McLaren's New Supercar Takes Rivalry with Ferrari to the Streets

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McLaren Formula 1 driver Jenson Button drives the new McLaren MP4-12C at the Goodwood Festival of Speed on July 2, 2011 in Chichester, England

Britain's McLaren vs. Italy's Ferrari is one of the world's great motor-sports rivalries. The two teams have largely dominated Formula One racing for decades. While Ferrari is well known as a maker of powerful super sports cars that are also driven on real highways by real people (albeit very wealthy ones), McLaren has only dabbled in road-car manufacturing. "We've always been in road cars, but we never had a real long-term strategy," explains Antony Sheriff, managing director of McLaren Automotive.

Until now. McLaren Automotive — a sister company of McLaren Group, which owns the famous F1 team — recently began deliveries of its new $229,000, two-seater sports car, the MP4-12C, a direct, head-swerving competitor of Ferrari's latest model, the identically priced 458 Italia. First-year production of the 12C is limited to just 1,000 cars, and all of them are already sold — a third to American buyers. "The U.S. has been incredible. The car's really struck a chord there," says Sheriff, who admits the company initially worried that it wouldn't be able to crack the world's largest automobile market because of F1 racing's smaller fan base there.

By adding a low-volume, high-performance auto-manufacturing company to its group, McLaren is following archrival Ferrari's example. Though McLaren is successful — it had profits of $82.5 million in 2009 (the most recent figure available) — F1 racing is showing signs of running out of gas as ticket sales and TV audiences decline. McLaren realized that if F1 racing sputtered to a halt, Ferrari would still have a successful road-car business. That seemed like a business strategy worth emulating.

McLaren Automotive was spun off from the racing group in 2009; Ron Dennis is the executive chairman of both companies. McLaren Automotive's initial financing was about $1.28 billion, half of which came from Mumtalakat, a Bahraini holding company, and Dennis and the luxury-goods TAG Group each kicked in 25%. Recently, Singapore billionaire Peter Lim also became a significant investor. Despite their different products, the two companies are clearly linked by their common brand name, shared facilities and expertise.

Most of that expertise comes from McLaren's successful Formula One team. McLaren pioneered race cars with a carbon-fiber chassis, which is much stronger yet much lighter than a steel one. The 12C likewise has an injection-molded carbon-fiber chassis, as will all McLaren road cars that follow. The company has a state-of-the-art 3-D simulator that enables its engineers to virtually test and tweak a car's design well before — and after — a prototype is built.

The 12C is hand-built at a new production facility designed by renowned architect Norman Foster adjacent to the McLaren Group's Foster-designed glass-and-steel headquarters in the London suburb of Woking. Over the next five years, McLaren will offer variants of the 12C as well as distinct new models, eventually ramping up production to 4,000 units a year. Ferrari — which sold 6,500 cars last year — has dominated the niche market for super sports cars even as it has expanded to accommodate production boosts from competitors like Aston Martin and Lamborghini. McLaren, however, is convinced it can nab a significant chunk of market share by offering higher-tech, better-made cars priced the same as the Italians'.

McLaren certainly has a history of engineering prowess to draw upon. Its first road car was the very limited edition F1, an iconic three-seater that sold for $970,000. Only 106 of them were built, from 1994 to 1998. Then, from 2003 to 2009, McLaren partnered with Daimler to build about 2,100 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLarens. "The F1 gave us an incredible amount of instant credibility," Sheriff says. And the SLR "taught us how to be a road-car company" that can mix luxury with high-tech performance.

Confident that the 12C will be the start of a beautiful relationship between the company and well-heeled customers, McLaren is setting up a global network of 35 dealerships, including 10 in the U.S. that start opening in September. The car they'll be selling is a sleek, sinuous beauty boasting a 3.8-L, midmounted V-8 engine that can hit 100 km/h in 3.3 sec. and has a top speed of 330 km/h.

The big question, says Jay Nagley, managing director of London automotive consultant Redspy, is whether a McLaren will offer the emotional appeal of a Ferrari. "Will there be perpetual demand for this car?" he asks. The wait for a new Ferrari 458 Italia is about a year, and already demand for the 12C is keeping pace: McLaren's waiting list of prospective buyers stretches into the second half of 2012. That's not quite perpetuity, but it's certainly a start.