Gordon Murray: 25 questions on the 735hp T50S Niki Lauda

By topgear, 26 February 2021

Gordon, was the Murray T50S always in the pipeline after the T50 road car?

“The plan was to do exactly what T50 did for road cars on the track: the very best experience. Nothing to do with being the quickest around the Nordschleife – though it’s going to be blindingly quick. It was all focused on if you had to have one track car and potentially go racing one day, what would give you the very best experience?

“850kg. Central driving position. Twelve thousand revs [laughs]. A 700 horsepower V12… it adds up to something quite spectacular. So it’s not a variant. 

“It’s not like when I finished the McLaren F1 and then started on the GTR and the LM. This has been a parallel process for 18 months. Not much of the original ’50 remains. It’s got new body panels, new monocoque, new gearbox, and a very different engine. But it’s been fun tearing up the rulebook.”

How would a T50S get on if you could take it in a time machine to the 1995 Le Mans 24 Hours start line?

“Forget 1995. It’s got the same power-to-weight ratio as the NA car that was second last year and almost qualified on pole. You’d just have to put more downforce on it.”

(1995 Le Mans-winning McLaren F1 GTR pictured)

So the 1995 F1 GTR that did 298 laps and won the race outright – that’d be nuked by this T50S?

“Absolutely. Oh good grief yes. We didn’t set out to win the race in ‘95, we wanted to win the GT class. The only way we were going to be competitive was to knock back the downforce to a minimum and be quick on the straights. The prototypes were much faster than us in the corners frustratingly, but as soon as we got into the Mulsanne the guys sailed right past in the F1.

“Now T50S is in another league altogether.”

How did you arrive at 1,500kg of downforce for a 852kg car?

“In the CFD wind tunnel we got up to 1.9 tonnes of downforce. We could’ve got over two tonnes but we’d have needed bigger wheels and tyres to support that. And I want this car to be accessible to a good average driver, not just racing drivers. 

“There’s never been a target lap time with this car. Think of the Porsche 919 Evo – if anyone ever goes quicker around the Nordschleife or Spa, Porsche weren’t even trying. So Porsche can just turn up the wick, add a bit more downforce and immediately go 10 or 15 seconds quicker.

“I just don’t care about lap times or ultimate downforce. The car’s just got to be quick but fun, and easy to use. Some of these track cars you’re not even allowed to keep – the factory keep them and need technicians to turn them on.

“In T50S, you turn it on, warm up the oil and off you go.”

Is naming the car after the late, great Niki Lauda any kind of comment on the McLaren Senna?

“Not at all. That’s much more to do with my Formula One win in Sweden in 1978. ‘T50S’ was a working title in the last 18 months. We needed a temporary name to put on the drawings and thought we’d think of a cooler name later. 

“As time went on, ‘50S’ went into the sales contracts and the car just became the ‘50S. But after we lost Niki, I was thinking how the fan assembly and modes are more sophisticated on the road-going T50. So the analogy between the Brabham BT46B and the road car is quite tenuous really, but not so with this T50S. 

“This fan has no valving or manifolding. We’ve got a bigger diffuser, and the fan stays in max downforce all the time. This is a proper racing car with a fan on the back.

“And Niki was much more than just a triple world champion and somebody that drove for me for a couple of years. He was a friend. I just thought what a tribute to the guy, and what a way to commemorate the infamous win in 1978.”

So this would still be the 'Niki Lauda' even if the Senna had never existed?

“Oh yes. To be honest I thought the Senna’s ‘Senna’ connection was a bit… stretched.

“This car is specifically for Niki because it’s a fan car. I’d lost track with the family so I got in touch with Bernie Ecclestone who put me back in contact, and the family thought it was a great idea to commemorate Niki and that race win. 

“I want all the cars to be different, and them all to link to a bit of history, so just for a bit of fun each car will be named after one of my GP wins for each circuit. So whatever happens to a car in the future, it’ll always be the Monaco car, the Zandvoort car, Watkins Glen ’74 or whatever. The connection I want is with my racing history.”

Do you intend for the Kyalami car to be bought by a South African owner, and so on?

“Oh no. In fact, they have no choice! To avoid a bunfight, it’s just going to be chronologically. So someone who’s bought number 08 or 09 just get whatever race win gets chronologically associated with that car.”

With only 25 being built, how do you decide who’ll get one?

“With T50 people had the chance to pre-buy them before the car was launched, and that took care of two-thirds, and 48 hours after revealing it we were oversubscribed by a couple of 100 people.

“With the ‘S’ we’ve already sold 12 – 15. It’s first come first served.”

Do your customers have to buy a T50 road car to get hold of the ‘S’?

“No, not at all. I don’t subscribe to the ‘you need to buy this, this and this before we’ll sell you that’ model. Some people love a good track car but don’t particularly like driving on the road.”

Would you support a T50S being converted for road use?

“We’ve made it very clear to anyone buying the T50S that it’d take a huge amount of work to turn it into a road-legal car. The reason is, as we said earlier, this isn’t just a road car with a wing. This is a very different story. In fact, the only thing that looks the same is we’ve saved a bit of the road car’s beauty and shape. 

“The fan does so much underneath we haven’t had to cover the whole car with slots and aero. Some of the cars that generate 1,000kg of downforce have no body shape left. Because we’re generating so much effect under the car, we’ve still got T50’s shape shining through. It’s still an attractive motor car.”

Is the colour a nod to the old McLaren F1 LM?

“It’s actually our heritage colour. Going right back to the 1960s all my first racing cars were orange. We’ve taken the orange and ‘shaken the tin a little bit’ to make it much brighter.

“Some supercars don’t suit light colours, or dark colours, but I’ve never seen a car suit as many colours when we’ve been speccing them with customers as the T50 road car. I think it’s because it’s such a pure shape.”

You’ve gone back to high-mounted mirrors like early McLaren F1s. No cameras – to save weight?

“On the road car, we wanted mirrors like this but they don’t meet the ’55-degree’ rule. They’d have had to go right on top of the front wheel, and they’re huge. They looked so ugly we went for cameras. 

“On this car, we don’t have the rules. They’re actually a Formula One-style mirror, so they’re a double moulding and we blow high-speed air between the sections to clean up the vortex. Before we did that, it was messing up the flow of air to the rear wing.”

How come you didn’t go with a top-mounted rear wing like an F1 car – or the new 911 GT3?

“I don’t like them. It’s a bit of an affectation on a track car. The only reason you’d do that on a racing car is because you looking for the absolute last 0.001 per cent of downforce and you don’t want to disturb the high speed aero under the wing.

“Like I said, we could’ve added another half a tonne of downforce any time we wanted to. To [have a top-mounted wing] on a track car when you don’t need to is crazy really. It’s also a lot heavier.”

Is weight the reason you didn’t go for lots of motorised active aero?

“One of the big points is the car has to be accessible. One aspect of that is making everything mechanically adjustable. It’s really quite a simple car. 

“You can adjust the aero balance… but you need a spanner. You can adjust the chassis balance… but you’ll need a spanner. The other thing we don’t like are those rip-off track packages where you buy a multi-million pound car and then all the extra gear and engineering support to actually run it is even more money.

“We’ve got the ‘Trackspeed’ package which comes with all the jacks you need, the tools, the fuel filler equipment, a day’s set-up and a technician training day. It’s all included in the price. The camera connections, the on-board radio, GoPro connections, the instruments – it’s all built-in and included.”

Why the sausage-shaped vents in the rear? A subtle nod to the McLaren F1?

“Just one of my signatures really. If you look at the LCC Rocket, that’s full of those as well. The 1960s are my favourite period for racing cars, and though pure retro design is no good, if you can use the classic signatures and make a car look modern, that’s the trick.”

Since we're talking Sixties racers… have you watched 'Ford vs Ferrari'?

“I have! I didn’t think I would like it, but I enjoyed it. There was a bit of American artistic license in there, but that aside it’s an entertaining film. I don’t often watch racing films as I’m hugely disappointed by them. 

“I wasn’t going to watch Rush, the Lauda vs Hunt one at all, because James was a very good friend and of course Niki drove for me. But I did happen to watch it on an aeroplane and… that was a joke. It was so far from the truth. Hunt was much wilder than that.

“He was like a boy scout in that film. I went to a couple of parties with James Hunt and that would’ve been worth a movie on its own…”

With a 12,100rpm nat-asp V12 are you worried T50S will trip over circuit noise limits?

“We ask each owner where they run,. And we’ll have 2 or even 3 different dB level exhausts.

“For the lucky people who run on totally free circuits they’ll have straight pipes, but we’ve got a straight section under the rear deck where we can fit a motorcycle-style absorption section.”

Will it shoot flames out the back on a downchange?

“Erm, I think it probably will. At the moment the plan is not to shut the fuel off during the gearshift, just to cut the ignition. So there could be a few flames around, yeah…”

Not tempted by McLaren Speedtail-style wheel spats?

“They’re just a pain. On a road car they’re a real pain – they just get knocked and damaged. And on the track car, it doesn’t need anything that’s for show. We’ve only included parts that do a job.” 

Why didn’t you save even more weight with carbon fibre wheels?

“I really don’t do them. I’ve been working with composites since 1974 and carbon fibre since 1978. You might say I’m one of the older generation, but [a carbon wheel] is just so dodgy. 

“Not so much on a track car when you’re inspecting the wheels frequently, but you’re also frequently changing tyres, and all you need is a nick from a tyre lever to go through a couple of plies and the failure mode is catastrophic. 

“You don’t get any cracks with carbon. It ‘explodes’. It just lets go. With a forged wheel – these are forged magnesium – we’ve got these down to 7kg. To save another 500g with carbon wheels is just not worth the risk in my opinion.”

Did you remove the right seat because you want the instrument bank set up for right-handers?

“Yes, that’s right. The switch panel stays on the right. We wanted minimal switchgear on the steering wheel. You can optionally spec the car as a one-seater, with both passenger seats removed. This saved a further 3.8kg.” 

(T50 road car interior pictured)

Looks like a very skeletal steering wheel. No plans for a screen in the wheel?

“It’s the lowest inertia wheel we could design. The big fat rectangular ones you see with hundreds of buttons and wires hanging off them are quite heavy. That takes away steering feel. 

“On an F1 racing car there’s no space for switchgear so it all has to go on the steering wheel, but given the choice you wouldn’t have a steering wheel that heavy.

“I used to make my F1 drivers take their wristwatches off to reduce steering inertia.”

Will you take the T50S racing?

“We thought we might be racing at Le Mans. We thought the FIA would do a sort of supercar GT series, and then they backed off and went for some crazy silhouette formula which we’re not interested in at all.

“If we were going to take this GT racing, we’d be forced to add 400kg of ballast, which is just… not on. 

“But we are working with Stéphane Ratel toward a potential Pro-Am race series. In the meantime, this car should be a lot of fun.”

How is T50S different in philosophy from your McLaren F1 GTR racecars?

“With the F1, I insisted we didn’t go racing as I didn’t want to compromise the design. The car that won Le Mans had a synchromesh gearbox and electrically adjustable mirrors! That’s why T50S is a parallel project. If we’d set out to build one car that could do both [roles] I think it would’ve damaged [the regular] T50. 

That’s why this car has a different transmission, wilder engine, no variable valve timing… all the road car stuff’s gone. It always had much more aggressive targets on weight and downforce. That’s why it’s turned into such a different motor car: we didn’t just finish the T50 and think ‘oh, maybe let’s put a wing on the back.’

Most track cars, without being unkind, are just the road car with an aero kit, they’re 30-40kg lighter if you’re lucky. 

I can’t wait to drive. It. Actually, I can’t wait just to hear it come flat-out past the pits…”

Despite Brexit, COVID, winter weather and so on, is production of T50 on track?

“We had COVID delays last year. Our first prototype was due to be finished in November, but we had supply issues so the first car was fired up in early February. We lost a couple of months, but having said that we’ve looked at the programme, rejigged some testing, and used the time to build an extra prototype so Cosworth can double up on some of the engine work. We’re pretty much back on track. 

“However, the thing that could mess us around is travel to foreign countries, which we need to do in the next few months for hot and cold weather testing, and visiting different tracks. 

“‘George’, our test mule, has been running since last October, and is still feeding back engine, transmission and clutch mods into our prototype. XP2 is now complete, and XP1 is only a week behind it. 

“Already, we’re building XP3 – our guys in the workshop have done an amazing job.

“Hopefully, the T50 will go on to be the ultimate road car, and the T50S will become known as the ultimate track car.”

STORY Ollie Kew

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