THE MCLAREN ARTURA PRESS DRIVE AND WHAT WENT WRONG

I genuinely do not know if McLaren took a punt on launching a car it knew wasn’t ready to be tested, but I do know that it’s a special machine.

THE MCLAREN ARTURA PRESS DRIVE AND WHAT WENT WRONG

CHRIS HARRIS' COLUMN WEEK 5

McLaren might have had worse weeks than the last one, but even the memory of Ron Dennis being fined $100m over the Ferrarigate scandal ("$5m for the offence, $95m for being a c***.", rumour has it Max Mosley told him, just as he was receiving the news) seems pretty mild compared to what I’ve heard about the launch of the new Artura.

The event was in Spain, offering a road route and access to the Ascari circuit for the childish sideways stuff that, if I’m being honest, I remain quite addicted to. Quite a few things went wrong during the fortnight launch - the minor tech gremlins that always lurk when people are allowed to thrash vehicles that are not fully production ready. But there were also two ‘thermal incidents’ whose severity I can’t describe because I haven’t asked the people who were there.

Suffice to say, the journo-bitching-hotline was very lively afterwards with much discussion about how this might affect McLaren. This is the point at which gossip becomes very serious, because McLaren’s existence genuinely does depend on the Artura selling. And people tend not to buy cars that catch fire.

This is such a complicated human and mechanical situation that it would be impossible to untangle it here. But the conflagrations at the launch need explaining in the context of McLaren’s past few years.

The company has been in dire financial trouble, and developing your first hybrid sports car isn’t the ideal project to undertake when the coffers are empty. Investors pumped in more cash and during a period in which a good percentage of its engineering team left, the company the Artura was conceived. This has not been a stable childhood, but then that shouldn’t stop the car being brilliant - it’s just that history tells us that instability at this point in the development process normally doesn’t help.

My iPhone tells me that I first saw the Artura as a finished machine on 11 December 2020, and was due to drive it about a year ago. That invitation was quickly retracted and then we heard nothing from McLaren until October, when it was announced that CEO Mike Flewitt was also leaving the business. Porsche and Ferrari don’t seem to have these problems - Aston does. I know very little about business, but there might be a pattern there.

So, 18 months after it first showed many people like me a ‘finished’ Artura, the car still isn’t reliable enough to handle a few journalists and many influencers driving it? That reads like a factually supportable statement. But what if the car is fundamentally fine but was just unlucky? As ever, the truth probably lurks somewhere in the middle.

From what I can understand the causes of both thermal incidents (which still sound, to me, like following-through while wearing winter underwear) are known. Both are easily fixable and not part of an intrinsic design fault. So to refer back to the issue of people not buying cars that catch fire: as I understand it, that will not be a problem for production Arturas, even if McLaren’s recent history in the area isn’t exactly reassuring.

One thing I have learnt doing this for many years is that if a journalist can uncover a critical problem with a car during a 12-hour test drive, the engineers behind the project probably knew about it. And they were probably shouting at the money department for many months to help them fix it before said outside testers were allowed near the machine.

The history of the product launch that turns into a reliability shit-show (there was an Alfa event years ago where, by the end of the second day, we all shared ‘the one that still worked’) is normally portrayed as the failings of an engineering team, but is almost always the outcome of either a lack of development funds or a car that is forced into the limelight before it is finished. The irony here being that the best example I can think of other than the Artura is the McLaren MP4 12C.

Why does this happen? Because the money men and women say ‘Enough of spending our dosh, get the bloody goods into the shop window and get selling them’. The more you see how destructive this process is when it goes wrong - and it usually does - the more you end up respecting the Porsches and Ferraris of this world because you just know that they will not let anything out of the factory gates until it works properly. There are exceptions, but they tend to be unforeseen at the time. 

I genuinely do not know if McLaren took a punt on launching a car it knew wasn’t ready to be tested, but I do know that it’s a special machine, because I spent a day ragging one the week before that launch event. And it neither failed to work nor caught fire. In fact, I came away thinking it was a car I’d like to own. This is surprising, because one side effect of such a protracted gestation is that I normally lose interest in machines that seem to have been around for ages but still don’t officially ‘exist’, and low-slung stuff like this feels like a young man’s game now anyway. But the powertrain is so clever in the way it deploys the electricity, I love the almost-flat-six sound, and on the road the chassis is a blinder - even if it has lost some of that uncanny McLaren suppleness. As for the steering, it’s like tasting real, Mexican sugar Coca-Cola after a month of drinking the new healthy rubbish: a genuine ‘wow, this is how things used to be’ moment.

And this is the cruel paradox of building and selling vastly complicated objects - three days after I’m blown-away by a car I’d expected to be indifferent towards, it all goes wrong in Spain. The number-pervs will say a 296 Ferrari is way faster, but that’s infantile chat - it’s crazy quick and it’s a more interesting and ambitious technical offering than the Ferrari. But has its ultimate potential been hampered by that troubled childhood, and should anyone in the market take what now looks like a massive risk buying one? 

There is a very simple answer to that - yes, they damn well should. If people had been scared of things being a little temperamental there would be no Lamborghini and no Lotus - in fact, 50 years ago there would have been no car companies. Certainly Ferrari wouldn’t exist. Cars don’t always work when you want them to, that will never change. Anyone with the resources to spend £200k on one will probably have access to others, and all other chat is probably loaded with individual bias.

A car world with no McLaren isn’t one I want to live in. This isn’t charity - the brief exposure I’ve had to the Artura suggests that people who choose not to buy one on the back of McLaren’s horror-week will probably be missing out on a very special sports car. I now sound like the old farts who I used to despise when I was younger, but we all grow old and cuddly eventually. Only time will tell if the Artura is granted the same opportunity.

Chris Harris' column is a new weekly initiative where Chris will get stuck into the latest topics from the automotive world and other conversation points. The column will be published on the Collecting Cars platform and available to read in our new publication 'Club//Sport' that is distributed at our events around the world.