From the outside, McLaren’s ultramodern supercar factory looks like a giant mirror in the horizon, splitting water and sky. It’s an unexpected sight in the English town of Woking.
Is it any wonder that it was built by the same architects behind Apple’s Campus 2? Like Apple, the sublime philosophy here is all about supreme hygiene – in shape, color and design — and an obsession for detail and minimalism.
I was invited inside the facility to hear about McLaren’s latest experiment to find the next generation of racers. They’re on a mission to hire a super fast online gamer for a year as a F1 simulator. It’s a bold move and McLaren is the first racing team to try it.
But let’s get back to the actual building for a moment.
The surrounding water
The water outside the building was a particularly spectacular sight on the sunny day of my visit. But it’s not just for aesthetics. It serves as a coolant for the massive climate control system for the entire factory. It’s also home to some aquatic species.
The glass wall is designed to take in the most natural light possible, while reducing solar gain, keeping the incoming heat to a minimum. The rubber roof — used to collect rain water for the lake — is covered with recycled tires. With the perfect symmetry outside and the seeming uniformity and discipline inside, the McLaren building felt like a giant ant hive. There are around 1,000 workers inside, which makes McLaren the largest employer in Woking.
The Supercar Temple
The building is basically a futuristic hospital, but for supercars. Inside, lies the design studios, labs and production centres, spread out in galleries.
Along one of the many white and gray corridors, was the simulator room, where McLaren does its tests before a Formula 1 race. Because of restrictions on test laps, these simulators are becoming increasingly important in preparing for a race. And they’re becoming more and more like the real thing. This is the first time journalists were allowed in and we got to watch a dizzying test lap around a virtual Monaco performed by one of McLaren’s all-time star racers, Jenson Button.
A no robot zone
Apart from the absolute spotlessness, the exceptional silence inside the factory was so extraordinary. That’s because McLarens are built by hand. There are no huge machines or robots making churning or swooshing sounds. Only a quiet murmur. It’s very Æon Flux, reminiscent of the glass churches or temples epitomized in dystopian Hollywood films.
This is no assembly plant, the kind we may be inclined to imagine when we think about traditional car manufacturers. The workers are all dressed in black uniforms, with some white overcoats. They rush along the perfectly polished white tiles, in preparation for the upcoming Monaco Grand Prix. Throughout the tour I only saw male workers.
Right outside the production centre is a glass wall at least 15 metres long, stacked with trophies. Each of them is polished to perfection. To the right of this display lays another, called the ‘boulevard’.
It’s an impressive arrangement featuring some of McLaren’s signature racing and high-performance street cars. Each and every car (since 1981) is made with a carbon fiber chassis. Back then the switch was revolutionary. Today it’s part of a long-lasting philosophy at McLaren that puts technology and innovation first.
Simulating the future
The latest pitstop in McLaren’s drive towards the future lies at the intersection between gaming and racing. They are embarking on a first of its kind competition to hire the “world’s fastest gamer” on a one-year contract. That person will be tasked with the very important job of F1 simulator. They will not only need essential online racing game skills, which offer pretty high-quality simulations like the real deal used by the F1 teams. The perfect candidate will also need to demonstrate knowledge in engineering.
For Jenson Button, Monaco was his big return to F1. And McLaren’s simulator played a huge part. After a six-month hiatus, he declined the chance to test an F1 car before the race, relying entirely on the simulator.
Button — who crashed while we were watching inside the simulator — said he “hoped” it would fare better for him in the actual race. Unfortunately, he crashed IRL, too, during the Monaco Grand Prix colliding with another F1 car.
But McLaren is playing the long game. Just like in the 1980s when they made the historic switch to carbon fibre chassis, the first to do so, McLaren are trying to set the trend today once again.
It is no wonder then that so much emphasis is being placed on their desire to hire a gamer. The competition they’ve set up is the first of its kind, but according to McLaren Technology Group Executive Director Zak Brown, it is only a matter of time before it becomes a thing.
It’s fascinating how far things have come – it’s been 20 years since the classic racing game Gran Turismo was released. Within these two decades, the gaming industry has almost caught up with the simulators used by professional drivers. It’s a convergence, that after a closer look, seems very logical.
But, with the ongoing troubles McLaren faces on the F1 track – the team was dead last in the season and that was before the Monaco disappointment — it’s only natural that they are turning to innovation for a set of new gears.
McLaren is bridging the gap between the physical and the digital, just like its space-age building is merging the gap in the horizon between the sky and its shallow lake. The quest to define the future is here, albeit a bit uncertain.