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Robert Coucher on the McLaren F1

Robert Coucher on the McLaren F1 Classic and Performance Car

Coucher discusses our love for the McLaren F1, and why it's still the benchmark for so many.

So Bonhams sold a US-spec 1995 McLaren F1 for $15,620,000, with premium, at its sale in Monterey during August. Not bad for a car that was a commercial failure when launched in 1992. Only 65 road examples found buyers at £630,000 a pop – losing McLaren money on each one – with another 42 being prototypes and racing cars, one of which won Le Mans in 1995 even though designer Gordon Murray’s intention was specifically to create a road car and not a racer. But of course there was the ultimate Top Trumps killer stat – the McLaren F1 was the fastest production car in the world with an astonishing top speed of 240.1mph, a record held until the Bugatti Veyron came along. 
That the McLaren F1 is now perceived to be the finest ‘collector’ car since the Ferrari GTO is no surprise, as its creation is suffused with folklore. Formula 1 mega-designer Gordon Murray came up with a doodle when delayed at the airport after the Italian Grand Prix. He presented the sketch of a three-seater to McLaren supremo Ron Dennis, who gave it the nod. Then there’s the story of Gordon’s obsessive attention to engineering detail and weight-paring which lost the car a brake servo and power steering in the quest to keep it to 1000kg (he still overshot by 138kg). Here was an F1 designer intent on building the ultimate road car while armed with a very large, very open chequebook.
Peter Stevens’ body design, along with the eccentric mid-mounted driving position and the dihedral doors, set the Mac apart from anything else. The looks have aged well. It’s neat, demure even; all the ground effects are dealt with underneath so the F1 does without unsightly wings, racing GTRs aside. 
Then there’s the engine. Murray insisted no turbochargers were allowed near the Mac, instead going for displacement and old-fashioned grunt. He commissioned his friend Paul Rosche from BMW’s M division to come up with the 6064cc V12, which stonks out a fulsome 627bhp at 7400rpm and 480lb ft at 5600rpm. 0-60mph? 3.2 seconds.
Octane has always been close to the F1. We featured Gordon Murray on the back page A day in the life of… in issue one, where he explained he’s ‘a bit of a hippy’ who eschews computers for a large drawing board. Octane columnists Nick Mason and Rowan Atkinson both owned F1s. And crashed them, Rowan twice.
Rowan Atkinson's McLaren F1

They are in good company as F1 crashers. The first prototype XP1 was rolled into a ball of fire by a test engineer in the Namibian desert. Another was written off in Brunei. Bernd Pischetsrieder, the former CEO of both BMW and VW, rolled one in Germany. Still, current columnist Jay Leno enjoys driving his F1 (sedately?) around Beverly Hills and thinks it ‘the greatest car of the 20th Century’.
Why all the crashing? Well, the F1 is light, extremely powerful and famously does without any driver aids whatsoever. Think of an early Porsche 911 with 627bhp crammed into the back. Scary… as my first experience of an F1 in 1994 proved. We were shooting a feature at the Longcross test track in Surrey when David Clark, then a McLaren director, bowled up in an F1. I was with a classic-car owner who made some snide remarks about the car. Clark looked at him and said ‘Get in!’
We did, and the annoyed Clark dropped the biggest, hardest, fastest hammer I’ve ever experienced. Flat-out down the straight, he didn’t lift for the banked left-hander. I felt my stomach rise, my head was slammed with shocking g-force, my brain was totally unable to keep up with what was happening. We practically fell out of the car as we came to a halt, and David gave me a wink as the other passenger rushed for the lavatory. 
More recently I joined McLarenist Simon Kidston in his F1 on the Watch and Wine Collectors’ Tour from Bordeaux to Geneva, and learned that the way to save the clutch is to let it out without bothering the accelerator. The F1 moves off on its ample torque, then you add some revs. The engine is super-smooth, with little flywheel effect. When you boot it the sound is beyond delicious, the giddying sensation surely illegal.
The steering is light and there’s a good view out, although driving down a bollarded, narrow section of roadworks took a lot of concentration from my central seating position. In a car worth many millions I didn’t attempt to overtake a well-driven, driver-aided, disposable Ferrari 599. So, fortunately, to date I remain a non-member of the McLaren F1 Shuttlecock Club.

Robert Coucher
Robert grew up with classic cars, and has owned a Lancia Aurelia B20GT, Alfa Romeo Giulietta and Porsche 356C. He currently uses his properly sorted 1955 Jaguar XK140 as his daily driver, and is a founding editor of Octane. 

This column was originally printed in the November 2017 issue of Octane.

Peter Stevens’ response – Debunking McLaren myths

How right Robert Coucher was to say in his column in Octane 173 that the creation of the F1 is suffused with folklore, myth too; but it is surely not the job of a magazine of Octane’s quality and integrity to perpetuate such myths and folklore.
It is a little disingenuous to state that it was a commercial failure, or to say that there was a very large, very open chequebook. The total budget was close to that of the XJ220 and around a 20th that of the Bugatti Veyron: in other words, very good value. Almost the whole team were very aware of the cost and time constraints that mean an automobile will either be profitable or loss-making. Production costs for the road version probably hovered around the break-even point but, as Ron Dennis so rightly said: ‘We are not just building a car; we are building a car company.’ Ron was then astute enough to sell the intellectual property rights for the race version to BMW. 
Study of the historical events surrounding the inclusion of a Mercedes engine into McLaren’s Formula 1 cars is interesting. While the magnificent BMW engine in the McLaren F1 was hugely successful in Sports Car racing, at the same time the early Mercedes engines were a disaster. This might lead one to suppose that the BMW motor was something of an embarrassment to Mercedes, which might well have encouraged McLaren to cease F1 production.
Be assured, the McLaren F1 was in no way a commercial failure at all.
The absence of both power steering and a brake servo, among many other ‘expected’ features such as electrically adjustable seats, was primarily because Gordon Murray and the design team believed that the sensory driving experience should not be diluted or masked by complex interfaces. Weight saving was a rather satisfactory side-effect.
Peter Stevens (former chief designer at McLaren Cars and designer of the F1), Suffolk
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