Chris Goodwin interview: Driving the future

McLaren Automotive’s chief test driver, Chris Goodwin, has one of the most enviable jobs on earth. As the supercar-maker prepares to launch its next big model, we sit Chris down for a long, open chat…
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March 07, 2017
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Every McLaren on the road has the indelible imprint of chief test driver Chris Goodwin, who provides the vital link between the company’s backroom boffins and what takes place when rubber meets road. He’s the man who distils and relays real-world data to the engineers, but his most important contribution is to convey the all-important ‘feel’ elements that can’t be represented by any graph or spreadsheet — and this is largely why Macs serve up the tactility and aliveness that they do. Goodwin spoke at length to wheels during a recent visit to Dubai

 

Welcome to Dubai, Chris. Let’s start with the BP23 ‘Hyper GT’ that has just been announced. What can you tell us about that car?

The idea with that is that it’s presented as a ‘Hyper GT’. The layout is a three-seater, so the obvious connection is to the F1 (Nineties McLaren supercar), but the nature of the car will be more of a super-performance GT car… a long-distance, cross-country kind of transportation. The focus will be comfort and luxury, so packaging will be one of the high points of the whole design. From what I’ve seen, the external design will look stunning, but it’s the internal packaging that’s the real challenge because we’ve got to get in a huge amount of power, a lot of cooling, a lot of people and a lot of luggage. So it will be less about racetrack lap times and more about getting that styling and packaging right.

 

How hard do you think it will be to physically get in and out of the central (i.e. driver’s) seat? I’ve never sat in an F1, but was it a bit awkward clambering over the side seat?

My first experience of the F1 was in endurance racing, so we were doing regular driver changes, and we obviously had to do them quickly under race conditions. The side seats in the F1 were more padding than actual seats, but in the racecar we substituted them with engine management boxes and so forth. The rest of the layout was as per the road car, with its dihedral doors, and we were able to do driver changes just as quickly as anyone else, because we won a lot of races. One of the ingredients of the BP23 will be powered doors, so that will make life even easier. The F1 still had wind-up windows and no air-con. Obviously, that won’t be the case with the BP23. Customer expectations have gone up so dramatically… they expect super performance, comfort, reliability and light weight.
It is, of course, difficult to achieve this at the upper end of our line-up, but it’s just as challenging at the lower end. I think we’ve over-delivered in many ways, because a carbon fibre chassis and a 562bhp turbo engine in a car like the 570S means it offers performance that you don’t get elsewhere in that price segment.

 

What about a successor to the P1? Where do you go from that?

It’s safe to say we have plans for successors in each of our model line-ups — Sports Series / Super Series / Ultimate Series. The plan for a P1 replacement has always been to do another Ultimate Series car when the time is right. Every time we do such a car, we have to raise the bar, so it has to be done at a stage where it’s possible to do this. It can’t just be a facelift as McLaren isn’t really a company that’s going to be known for its facelifts.

McLaren PR Tom Pryor interjects: We also confirmed in the Track22 plan (which calls for a Dh4.6bn investment to roll out 15 new models by 2022 with a view to tripling McLaren’s sales) that there will be a fully electric prototype — only a prototype — as part of the Ultimate Series.

 

At what stage of the model-development process do you get involved? Right from the product-planning stage?

Product planning is a niche that’s a bit out of my world. A lot of that is driven by what the world might look like in 10 years, and a big part of that is down to legislation relating to emissions and crash-testing. There are just so many elements in marketing too. What people are going to be buying in 10 years, the pricing situation and so on.

Once we have some firm targets based on all this, we start to have a discussion along the lines of ‘How would we produce a car like that? What are the ingredients you’d be looking for?’ The engineering and technical side comes in as a solution to the problem of how we produce a car with the sort of performance, emissions, price and other factors that would be expected by customers in 10 years’ time. I would play a small part in that discussion. Once an engineering prototype has been built, that’s where I really come in. My last working week included being part of the discussion for the BP23, as well as a lot of  driving in the next car that we will next be launching (the 720 S that will be revealed at the Geneva motor show). On Monday, I’ll be back in Spain, testing a type of component that might be rolled out in our future models.

 

Do you leverage much know-how from the Formula 1 team?

Because F1 is so tightly regulated, they’re very limited in what they can do. They’re constantly refining and refining. So rather than literally transferring technology across, it’s more about the philosophy. As a result, our road cars have carbon fibre chassis, great cooling, great aero and great suspension design.

Our biggest asset is people, and there’s a decent crossflow of personnel going from the road-car division to the F1 team, GT racing and vice versa. So there’s a nice circular flow of staff going in all directions. We’ve got a predominantly young team, and the benefit of that is that they’re not regurgitating something they developed at another manufacturer because we brought them across from there. We’ve got guys thinking from a clean sheet of paper. We’ve got a lot of guys straight from university, and some of the technology we’re introducing in our road cars was developed as part of someone’s PhD study. It’s much more interesting seeing that than some technology that’s already featured on some other brand of car.

 

Does the petrolhead in you wish that modern high-performance cars were rawer and less synthesised, like that 1966 McLaren M1B CanAm racer over there?

Aha, the petrolhead in me — and there are plenty more in the company — makes sure that regardless of whatever systems and parameters to satisfy regulations go into the cars, they’re still thrilling to drive. Racing that car (M1B) at Goodwood really inspired me to develop the flavour and the feel of the P1 to give you that kind of rawness.

If you drive a P1 quick, it’s got a bit too much power for the grip, so you really have to hustle it around. Equally, the 570S is also the embodiment of an exhilarating drive. Every time you touch the brake or feed in some steering, it really feels agile and lively. It gives you back something. That’s a thread we try to instil in all our cars.

 

Various McLaren spokespersons have said the company will never build an SUV. But could that stance change? With virtually every other ultra-premium brand jumping in, is it a segment you can no longer afford to ignore?

For the time being our volumes are more or less capped by our production capacity. What’s more, our company is owned by a bunch of private guys and they’re all petrolheads like me, so I don’t think they feel the need or desire to go into that high-volume market. Most of the other sportscar brands are part of big conglomerates, so their situation is different. We’re more content to stick to our niche, and I don’t think I’d be very good at developing an SUV. I don’t think I’d be particularly interested in it either (laughs).

 

Unlike Ferrari or Lamborghini, which have model lines that use completely different powertrains and platforms, all McLaren’s models use the Mono Cell chassis and different versions of the 3.8-litre twin-turbo V8 and dual-clutch gearbox. Any plans to introduce greater diversity in the future?

Mike Flewitt (McLaren CEO) has gone on record as saying we’ll be investigating new technologies and new powertrains, including an all-electric Ultimate Series prototype. There will also be more hybrid models. We only introduce new technologies when there’s a good reason for it, and for the time being with our current powertrain, we’re getting really good use out of that basic layout. In actual fact, there’s a huge amount of difference between the engines in our different models, even though they’re all 3.8-litre twin-turbo units.

There’s a massive amount of content change between the engine of a 12C, 650S, 570S and P1. There are a lot of changes in the details. Could we change the number of cylinders, the number of turbos and so forth in time? Sure, but only when there’s good reason to do so.

 

You wouldn’t, for example, ever do a front-engined four-seater, à la GTC4 Lusso, would you?

That would be like going back 50 years! No, I think we have a formula that works pretty well for us. We’ve got a niche that we’re getting better at, and we’re focused on that.

 

How do you feel about hybrid powertrains? To me there seems to be an element of lost purity due to the added weight and complexity of such set-ups.

I can understand why some people would say that, but I don’t agree with it. I’m in a fortunate position in that I’ve been able to sample all of McLaren’s racecars over the years, and one thing that’s noticeable is that they’ve all changed and evolved to be better than their predecessors. You’re either going to be the sort of person who embraces change and progress… or not. You have to appreciate things for what they are. I can drive that car over there (M1B CanAm racer), which is made up steel tubes, has a wonky old five-speed gearbox and hard, treaded tyres with not a lot of grip. The aerodynamics are non-existent, so the car floats around at high speed. There might be some people that say adding downforce to cars has made them a bit boring, adding grip to cars has made them a bit boring, adding paddleshift gearboxes has made them boring. So, are hybrid powertrains a backward step? No, it’s just another means to achieving what you’re after. The ideal hybrid powertrain system is something that’s invisible to the driver. The hybrid powertrain in the P1 has really defined one of the unique characteristics of that car. Its instantaneous torque delivery is something you just can’t replicate in any other road car.

That immediate acceleration is something you only experience in a racing car that weighs 600kg. So a Formula 1 car with a V10 has that, but the only way to get that aggressive yet controllable power delivery in a road car is with a hybrid powertrain. Petrol engines just don’t respond quickly enough. For me, anything that gives you more efficiency and performance is a forward step. The challenge now is to reduce the weight and cost of these systems, and that’s where development is now going.

 

Okay, hybrid is one thing, but what about pure EVs, where you lose the vital sound, smell and vibration elements that come with a petrol engine?

I believe you can make an EV equally exciting, although very different. The key is to still deliver the best driver’s car possible. It has to be something that a driver feels is under his hands and feet, and that he can really drive and control it, and step out with a big smile on his face. You’ve got to have a bit of an open mind about these things. I remember when the Formula E racing series was announced. A middle-aged guy like me thought, ‘Really? Is it going to be any good?’ But I’ve been to a couple of races and I know many of the guys competing in it, and they love it. And these are drivers who have raced in Formula 1, Le Mans and are winners of championships in other series. Yes, the cars are quieter, but Formula E hasn’t diluted that wheel-banging element of racing. The guys in the car are getting so much out of it — for them it’s just another racecar.

I have to admit, I wasn’t naturally inclined that way, but I’m happy to go with new technology. I need to have an open mind, because I’m constantly being bombarded with new technology at McLaren, as we have a lot of great minds there, and they’re always trying new things. Some of these find their way into our cars, some don’t. At the end of the day, the powertrain is a propulsion source and, in many ways, an electric motor can do the job better than a petrol one. As for the sound, that’s being legislated out of cars anyway, whether we like it or not.

 

On a different note, you would have tested in all sorts of locations, and under all sorts of conditions. Any interesting anecdotes? Ever been chased by lions or had a car catch fire?

Yes to all of those! (laughs) No, I’ve never been chased by lions, but we’ve certainly had lots of wildlife incidents on various tracks around the world. We test at the Arctic Circle, where I’ve come across reindeer on frozen lakes. We also test in a lot of hot places where we’ve not been great to the wildlife of those parts. There’s also a racetrack in Spain that we had to stop using  because of all the wild boar that inhabited the forest around the track. We wanted to test day and night, but at night it’s their track!

Regarding the technical failure side of testing, as they say, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. As we’re constantly developing new technology and pushing the envelope, it’s not always a clean world in test driving and on test circuits, regardless of how many virtual simulations have preceded it. So, we only release products to the public once we’ve put out all the fires and swept up all the bits! (laughs). It’s not all sunglasses and skidding around racetracks as a test driver, there’s a lot of hard work that goes into it.