F1 cars in history, winning 15 of the 16 races in the 1988 championship.
The collision car: Senna and Prost clashed at Suzuka in 1989 to leave Prost champion. It was a low point in their relationship and wasn’t really resolved until 1993.
Senna’s last race for McLaren and last victory for the team (Australia 1993). The win also made McLaren the most successful F1 team at that time.
Mika Häkkinen’s race and the drivers’ and constructors’ title winner from 1998. This was the last time that McLaren won the constructors’ crown.
This is the car that Lewis Hamilton drove to fifth place in Brazil in 2008 to win his first championship. Poor old Felipe Massa…
F1 GTR 01R
Possibly the most valuable car in the collection: Le Mans winner that meant McLaren was the first team to get the ‘triple crown’ (Indy 500, Le Mans and F1).