The facade of the McLaren Technology Center is only a foretaste of the high-tech world inside one of England's new architectural masterworks designed by Lord Norman Foster, of Hong Kong airport and Reichstag restoration fame. Housing a staff of nearly a thousand, it serves primarily as Mission Control to Britain's most successful racing team, according Jonathan Neale, managing director of
While the team races at a Grand Prix the most vital part of the competition is done across the Atlantic or the English Channel or the world, at headquarters in Woking, England.
''The pit wall is the worst place to run a race from,'' said Neale, who joined McLaren in 2001 from BAE Systems, where he was a director of the Hawk Fast military jet program. ''The cars are in front of you for a fraction of a second and while they are there you can't hear or say anything. Sensory deprivation is what it's like sitting on the pit wall.''
A Formula 1 car is a minefield of electronic sensors, with the data sent back to Woking, where engineers synthesize it with a supercomputer and other tools before telling the engineers at the track what is happening to the car, where it sits relative to the competition and what the strategic options are.
''We go in with a plan, but our plan is revisited as the weekend unfurls and as we find about who has brought what technology to the track and what we are competing against,'' Neale said.
It last won a drivers' title in 2008, with
The building of the headquarters also began in 1999, and many wondered whether the reported $300 million project inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II in May 2004 was justified.
The factory drew together from 18 sites around Woking the McLaren Group of companies comprising six related businesses. In addition to the race team there are companies dealing in car electronics, applied technology, marketing, catering and a luxury sports car.
Not only has communication improved between companies, but the team, which celebrated its 45th year in Formula 1 in 2011, has clearly benefited as well, Neale said. Putting it into context, he said that the team makes an engineering change to the racing car on average every 20 minutes of the workweek throughout the year, and manufactures 6,000 parts a week.
''From a pure economics point of view,'' Neale said, ''we can do more internally than we could previously while subcontracting.''
Neale said it is the very goal of victory that makes the operation of a Formula 1 team much simpler in some ways than other businesses. ''There is something beautifully simple about the mission and about the principle of what the Formula 1 business is about: It's about winning,'' he said. ''So there's no problem for the work force in terms of mission, vision, values.''
Martin Whitmarsh, the team director, said winning races was essential to the success of the entire group of companies. ''It's key to our brand, to our business,'' he said. ''To do everything else, we have to be successful in Formula 1.''
It is a business model well known to Ferrari, a longtime rival in Formula 1 and a new rival in the luxury sports car business now that McLaren is going that route. It is in Woking that McLaren builds its $500,000 supercar, the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, a joint project with DaimlerChrysler. Last February it produced its thousandth SLR McLaren.
The car is assembled in an antiseptically clean workshop with no pneumatic tools or grease apparent, conforming to the work environment philosophy of Ron Dennis, the team's director since 1980.
Much of the building is underground, and the atmosphere throughout is like a quiet scientific laboratory.
Part of Dennis's idea is that a great workplace should attract the best workers.