By Karl Ludvigsen, England
Autosport-Atlas Senior Writer
FIA president Max Mosley openly criticised McLaren for having spent so much money on building a state-of-the-art headquarters rather than build their own test track. After visiting the McLaren Technology Centre, Karl Ludvigsen ponders just how important a private circuit really is in this day and age
I recently had a tour of the McLaren Technology Centre at Woking, south-west of London, after a photo shoot of the 200hp "Blitzen" Benz that's been restored for Mercedes-Benz. This was my first visit to Ron Dennis' new complex, which is certainly impressive. Its interiors have the sleek elegance of the space-ship interiors in the movie "2001", although they've been cluttered up with a lot of second-rate sculpture in an apparent effort to add warmth to its self-consciously austere architecture.
I found it less ginormous than I expected. The kidney-shaped building is divided into four main sections. The first two, taken up by McLaren Racing, include the wind tunnel and are rather larger than the others. Adjoining them is the next section in which McLaren makes road cars - at present the Mercedes McLaren SLR. We saw car numbers 509 through 518 being assembled, but actual production for sale is just over 400 cars so far. The first 100 were used for testing, crashing and the like. The SLR's reinforced-plastic parts are made in Portsmouth by McLaren Composites and complex parts with high labor content are fabricated in South Africa. The cycle plan is for 3,500 SLRs to be made over a six-year period.
In the last and smallest section are the McLaren Group offices and those for Electronics and Marketing. Concourses with viewing onto the lake give access to the various sections with â€" needless to say - ultra-modern security everywhere. One visitor who'd been there for a few days found the omnipresent cameras oppressive, bordering on paranoia. You'll be astonished to know that we couldn't run the Benz very much because they were worried about the noise from its exhaust! It's noisy, all right, but not that noisy.
What's this got to do with the price of fish in Barcelona? Only that McLaren's spending on this elaborate building attracted some criticism there from FIA president Max Mosley. Without naming names, Max said, "I wouldn't have spent the money on an HQ, I'd have spent it on a test track." Out of the hundreds of millions that he thought the building cost, said Mosley, "they could have said, we'll spend $30 million on a simple test track with no pits or anything like that, and had a slightly smaller headquarters." This was against the background of Ferrari's test tracks at Fiorano and Mugello and the current controversy over testing mileage.
This got me wondering about the value of factory test tracks in the context of Formula One racing in 2005. In the past, they've been useful. One of the pioneers was Chaparral Cars, for which Jim Hall and Hap Sharp built a two-mile track in Texas that they dubbed "Rattlesnake Raceway", not without good reason. A huge advantage was secrecy for the development and testing of the radical Chaparrals, which came exploding out of Midland to startle the world. A disadvantage, however, was lack of representativeness. John Surtees noted this when he spoke about a new Chaparral model which, he said, "is extremely quick around certain kinds of corners but unfortunately we don't seem to find those corners on the tracks where we race."
Another racing team with a track in its front yard was Lotus, which at the end of 1966 moved to Hethel in Norfolk. Its new headquarters was next to the runways of a former US 8th Air Force base whose perimeter roads provided 1.5 miles of test track. This was adequate for testing road cars and for shaking down racing cars but I don't believe it was ever taken seriously for Formula One testing and development. Lotus still went down the road to nearby Snetterton, at least, for that sort of thing.
Then there are the racing teams that base themselves at circuits where, barring their use for meetings, they have quick access for testing. Silverstone finds Jordan just across the road, for example. In its most expansionist mood Ford's Jaguar was planning to move all its operations to Silverstone, but that didn't come off. Ligier moved its base to Magny-Cours, to be next to the track, and Larrousse did the same at Paul Ricard. I hardly need to point out that having tracks on their doorsteps didn't prove to be the magic bullet for sustained success for any of these teams.
The need for a captive track for testing is probably less now than it's been for a long time. Every engine builder has dynamometers capable of durability testing under any required combinations of speed, load and even lateral G forces. Hydraulic shake rigs put the chassis to the test. Brake dynos dish out severe punishment. Simulation techniques - one of the biggest areas for investment in today's teams - can forecast the behavior of most components of the vehicle on the circuits that are now in use. The corners and surfaces on one particular test track won't give adequate comparability with Tilke's bizarre combinations of curves.
To Barcelona a number of teams brought new aerodynamic components that were still warm from their molds as a result of their wind-tunnel tests. They hadn't been track-tested because they didn't need to be. Improved tunnel calibration by such teams as Toyota and Sauber-Petronas has rendered testing less necessary.
One of the teams that brought out a suite of new body bits was McLaren-Mercedes, fresh from the tunnel and composite shop. They seemed to have worked pretty well. Maybe that expensive new headquarters in Woking is starting to pay off.