Feature F1 Unlocked
Inside the secret warehouse that’s home to a treasure trove of historic McLaren F1 cars
If you’ve only got recent knowledge of Formula 1 – and specifically the McLaren team – you’ll know them as the papaya-coloured race cars driven by Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris. You may also remember Daniel Ricciardo’s shock victory in the 2021 Italian Grand Prix – their first visit to the top step in almost a decade.
If you’ve followed F1 a little longer, your memory bank could include their most recent World Championship victory with Lewis Hamilton in 2008, when they raced in chrome colours – and perhaps Mika Hakkinen’s two titles after he defeated Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher, or one of the sport’s most famous team mate rivalries featuring greats Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna.
But their history goes back far beyond that, as far back as 1963 when the team was founded by Bruce McLaren. During that 60-year period, they have won a mighty 20 world titles and 183 Grands Prix, making them one of the sport’s most decorated – and at times dominant – teams.
They’ve tasted success in other motorsports, too, winning the Indy 500 three times and the world-famous endurance race the Le Mans 24 Hours at their very first attempt. In winning those two flagship events and the Monaco Grand Prix – the jewel in the crown of F1 – they are the only F1 team in history to achieve motorsport’s Triple Crown.
Six decades’ worth of racing has seen the production of a significant array of racing machinery, broken down into millions of car parts, thousands of car design drawings and hundreds of race suits.
Some of those bits have been sold, others given to significant stakeholders, some donated to charity. But a large part of them are stored in a secret location in Woking.
Their long-time boss Ron Dennis never wanted to throw anything away. He wanted to keep everything and he hated waste. As a result, at least one of every part manufactured during his time in charge – between 1980 and 2017 – is under McLaren’s roof. Those parts help tell the story of the team’s impressive life in F1 through the various generations.
As you walk into the main room, you’re greeted by a huge three-story shelving unit housing some McLaren classics, from Hakkinen’s 1998-winning MP4-13 to the orange livery they tested but never raced in 1997.
Tucked away at the back in the corner, with a laminated “do not remove” A4 sign taped above, are the four tyres – stacked one on top of each other – that Hamilton used for his last lap, last corner pass on Toyota’s Timo Glock at Brazil’s Interlagos track to win the first of his seven world titles.
Elsewhere, you find a steering wheel – and the associated cables and working assembly – used by Pedro de la Rosa in 2008, laid out meticulously across a table.
Looking for a missing part? Turn left and you’ve got shelves storing hundreds of tubes that hold original drawings of various part designs. Not there? Fire up one of the many laptops – from new slim machines to chunky relics that operate floppy disks – scattered around the warehouse with their required power cables.
These are called into action on a frequent basis; this building isn’t just a storage block but also a workshop, staffed by eight technicians working on cars in their own collection or those owned by private collectors.
While I was there, they had Emerson Fittipaldi’s 1974 World Championship-winning M23 up on the stands so they could ready it for a run at Goodwood next month (that’s one of 13 McLarens that will be in action at the famous motorsport meeting, as part of the team’s year-long 60th anniversary celebrations).
The iconic MP4-4 which won 15 of the 16 races in 1988 – and drew the eye of Jenson Button and Hamilton when they visited some years ago – was also being tinkered with.
The Crown Prince of Bahrain has one of the MP4-23s – which Hamilton used to win the 2008 title – stored in his private collection, but sent it over to McLaren Heritage so they could get it running again ahead of a test drive.
Next door sits a Kimi Raikkonen car owned by a private collector. The fuel bag is all that needs changing before it’s ready to be fired up and sent for a shakedown, before being returned to the customer.
If they haven’t got a spare in storage, they refer to drawings and get them made, either in-house at the McLaren Technology Centre – home to their F1 team – or by a third-party contractor.
If they’re not sure what they need to fix it – and can’t find the answer in drawings or on the computers – they need to rely on memories, which is where the experience of those who work there becomes invaluable. Hughie Absalom, for example, worked on one of the Indy 500 winners and relied on his memory and images to get the rebuild completed.
Among the octet who work there is Gary Wheeler, a senior associate and heritage build technician who worked with Ayrton Senna. He tells a story of how during his time at Lotus, he caught the three-time world champion hiding when he was supposed to be attending a media event. “I said to him, ‘I won’t say anything, but if you come to McLaren, make sure I’m on your car,’” he tells me.
“Apparently, before he put pen to paper, he asked to request that I was on his car. Ron replied that ‘we choose who works on which car’. Dave Ryan, who was our team manager, was in the room.
“He came out and asked me, ‘So what makes you so special then?’ explaining that Ayrton had asked [for me to work on his car]. I said, ‘I haven’t a clue what you’re on about.’ He said, ‘Ayrton wanted you on his car. Luckily for you, we decided you were going on his car anyway!’”
It's those personal recollections, along with the priceless pieces of memorabilia across six decades in Formula 1, that tell the real story of McLaren. “You care for the cars,” says Indy Lall, McLaren Heritage manager. “There’s a meaning behind why we’ve got each and every one of them.”
McLaren chief operating officer Piers Thynne adds: “The depth of individuals who work there, their experiences and technical knowledge, is a fantastic and hugely important part of our business to keep alive. It’s important to keep the cars alive not only as running assets but a really important part of our history.”
Having spent several years in storage, the plan is for most of the cars – and many of the spare parts, from sidepods to engine covers, front noses to rear wings – to return to MTC and be put on display in all their glory.
“It is important we showcase vehicles around us to remind everyone that we have a long history,” adds Thynne. “Any inspiration you might need beyond what we do on a day-to-day basis, you can see it on your way to lunch or when you go and get a cup of tea.”
As offices go, McLaren’s – which is already pretty special, with its boulevard lined with cars through the generations – is about to get even cooler.