The new McLaren Super Series 720S, debuting in Hong Kong, is an aerodynamically shrink-wrapped, futuristic, jaw-dropper, about to set new benchmarks for the supercar sector. We talk with Peter Sell, McLaren Automotive’s regional sales manager, to discuss, among other burning questions, which fashion designer the car would be, which musical band and who makes the 720S’s fire extinguishers
This car is high on visual drama. It’s cinematic; Tron-esque.
It’s got quite a young design team, really forward-thinking and they challenge the engineers to come up with some of these shapes. Some of the panels are aluminium and we use a process called ‘superforming’, whereby you heat up the aluminium, and then blow it into the shape you want over a mould, which you couldn’t do with a conventional material. The result is that you get these really exquisite lines and the quality is a lot better. The engineers and styling guys work together but they really do push each other.
You referred to the back of the car’s silhouette and its shoulders. One editor I know well, described them as being the hips? Which is it?
I stole that line from the chief designer in the UK actually. Let’s say it’s both. It is a beautiful car just to look at. And especially somewhere like Hong Kong, where the traffic’s not always so great, it’s got to look fantastic. So we’re trying to give it a bit more theatre, the folding display, the riding wheel, Scottish leather, so that even if you’re only going 10 miles per hour, it’s still an experience.
And you’ve done away with the sills entirely – it couldn’t be more streamline.
Absolutely. We look a long way ahead. We have a product plan in place, a roadmap, we know where we want to be in 10 years’ time. Obviously it’s only best-guessed-based on the technology that we think will become available, but we do try and always continue to improve.
What’s McLaren’s best asset?
The best thing about our company is that because we’re fiercely independent we’ve got no one saying, ‘look, you have to use these parts’, or ‘look, it must be done like this’. We’re very adaptable so we can respond very quickly. We can listen very closely to customers’ likes/dislikes and accommodate those in the car.
This 720S blows Ferrari out of the water. And I say that as a Ferrari admirer.
I think for the customer since we arrived in 2011, its been fantastic. There has been a bit of an arms’ race between us Lamborghini and Ferrari, but the upside is that we’ve really pushed each other to create the cutting-edge.
If McLaren were a fashion designer or brand, who would it be?
That is a very tough question. With McLaren, we want to be leaders, we want to be first. After all, we are a technology company that happens to make cars. So if you could find a brand doing something in a very different way to get to the same solution then that would be your brand. I’d have to ask my girlfriend. McLaren do things differently; that is what distinguishes us.
Supercars are like watches, made of many outsourced components. How many components go into the 720S?
That’s a very good question. While I don’t have the answer on hand, there is the larger question of how and what you count as a single component. So depending on the definition, it could be tens of thousands. I can tell you that around 90 per cent of all our parts are sourced from the UK. We’re just opening a new factory in Sheffield to bring the tub design in-house. So that will be British built as well. McLaren is a nice British success story of the kind which has been lacking for a few years. We had such a great industry selling sports cars in the 60s and 70s, but it hasn’t really happened since then.
And maybe James Bond will drive a McLaren, if he’s still making movies. Or Mondo-Bond as he now is these days!
I would love to see James Bond in a McLaren. I think we’d do very well to steer that away from Aston Martin. There are very close synergies between the Bond brand and ours.
What about the fire extinguishers – who makes those?
We have different ones depending on the market, which have different requirements. It’s not one size, it’s not one location, and some issues are compulsory to that market. So for example in Japan you have to have an emergency flap. So there are slight variations in each geography.
What else technologically do you like in the car?
I would say, how we’ve improved the suspension with the extra senses. That came from a PhD study for six years to get the algorithms to make the suspension work as we wanted. That is amazing. So the moment we started. With the 12C we already had someone working on the future of suspension.
There is a misconception about McLaren; some people don’t even realise you make road-worthy cars outside of grand prix cars?
Yes. Its been six years effectively. There was the 12C in 2010, which went into production in 2011, that was replaced by the 650, we showed in 2013, now we’ve moved to five-year production cycles. So now we’ve set our stall out; sports, super, ultimate, and I think people will start to understand what’s coming. So, for example, we had the 570S Coupe in 2015, we’re just showing a Spider now, and then towards the end of the lifecycle, we’ll probably do a lightweight vehicle, something like that, so people understand the models better.
How do you assess the 12C now in the pantheon of car design?
Look at the car we’ve got here today versus the 12C and it feels like we’ve had maybe 15 years of development; now that’s not saying the 12C is bad, it’s still a lot more advanced than a many of the cars on sale today. It really was an incredible vision to bring a car to market like that; no-one’s got proactive chassis control, we had things like swipe doors, we had a carbon-fibre tub – these are things competitors still haven’t caught up with now. And I think, probably, given time, the first car from McLaren Automotive 2011, the one with the swipe doors, will be long-term quite an investment. We’ve actually got a new extended warranty which runs for 12 years, so you could actually now buy a 12C from one of our dealers and we’d give extended warranty. That’s how confident we are in the product. Its been an incredible ride. When I first joined we had no retailers, we hadn’t sold our first car and now just over 30 markets, eighty retailers, a range of cars. This is a super important car for us. This car is the ‘difficult second album’ as people would say. So it had to be right this one. The pressure was on.
Okay. So if this were a musical band, which is it?
Funny you ask. We were having a chat about that at McLaren actually. It was a long discussion over lunch. And we thought, possibly, it would be The Chemical Brothers. They were quite forward thinking, they’ve always been pioneering with their noise, and not following anyone but leading. And also a sort of slightly understated cool.
Which other names were tossed into that ring?
So many. Some were laughed off the table. I’m not even going to tell you.
What are the outer margins of how far your McLaren’s tech research goes?
We’re constantly looking to work with different partners if they’ve got something we can do. We’ve got in-house of course McLaren Applied Technologies, so they do loads of amazing and very different things. So, for example, they’ve supplied bobsleigh stuff for the Winter Olympics, they’ve done specialised bikes, we have different technological markets. When we had the P1, which was the first hybrid ultimate car, they helped us with the battery technology. So we do have amazing minds working for us. You can’t stand still otherwise you go backwards. Often it’s about considering what we can’t do now but how technology could help improve the situation. If you look at P1, we had an interior which came from an Ariane space rocket, so there’s lots of synergies we learn from other companies.
Where do you stand on the driverless car debate?
Our cars are all designed around a driver. We try to culture being a better driver, doing track days. Our brand is very, very driver-centric and we want that to be the mantra. When you buy a McLaren you become part of this family and we give you opportunities to drive the car and enjoy it. At the moment, most of our R&D goes into that because driverless cars are not a priority for our customers. Having said that, 10 years down the line, if there’s a readily available feature, why not? For us, it’s not our moment. But what would be really cool – imagine if you turn up to a race circuit, and you press a button that selects Chris Goodwin, our chief test driver, and the car drives around for you, and that would be a really cool experience. To show you what the car could do. We’re a way off doing that at the moment, but that would be a fantastic tool. Then when Chris has taken you around and done the benchmark you can see how to change the line, take a few seconds off your laps. When I went for the launch in Rome, Chris had done a lap and I got in and was 15 seconds slower. So if we try and use that technology I think it’s very cool. At the moment, the technology’s not quite there. These are the things we think about for the future, so we can lay down the technology now.
The customers there love the theatre of the car, the doors going up, the bright lights, the noise, and it’s a very, very young customer. We have a P1 customer in his mid-20’s and that was his second car! What a second car to own at such an age! Mine was a Vauxhall Astra.
Is there a McLaren poster-boy/girl?
As in, do we have an ambassador?
The best ambassador we’ve got is our founder Bruce McLaren’s daughter. Amanda McLaren works for us. So she can tell stories about her Dad. It’s perfect. Beyond that, our CEO Mike Flewitt, he lives and breathes the brand. He’s a total petrol-head and therefore makes the decisions our customers want. That’s hugely important. We’ve borrowed Amanda now and again – last year we did a drive through New Zealand, and went to where Bruce was born, did vineyards, flying over volcanoes, some sort of ‘experience money couldn’t buy type’ activities, helicopters with the New Zealand rugby team. People love talking to the founder’s daughter. Bruce always wanted road cars, and spent his life trying to adapt race cars into road cars. So in 2011 we achieved his vision, of finally having a racing and road-car division.
What’s the biggest challenge. What’s next?
Product-wise, we’ve just launched the 570S Spider, which is our sports series range – it’s the end of July. Our challenge now is to know what the new connected car will look like and what millennnials might want in five years’ time, because it will be different to what they want today. We’re now doing our 2022 business plan, technology for the next generation, which means a lot of R&D money. In fact, GBP1 billion. Huge. It has to be. Nothing ever stops or slows down a McLaren.