McLaren P1 – designed by nature

McLaren P1-001.jpg Why is a stuffed fish a reason for the new McLaren P1 being one of the fastest and most capable cars on the planet? Frank Stephenson, Design Director at McLaren, reveals all, by explaining the importance of biomimicry – or design influenced by nature – in the development of the P1.

Frank says that he’s been fascinated all his life with everything to do with nature – something that, in our experience, is unusual for an American! (this may be explained by the fact that he actually lived in various places around the world as he grew up).

His previous CV covers a varied mix of brands, including being responsible for the design of the Ford Escort Cosworth, the original BMW X5, BMW’s MINI, various Ferraris and Maseratis, and the Fiat 500. When he first joined McLaren, Frank oversaw the design of the MP4-12C, but it’s the P1 that has enabled him to really put the principles of biomimicry into practice.

Even the McLaren Technology Centre in the UK is designed according to natural principles. From above, the curved building and its lake mimics the Chinese Yin and Yang icon, which symbolises that nature is full of opposites which work together to create natural harmony and balance.

McLaren P1-002.jpg In this environment at Woking, designers and engineers – two groups that often have opposing views – work together from the start of a new car project. This avoids the scenario of the company designing an amazing concept and showing it to the world at a motorshow, then the engineers saying later that it can’t be built. Frank claims that this process of the two teams working together leads to greater creative innovation.

In order to help inform the design of the brand’s cars, Frank looks to nature, where organisms evolve over millions of years in some cases, meaning that they should be extremely well developed and efficient.

This obsession even led Frank to buy a sailfish, the world’s fastest animal (capable of over 80mph) that had just been caught and brought ashore at a quayside in Miami. He then had it stuffed and shipped over to McLaren’s HQ in the UK. McLaren’s Finance Director wasn’t quite sure how to account for a stuffed fish in the company’s financials, but as soon as it arrived the company’s design team set to work examining what made the fish so capable.

The sailfish supported the view that there is no ‘excess’ on anything that is fast, and the P1 is a perfect demonstration of this philosophy. The fish has a number of features that optimise its performance; in fact due to its design, when the fish reaches speeds of 60-70mph, there’s no water touching the fish, reducing drag and allowing it to travel even faster. One of its features is ‘diblets’, or small ridges, at the base of its rear fin, and the McLaren P1 now features ‘aero diblets’ on the arm supporting its rear wing.

McLaren P1-003.jpg Overall, the P1’s body shape has flowing lines that closely resemble the silhouette of a cheetah, one of the fastest land animals.

So what’s next from McLaren? Not too far away is a sports car that Frank promises will be one of the best looking cars that we’ve seen, and which takes the principles of design influenced by nature to the next level. One ‘top secret’ feature that he shared with us was the wheel design, which is inspired by the form of plant roots – ie. strong yet light. As well as such a wheel design resulting in a unique appearance, shaving weight off the ‘unsprung mass’ of a car is key to improving its handling.

We predict that biomimicry will be one of the next big things in design. It’s time that the balance is redressed – for too many years industry has been messing with nature rather than learning from it.

Under Frank’s vision, McLaren appears to be ahead of the game in terms of genuinely using nature as a design inspiration rather than this just being a sound byte from the marketing department, and we wish the company luck in gaining competitive advantage from being a leader in this area.

Frank Stephenson was the keynote speaker at an event run today by Green Car Design entitled ‘How nature would design a car in a day’, which was held at the V&A as part of the London Design Festival 2013.

Paul Clarke

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Find out more about where the automotive industry is heading – see our review from the UK’s leading Low Carbon Vehicle event, Cenex LCV2013