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McLaren F1 - Views from a long term owner

28 December 2001
Berwyn, PA
Excerpted from


As Ted wrote, since 1999 I have read, enjoyed and learned from "Pistonheads", but had not had a particular reason to participate in your discussions.
Like many others, I was miffed when I learned that the alleged owner of an F1 was an imposter. This was not because he was a fantasist - we all have our dreams - but because he had wasted a lot of folks' time and also had propogated some misinformation about the car.
I contacted Ted and said that, if and only if he thought that anyone might be interested, I would answer any queries that they might have about the car.
Like most PH'ers, I love certain cars, and I love learning things about those cars. I thought that if any of you felt that way about the F1, then I could share with you information about it that you otherwise might not have. This exercise might also help to expunge the aroma of the imposter.
With respect to the comments that some folks have made, such as that I am "...hardly the coming of the Messiah", I couldn't agree more: we're all born pretty much the same, and when we're dead we're all exactly the same. I'm just a guy who was lucky enough to be able to buy and enjoy this superb and unnecessary object. The least that I can do is to share a bit of that experience with people who want to hear about it.

As there does seem to be some interest in the subject, I shall reply to people's questions and comments in the order that they were posted. Undoubtedly I shall screw some things up as I compose this: apologies in advance.

bor (running costs, reliability, living with it, etc.) -
This is obviously a lengthy topic, parts of which I shall touch on later.
Running costs: it gets about 15 mpg combined. The factory recommend a simple service every nine months, and that seems to cost about £2,000, including oil, filters, geometry, odds and ends. A set of tyres goes for maybe £1,200 and seems to last about 5,000 miles (exclusive of doing a lot of circuit driving, of course). Only McLaren offers the correct tyres, however, and they insist on scrubbing in a new set themselves, which requires their labour and renting a bit of circuit time - additional expense.
The car is pretty simple by today's standards, so there aren't a lot of systems to go wrong. Plus it's so well made that things don't fail. BMW Motorsport's estimate of time to first engine rebuild is "at least 250,000 kilometres". You may have a flexible brake duct or rubber boot protecting the end of a track rod occasionally perish, but that's easy enough to remedy.
The overwhelming proportion of money that owners spend on their F1s is optional: re-sprays, re-trims, larger a/c unit, "high-downforce" body components, electronic gimmicks, etc.
The cars virtually never break down unless they are mis-used.

Davey S1 (major service £25K, clutch-life?) -
As noted above, the service costs are normally nothing like that expensive. I'm not sure how one defines "major", because I suppose that if you needed enough done, a major service on any car could cost £25K. Suffice to say that the annual maintenance cost for an F1 that gets driven regularly should be much less than £25K.
When I got the car McLaren told me to expect a clutch to last 4,000 miles or so. The tricky thing about that was that once a carbon clutch starts to go, it will last only a few miles before it's useless. As Ted mentioned, I have put 21,000 miles on my current clutch and it's about 2/3 used (you can gauge clutch wear by removing a fitting on the transaxle). I do take care to minimise the actions that cause wear, but that practice does not seriously interfere with the pleasure of driving.

Buffalo (959) -
There is at least one PH'er who has one, but that is for another thread.

bor (why clutch needs replacing so often) -
As TripleS suggests, casual clutch slippage is the killer. With the proliferation of speed bumps, ramps onto fuel station forecourts, traffic lights and the like there are countless opportunities to slip a clutch. The F1's engine is very torque-y, a carbon clutch grabs immediately, and, as someone mentioned, the F1 has a super-light flywheel. These features are great for performance, but they mean that you need to have a very delicate touch to make a standing start - especially if you're going uphill. As a reference point, last week I saw a Carrera GT with a total of less than 1,000 kms on the clock and the owner had already destroyed the clutch - the car could not be set in motion under its own power.

vixpyl & NeilH (pictures of metallic orange F1) -
I believe that that car was at the time of the photo living in Arizona. It was featured in the December '02 issue of "Road and Track", and subsequently offered for sale on a dedicated website.
F1s were not homologated for the US and thus McLaren never offered it there. In the States one is allowed to road-register "kit-cars". The intended interpretation of that term is self-evident.
A Connecticut car-preparer/race shop called Ameritech got the idea of lining up US buyers for F1s, then importing the engines and the rolling chassis separately. They would then install the engines and make a few other changes (eliminating the passenger seats, adding unbelievably ugly impact bumpers) in an attempt to get F1s onto American roads as kit-cars. This project had nothing to do with the McLaren themselves. Ameritech had brought in, I believe, six cars when the government pointed out that what they were doing was not exactly in the kit-car spirit. The import project was halted.
That was in '95-'96. In 2000 there was a federal law enacted which was called "Show-or-Display". The folks who actually instigated the process, hired the lobbyists, etc, were B Gates, P Allen, and R Lauren, and they did so in order to legalise their 959s. The new law allowed one to import an unhomologated car to the US without any constraints from the Department of Transportation, if that car was of technological or historical significance. In order for the car to be driven on the road it still had to pass an emissions test. Cars imported under this provision may only be driven 2,500 miles per annum. Quite a few cars have qualified for this status, including the EB110, XJ220, 959, Z1, CLK-GTR, the last fifty old-style Minis, the last air-cooled RS. This law is also why F1s are now legal in the States, and approximately twenty now reside in North America.
Interestingly, those F1s brought in as kit-cars are considered by some to be not-strictly-legal even now. They would be legal if they were exported, and then formally re-imported under the "Show-or-Display" rules.

bmgm3 (Bscher) -
Yes, Thomas Bscher is now running Bugatti. My understanding is that he used to commute from Koln to Franfurt at peak speeds of 325-ish kph.
When it comes to driving the car at big speeds, I would say that there is quite a difference between, say, 170 and 220mph. I wanted to find the best (fastest but also safest) place to do a maximum speed run in the car. The airfields are no good, because the runways are not long enough. There is the Nardo bowl, but because it is a bowl you can lose 2-3mph through tyre-scrub. A high-speed run can be done at the Volkswagen test track (which is where the McLaren factory set the record), but access to it for a normal guy like me is effectively impossible. Thus I searched the Autobahns for a very long time before I settled on the A5 Frankfurt-Darmstadt just by the Frankfurt Airport. Four lanes in each direction, dead-straight and dead-flat for five miles.
As Ted said, I did it on a Sunday at dawn. There are a number of risks (to oneself but especially to others)when you do this sort of thing. I thought that I had scoped them all out pretty well, until my actual first run when I noticed for the first time (duh!) a yellow roadsign picturing a leaping stag.
Fortunately that morning the deer were sleeping in and a friend and I were each able to do a number of runs at 221. The speed is capped by the rev-limiter (which was disconnected for the factory's run). I had asked the factory beforehand if they would disconnect or raise my limit, but they just laughed at me. We could have got another 2mph with new tyres, but I had wanted this run to be part of normal driving, so I had half-used tuyres.
When you hit the rev-limiter in sixth it slightly unsettles the car. It's not something that I would want to do every day.
Other lighter moments during those runs were overtaking a Polizei car at 200mph and, at maybe 215, seeing in my mirror the engine cover light, indicating that the cover was ajar. In fact, the cover was just being lifted enough by the aerodynamics to release the pressure switch.
The way I figured it, what was the point of having a seriously fast car if you never, ever used its capability? I was subsequently amazed to be told by the factory that, so far as they knew, no other owner had ever done the same. Sad.
When you see the top speeds for the Enzo, Carrera GT, and so on they are typically not rev-limited but power-limited. Ergo 219 in an Enzo is comparable to 241 in an F1.

dimmadan (when and why bought, annoying to have?) -
I bought it a few years ago in a private transaction from a man who has owned four F1s.
Having got it into my head that I wanted such a thing, I spent a year taking advanced driving instruction, so that I would not make a total fool of myself behind the wheel. Having reached the point (in my own mind, if no one else's) where I could at least cope with this sort of car, I then set to acquiring one. I seriously considered only the Zonda and the F1. The Zonda is a great car, with superb dynamics that in some ways are probably superior to the F1's. I rejected the Zonda fairly quickly, however, because it's too wide, it's too ugly at the back, and there is too great a risk that Horacio Pagani's next car, or the one after that, will be a dud and he'll be out of the car business.
I loved the F1 because of its simplicity, clarity, compactness, beauty, build quality, scarcity, and connection to a great motorsports organisation. Plus of course its performance dynamics mattered, although at the time I was not sure how much of those I would ever be able to comprehend.
It's not annoying to have, although it is in a way embarrassing to have. When you pull up to a fuel pump, flip open a dihedral door and then lift your legs over the bulkhead just to exit and refuel, it all seems an OTT palaver, and you would like to say to any onlookers, "No, I am not really a pretentious ass, although it looks that way.". When you drive along and get smiles and waves, however, it's a pleasure. When you give a ride to someone, especially to a stranger so there's no motivation apart from sharing the experience, and they say, with a tear on their cheek, thanks for letting them fulfil a dream, then you feel honoured to be the lucky stiff who happens to be the caretaker of this fabulous machine.
I cannot verbalise the joy in all the smiles that I have seen on people's faces, and the children's smiles are always the best. On the other hand, one memorable reaction occured when I was trickling through the outskirts of a French village and passed, with her back to me, a white-haired granny who was hanging washing on the line. She must have heard the engine note, for she quickly turned towards me, looked at the car, and gave me a brisk thumbs-up.

moleamol (pictures?) -
Sorry, but I have no idea how to post images on this, and I am too old to learn. The cars are all pretty much the same anyhow. Mine is solid blue, with as simple a black interior as I could manage. When I got the car it was a boring silver with multi-shades of grey interior and a red driver's seat. Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.
My car is unique in that its wing mirors are on the A-pillar, similar to the prototype's. All the other production cars had their mirrors on the wing itself, which does not look as good and does not function as well.
I have heard two explanations for why McLaren did not put the mirrors on the A-pillar of the other cars. One is that the British DOT, or whoever approves these things, would not allow the mirrors up there because of the consequent viewing angle behind the driver. The rules are written for a normal, offset driving position, and could not account for the fact that the F1 driver had the advantage of two rear-view mirrors on the windscreen.
The other explanation is that the high mirrors would have required special reinforcement of the A-pillar structure so that the pillar would not be deflected at high speed. This is not a problem on my car.

mungo (won't warm to an F1 owner on that fact alone) -
Indeed, neither would I.

Gavin Pearson (Pro-Europe/Labour voter?) -
Independent nations that make their own rules and have their own currency can do pretty well; Singapore and Switzerland are a bit better off than Spain and Belgium. Speaking of politics, I wouldn't mind seeing Saddam Hussein getting three new roommates - Jacques Chirac, Al Gore and Ken Livingstone.

maranellouk (security risks arising from online participation) -
I appreciate your mentioning this and have thought about it.
There is little risk that somebody is going to abscond with the car. In the past my car was registered in and spent time in the UK (where I presume most PH'ers reside), but it has not touched ground in the UK once this year. It may only go back to the UK in the future if it needs significant work done at the factory (McLaren have trained and authorised seven BMW dealers around the world to do normal service on the cars, and the factory will fly a technician to a car when necessary).
My car's kept in a very secure place. There has never been an F1 stolen, or even tampered with. F1s are pretty secure for a few reasons:
- apart from the obvious precautions and systems, the car has some unique features that make it, literally, undriveable unless you have been told the form. These details are not published anywhere.
- even if you got away with one, it's quite obvious what it is, so unless you had your own private road system, you would be spotted. The factory keep very close tabs on every car.
- as noted above, the car is simple to maintain, but it cannot be maintained without special tools. With few exceptions, every part on the car is unique to it. Only one company makes tyres that will work properly on the F1, and they only sell the tyres to the factory.
- if you just wanted one because you had to have one, there are always a couple for sale.
- if you were stealing one for the value, there are many other cars with a market value much greater than an F1's. Not to mention, it's a lot easier to fill your pockets with diamonds than with a car, even a compact car.

If a villain were aiming to target an F1 owner's house because he presumed that anyone who owned an F1 was rich, all I can say is that the most valuable things in my home - this is the truth - are some bicycles and this laptop. The bicycles wouldn't fit too many other people, and the laptop is getting old anyhow.
The villain could always go for the kidnap-the-loved-ones angle. Problem is, I regrettably have no close relatives. I do have an ex-wife, but we split twenty years ago and she lives in North America, so that is probably not going to be a very fruitful line of attack.
If a villain really wanted to go for it, he would be much better off getting either the Forbes Magazine rich list or the Times of London rich list (neither of which I would ever qualify for), selecting somebody with real money and a complicated life, and then, I suppose, picking through that person's rubbish.

docevi1 (how many F1's in brown?) -
As another member commented, one could order a car in any colour. There is a book called "Driving Ambition", with which many of you will be familiar, which is the story of the conception and making of the F1. It has a pull-out section that lists every chassis number (including the racecars'), its date of completion, and its exterior colour. Out of sixty-four road cars, twenty-eight left the factory in various boring shades of silver. One car was brown.

The DJ 27 ("best sounding car") -
You can get the car silenced to one of four levels. Standard (quietest) is nice, but not spectacular. The next loudest is pretty good. My preference is for the second-loudest, although if you want you can get straight-through pipes. Regardless of their legality in different jurisdictions, the latter are just too noisy for most folks.
The engine note is substantially complemented by the induction noise. The engine air intake is directly above the driver's head; in this case, that giant sucking sound is a nice one.

danhf (it's a kit-car with a German engine, expensive anodised bits, poorly packaged, doesn't handle at speed, driving position odd, A-pillars block view, reverse gear is a sod) -
Dan is a man of strong opinions, which attitude I applaud. I trust that he won't be reading my reply herewith, because it would make no sense for him to waste his time reading about a poorly-packaged kit-car with an odd driving position.
For anyone else who might be interested, however, I shall address his points.
Whether it's a kit-car (not in the type-approval sense) does not seem terribly important. If Dan's saying that it's an amalgamation of bits made by other manufacturers for other cars, then he's wrong. With a few trivial exceptions, everything on the car was made just for the F1. It is precisely this reason why the car cannot be effectively worked on by anyone other than McLaren or its appointed rep's.
Gordon Murray was obsessed with weight minimisation, so the part of the brake duct that sits next to the rotor is a lovely carbon sculpture. The pedals stops are CNC'd aluminium with their centres carved out to save a gram (they're anodised black, but please don't mention that to Dan).
If "kit-car" refers to the fact that the cars were made by hand, I would say that that is a problem when the hands are uneducated and clumsy, but a virtue when they are skillful and adept. Formula One cars are made by hand.
The German engine is not a problem. Many people who know a lot more about engines than I do would tell you that the F1's engine is the best road car engine ever made. I'd love to hear about one that's better.
The expensive anodised bits are quite nice. For many purposes aluminium is a superb material, and it needs to be anodised to be protected.
If the F1 is poorly-packaged, I would like to know what sportscar is better-packaged. You can fit two adult passengers, plus roughly twice the luggage as a 360 will hold, or four times the luggage that an Enzo or Carrera GT will hold. It is four inches narrower than the 360 and six inches narrower than the other two.
As to whether it is ugly, that is in the eye of the beholder and, unfortunately, sometimes the beholder is wrong.
The driving position is odd, in the sense that it is unique. It is also fantastically effective, and one of the three reasons that make the car special. It is not a problem when you're overtaking (you can follow the car ahead by a wider-than-usual margin because of the F1's acceleration), and otherwise it's ideal. Why would you want to be offset? Because the F1 driver is in the middle, the positions of the wheel, gearstick and pedals are exactly where you want them - no compromise whatever. You get a huge sweeping view across a wide range ahead and to the sides. The driver's seat is by far the most comfortable I have sat in. I have driven the F1 as much as sixteen hours in a day and felt fine the whole time.
The direct rear view is decent because you have four mirrors. The rear-quarter view is mediocre, as is typical in a mid-engined car.
Does anyone know what "reverse gear's a sod" means?

I have left Dan's handling point for last, because it is the one with truth in it. The suspension was designed twelve years ago, when designers' computational power was something like 128 times less than what it is today. Similarly the tyre technology of the early nineties has been hugely surpassed since then. Furthermore, like every other car including Formula One racers, the F1 was a compromise. It was always meant to be a road car (the successful Le Mans efforts were a genuine afterthought) in which you and the squeeze could take a weekend blast from London to Cannes or Barcelona to Munich. For that reason it needed a lot of compliance. As such, the ride is remarkably comfortable. I have had many passengers fall asleep in their seats.
The car has no big wings or other aerodynamic appendages. They are ugly, but they do serve a purpose. The car also has no ABS, no traction control, no servo-assist for steering or brakes. Yes, there are handling issues, especially at speed. I am not the only one who thinks this - some guys who are real, as in REAL, drivers have said the same.
I have had many, many discussions with the factory
about these matters. I probably should not delve any deeper into this area at the moment. It's tricky ground, and this posting must by now be the most verbose in Internet history anyhow, so back to your comments...

maranellouk (insurance) -
There aren't too many insurers around who will cover it, but it can be done. The cost for a comprehensive policy with relatively small deductible is around 2-3% of value, depending on the obvious variables.

bilko (why buy it, why approach PH now, legitimacy?) -
First, may I congratulate you on your user name? Have you seen the episode in which Sean Connery has a bit part?
I believe that I already addressed you first two points; would you please clarify the third?

bor (driving in town?) -
Town driving is a pain. First, you're trying to take it easy on the clutch. Second, you're low and, as I said, rear-quarter vision is poor, which matters less on the open road but matters a lot in town. Third, in first gear even at idle speed you're going rather quickly, so that you cannot ease your way along in a queue without constantly dipping the clutch, which is rather stiff. The ride height is 120mm, and it is hard to park.

anniesdad (driving impressions?) -
When you're driving it you always feel special, mostly in a good way. Even after many thousands of miles, I only drive it when my head is in the game and I can focus.
It is demanding to drive. One element of that of course is the P/W ratio. As I said, it lacks the modern safety and car-control aids that save many lies every day.
The brakes are powerful, with a very hard pedal. After a few 200-0 stops in a row, however, they begin to fade. I presume that this is a cooling issue, but it would only matter if you were racing. The brake feel is below-average.
The gearshift is unusual. The stick is large and very solid. The action is mechanically perfect. The gates are narrow and demand great precision. Because of the tiny flywheel, the rev's rise and fall almost instantaneously, so you have got to be spot-on with your shifting or, alternatively, to slow things way down and do the shift (especially the second-third) in two movements.
As Ph'ers will appreciate, the car's acceleration is a safety feature. You can be casually cruising down a country road in fourth, come upon a slower car, drop into second (max speed - 95) and scoot around it in no time.
I mentioned above that there are handling issues. I am not saying that I know a lot about cars and driving- I don't - but when I read reviews of the car, such as that "Autocar" feature, I wonder what planet the writer had come from, and whether he had ever before driven a car, or just a little red wagon.
The F1 has a very long wheelbase for a sportscar, and a relatively slow steering ratio. When you turn the steering wheel X degrees at any speed, less happens than what you are expecting. That's a geometric thing.
Until you get close to the limit, the car understeers less than other sportscars usually do, so you're not getting the clearest slgnals. At the limit, however, it understeers a lot. The transition between the two states can be tricky.
In a straight line the steering is too sensitive.
If you have any lock on and you lift off above, say, 125 or 150, you have to be very careful because the rear is laterally soft.
Under very hard braking, the back end rises more than you would want.
I am working on altering some of the above so that the car is closer to what I prefer. My preferences might be naive, but that's my problem.
The handling issues notwithstanding, all in all it is a pleasure to drive. A great pleasure.

Marki (Carrera GT is modern master) -
I entirely agree. No question that the CGT is dynamically superior to the F1 in all respects except engine-related and steering feel, with the gearshifts being very different but equally nice. But the CGT weighs at least 150 kgs more and just isn't that special, whether you consider build quality, driving position, visual appeal, packaging or other criteria. It seems to me that the CGT is the best modern sportscar, but I doubt that in a dozen years we will think of it (or of the Enzo, Zonda, Koenigsegg, Ford GT, etc.) as being something to ponder and enthuse about.

stumartin (F1 still quicker that CGT around a track) - Unless the circuit is something like Talledega or Indianapolis, the CGT would be much quicker. Trust me.
The F1GTRs that raced at Le Mans and elsewhere in '95-'98 were very capable, but their suspensions and aerodynamics were modified in important ways. Then in the late '90s when Porsche, Mercedes and BMW started to create purpose-built race cars, which they homologated thanks to loopholes, the F1GTRs were uncompetitive and that was the end of the story. The Carrera GT was originally intended to be the successor to the GT1, so it's much more of a race car (in road clothing) than a normal F1, which was only meant for the road.

anniesdad - ("evo" article comparing F1 and CGT). I can't for the life of me grasp how R Atkinson, a very smart man, came to his conclusions. As I have said, the CGT is surely the more capable racer, while the F1 is more usable on the road (and a lot more fun!).

If even one reader has stayed tuned up to now, I respect you. I had not intended this to be anywhere as lengthy as it must be, but I have tried to cover the points raised and put some meat on the bones. If there are any other questions or comments from anyone who is not yet exhausted, I would be glad to address them.

great read and very informative for those of us who can really only dream about one of these cars.

Execellent post.

"If even one reader has stayed tuned up to now, I respect you. I had not intended this to be anywhere as lengthy as it must be, but I have tried to cover the points raised and put some meat on the bones. If there are any other questions or comments from anyone who is not yet exhausted, I would be glad to address them."

Ive read it all and loved it!