The McLaren P1™ is very much an engineering-led design, as is the McLaren way. Form follows function. Nothing is superfluous. Everything is designed for a reason, as with a Formula 1 car.
The mid-engine, two-seater design reflects the aerodynamic requirements needed to meet the ambitious downforce targets for the McLaren P1™. But there was also clearly a desire to make a very beautiful and striking ‘supersports’ car.
“The McLaren P1™ reflects the McLaren brand’s core values. It celebrates aerodynamics, great packaging and light weight, and is all about innovative technology. At the very beginning, we sought to develop a car that you could drive to a racing circuit, then press a button and race it. The priority was high-speed performance matched with tremendous composure, which would come mostly from the state-of-the-art aerodynamics. We wanted a car that was connected and predictable at any speed.’”
Dan Parry-Williams, Design Engineering Director, McLaren Automotive
The design team worked to a brief of ‘light and agile’. The design had to be ‘shrink wrapped’ around the mechanicals, making the car as compact and lightweight as possible. There are only five main panels: front clamshell, front bonnet, rear clamshell and the doors, all made from lightweight carbon fibre. The strong carbon construction means the panels can ‘multi-task’, acting both as aero-honed ducts and load-bearing supports. They are intricately shaped yet superbly finished, helped by their strong carbon construction.
The McLaren P1™ sits extremely low (1,138mm height in Race mode) with a smaller frontal area than any other comparable series production super sports car. Cd is just 0.34, which is very low considering the enormous levels of downforce possible.
The car is also fitted with a vehicle lift system, which raises the height of the vehicle 30mm front and rear. This increases the approach and departure angles, and ground clearance is optimised to aid manoeuvrability over ramps and uneven surfaces. The system will remain in the raised state at speeds of up to 60km/h. If this speed is exceeded, the McLaren P1™ will return to its normal ride height.
The incredibly low rear and pronounced rear haunches highlight the ‘shrink-wrapped’ design and efficient packaging. Importantly, the design gives superb airflow to the large adjustable rear wing. The shape of the whole body – and the sculpted doors in particular – is clearly shaped by the path of the air flowing over and around the car.
The design concept, including the low rear deck, rear wing, inlets and outlets and the teardrop-shaped glass canopy, was initially produced as a three-dimensional surface model by McLaren Automotive Design Engineering Director, Dan Parry-Williams, and his team, who defined all the critical packaging and aerodynamic requirements as an evolution of contemporary Le Mans race car principles.
The preliminary surfaces were developed and refined through the Concept Design process to create the final styled shape, while still respecting all the aerodynamic, cooling, packaging and manufacturing requirements. During this phase, details of systems such as the roof snorkel engine air intake, radiator air intake systems, front underbody aerodynamics, low-temperature cooling system and engine bay cooling were all worked out in detail. This involved extremely intensive detail engineering design and aerodynamic CFD simulation for aero efficiency and cooling.
An early mule prototype was built during this phase to prove out the simulation results, while the design was still fluid. Developing the design to this point before the styling process was essential in achieving the incredible compactness, aerodynamic performance and overall design integrity that the McLaren P1™ project demanded.
Against the backdrop of the engineering priority being unmatched aerodynamic performance, the design team was challenged to deliver a dramatic and genuinely beautiful car that was very much a ‘statement of intent’ in keeping with the heritage of McLaren, but also at the forefront of automotive design. The decisions to adopt elements of a Le Mans race car – the low body, long rear deck and open mesh rear styling that both showcases the mechanicals and helps cooling, together with a rear diffuser that is one of the most aggressive ever seen on a road car – were taken very early in the programme. The resulting design was instantly memorable, but the reasoning goes well beyond styling: like everything on the McLaren P1™, the features are there for a good reason.
Fighter jet canopy
The glasshouse on the McLaren P1™ was inspired by the canopy of a fighter jet, with a notably low cowl and a windscreen that is deeper than it is wide. In combination with the two glass, solar-reflecting panels above the cockpit, these attributes give the cabin an incredibly light and airy feeling and ensure good visibility – always a McLaren mantra. The teardrop-shaped canopy also optimises the flow of air to the rear wing.
The ‘hammerhead’ style nose looks dramatic, giving the car a low and wide stance, but also serves an important functional purpose: the design directs airflow to two front mounted, low-temperature radiators that cool both the petrol engine’s turbocharged air and the IPAS powertrain’s electrical system.
The narrow LED headlamps, shaped in the style of the McLaren ‘speed marque’ logo, give superb illumination but are also very space efficient, optimising the frontal area that can be used for cooling. The distinctive shape of the bonnet vents is entirely dictated by function, the apertures directing hot air exiting the front radiators over the top of the roof, leaving a channel of clean, cold air to feed the roof-mounted engine intake snorkel. The hot air that flows over the roof of the car is kept away from the car’s flanks to ensure fresh air is ingested by the main side-mounted radiators and helps to boost downforce.
At the rear, the LED lights are invisible by day but offer attractive and ultra-thin strips of light at night. The lights are as thin as possible to maximize the rear surface area that allows hot air to escape. This signature rear graphic, which highlights the very edge of the bodywork, was inspired by sports prototype racers and is in keeping with the fact that the rear of the car is entirely open to aid cooling and to extract turbulent air from the rear wheel arches to help aerodynamic flow.
Inspired by the McLaren F1 and Formula 1
Two cars from the history of the McLaren brand are cited as being the inspiration for the overall design of the McLaren P1™: the iconic McLaren F1 road car of 1993, and Lewis Hamilton’s championship-winning 2008 Formula 1 car, the MP4-23.
The 2008 Formula 1 season was the final year that cars were allowed to race with a full suite of aerodynamic aids. The design team scrutinised every element of the MP4-23, a car that was styled to be functional rather than beautiful but is recognised nonetheless for its dramatic beauty. The influence that scoops and slats had on the style and the fact that every duct and every surface of the MP4-23 does a job, either in aero or cooling, was not lost on the designers of the McLaren P1™.
The design team paid homage to the McLaren F1 road car, but did not try to imitate it. The side greenhouse graphic of the two cars is similar, especially the rear three quarter window, as are the signature McLaren dihedral doors, the low front cowl and the side swage lines. The roof snorkel, which forms part of the carbon fibre MonoCage, is effectively carried over from the F1.
The dihedral doors of the McLaren P1™ are instrumental in the car’s astonishing aerodynamic performance. Their complex shape helps channel clean air to the side mounted radiators and also cuts the turbulence normally experienced along the side of a car. Their scalloped form is in line with an overall philosophy of ‘pushing in’ surfaces to create an almost ‘exoskeleton’ approach, with no ‘fat’ between the mechanicals of the car and the skin.
The final design
Following the preview of the McLaren P1™ as a design study at the Paris International Motor Show in the autumn of 2012, McLaren actively engaged with potential customers to understand their views of the styling. The unanimous verdict was not to change the car presented in Paris and the McLaren P1™ debuted as a production car in March 2013 at the Geneva International Motor Show with just one significant visible change, namely the addition of LTR ducts ahead of each of the front wheels to further aid cooling and optimise downforce.
At the launch of the McLaren P1™, McLaren confirmed that to maintain exclusivity it would produce just 375 examples of the car.