An interview and walkaround with McLaren's Antony Sheriff

McLaren MP4-12C – Click above for high-res image gallery

It takes a lot to stand out during Monterey Car Week, yet one vehicle that came up in nearly every conversation was the McLaren MP4-12C. Making its first appearance since debuting at the Goodwood Festival of Speed earlier this year, the MP4-12C was trotted out for prospective buyers and champagne-slurping journalists adjacent to Pebble Beach's photogenic 18th hole so those of us in the States could finally see what the fuss is about.

If you're not already up on the stats, here's the pertinent information: The MP4-12C packs a twin-turbocharged 3.8-liter V8 mounted amidships, with 600 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque delivered to the rear wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. And this isn't an off-the-shelf drivetrain from another automaker – the entire car, from the engine to the window controls has been developed in-house. The result is a 2,800-pound exotic that – on paper – has the potential to rule the segment.

We spent nearly two hours poking and prodding the 12C, all while interviewing McLaren's Managing Director, Antony Sheriff. He answered our questions, laughed at our stupid jokes and came equipped with an encyclopedic knowledge of nearly every facet of McLaren's new baby.

But more than the power and the looks, it's the 12C's overall concept and execution that stuck with us. Rather than go with an aluminum spaceframe, McLaren opted for a carbon fiber monocoque weighing a mere 176 pounds. An aluminum structure is mounted fore and aft, and the body work is simply draped over the structure to aid aerodynamics. Nobody does this. (And we now want a bare chassis to mount on our wall).

Get inside and it's obvious that the act of driving is the sole focus. The seats are molded to the individual buyer's body, the steering wheel is infinitely adjustable, the tachometer sits front and center with two configurable displays flanking it. The paddle shifters work like a camera shutter switch: hold the downshift paddle halfway, the gearbox recognizes you're about to select the next gear, dials it up and as soon as you pull back past the detent, it engages. And the headroom. We wouldn't be surprised if the McLaren had more of the stuff than a Rolls-Royce Ghost.

Other interesting tidbits: You can option the 12C with a three-camera video recording system to document your on-track antics. Carbon composite brakes are optional, but unless you're heading to the track every weekend, the steel units are said to stop the 12C in the same distance (and don't squeal). Three wheel options are available – forged, lightweight forged or ultra-lightweight – the latter of which came into being after McLaren execs told the engineering team to just design the lightest wheel possible – they didn't care what it looked like. We saw them on the concept car lawn at Pebble and the ten-spoke design looks fantastic.

There's much more, but we'll let our interview with Sheriff take it from here. And if you're interested, McLaren plans to make a total of 1,000 MP4-12Cs next year, with sales in the U.S. beginning in August. McLaren hasn't announced pricing, but we expect something in the $250,000 range. Hit the jump for the interview and check out our two high-res galleries below.

Photos Copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL

Autoblog: So we've seen the car. We've heard the stats. What's McLaren most proud of with the MP4-12C?

Antony Sheriff
: Everything. [laughs] A car is not about a single killer application or a single technology. There's a huge challenge in what we're doing, not just creating a car, but a new car company with an enormous amount of technical ability and an enormous amount of heritage. Every kid who ever wanted to design a car – I'm one of them – wants to design it from scratch. But it's not this way in the auto industry. There are constraints. You've only got this engine you can use or this platform. With McLaren, we started with a clean sheet of paper.

There are many well-qualified competitors in this market – Porsche, Aston Martin, Lamborghini, Ferrari, even Bentley, in a certain respect. Great brands with great history making fantastic cars. I would proudly have any of them. And especially now [that] the cars have gotten better and better. So what's the point of McLaren coming into the market and doing something exactly like them? Doing a 5.5-liter V8 with an aluminum space frame that instead of looking like a Ferrari or a Lamborghini, it'll look like a McLaren. All the cars are very similar. They've got the same engine, the same output. The only thing that's different is where it's made.

Here's an opportunity to avoid doing that and doing something conceptually very different. The chassis is unlike anything being built in the auto industry. In many ways it takes the concepts of the 1920s and 1930s – a body on a frame – but includes full carbon fiber monocoque. Incredibly stiff, incredibly safe, and built the car around that structure in the same way a Formula One car is built. If you think about an F1 car, the driver sits inside a monocoque, you've got a nose cone – a crash structure – you've got the engine and transmission out back, and the bodywork just covers it for aerodynamic performance. The MP4-12C is the same way. It's self-sufficient. It's not a spaceframe. There's a carbon fiber monocoque, with an aluminum structure up front. You don't need any bodywork or greenhouse to give it any torsional rigidity. The bodywork is only attached for aesthetic and aerodynamic purposes. It's safe and it's great for handling, for noise, for everything. And it doesn't flex.

And if I told you how we did it, I'd have to kill you.
The only reason everyone else in the world isn't doing it is because it's too expensive. But we've been making carbon fiber structures for 30 years. We made the first race car with a carbon structure. The first road car with a carbon structure. We've never actually made a car without a carbon structure. That's all we do. Using the technologies from Formula One we've been able to revolutionize the manufacturing of these structures. If you want a carbon fiber car, you're looking at the Veyron or an LFA. But we've got the cost in check. And if I told you how we did it, I'd have to kill you.

AB: It's a pretty revolutionary suspension as well, right?

AS: Yes. We've completely eliminated anti-sway bars, using a hydraulic connection left-to-right and front-to-back. You can adjust the hydraulic pressure through a dial on the dashboard – Normal, Sport and Track or Normal, Stiff and Very Stiff. It's all about maximum roll control.

A lot of cars have adjustable dampers that can change the rate of roll, but in a constant radius corner, no matter how stiff the shock is, the roll is going to be the same amount, eventually. This limits the absolute displacement of roll and stops the car rolling at a certain amount by binding the two sides of the car together with this hydraulic fluid. But when you're going in a straight line you can decouple it to provide incredible wheel articulation – it's like taking the sway bar and throwing it out the window. And the moment you turn the wheel, someone attaches it again. So you've got a level of roll control in the corners that is like driving a McLaren, but the ride quality of a sedan in a straight line.

AB: One of the defining characteristics of the McLaren F1 – and we're sure you're tired of fielding this question – was the central-seat layout. Why wasn't that adopted for the MP4-12C?

AS: Have you ever tried getting in an F1?

AB: A few times.

AS: How long did it take you to get in and out?

AB: A while.

AS: You've answered your question. [laughs] This is not meant to be a toy thing or something you simply stick in your garage. This is meant to be a car you can get in and drive all the time everywhere. This shouldn't be a car where you have to pick the environment. It's got all the amenities you'd expect and far more. Dual-zone climate control, navigation, an automatic transmission with multiple settings. It's safe, it's comfortable, it's easy to drive. We looked at a central driving position. And it's great, it's just not practical for an everyday car. Plus, it's anti-social.

AB: For the time being you'll just be using the same 3.8-liter twin-turbocharged V8 (600 horsepower/443 pound-feet of torque) for the 12C, correct?

AS: Yeah. This is a brand-new engine with a very modern conception. But it really has a racing heart. We were running some prototypes that were running over 10,000 rpm, but we decided that was not appropriate to have the type of flexibility and usability we want. So we calmed it down a bit and it only revs to 8,500 rpm.

AB: Oh, it's practically a diesel now.

90 percent of [torque] is available from 1,900 to 8,500 rpm.
AS: [Laughing] Yeah, even so, the drivability of the engine is mind-boggling. It has 600 nM of torque but 90 percent of that is available from 1,900 to 8,500 rpm. So imagine around 400 pound-feet of torque over a 6,600 rpm bandwidth. The acceleration comes and it keeps going and going and going and going and it never lets up until you're going to 150 mph.

AB: The gearbox is a seven-speed dual-clutch unit. How do those smaller clutch plates deal with all that torque?

AS: It was designed from the onset to be attached to our engine, so we decided on an output and made the transmission work with it. And it can handle more.

AB: Does the MP4-12C share components with any existing vehicles?

AS: No. Nothing's carried over. The electrical system is ours. The telematics system is ours. The brakes are ours. The steering is ours. Everything we've done has developed been in-house. When people are buying McLaren, we want to give them McLaren.

AB: But you surely explored sharing some components?

AS: Yes. I'd be lying if I said from the beginning that we were taking this tack of 'It must be pure McLaren.' We weren't that pure. We looked at lots of carryover components, but every time it sacrificed the concept of the car. We'd have to reduce performance or feel or dimensions. My view is, the things we could've carried over could've taken 10 or 20 million dollars off off development costs, but when you're spending a few hundred [million], why save that last 10 or 20 and screw up the car?

If you want to drive manual, buy a vintage car.
As an example, we looked at using a carryover HVAC system from another car. But because of the way it was mounted, it was about an inch wider than the one we had. We insisted on a driving position that's absolutely perfect. None of this pedals shifted to the right or feet out this way. It's absolutely perfectly aligned. You've got just the right amount of space for your feet for a two-pedal car. So all of sudden you take the HVAC and widen it by an inch. So the throttle pedal move to the right an inch. The brake moves to the right an inch. The rocker moves to the right an inch. Out. Out. Out. The next thing you know the whole vehicle is two inches wider. It's that well packaged. There's no dead space. A change in any component would topple the whole house of cards. We've shrink-wrapped everything around this package.

AB: You've been meeting with potential customers all week. Has there been any friction about your decision to only offer an automatic gearbox?

AS: We took one look at the gearbox mix of Ferraris and saw that the F1 transmission take-rate was something like 99.1%. You've got to special order [a manual] on most of these vehicles and, of course, the 458 isn't a manual. Why design something the people don't want? And the dual-clutch gearbox is so good if you want to go quickly and drive easily. If you want to drive manual, buy a vintage car. That's what I do. [Laughs.]

AB: McLaren's been relatively vague about performance figures. Can you shed some light on how you expect the 12C to perform?

AS: We've been vague because – just like our Formula One team – we're continuing to develop the car until the green light comes on. But, I will say it will be quicker than anything else in the segment. By a good margin. 0-200 km/h (0-124 mph) will be well under ten seconds. The top speed will be quicker than the others. We just achieved our top speed recently and exceeded it by one mph... I lie... 0.7 mph. [laughing] But we weren't trying to make it faster and faster. We set a target we felt was appropriate because adding another five mph to the top speed doesn't make it any better. In fact you can make it worse. But it will be well over 200 mph.

AB: McLaren has said on more than one occasion that it wants to be a serious player in the segment. A sort of full-line exotic automaker. Where does the MP4-12C fit in? Is it going to be – as many reports suggest – the middle child of the McLaren family?

AS: [Smiles] Today it's all about the 12C, but stay tuned...

Photos Copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL

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