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Behind the scenes at McLaren

Behind the scenes at McLaren

We visited the state-of-the-art Headquarters of McLaren Technology Group to meet an inspirational group of five Nottingham alumni. All in senior leadership positions, we discover how a winning mentality and unique ability to unlock the secrets of small data can bring the biggest wins for both race fans and wider society – on and beyond the Formula One racetrack.       

“We’ve been going into technological war every two weeks on the track for 10 months of the year since we were founded in 1963,” says Andy Myers (Production Engineering, 1986), Group Chief Financial Officer at McLaren Technology Group. “We design, develop, build and test a new component every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day. That culture is what gives us our perpetual motion and our appetite to improve.” 

Sitting inside the McLaren Group’s pristine Technology Centre in Surrey, it’s impossible not to feel the intellectual effort and energy required to pull off a feat like this. It’s electrifying – beyond the imposing glass boulevard, with its rows of iconic cars that comprise McLaren’s winning pedigree, are banks of sophisticated computers, engineering bays, laboratories, and simulators – rigorously running mind-boggling volumes of data and calculations to test every race day permutation and variable, and model every scenario.

It’s an impressive track record – the team is one of the most successful in Formula 1 history, having won 182 races, 12 drivers' championships and eight constructors' championships.

“Formula 1 is not a participation thing – it’s about winning,” explains Jonathan Neale, (Physics, 1984), Chief Operating Officer at McLaren Technology Group, which includes responsibility for the race team.

We visualise and analyse all the elements and processes – human, mechanical and technological. To put a Formula 1 car together and make it competitive needs everything – and everyone involved at every stage – to be exactly on point. You have to work extremely hard just to compete.

Winning is everything. On race days, everyone at McLaren Racing comes to work in the team kit. Thanks to advanced high availability systems, the team at Mission Control in Woking are just as much part of the action as their colleagues at the track.  

“Real time decisions, when to pit, which parts to leave on the car – it’s a constant collaboration between us and the track, wherever in the world we’re racing," continues Jonathan. The rapid advancement in digital technologies, telemetry and computing power has fuelled a phenomenal rate of development. Years ago, there was a time when 80% of the developments we took to the car didn’t work because the simulation tools and sensors weren’t advanced enough. Now, over 90% of everything we take to the car works and we have a strategy for every eventuality. Every second of a race, we are constantly updating our models with real-time data coming in from the car." 

Students visit Toro Rosso -325x600-v2

James welcomes students to Toro Rosso

This May, a lucky group of engineering and business students had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go behind the scenes at Scuderia Toro Rosso’s headquarters in Italy, thanks to the generosity of accomplished Technical Director James Key (Mechanical Engineering, 1996).

An unmissable opportunity for students to learn from the best, James was recently described by Toro Rosso Team Principal Franz Tost as having the “qualities to become one of the most celebrated designers in motorsport,” with “the management skills necessary to get the most out of all the various departments that work together in Italy and the UK.” Business student James Finney said of the trip: “Getting to see the inner workings of a Formula 1 team was such an enormous privilege! Seeing first-hand how a company at the forefront of innovation operates has left me feeling profoundly inspired.”

James Key added: “We had a very interesting day. Discussions on both the business side of the sport and aspects of its technology were enjoyed by all, and even though just a few hours were spent on the details, some different perspectives of how Formula 1 goes about its business emerged. As someone who has been imbedded in the sport for a number of years, this was extremely enlightening. The factory tour gave the group the inside track on how a Formula 1 team operates, with good insights into what it takes and how our processes work. There was also a good discussion on how to work across two countries with different languages and cultures, with suggestions and thoughts on how to overcome these challenges.”

How a Formula 1 approach is driving life-changing innovations away from the track 

The blend of a hunger to win, an uncompromising mind-set and extraordinary technological ability, has led the McLaren Group into exciting new territory with the creation of McLaren Applied Technologies, which takes the amazing technology born on the track and develops it to help improve people’s lives in surprising new ways.

Now the fastest growing and most profitable part of the business, with a £60 million turnover and a talented team of over 500 staff, this ambitious technology group has gigantic markets including health, public transport, automotive along with motorsport, firmly in its sights.   

“Decades of competition in the world's most technologically advanced sport has given us the ability to see and maximise the potential of an increasingly connected world,” explains Ian Rhodes (Mechanical Engineering, 1987), CEO McLaren Applied Technologies. 

“We know how to deliver high-performance design and handle small data. We ruthlessly filter data from the point of collection and use it to help people make better decisions, faster, by presenting the right information at the right time. We go beyond the limits of what was considered possible and turn ideas into reality by developing intelligent products and processes.” 

This innovative approach is highly desirable, with McLaren Applied Technologies attracting the attentions of global companies from finance to pharmaceuticals and healthcare to high performance sports products. From developing the revolutionary Venge bike for world-class sprinter Mark Cavendish to helping pharmaceutical companies deliver enhanced, data rich clinical trials no problem is too big.  


“Nothing is too difficult or impossible. In fact, if it’s difficult, it’ll attract us more,” adds Karl Surmacz (Mathematical Physics, 2004), Principal Data Scientist at McLaren Applied Technologies. “We’re engineers at heart – whatever the problem or issue, understanding the fundamentals of how things work and why they behave as they do appeals to the physicist within me. To have the chance to use our skills, expertise and technical capacity to make a difference to others is a pleasure.”

“We can solve a wide range of challenges through the interplay between high-performance engineering and advanced electronic technology,” continues Ian. 

Most wearables lack contextual data. We developed a discreet patch that stroke patients can wear on their neck rather than wrist, as the upper body is a far more useful data source. 
“Consider healthcare – we need to find new ways to make sure that only the right people go to hospital at the right time. At the minute, medical teams are rushing round trying to respond to all the alarms going off from patients’ different diagnostic devices. We can help make the system more sophisticated, for both patients and clinicians, improving everyday lives.” 

We’ve worked closely on a number of projects with the NHS to develop more intelligent systems to continuously collect data from patients, such as heart rate, breathing rate and oxygen levels, revolutionising how they are monitored; providing vital early warning signs of deterioration that can be swiftly acted upon. Now a modified engine control unit with specialised software is alerting staff when there are anomalies in the right data signals, at exactly the right time. Technology born in racing is helping save people’s lives.”

By collaborating across healthcare partners, McLaren Applied Technologies’ innovations in medical technologies are helping to revolutionise clinical trials, inform strategic clinical interventions and aid patient recovery. For example, by accurately recording a patients’ movements outside the hospital, they are helping doctors develop personalised plans which give people the best chance to recover.

Bringing Formula 1 precision to the road 

To see the fearless nature of innovation at McLaren Group in action, you only need to look to their supercar production. Outside, hidden by high walls, lies an extraordinary car park containing a jaw-dropping array of McLaren Automotive’s exhilarating luxury cars. Some covered with geometric camouflage paint, others in McLaren’s iconic orange, all capable of going from 0 to 100 mph in under six seconds.
“What other company would have invented a completely new car?” asks Marcus Waite (Mechanical Engineering, 1996), Chief Engineer at McLaren Automotive. “We invested £600 million up front to go head to head with Ferrari in a market where we were completely new. It was a crazy thing to do but it was born out of the confidence in our people and technology.”

McLaren cars in the Technology Centre HQ Boulevard - 850x400

“We knew our engineers were capable of producing a car that is the best in the world,” continues Marcus. “It’s about teamwork. Everyone brings their own strengths but we focus on a shared goal – to create an outstanding high performance car that fires all your senses at exactly the right time – whether you’re a professional driver or not. When the engine roars and you’re being pushed back in your seat, you’re living in that moment. We can keep pushing the boundaries of supercar development because people here have the freedom to operate and the space to innovate.”

Have you got what it takes to live life in the fast lane?

“What we’re not looking for is the universal soldier who is good from end to end because that’s asking more than is humanly possible,” adds Jonathan. “We just ask people to bring their game to the table and be bloody good at it. We want the brightest and the best – and we keep good people because we don’t force them to operate in fixed boxes.”

Careers - how to get ahead 

We asked our McLaren alumni, James Key and other F1 professionals for their top career advice on working in engineering and technology

Driving competitive innovation

Discover their top 5 tips on how to bring a winning F1 mindset into your organisation

"We need our potential leaders for the future,” adds Ian. “Fundamentally, graduates need to have a knowledge and love of engineering and the physical sciences. At McLaren Group, we want people that are digitally enabled, creative and innovative, bold and ambitious. We look for people who will constantly challenge us – and we’re recruiting right now.”

As we end our visit walking past McLaren’s trophy cabinet that stretches as far as the eye can see, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of pride and awe at how this talented team of Nottingham graduates are shaping the future in racing and beyond – and the amazing range of exciting opportunities open for ambitious students and researchers to grasp. For those with a hunger to succeed, the time is now. We give the final word to Jonathan:  

“I’m excited by the rate and pace of technology development. Artificial intelligence, greater digitisation and connectivity, all offer opportunities to help solve some of the world’s greatest problems. But it’s really important that society doesn’t split into those who do technology and those who don’t. We certainly need to be alert and wary to the dangers but technology needs to evolve in an integrated way, as science was conceived originally, as the natural philosophy.

"Technology needs bright and capable people, those able to think flexibly in every situation. Every engineer in the pit will tell you that inside the front of their notebook is page one of what to do if we have a blackout. If you want to win, be bold, embrace developments but take nothing for granted.”  


Alumni gifts help students race ahead

Thanks to donations to Cascade – our fund which supports students to run their own projects – a group of engineering students also entered Formula Student for the first time this year. 

Inspired by the phenomenal success of our Electric Superbike project, (which achieved another podium finish at the Isle of Man TT race this year), the Formula Student team competed against students from around the world to design, build, test and race an electric single-seat racing car. Sadly, technical difficulties meant this ambitious new car didn’t get out as intended, but with useful lessons learnt, the future is looking bright for Formula Student 2018.

Return to our Formula 1 homepage to read more articles in this collection.