THE WINNING FOMULA
| The History of the McLaren F1 |
In 2022, the McLaren F1 celebrates its 30th year anninversary. Finlay Ringer takes a deep dive into the story behind one of the greatest cars ever manufactured
verything has a hierarchy, even ideas; those that defy convention normally stand out above the rest. It’s seldom seen, but there is the occasional vision which conquers the superlative, dominates hyperbole, and truly transcends criticism. In the 1990s, a certain Hawaiian shirt-wearing designer had such an idea, and he wielded it like a lightsaber against competitors armed with broadswords. It started, like most projects do, as a humble idea with a few visionaries scratching their chins ponderously - in a drab Italian departure lounge, in September 1988.
On the face of it, Milan’s Linate Airport isn’t the most inspiring of places. The city's third ranked airport lacks any of the style and glamour most associated with the worlds’ capital of style, despite being just four kilometres from the centre. There is no sharp architecture or distinctive interior design to fire the creative juices. But delve a little deeper into the details, and the catalyst emerges. You see, Linate’s official title is Airport Enrico Forlanini, named after one of Italy’s great inventors and aeronautical pioneers.
One man that cares deeply about the details is Gordon Murray, the chief designer of the all conquering McLaren Formula One team. He’s just watched his dominant MP4/4 fail to grant him the gift of a whitewash season - the Italian GP would prove the only race the team wouldn’t win that season, and Gordon needed to channel that frustration.
Keeping him company are the other three key executives of McLaren; team principal and chairman Ron Dennis, investor Mansour Ojjeh and commercial director Creighton Brown. Mansour floated the idea of a McLaren road car, which struck a chord as each man had privately wanted to capitalise on the team's success. The conversation flowed and by the time the four men boarded the plane home, Murray had fleshed out a four page manifesto on A4 paper, a blueprint to building the greatest supercar the world had ever seen.
But before we glimpse at the hollowed doctrine, it's important to understand Gordon Murray - because all the greatest cars throughout the years have tended to be the result of a single anchoring visionary. Ford’s Model T, the Mini, Land Rover, Miura, Lotus 7 and the McLaren F1. Cars by committee tick boxes, they lack the singular purpose of a vehicle by the hand and mind of an Issigonis or a Bizzarrini.
So, who is Gordon Murray? It’s more than likely that you’ve heard of his antics in motorsports and in road cars over the past sixty years, but his story is more than just an F1 win statistic. The South African born designer was the son of car-enthused Scottish immigrants and began his racing career on the Durban stage. His father was a motorcycle racer and designer himself, and he exposed Murray to the car world of the era through attending race meetings.
This was the spark, his mind the furnace which it ignited. From that point, his engineering prowess would forge creations of unwavering promise. He, like many of us, had been indoctrinated by the exceptional nature of the performance car and the tremble of the ground when it rumbled by. From a young age, he would spend his time exploring and drawing the technicalities of the motorcar – foreshadowing what was to come. An accumulation of chassis, engines and suspensions systems were all ready for their moment to adapt the rule book.
The man with a penchant for music and speed soon recognised the importance of lightweight design – a trope that follows him to this day – and he became obsessed with the creations of the designers he idolised, such as Lotus founder Colin Chapman. Weight shedding became his creed, it was part of his most fundamental belief system.
He eventually had a chance to sample the forbidden world of motorsport when he built his first car (the T.1 or IGM Ford) in 1967, channelling his lightweight rationale as he wrenched away in his parents’ back garden. The racer used a reworked 1.1 Litre 4-Cylinder Ford engine and was based on the Lotus 7 platform, weighing a feather-like 440kg and paired with 90HP. He partook in a relatively successful racing career in his homeland and maintains that learning more about driving made him a better designer as he knew how a car was supposed to drive and feel. He revelled in the feel of a nimble and balanced machine; even later, he engineered some of his F1 cars to be able to fit his 6”4 stature for testing.
Heeding a calling to design at the greatest echelon of motorport, he jumped on a converted cargo boat to the UK in 1969, which was (and still is) the beating heart of Formula One. There he wanted to hone his creative skills and he saw Brabham F1 team as a means to do it. A lucky interview led to him being hired by Jack Brabham. As a designer for the team, Murray worked with drivers like Carlos Reutemann and Alan Jones, garnering 22 wins and giving Nelson Piquet the materials to take two World Drivers’ championships.
Following a takeover by Bernie Ecclestone in 1972, he was made chief designer at Brabham. Corresponding with this was a contract from racer Alain de Cadenet; he wanted to build a 3-Litre Le Mans prototype powered by an F1-derived Ford Cosworth DFV V8. Ecclestone allowed him to work with de Cadenet after hours, meaning he designed F1 cars by day and endurance behemoths by night - there's worse professions, don’t you think?
Murray’s side project was understandably taxing, nonetheless, it was what “put him on the map,” according to him; the Duckhams racer ended up 12th at the 24 hours race after running at a steady 4th for most of the event.
That may sound underwhelming, but you must remember that they had a budget of a measly £5,000 and they somehow translated that to nearly being on the overall podium on their first visit to the circuit. Brabham’s newfound management and Gordon’s own growing notoriety meant that, at just 25 years old, he could take his experience and designs to fight at the top of the F1 table with cars like the BT46B ‘fan car’. He enjoyed great success with them for seventeen years but eventually parted with Brabham in 1986 following a decaying situation at the team.
After a sizable period in F1, Murray was raring for a fresh challenge. Fatigued from constantly rushing around the globe, Gordon began thinking tentatively about stepping back and designing a road car. But then Ron Dennis came calling. When the persuasive McLaren CEO (who was understandably irate after losing his chief designer to Ferrari) picked up the phone, Gordon was coaxed into signing when promised full control of the programme and a blank canvas on which to paint his aerodynamic masterpieces. Oh, plus the prospect of working with both Aryton Senna and Alain Prost, which you’d have to be mad to turn down.
Murray pledged a maximum of three years at McLaren, bringing his time in the sport to a conclusion at the pleasingly round number of twenty years. His three-year stint as technical director translated to consecutive Constructors’ and Drivers’ World Championships from 1988-to 1990. Not too shabby. With a heavily fattened CV and twenty years of F1 experience, he departed from the sport to put all focus as chief designer and overall dictator of the F1 road car project.
By this point, it was well underway and the best was yet to come. To build his ultimate vision, he began to utilise past ideas and designs that were yet to have their moment in the spotlight. His addiction to weight reduction began to consume him as he went to the most outlandish degree to hack away at the mass; it would make the backbone of the whole project. If you want proof of just how well and truly hooked he was on the kilo-killing drug, just look at his carefully curated garage full of Lotuses, Abarths, Zagatos, and even a Honda S800.
The stepping-off point for the F1 was spread across those four sheets of A4 paper. There were no technical blueprints or watermarks, it was just plain old pen and paper. On the manifesto was an explosion of Gordon Murray’s psyche - his ethos, ideas, and design was sprawled across the page in haphazard bullet points. He wanted to execute a singular vision - no focus groups or shareholders, just the quartet of like-minded creators. It’s why the F1 is so different from its competitors. Such a simple piece of paper would set the precedent for a shift in the motor industry; it had weight reminiscent of Ford’s proposal to buy Ferrari or Audi’s petition to allow Quattro in WRC.
The nucleus of the F1 sat in a filing cabinet for a while before being pinned to the drawing board. It was not as simple as requesting parts to be shipped and production to get to work. When I say blank canvas, I mean it. There was nothing; Murray was venturing into unknown territory, utensils in hand, as he had to lay the foundation for the McLaren Automotive brand that we know today. It may sound glib, but everything that McLaren has accomplished since is partly down to what Murray and his colleagues did to lift their vessel off the ground. Gordon was allowed to design the Woking offices in which he would erect his unorthodox reverie. The wallpaper, personnel, and carbon composite monocoques all came with the Gordon Murray seal of approval.
A storm was brewing above the rival offices of Bugatti, Ferrari, Porsche and alike - their competition was about to get an insider look at every crease in their battlements. Favours were called in and cars loaded on transports to allow Murray to sample the current crop of supercars from the early 1990s (as well as some earlier examples like the Lamborghini Countach). He was a harsh critic, making a list of all of their foibles to know what to avoid in his project.
Once again applying his skills as a racer to root out problems; he knew what a car was supposed to feel like, and when something was awry. Unfortunately for the cult classics of the ‘90s, they were more askew than a piece of abstract art. The Porsche 959 was dull in comparison to the others but he loved its on-track ability; he believed the Jaguar XJ220 was cumbersome and poorly packaged, and the Bugatti EB110 was bereft of torque with severe turbo lag. It wasn’t so scathing as to make Ettore Bugatti turn in his grave, but he was blunt enough to show up the trio’s indisputable faults. He’s an eloquent fellow too, I wonder what would have happened if Murray had dabbled in auto journalism. Could you imagine? ‘The ultimate ’90s group test, penned by Gordon Murray’.
It was the Ferrari F40 that stood out in the sea of performance – he loved the steering feel and the powerful character that it embodied. Though, he critiqued the build quality (as many reviewers did), infamously quipping “I couldn’t build one because I didn’t know anybody who could weld that badly.” He found that his daily driver of the time, a Honda NSX, was the benchmark for ride and handling quality due to its low scuttle height and the way the air conditioning had been moved from the dashboard to the front boot.
He had sampled most of the best products on the market, now it was time to look for the best producers; Murray cherry-picked the best designers and engineers from the biggest institutions. They were jumping ship faster than the Titanic, specifically, Lotus and Jaguar lost a noticeable amount of their staff. The most famous of which was designer Peter Stevens, known for his work on the Jaguar XJR-15 and Lotus Elan, who was pinched from a brief spell as Lamborghini chief designer. The F1 shared indicators with the Elan, presumably swiped from the Hethel offices in a comically labelled box by the staff who migrated to McLaren after they had handed in their notices.
News of the project had been dotted through the automotive press, sending workers into an excited frenzy; this meant that Stevens had no trouble coercing his team to move to Woking. His colleague, body engineer Barry Lett, left Lotus after working on the Lotus Carlton and the stillborn Lotus supercar with Stevens, whilst his close friend Mark Roberts joined as a technical illustrator. Suspension wizard Steve Randle, who was the son of Jaguar chief designer Jim Randle, also joined the team. Murray also made a point to hire a group of young engineering graduates - I can think of less exciting first jobs. With his pre-production ready and armed with the same design tools gifted to him years ago by his parents in South Africa, he got to work.
So what do you call the greatest car ever fathomed? The McLaren Work of Genius was a bit on the nose so, following two great debates in Mansour Ojjeh’s London flat, the team went with something much simpler: F1. The name would invoke thoughts of their Formula One success and, as Murray quipped, “be 39 ahead of an F40”. Witty.
With the name under their belt, they just needed a car to accompany it. Gordon was an F1 engineer, so in his mind, this project was “purely Formula One Technology applied to a road car.” The most radical form of motorsports translated to several fundamental ideas that he wanted to implement. I’m sure just mentioning the F1 provokes ideas of the 3-seater center-mounted, arrowhead driver’s seat design.
His test in rival cars had incited him to blow the dust off of the design, which he had drawn in college, in 1969. He became weary from their pedal offsets finding that his million-dollar product shouldn’t need its drivers to contort themselves like an acrobat just to change gear. The wise choice of placing them directly in front of the driver also meant that the engine and gearbox were behind and the ram air intake was above them. All of this made for better weight distribution and made the driver more involved with the cabin; the intake in particular was famous for its mind-warping noise, especially in the passenger seats. Another brainchild of F1, it lined the spine of the car and directed high-pressure air into the engine, and removed low pressure.
Alongside this, Murray followed his weight shedding scheme religiously and set an ambitious target of a dry weight of 1,000kg, which was nearly achieved. To him, parts couldn’t just be sufficient - they had to be sensational. He went to the extreme and spent money with a ‘you only live once attitude, which is code for excessively. Each lightweight part was fitted to a carbon fibre polymer composite monocoque, which was one of the first of its kind and could - you guessed it - trace its roots back to F1.
The F1’s body is a staggering example of a compact design. Its sleek nature is hypnotising and intentionally juxtaposed the obese, bewinged nature of rivals. But beauty sacrificed downforce, meaning that the underbody and rear diffuser were sculpted and paired with a small automatic rear spoiler and two electric fans which made use of ground effect - anybody else noticing a motif of Formula One design? The dihedral doors were inspired by the Toyota Sera, of all things, and its sharp and simple design is still distinctive compared to the busy angles of modern-day supercars.
The interior is where Murray’s packaging talent - another thing he learned in his Formula One days- shines. It was function embodied. Accompanying comforts like air conditioning and remote central locking were more niche details like a titanium-nitride Facom tool kit, 0.5mm thick metal plating and a Kenwood CD stereo system (he didn’t feel radio was necessary) which Murray had tasked to weigh 8.5 kilos.
The driving position was adjusted specifically to the owner. The interior itself was covered in Connelly leather (aside from chassis 037, which had full Alcantara) with some in a contrasting colour for the centre seat insert to make the revolutionary design stand out more.
Nothing was unnecessary; there were even carpeted storage compartments in the side of the car which swung out - he really made use of every inch of space, and it looked cool too. To finish the purchase, tailored luggage to fit said compartments and a special edition Tag Heuer 6000 Chronometer wristwatch emblazoned with the chassis number came as standard; they would now probably sell for more than a modern McLaren. The only thing missing was airbags and ABS – for weight-saving reasons, of course.
Statistics and finer details were murky at the point of conception; their small company was originally riding on an overall program budget of £21 million, which included £8 million for development (excluding engine production). Gordon eventually overran by £500K.
The budget for the sales price, however, was left ambiguous. They had no idea how many people were interested in buying what was likely the world’s first million-dollar car, or how hard they would have to push the rhetoric of exclusivity and performance to make them look past such a ludicrous sum (and a £50K deposit). This also meant that they were not sure how many would be made: it was eventually decided that the contract would stipulate that no more than 300 cars would be produced. In the end, only 106 examples were made, including the race cars.
If we’re following the theme of vehicles that sparked industry revolution, it would be criminal not to bring up the BMW 2002. Europe’s first car ever fitted with a turbocharger changed the landscape of performance cars permanently, and it was the brainchild of one Paul Rosche. Why mention this? Take a guess who’s office the stereotypical ‘90s hairstyle of Gordon Murray entered seeking a propulsion system for his creation. For Porsche, it was Hans Mezger. For Ferrari, it was Gioacchino Colombo. To BMW, Rosche was the engine guru.
The engine itself was enough to make him cackle like a supervillain clutching his planet-killing weapon. Gordon’s designs called for a V10 or V12 with around 450BHP. After inquiring at Honda, who was McLaren’s F1 engine supplier at the time, his saviour came in the form of BMW. Rosche proposed a 6-Litre naturally aspirated V12, which revved to 7,500rpm and produced 627BHP and 479 lb-ft of torque - far higher than expected.
It was mounted in the middle of the McLaren, making use of new variable valve timing with an aluminium block and heads, double-overhead cams and four valves per cylinder. Job done. The F1 was also the first production car to feature a 200mm diameter aluminium flywheel and carbon clutch assembly (much like in F1 cars) meaning engine response and efficiency go up and weight goes down. Cue Gordon’s grin.
Famously, the engine bay was lined with 16 grams of gold foil as a heat reflector. The only thing Murray didn’t like about the bay was the bracket on which the light switch sits, as it had to be moved due to the decklid lifting at high speed. It’s the little things, quite literally.
It was a powerplant that would put nuclear reactors in their place. The BMW masterpiece is now heralded as one of the greatest powertrains ever composed, with an engine note reminiscent of Luciano Pavarotti’s deep bellows, combined with his screams as he’s hurled down the Mulsanne Straight at 200mph. The engineers were so good that the start-up sequence was mapped out using a verbal impression that Peter Stevens did in a meeting, and their product was so mighty that the straight-six engine found in BMW's M cars of the same era was derived from Rosche’s F1 creation. Murray would match it to a compact transverse-shaft 6-speed manual transmission and four-pot, aluminium Brembo brakes coated in 5-spoke OZ rims and bespoke Goodyear and Michelin tires. Light, fast and extravagant - the quintessential supercar, or perhaps the first hypercar?
To fine-tune such an immense piece of engineering, it had to endure some hefty mileage. So, what better than to cram a supercar engine into a BMW E34 M5 Touring? Rosche and his team chose the high-performance estate to house his design; it was never shown to the public and is the untold hero of the F1’s journey -without it, the ultimate naturally aspirated engine would be no more than fantasy.
Another two test mules were to follow; specifically, it was chassis number 12 and 13 of the Ultima Mk3. The first of the two lightweight track-toys was ‘Albert,’ which was used to develop features like the gearbox, brakes and driving position. It used a Chevrolet V8 to replicate the V12’s torque and was named after the street where McLaren was based – Murray has used the names of English kings since. The other Ultima, ‘Edward,’ was focussed on engine setup. The royal duo was overseen by the McLaren team and would provide crucial development to put into the first purpose-built F1 chassis – XP1. The Ultima twins did not share the same fate as their spawn: they were both crushed to keep them away from the prying eyes of the automotive press. Once all creases were ironed out, the prospective internals were fitted to McLaren’s first carbon monocoque. To create the F1, five experimental prototype vehicles of varying degrees of completion were commissioned; they have been affectionately dubbed ‘the XP cars’.
Gordon had made it his goal to have a running car by Christmas of 1992. He and his cheery flock of engineers would have their grins wiped from them over 6,000 hours of work. This included the frantic few days known as ‘The Lost Weekend’, which saw sparks fly and sleep dwindle. The organised chaos would see no reprieve (except for one engineer who deviated for the birth of his child before rushing back to the workshop - an excusable interlude, I’m sure you’ll agree). None of it was in vain as XP1 rolled out of the garage on its own power on December 23rd 1992, Murray at the wheel and weary-eyed mechanics watching on in awe. It was these sort of extraordinary events that showed how devoted they all were to build the most extraordinary car.
Once they had a working vehicle, thousands of test miles clicked away on the odometer. That was until it was vapourised along with the rest of the car. During hot weather testing in Namibia, a BMW engineer clipped a gutter and careened off the road at speeds in excess of 150 mph; after several barrel rolls, the car settled in the sand and the fluids ignited, consuming the mass of crooked metal. The new carbon monocoque, however, remained unscathed, meaning the driver trudged away from the scene somewhat embarrassed, but nevertheless intact. The strength of the construction was proven once again with XP2 as it was used for crash testing. The chassis was so strong that it passed the test with ease – a testament to its thorough engineering.
XP3 had a more prosperous life in testing as it completed countless endurance runs at various circuits in Europe with drivers like Mika Häkkinen and Jonathan Palmer at the wheel. It was Palmer who made XP3 noteworthy as he reached a speed of 231 mph around the Nardo Ring in Italy, in 1993; the team knew there was more to give, but that would come at a later date. It was enough to whip the dumbfounded journalists into a chorus of delirium, making them all the more excited for when they could have a taste of Gordon’s grandest creation to date. Eventually this silver spear-like machine would be gifted to Murray, as stipulated in his contract. He would sell the car later due to the high value making it difficult to drive on public roads.
The gleaming Dark Metallic Grey of XP4, which was personally configured by Gordon, as all of the XP cars were, would be one of the first F1s sold to a private customer. Indian businessman Roger Bhatnagar, who was based in New Zealand, wanted to avoid the wait of producing an F1 so approached McLaren about buying XP4. He resprayed the car Electric Blue and it stayed in Bruce McLaren’s home country for several years before being sold to a Californian collector.
It is XP5 that most enthusiasts come to remember: the infamous record breaker. After use as a test vehicle, it was registered as K8 MCL in April of 1994 and began to make the rounds with various automotive publications the following month. McLaren had made it explicitly clear that only one organisation would be allowed to gather performance statistics; those figures could then be standardised across all reports. The F1 wasn’t built with the intention to be overlord of all performance data, so Murray only thought one test was necessary to get some general understanding of just how good it was on paper. The only pitfall with this was the discovery that it was slower from 0-30 than an Audi RS2. It’s fine, nobody’s perfect.
It would be Autocar that eventually got the privilege of producing the first published road test of the paragon that came out of Woking. After years of negotiation, they would be allowed to test the F1 in May of 1994 with the road test editor at the time, Andrew Frankel, behind the wheel.
The test, which took place at the Millbrook Proving Ground and the Bruntingthorpe aerodrome, was hindered before it even began by the death of Ayrton Senna the day before. The legendary driver had close personal ties to the McLaren team and those involved with the F1 project. Though, the devoted engineers and team members were still present at the test. If there was ever an example of a group of individuals who were loyal to their work, this was it.
They laid the foundation for a flurry of praise which was hurled at the F1 in the following months; it carried agility reminiscent of a Lotus, but when mated with its 627BHP and 1,138kg, it pounced like a lustful animal. Car Magazine’s Roger Bell said “My mind is blown. My soul corrupted. Absolute power has cast its spell.” Equating it to an unforgettable, addictive driving experience – a clear verdict, if I ever did see one. These types of proclamations were the reason why the F1 is embedded into four-wheeled mythology, why car geeks far and wide can recall every idiosyncrasy.
Even in the modern age, EVO Magazine’s analogue supercars test was still bested by none other than XP5 – it was still the benchmark; the Porsche Carrera GT and Ferrari F50 got close, but the cigar was still somewhat out of reach. After 98,000 miles of rigorous use, it retired to the McLaren Heritage collection at the Mclaren Technology Centre. Though dormant, its escapades in Germany still print it into automotive folklore.
On a brisk Spring Day in March of 1998, McLaren wheeled the Dark Metallic Green spaceship out of a garage in Volkswagen's Ehra-Lessien Proving Ground with one goal in mind: solidify their car as the fastest production car of all time. After a few test runs and a change of trousers for driver Andy Wallace, the final combined speed was recorded at 240 mph. To this day, the F1 is still the fastest naturally aspirated production car in existence. Bugattis and Koenigseggs have usurped it on the top speed front but the F1 is still known as the first of its kind to achieve such feats of velocity.
But how was the buying experience for those fortunate enough to be able to afford the world's most expensive car? McLaren first demonstrated the car in 1992 during the Monaco Grand Prix weekend, with the pre-production Clinic model, which looked the part of an F1 despite being based on an Ultima chassis. Such a grand concept stunned a wealthy audience and orders began to trickle in; sale was a slow process with a handful of early buyers, but I guarantee that today they regard it as one of the best decisions they have ever made.
It wouldn’t have been possible without sales director David Clarke, who independently oversaw the distribution of McLaren’s product. He worked with the rest of the team to forge deals with some of the world’s richest collectors, including the Sultan of Brunei; he is still the go-to reseller for the F1, which is not a bad responsibility to have. Clark is also famous for owning chassis 06R, which was the F1 GTR sponsored by Harrods that finished third place at Le Mans in 1995.
Ironically, he implemented a policy that a racer would have to purchase a road car if they wanted to buy a GTR as well, setting the precedent for the sale of upmarket cars for years to come. I’m looking at you Ferrari sales team. Ever the investor, he also owns a majority of the spare engine parts for the F1 road and race cars, just in case they should go up in value…Today the F1 has an owners list that makes even the most exclusive of manufacturers feel a tinge of jealousy; celebrities and racing drivers alike decreed it a worthy investment, highlighting just how special it is.
Accompanying a lengthy pay cheque, the creators of the F1 either received or purchased an example for themselves. Murray received XP3 whilst his associates, Ron Dennis and Mansour Ojjeh, purchased several chassis. While not an owner, chassis 029 was painted a striking shade of Creighton Brown.
Ojjeh originally owned the Pale Blue chassis 036 before selling it and purchasing chassis 075, which was owned by his brother, Aziz, and was the last F1 ever produced. The Yquem golden-orange paint was unique – it remains with the family following Mansour’s death in 2021, a touching tribute to one of his greatest achievements.
It is Ron Dennis who has the most complicated relationship with the F1. He bought the second F1 ever produced (chassis 003) as a personal and promotional vehicle for McLaren. Dennis also owned chassis 039, which is widely regarded as being the ugliest F1 with its gold wheels and brown scheme, for a brief stint before his wife grew dissatisfied with the colour and he sold it. He made up for this by buying the Magnesium Silver chassis 050 - problem solved.
It is 039 that has the most far-fetched story of all F1 chassis – it’s the stuff of cinema. After going through several buyers, it eventually made it to Culiacan, Mexico, which was a base of operations for the Sinaloa Cartel. A high-ranking trafficker and associate of drug lord Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman (who is currently incarcerated) Humberto Ojeda, owned the Brazilian Metallic Brown car until he was killed in a firefight; the car has not been seen since. It is believed to still be in the cartel or the Ojeda family’s possession. Eerily, it carries the same UK registration (P440 CPJ) and VIN number as the Le Mans podium-scoring chassis 06R owned by David Clarke. Aside from varied conspiracy theories, nobody seems to be able to explain why…
Though not on par with the might of El Chapo, many celebrities have taken delivery of the F1. Collectors such as Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, fashion designer Ralph Lauren, musician Wyclef Jean, entrepreneur Elon Musk and Comedian Jay Leno all added an example to their garage. The lead guitarist of the Beatles, George Harrison, owned the unique chassis 025 finished in Dark Purple Pearl with Satin Black wheels – he had a close personal friendship with Gordon Murray who added personal touches such as song lyrics and symbols of his Hindu faith. Comedian Rowan Atkinson had the Dark Burgundy chassis 061, which he crashed twice; the second incident was so severe that £910K was paid to McLaren to repair it before it was sold for £8 million.
It wasn’t just collectors who had a soft spot for the F1; several racing drivers wanted to experience Murray’s engineering thrill. 7-time Formula One World Champion Lewis Hamilton purchased his chassis (ironically numbered 044) in 2017. He had previously been promised the prototype F1 LM by Ron Dennis if he won three World Championships for McLaren, a feat he later accomplished with Mercedes. Andretti Autosport team owner Michael Andretti received the Grand Prix Red chassis 028 as part of a compensation package for being dropped by the McLaren Formula One team in 1993. However, the F1 was not allowed for US road use in 1995 and he did very little mileage in it, which must’ve added salt to the wound.
The Sinaloa Cartel were not the only criminals involved in the sale of an F1. James Munroe purchased chassis 069 in 1998 and had it finished in Mercedes-Benz Brilliant Silver. He worked as an accountant for a publishing company and made a regular wage, but he somehow amassed a valuable supercar collection and raced in a Ferrari F355. He would also buy an F1 GTR Longtail (chassis 27R) which he raced in the British GT Championship, in 1999. His employers were completely unaware of his wealth and an investigation later discovered that he had stolen £2.9 million from them. His antics landed him a jail sentence and the car was sold on; the real injustice, however, was that he covered only 924 miles.
Whilst in his care, his F1 was sent back to McLaren and fitted with the optional High Downforce Kit. It upgraded the road cars to “LM specification”, which included a reworked front end with altered vents and a very noticeable rear wing. It’s supposed to create more downforce than the F1 GTR and was a rare example before it was removed by a later owner. Only two F1s still bear this kit and one recently smashed records as it sold for a maddening $19.8 million.
Of all of the F1’s caretakers, the most prominent has to be the Sultan of Brunei. No-one is more loathed by fans for his treatment of such a behemoth of design. The Sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, and his brother Prince Jefri had been collecting exotic vehicles since the 1980s, using Brunei’s money from natural gas and oil reserves to finance them. Huge volumes of cars, numbering in the thousands, were purchased and stored in warehouses; they were often bought in bulk and the F1 was no exception.
In fact, the first F1 ever to roll off of the production line (002), which was the only car to be produced in 1993, was sent straight to Brunei. The Dorchester Grey car was later accompanied by chassis 004, which was soon crashed and broken up for spare parts. The Jet Black 005 and the Titanium Yellow 014 have since been sold to foreign collectors and 008 accompanies 002 in the depths of Brunei to this day.
Following the success of the F1, the Sultan also purchased some of the variants accompanying the original model. The first of which was one of the 28 F1 GTRs, which was the racing version of the F1 that would propel them to a host of victories including an overall victory at Le Mans. He designed it to be identical to the Le Mans winning car of 1995 and the car has reportedly not been used since it was bought.
Subsequently, he purchased three - yes, you read that right - of the six F1 LMs ever built (including the prototype XPLM, which resides in the McLaren Heritage Collection). This model was created to commemorate the successes of the F1 at Le Mans and added all of the upgrades from the endurance racing winner to a road-going chassis. This included all aerodynamic upgrades, a stripped interior and the removal of noise suppression, a different transaxle, Magnesium 5-spoke wheels, an uprated gearbox, much stiffer suspension to tackle circuits and the ultimate F1 engine. It was the same unit from the GTR, but it came without the race restrictor plate so made 680 HP and peak torque of 520 lb ft. The Sultan specified two of his cars in a contrasting black and grey colour scheme with blue and yellow stripes down the side. The final car was painted Papaya Orange, a nod to McLaren’s racing heritage.
He also bought chassis 054, otherwise known as the F1 GT. It was a homologation special to allow McLaren to stay competitive in GT racing alongside its more advanced rivals. The road legal car had an extended rear, otherwise known as a “Longtail”, which allowed it to produce better downforce with only a rear spoiler and not the cumbersome wing like on the GTR; they were based on a normal chassis and included a longer front end and wider arches, similar to the race cars. The interior and internals were relatively similar to a normal car.
Only three were ever made (including the prototype chassis 056, known as XPGT) with the Sultan owning one and the other (058) being in the care of a Swiss collector. The Sultan’s car was recently spied on a plane to London, where it is believed to be bound for restoration by McLaren. Thereby lies the root of the distaste for the Sultan in the car community: he and his brother hoard nearly $5 billion worth of cars and in the stifling Brunei heat. The warehouses in which they are kept are not temperature controlled, meaning their contents sit rotting away with barely any miles on the odometer – it’s a fair assumption that the F1s I have mentioned are no longer in pristine condition. What’s more sacrilegious in the car world than letting its ultimate incarnation rot away?
When Mansour Ojjeh first concocted his supercar scheme, it was when his holding group, TAG, sponsored Williams F1 Team. Even back then, he had one aim in mind: create a car that would mosey down to the south of France with ample luggage space, unequivocal opulence and at socially taboo speeds, then voyage back to your point of origin. All whilst grinning, of course. His attitude did not change when his dream became a reality and thoughts of motor racing appeared far fetched, not least because the F1 was not built with competition in mind.
“I would have done it differently” says Murray, had he known the F1 was to compete in GT racing. The way he designed the car was exclusively for on-road driving; it was adept on track but that wasn’t meant to be its calling. Gordon favoured a very soft suspension setup so that the F1 could tackle any surface or distance, whether being driven spiritedly on a country lane or tackling mileage on a motorway. This did mean that the world’s fastest car appeared “floaty” on track, so it was a bold idea to wheel it into a paddock to compete.
Though needs must, as they say; the F1 caused mass hysteria throughout the automotive world but it wasn’t actually a success commercially. By the time of production, McLaren were £21 million deep into the project with far fewer pennies rolling back into their pockets. Their bold spending paired with the economic slump at time of launch meant that no profit was being made on the sale of each F1. McLaren Automotive craved the media exposure of motorsports success. We knew that their product was electrifying to drive, but a win at a race like Le Mans would engrain it into the record books much more than any group test or deep dive ever could. To Murray, it was “priceless”.
Though in its infant stages, the BPR Global GT Championship seemed like the perfect way to springboard the F1 onto the racing scene. It had replaced the deceased World Sportscar Championship in 1993 and was the only international sports car series in place at that time. They sold several newly designed F1 GTRs to privateer teams who entered them into the roster in 1995.
The GTR was not far off of being a standard road car - it had greater aerodynamics to counteract the F1’s playful nature, but even they were limited by having just a day in a wind tunnel to develop them. Their prototype, which was originally meant to be road-going chassis 019, was fettled to the most minute degree - especially during a 24 hour test at Magny-Cours - in the limited time that McLaren had to get a design ready to race in late February. Chassis 01R, as it was dubbed, would be retained by the team for development throughout the year.
Three F1 GTRs would debut at the BPR season opener in Jerez, taking the top three spots in qualifying to make their grand entrance. They were quick, the whole grid knew it, but by no means was the victory of the Gulf Racing GTR the following day an easy one. It was more of a violent sprint to the finish than a canter to victory; the F1 jostled for the whole race with 911 GT2s and F40 LMs to reach the chequered flag first. It had worked though, the early GTRs were not without flaws but it still won a majority of the races that season, aside from a few stumbles here and there.
Both its advantages and its foibles showed themselves when they trekked to Le Mans. The race wasn’t actually part of the BPR Championship, but the payoff of a possible win was too great for McLaren not to enter. By this point, there were seven F1 GTRs participating in the race with nine registered chassis overall (the other two being 01R and 04R, which underwent heavy damage at Jarama so was replaced by 08R for the rest of the season). All of the cars were filled for the duel at Le Sarthe with famed racers like David Brabham and Derek Bell making up part of McLaren’s line up.
This would cause a problem for them when the owner of the Ueno Clinic in Japan approached them asking to sponsor a car to race at Le Mans. It was quite a conundrum - there simply were not enough cars to stick his sponsorship on. That was until the decision was made to blow the cobwebs off of 01R, paint it in a stealthy two-tone black and grey scheme and enter it in the race. An agreement was struck with its sponsor: if the car wins, McLaren keeps the car and sells him a tasteful road car as consolation. If it doesn’t, 01R was the Ueno Clinic’s to keep.
The challenge was near enough impossible - a heavily modified road car designed for testing was supposed to battle the prototypes and GT cars of the Le Mans grid. Nature was on its side, however, as a monsoon descended on the circuit for 16 hours of the event. This meant that most of their competitors did not finish as they crashed or underwent reliability issues. The rain also meant that the drivers had to be hugely careful through the standing water, especially given that downforce was reduced to improve balance in the harsh weather. It was chassis 06R, piloted by Derek Bell, his son Justin, and Andy Wallace, which was predicted to win; the yellow and green Harrods car had led most of the race until a clutch issue in its closing stages caused them to drop back to finish in third.
Meanwhile, as the sun dipped below the clouds, chassis 01R was gaining speed. Finnish driver JJ Lehto was scything through the field and made up an enormous deficit throughout the night - at certain points, he was 17 seconds a lap quicker than any other car. Miraculously, this meant that the unlikely underdog in the F1 GTR lineup was the one to take victory. Lehto and his co-drivers, Yannick Dalmas and Masanori Sekiya, stood on the top step of the podium with the other four F1s that finished a respectable third, fourth, fifth and thirteenth. 01R would retire to the McLaren collection where it now sits next to record-breaker XP5. McLaren are still the only manufacturer to win Le Mans on their first outing (excluding a privateer Ferrari in 1949) and to complete the F1’s dominating streak, it won the 1995 BPR Championship.
For 1996, nine more GTRs were commissioned and two others were modified to fight with the new additions to the BPR Championship such as Porsche’s 911 GT1. It was not a faultless season as the competition was tougher and even denied them a podium spot at Le Mans that year. Nevertheless McLaren took the championship again.
BPR was rebranded as the FIA GT Championship for 1997 with the GT1 class that had been growing over the past few years being at the forefront of their racing repertoire. The homologation rules changed, prompting the release of ten F1 GTR Longtails alongside the likes of the 911 GT1 and Mercedes CLK GTR. The season was an enthralling brawl with utter domination in one race meet and crushing defeat at the next. They would score a second and third overall at Le Mans (with a class 1-2) and would achieve second in the championship.
The F1 then officially withdrew from competition as its overlords, BMW Motorsport, decided to take their powertrain and work on the V12 LM project; though not run by a factory team, privateers would race the F1 in British GT and Japan GT until as late as 2005. After they withdrew, the GT1 championship would be abolished as Mercedes was just too dominant to make competing against them viable. Ironically, the CLK GTR was actually designed by putting its internals into a retired F1 GTR chassis; Mercedes had borrowed from the best and fine-tuned the GTR recipe with their own materials. Sinfully, they hacked away at an F1 to create the car that would eventually beat it - rest assured, their Frankenstein-esque GTR was later returned to original specification.
Once the dust had settled and the squeal of tires had ceased, bureaucracy reared its head once again; in Formula One, Ron Dennis had signed a deal with Mercedes to be an engine supplier for 1997 onwards. Understandably, this enraged the BMW executives, who have been engaged in a gang-like war with Mercedes for decades, and they ended an ongoing second project with Murray and McLaren, dropping them quicker than Wile E. Coyote drops a cartoon anvil.
All was not lost as the agreement with Mercedes tacked on a job for the McLaren Automotive segment of the company. They had been impressed by the F1 and its racing record (this recognition by Mercedes is partly why the exploits on the circuit are considered a success) and contracted Murray to build the car that would eventually become the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren. It was originally meant to be a mid-engined sports car using the Mercedes V8, but they instead asked Murray to create a production version of a previous concept called the Vision SLR.
Unfortunately, it did not turn out to be the dream that Murray thought it was - for starters, it was 1768kg, far surpassing his lightweight benchmark. By most regards, it is still a fabulous car, but it suffers from what Murray described as “an identity crisis”. Was it a luxury GT or thoroughbred supercar? Once the shareholders and heads of department had got involved with the project it had strayed too far from Gordon’s original concept.
But it did reiterate his fundamental belief system from the F1 project - “you cannot get an iconic motorcar by committee.” What made the F1 great was the fact that it was made by a small group of harmonious individuals and was, from start to finish, unadulterated. He carries this vision in his latest project with his own company (Gordon Murray Automotive) with the T.50 and T.33.
“This is my F1.” he says - 24 years after the F1’s original conception, he is once again tackling a call to create the last of the analogue supercars with a return to a sonorous Cosworth V12 and intoxicating centre-seat design. It too is simple. It too is a bespoke build of unrelenting passion. And that's quite poignant because at 75 years old he is still devoted to building the ultimate motorcar, to once again inspire generations of enthusiasts with his unfaltering inventions.
I remember my first encounter with the V12 titan, I was hooked on every component, every curvature. I originally saw the gleaming orange paintwork and iconic four tail lights in the 2010 instalment of Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit on PlayStation 3. Though not as romanticised as building a model on the living room floor, this game would make up the bulk of my car knowledge from a young age. It would catalyse an obsession with the motorcar, and in particular the F1. No, Need For Speed was not as attentive to the finer details as other titles such as Gran Turismo, but it did make a point to write a short description of each vehicle featured. Amongst the sea of Porsche and BMW, the F1 stood bejewelled as ever.
The game went on to describe its story, give technical data and even mention Murray by name. I knew there was something different. What was this jet-like mass on screen? I was intrigued - and then I drove it. Even with the somewhat comedic handling and peculiar tundra setting, the F1 performed like a lion in a den of house cats. My infant form was unphased by the time trial mission, the F1 made it so simple; it was easy to catch when sideways, effortlessly fast on straights, and such acoustics had never before sweetened my ears. The premier automobile had already cast its spell, admiration of the highest order would ensue. Perhaps that's why I still have a model of chassis 01R on my shelf today, and still drive that snowy mission from time to time.
For decades, armies of designers from Maranello to Stuttgart hurled every ounce of expertise and untold sums of money at the creation from Woking; throughout it all, McLaren’s venture into the unknown did not falter. They took its records and bested its results, but for sheer pleasure and design brilliance, they could not topple its defences. A purer driving experience there is not, and of the entrancing vehicles that have graced car enthusiasts, the F1 stands stoic and resilient as top of the list. Most of us will never drive an F1, let alone own one, but ask fans young and old, no vehicle has them more transfixed from that concoction from four madmen in an Italian airport all those years ago. It stands as a monument in the history books as a trailblazer and, I daresay, the greatest car of all time.