McLaren: Great British Design
A passion for perfection
"I've often said that the British are brilliant at making things – we have such a rich manufacturing history. Although McLaren and Boodles operate on the global stage, we are both distinctively British and proud of it."
Design and innovation are the McLaren mantras, and Ron Dennis' quest for perfection in both has made him a pioneer both on and off the track.
Whether it's F1 success, a cutting-edge road car or a new range of jewellery, it's all about being best in class, explains the executive chairman of the McLaren Group and McLaren Automotive.
1. What are the principles of good design?
In all the best designs, form follows function, and I find our Formula 1 cars beautiful for precisely that reason. No stylist is involved. There is no extraneous ornamentation. Every component exists to win grands prix. For me, that is good design: when even the tiniest element of an object is carefully considered and thoroughly optimised to ensure that it perfectly fulfils the brief.
2. What has been the most important design change in F1 cars over the years?
The days of the “eureka moment”, where a brilliant designer would conjure a singular innovation which lifted their car far above the others, are long gone. Modern Formula 1 is all about incremental improvements, driven by rigorous process. There is room for innovation, of course, but every new part has to function as part of the whole and be proven to do so before we actually race it.
Equally, no F1 car is the work of one person. The finished product is the result of the focused efforts of hundreds of experts. We are still innovating in that area, over 30 years on: while there are other high-performance sports cars offering carbon fibre construction, they cost at least twice or even three times as much as our new MP4-12C sports car.
"The days of the “eureka moment”, where a brilliant designer would conjure a singular innovation which lifted their car far above the others, are long gone. Modern Formula 1 is all about incremental improvements, driven by rigorous process."
3. The McLaren by Boodles collection was inspired by the wishbone design on the steering wheel of the new MP4-12C sports car. How did this small detail become the focus of the collection?
The MP4-12C is a demonstration of how F1 technology can be translatable into a premium road car, and the McLaren by Boodles collection represents a similar iterative step into the realm of luxury products.
For the designers to choose such a small detail to base the collection on is very pleasing because it's another example of McLaren's attention to detail.
In all the best designs, form follows function, and I find our Formula 1 cars beautiful for precisely that reason. No stylist is involved. There is no extraneous ornamentation. Every component exists to win grands prix.
4. In F1, how much depends on the driver and how much on the performance of the car?
The drivers carry a huge responsibility because they must distil the efforts of the design team into success on the track – and do so under extreme pressure. I admire their virtuosity, and I approach every race with the confidence that comes from knowing both of our drivers will excel because they are the best in the business.
While winning grands prix is our goal, we cannot be fully satisfied unless we have the best car – not only because, more often than not, the best driver in the best car wins, but also because everyone at McLaren is super competitive and focused on doing the best job they can.
The statistics "McLaren has won one in four of all the grands prix it has ever competed in" validate that approach.
5. What are the guiding principles of designing an F1 racing car?
Very simply, the stopwatch is our guiding principle. In Formula 1 our performance is governed by the stopwatch and witnessed by the world. The clock tells no lies: either a piece of design makes the car go faster or it doesn't. If a design has a less than optimal performance then we will find a way to optimise it, and if it still falls below the level of performance we expect, then we will discard it, no matter how much time or effort has been invested in its design. We can never underestimate the resourcefulness of our rivals.
6. How many hours are spent on the design of each year's new F1 car?
You have to look at a Formula 1 car not as a discrete entity but as an ongoing research and development platform, which is why you cannot quantify the design in terms of hours spent.
For instance, we already have a working group outlining the fundamental principles of our 2013 car. The MP4-27, which we are racing this year, has already undergone a number of iterations, and it will continue to change until the very last race.
On average, seven days a week, we put a new part on the car every 20 minutes. Designing an F1 car is a thrillingly open-ended pursuit. The possibilities are limitless and we never stop exploring them.
"We don't set out with the express intention of creating something beautiful – that comes about through every tiny facet of the car perfectly fulfilling the purpose for which it was created."
7. You've described McLaren as a technology rather than a car company. Why?
We built our reputation in racing but our expertise extends far beyond that. We have a company – McLaren Applied Technologies – that very successfully adapts the lessons we have learned in racing to a huge variety of commercial applications. Our materials science helped optimise the bike that Mark Cavendish rode to win the green jersey at the Tour de France and the UCI World Championship, and our ability to remotely monitor the health of our racing cars in real time has exciting possibilities within the healthcare industry.
8. What common ground do Boodles and McLaren share?
Although McLaren and Boodles operate on the global stage, we are both distinctively British and proud of it. I've often said that the British are brilliant at making things – we have such a rich manufacturing history. And, while other countries, particularly in the Far East, are very much the engines of mass production in the 21st century, I genuinely believe that Britain can compete, especially in the premium sector.
9. Currently, there is stellar cast of great British designers on the world stage. Is this a golden age for British design?
I would perhaps resist describing any era as a golden age because British design has such a long and rich tradition of excellence, of restless innovators who have exercised a profound influence.
"When I arrive at work each day, I'm reminded of how influential British design is, what a great benefit it brings to our economy and how it improves the quality of our lives."
There are great fashion houses all over the world but people still look to London as an arbiter of taste and an engine of invention. And in engineering terms you can look back as far as the Industrial Revolution and see great minds, such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, George Stephenson and James Watt, whose inventions delivered great economical and societal benefits – you can trace that order of excellence to the present day.
We worked with the architects Foster & Partners on our headquarters, the McLaren Technology Centre, as well as the McLaren Production Centre, and they are responsible for a number of landmark buildings across the globe.
So, when I arrive at work each day, I'm reminded of how influential British design is, what a great benefit it brings to our economy and how it improves the quality of our lives.