By Max Davies, F1 correspondent
Max Davies, Motorsport.com Formula One correspondent, had the opportunity to attend a special media event presented by McLaren at their Technology Centre.
A Special Invite:
To the McLaren Technology Centre then, for a casual lunch with Jonathan Neale courtesy of Matt Bishop, Head of Communications. On the menu, a delightful salmon starter, a main of filleted beef, a dessert of hot toffee sponge, oh yes and of course, Formula One.
Arriving at Woking station, a shuttle service greeted us and upon entering the spotless, leather clad Mercedes people carrier, an understanding of the meticulousness that has become the bedrock of the McLaren heritage, suddenly came over me. It was further heightened as myself and my traveling companions were chauffeured into the grounds of the facility. Our driver declared that the building site to our left would soon house the new McLaren road car factory and that both the new construction, and the MTC itself are of four stories, but with only two of those above ground - in keeping with the immediate environment.
Passing through the security gate, we turn off down the VIP road and then suddenly, off to the right, the futuristic-looking, kidney-shaped MTC appears, the sun glistening across the man-made lake that doubles as a cooling system for the building.
The vehicle doors open and we enter the immaculate foyer, welcomed by the delightful Danielle Breen - McLaren's Media Co-ordinator. Behind her, Lewis Hamilton's championship winning MP-4/23 sits; the chrome-clad beauty motionless, unaltered since the moment Hamilton took the chequered flag on the last lap of that memorable 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix. In the distance, like a line of soldiers awaiting inspection, the cars made famous by such champions as Emerson Fittipaldi, James Hunt, Niki Lauda, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Mika Hakkinen, lay in a state of iconic suspended animation.
We are ushered into the piston-shaped, transparent lift and escorted into the marketing suit to await the start of our factory tour. Approaching from the other side of the building, McLaren Racing's CEO Martin Whitmarsh leads a small group of executives into an office, proffering a polite smile in acknowledgment of our attendance. I was hopeful of catching a word with him and thought of firing a few questions in his direction. I then realized the 60-foot gap between us would necessitate a voice of thunder and thought better of it. Maybe next time...
Following light refreshments, our tour of the facility began with a thorough description of the successes of the various red and white championship winning cars from the 1970's and 1980's. We observed the interim assembly line for production of the new McLaren road car and were permitted into the wind tunnel area. Granted, the wind tunnel itself was obscured from our view but I can safely say that the sheer noise it makes, is deafening. Impressed by the skills used to create the MP4-23 60% scale model on display, we left and proceeded into another room which apparently housed the famous, top-secret driving simulator. Keen to investigate, I repeatedly told our guide that we didn't believe what we were being told and that we would need to judge for ourselves. For some reason though, it fell on deaf ears. If only he hadn't taken us into the damn wind tunnel...
A pit-stop challenge was next on the agenda and while this was insightful and enjoyable, more so was meeting Senna's chief mechanic Neil Trundle. He was in charge of our attempts and though I only managed to catch a few words with the man who engineered the car of one of my childhood heroes, it was an opportunity I relished. Finding out that myself, a journalistic colleague and a McLaren employee could change a wheel in 3.9s, gave me a better understanding of the sheer accuracy involved in every pit stop and has increased my admiration of the pit crew.
The wheels changed and the imaginary driver now hotfooting it away down the imaginary pitlane, we left the imaginary garage and headed back to the changing room to revert to our more formal attire. Ushered back into the cylindrical lift, we exited on the upper floor and walked into the most pristine dining room I have ever seen. On a frosted glass dining table adorned with small flowers and other eye-catching ornaments, the wine glasses, cutlery and napkins, were all perfectly aligned as if they had been measured with a protractor - just to ensure all angles were correct and identical.
While sipping my glass of chardonnay - dear me it's a hard life - we listened to our guide explain a few surprising facts about the building before Matt Bishop entered, sat down and announced the reason behind our invitation to the MTC. I must say that for websites like motorsport.com and the others in attendance on the day, receiving an invitation to the MTC normally reserved for printed media, was a masterstroke and a compliment. This was not lost on Mr Bishop who declared that McLaren wanted to tap into the influential role we have to play within Formula One and felt it was about time our services were recognized accordingly.
He asked us questions as to how the sport could improve further, what could the teams do to make themselves more accessible to websites and the public, are our readers interested in the politics side of F1 etc. It was an entertaining ten minutes although I did have to admit that despite assuring that McLaren's standing within the website community would be demonstrably improved by letting us observe the simulator, we still received a negative reply. I was, by this point, beginning to think they didn't want us to see it dear reader...
Finally, Jonathan Neale joined us and opened up the floor to questions. Unable to sedate his journalistic instincts, I was pleasantly surprised to see Mr Bishop - a former F1 journalist - open proceedings by asking about how testing gone recently at Jerez where the new car had debuted. Keen to get stuck in, I then asked a variety of questions including covering the MP4-26's apparent lack of pace compared to the Red Bull, did he foresee the team trading in their wind tunnel for 100% CFD a la Virgin Racing, what role does he think the websites have to play in the sport.
While politely devouring my three-course Michelin star meal, I listened intently to the discussions taking place and have to admit that the banter, food and company all made for an enjoyable dining experience. Mr Neale was reclining in his chair, looking relaxed, at ease, and was enjoying answering a colleague's question about the long-term plans for the team. It was then that I pounced one last time: 'So when do we get to see the simulator?'
Our lunch now complete, we left the dining room and parted company with our hosts. Promising to keep in touch and offering to help us in whichever way McLaren can (which has certainly been the case since last Friday's invite) we headed back to the marketing suite to collect our belongings, and a souvenir gift bag.
I thanked Ms Breen and her team for a memorable experience, and followed my colleagues towards the waiting Mercedes ready to take us back to the train station. Before entering the vehicle, I paused, turned around and gazed back towards the immaculate building, catching one final glimpse of those historic, sleeping beauties from yesteryear.
"So this is the real McLaren," I said to myself. "Impressive..."
As a footnote to my experience, I would like to say this: The offer to attend a Media Lunch at the MTC was an initial surprise but for myself and the other five website journalists in attendance, it was a sheer delight. Increasingly, Formula One fans are turning to websites like ours to digest all the latest happenings so to have been finally acknowledged and welcomed into the fold by McLaren, was a wonderful gesture.
It is an example that all others should follow.