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McLaren introduces Speedtail three-seat ‘hyper-GT’

26 October 2018 | by Michael Gooderham

McLaren Automotive has had people pestering it to make a car with the legendary F1’s one-plus-two seating layout ever since it started developing road cars in 2010 as a standalone entity within McLaren Group. In Autumn 2016, it finally decided that it could, and would, build an updated take on Gordon Murray’s world-changing hypercar.

It plans to make 106 examples, mirroring the F1’s production run. After informing their existing customer base of their intentions in 2016, over 300 people tried buying it – before it had a design, a package, a name or really any tangible form of existence at all. The 194 or more that couldn’t have one were offered a Senna instead (although we don’t know how many said yes to that proposition).

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Fast-forward by two years and it definitely does exist in a tangible form. It has a name – Speedtail – and the promised centrally-driven package has been treated to a design which simultaneously is unmistakably a McLaren and yet not a derivative of any previous efforts.

“We don’t so much have a fixed design ‘philosophy’ as we have a ‘design thinking’,” explained design director Rob Melville at a preview event last week. His design team took the same approach to the smooth, streamlined Speedtail as they did to the brutally-effective Senna track attacker – asking the same questions and following the same process to end up with a very different result.

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You can almost see the airflow in the shapes and lines

It’s probably fair to say that by ‘different’, we mean substantially more elegant. The essentially teardrop-shaped Speedtail has been conceived as a “hyper-GT” with a purity of form that they hope will one day win awards at the Pebble Beach Concours of Elegance and similar events for historically significant classics.

As such, it’s not a riot of razor-sharp wings, gaping vents and cutaway aero channels – instead managing most of its airflow structures subtly, under the body and through the doors and so on.

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The shin-height nose, with its on-brand “hammerhead line” fascia, features slimline LED headlights approximately half the thickness of the Sports Series (570S, 600LT) headlights, with a skinnier-still light strip running down from the outer edges to create the leading edge of an air duct. The profile of the grille-less nose rises into the deep, shallow, curvaceous windscreen.

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In profile, there is quite a pronounced ‘point’ at the top of the windscreen, behind which the largely glass roof – initially painted black before fading into exposed carbonfibre, to blend the different materials and panels together – flows smoothly downhill, with a CHMSL running down the centreline behind the cabin and bisecting two perfectly flush cooling scoops.

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Third brake light runs between two air intakes [top-right of image]

It all meets up with the waistline over the rear axle, before both slope in unison to an extremely pointy, and long, tail. Simple LED-strip tail lights squeeze into the narrow rear fascia.

On the underside of this tapered tail, the exhaust pipes feed the vast air diffuser directly, cut and shaped to sit flush with the convex underside and look much bigger than they really are.

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Along the sides, double-skin doors vent air from the front wheel arches at their lower half, and draw in cooling air in their upper half using ‘shoulder scoops’ that also create a silken convex-to-concave surface along the flowing rear haunch behind them.

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On the tail’s top side are two fully integrated active ailerons. Their principle is similar to that of the aero flaps on the Pagani Huayra, but McLaren has evolved the concept with flexing carbon that removes any panel gap from the leading edge of the ailerons (as it’s all the same panel), leaving only a pair of longitudinal scissor snips to separate these upward-flexing areas of the company’s biggest ever one-piece rear clamshell.

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The driver is, literally, the centre of attention

The interior is the real centrepiece of this car – unavoidably defined by that seating layout. Arrowhead-shaped dash trim with a fading criss-cross pattern leads the eye up to the central steering wheel, or rather the trio of screens that sit behind and either side of it. Nestled in by the A-pillars are a pair of fixed screens showing the view from the rear-view cameras in the doors (which can retract to reduce high-speed drag).

Below them, a specially treated aniline leather floor reaches up to the base of the two rear seats, creating covers for the under-seat storage areas.

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Overhead switches are always cool – especially with their own moonroof

It’s a very glassy environment, with glazed rear quarterlights (unlike most McLarens), a porthole in the roof behind the overhead switches, and side glass that arches around into the roof as a single piece on each side – leaving an F1-style trapezoidal section at the bottom that winds down by little more than the thickness of one’s elbow (apparently some F1 owners have specially made tools for dealing with drive-throughs and toll gates).

The upper areas of glass are electrochromic, allowing occupants to adjustably tint the glass roof and top of the windscreen – a function which has allowed McLaren to eschew old-fashioned folding sunvisors.

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Adjustable full-width tint makes sun visors look so archaic

On paper, the Speedtail is brimming with references and similarities to the 243mph McLaren F1; the seating layout, wheelbase and body length are all within centimetres of the , for instance. Look up from the paper, however, and you won’t see a single retro styling cue anywhere. It’s very much its own thing, this car; a fusion of the P1’s futuristic philosophy and organic flowing forms with the F1’s famous package and penchant for cutting-edge material technology.

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Rear seats have storage cubbies underneath them – like an original Mini

Despite the car being narrower than a P1, more cabin space has been freed up compared to the ‘90s F1 by the fact that the 720S-derived “MonoCage” carbon tub chassis doesn’t need the same ‘sills’ flanking the driver’s seat to achieve the targeted structural rigidity. The two integrated passenger seats are effectively just well-padded areas of said tub, to reduce component count and vehicle mass.

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That signature tail was human-designed, then aero-refined

It’s perhaps easy to believe from afar that McLarens are formed in wind tunnels and CFD computers before they ever reach a designer’s desk. However, it’s often more a case of aerodynamically justifying and refining the ideas put forth by the busy design team.

They can think ahead, though, as Melville points out that “our design team has a pretty good understanding of aerodynamics now.” This surely makes the cooperation between the two departments a lot easier – even if it is, naturally, “never completely frictionless.”

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Even LT-badged McLarens don't have such a long tail...

“It’s very rare that we get to work on a proportion like this,” reflects Melville – and unusual it certainly is. Remarkably, while the 2.72-metre wheelbase (50mm longer than that of a 720S and P1 to accommodate the rear seats) is on par with that of the new Mercedes A-Class hatchback, the overall body length of 5.13m all but matches an S-Class limousine.

This can only mean very large overhangs, potentially a recipe for a visual disaster… yet the front is so curvaceous that it hides its length when seen in person, while that streamlined tail – about as long as the rear wheelarch from which it extends – starts steeply tapering up from below, to open the gigantic diffuser, which stops it looking limo-like or visually heavy (and surely improves the departure angle).

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Theoretical lines dictated the initial length of the tail

Melville described to us how that tail’s length was defined by a theoretical line reaching down from the top of the roof, and the rising line of the diffuser’s profile, naturally meeting each other to create the point at which the body stops – although further adjustments helped refine this “rare” proportion.

The result is that McLaren’s most elegant new car is also its most aero-efficient. Their composites expertise has aided the design, too, with fine-weave “1K titanium deposition” carbonfibre giving a uniquely anodised-style finish, while a new “digital loom” process allows them to Jacquard-weave requested text and imagery directly into these panels.

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Wheel covers can be removed if customers don’t fancy the look

One example of design and aerodynamics intersecting can be found on each 20-inch front wheel, in the form of a carbonfibre static cover. This is fixed rigidly in place by a bolt running through the wheel hub and into an upright, held in place with a spider-like bracket, meaning it cannot rotate with the wheel.

This was done so McLaren could millimetrically perfect the shape to reduce aerodynamic turbulence and maintain as much laminar airflow down the bodyside as possible (we were informed that they have already created a new iteration to replace the version seen on the design model here).

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Engraved graphic in the cover points your eyes in the right direction

Carved into this aero disc is a simple, pestle-like shape which wraps around the central McLaren logo and then reaches diagonally up-and-back. What thus appears to be a separate, flush panel is in fact a pure visual device, meant to pull the viewer’s eye from the front wheel and directly towards the character line atop the retracting door cameras, which in turn runs all the way along the rear haunch to that long tail.

Equally noticeable is that the 21-inch rear wheels are uncovered. This is for two reasons: firstly, the aero benefit is much smaller at that area of the body, making covers non-essential. Secondly, McLaren’s design team don’t like the look of covered rear wheels – especially since they’ve designed new wheels with 10 spokes like windswept blades that deserve to be seen.

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Badge insert made using milled ‘TPT’ carbon layers, each 30 microns thick

The McLaren Speedtail will enter production at the end of 2019, with the 106 customers paying a base price of £1.75m plus taxes. The design model seen here represents the finished design and materials – wheel covers aside – and showcases a full £450,000 worth of optional extras(!) including a TPT machined-carbon and 18K white gold McLaren badge on its nose.

It may not be breaking records, but it might yet be a game changer in its own way.