Interview: McLaren’s Chief Test Driver, Chris Goodwin

We meet a man with the best job in the world and get a brief blat in the topless Macca

By Shahzad Sheikh

Interview with McLaren chief development driver, Chris Goodwin, about 12C Spider

Chris Goodwin is Chief Test Driver for McLaren Automotive which means he gets to drive not only all the McLaren road cars, but also all of the company’s fabled race cars, including those raced by F1 legend, Ayrton Senna.
Unsurprisingly Goodwin has a fairly impressive race CV himself having competed in single-seater formulas successfully, and raced in the British Touring Car Championship, GT Endurance races, FIA GT Championships and European Le Mans series.

So he has the best job in the world then? Quite possibly. But I’d suggest he has one of the most difficult jobs in the world too – fine tuning and honing an entirely new generation of supercar for the most discerning clientele on the planet – F1 bores with money.

Joking aside, he is already part of automotive history having been at the genesis of McLaren’s first own product, the MP4-12C. And we’re here to talk to him about the latest version of that car, the Spider. And also pinch it for a quick drive under the pretence that we need to go do some photography with it!

You might think we’d be eager to get to the drive bit and would prefer to bypass the chatting to the bored racing driver bit. On the contrary, Goodwin is disarmingly friendly, refreshingly humble and delightfully open.

Interview with McLaren chief development driver, Chris Goodwin, about 12C Spider

Once in a lifetime opportunity

As he starts to explain how much his work means to him, you get a sense of the drive for perfection instilled at McLaren within every employee, but also the passion he pours into his work, as well as the eye-widening astonishment at his own privileged good fortune, to be where he is, and to be doing what he’s doing.

‘Yes it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, my whole time at McLaren has been a life-changing experience. I started life trying to become an engineer and went to Imperial College to study mechanical engineering. But in parallel I found cars, and left my university degree to go racing. ‘

He attributes his presence at McLaren in part to that early interest in engineering. ‘Don’t forget Ron [Ron Dennis the chairman of McLaren] was a mechanic too. He also has amazing foresight and sees a long way ahead, so whilst I was at the height of my GT racing career, he told me to give up racing and work for him.’

‘You’ll be given challenging projects, you’ll be tasked with producing the most dynamic high tech performance sports cars in the world. And you’ll be known for that. At the moment you’re just a GT racing driver that does quite well,’ Dennis bluntly told him.

Interview with McLaren chief development driver, Chris Goodwin, about 12C Spider

I wanna be a glamorous test driver

Having witnessed a Ferrari test driver at work, it didn’t take too much convincing: ‘I’d gone to Ferrari’s test track, Fiorano, in the mid-90s to look at a GT racing car,’ explains Goodwin. ‘Nicola Larini was their test driver at the time. He stormed in his little Alfa Romeo, jumped into the Ferrari F1 cars to shake them down before they were put on a plane for the Japanese Grand Prix, then jumped into a Ferrari 550 which was going into production at that time, then jumped into the GT racing car and did some more laps. “That’s what I want to do,” I remember thinking!’

In fact development driving wasn’t new to Goodwin. ‘From the very beginning of my racing I had to double up as a test driver – I had won a championship in my first year, so the manufacturer of that type of junior single-seater asked me to develop the following year’s car.’

His first project with McLaren was developing the SLR supercar, a joint venture with Mercedes. By the time they started developing the McLaren MP4-12C, the company’s first on-going production road car, it wasn’t just the monumental task of creating a new sports cars company that left Goodwin awestruck.

Interview with McLaren chief development driver, Chris Goodwin, about 12C Spider

In step with the best in the business

‘Ron had pulled together some amazing people, there were guys from Formula 1, GT racing and some of the best guys we could find in the automotive world. Even before you drive the car, you look around and think, “I’ve gotta raise my game here, cause this bloke knows what he’s doing”. You get up every day and you’ve got to be on your game – you go out in the car and you’ve got to be able to come back and say something pretty useful!’

And it’s not just about making the car fast, far from it in fact: ‘I’m developing cars that actually aren’t the fastest things I’ve ever driven – I’ve got quite a decent view of vehicle performance. I’ve also got quite a good view of driver’s levels of skills, appetites and so on. During the past couple of years I’ve driven alongside Jensen (Button) and Lewis (Hamilton) and got feedback from them. At the same time I regularly meet genuine owners of our cars and drive with them too.’

This provides invaluable insights into who the car needs to cater for, despite varying skill levels, styles and expectations. Again, not entirely a new concept to Goodwin.

‘In my life as a GT racing driver, you often share a car with another driver, and the only way you’ll win is if both drivers are happy. Very often you’re pairing with a gentleman driver, and you need to get that guy to do the best possible lap time he can do in the same car.

Interview with McLaren chief development driver, Chris Goodwin, about 12C Spider

Developing an everyman supercar

‘Developing a race car, you think it’s all about speed, but actually it’s not, it’s about lap times, it’s how you achieve those lap times that’s the really detailed part. It’s all about the detail and at McLaren we have the processing power within the group to really get into the details.

‘The car has to feel great when the driver’s cruising slowly around town, but it also has to feel great when he’s driving it around a track. And I guarantee a McLaren owner, given 10 laps of a circuit, will be able to drive my car quicker than any of our competition. That’s because it’s immediately engaging and gives you the confidence – it has peak performance for a wide range of abilities, that comes from the details.’

Interview with McLaren chief development driver, Chris Goodwin, about 12C Spider

Driving the Spider

A short while after the interview, I’m not doing any lap times, but I am cruising around Dubai at the wheel of the brand new McLaren 12C Spider (they’ve taken to shortening the full numerical name, perhaps a rare tacit admission that ‘MP4-12C’ is an overly long and dull moniker for a supercar) and since my time with the car is limited there isn’t much opportunity to find out just how fast this really is. Fortunately Goodwin’s been working on the low-speed driving experience too.

‘If I think back 10 years ago, I’d be putting be putting 90 per cent of my effort into being fast and 10 per cent into just pottering about. Now I understand that our products must be as enjoyable to drive at 30mph as they are at 200mph. The Spider for example has been calibrated to be a lot more engaging at lower speed driving.’

He’s not wrong. The weather’s fantastic, so the targa-style folding roof stays tucked in behind the rear seats. I drove the coupe version last year, but this car already feels a lot more intimate and exciting. The engine sound is more obvious and more intense; extraordinarily the car feels quicker, but it’s also the way it delivers that power, where previously there was an emphasis on efficiency, now there is an eagerness. The sensations have definitely been dialled up.

‘There’s a number of ways to achieve excitement. You can fake it. There are lots of gimmicky things you can do. On the other end of the scale you could end up with a car that does everything for you. What we’ve tried to do is give drivers a genuine experience.’ This means letting some of the raw sensations of the chassis, suspension and drivetrain through, whilst cloaking the contribution of the electronics.

‘All the technology is in there for a reason, for performance, for safety, but at the same time the driver doesn’t necessarily want to know it’s there – you don’t want to feel the diff operating or sense the brake steer, these systems should not be in your face.’

Interview with McLaren chief development driver, Chris Goodwin, about 12C Spider

Electronics for a reason

In fact the McLaren is a tech-heavy car, but the electronics are not quite as overbearing as they are in a Nissan GT-R. ‘Being the most high tech car in this niche, it allows you to hit several targets in one go and with our sports and normal modes we do actually produce three cars in one. In normal mode we can dull it right down and make it a fairly conservative experience.

‘Then there’s another group of customers who want a little bit more, so they can go to sports mode and it opens up control, opens up the ESP to make it a little freer, enhances the performance, firms up the ride slightly, changes the balance of the car to be a bit more neutral and injects more noise and feel.

‘In track mode it goes even further, with a very firm ride indeed, very direct handling, much more open ESP and yaw control, and as much noise as you want!’

Goodwin admits though that it’s impossible to do a car that everyone likes, but most people do have a preferred setting. Goodwin’s own preference tallies with most of his customers, Sport and Track, ‘because people like the noise and the immediacy of the gearshifts – it gives them the aural thrill – but at the same time you’re driving on the road and you don’t want the firm suspension.’

Interview with McLaren chief development driver, Chris Goodwin, about 12C Spider

Rolling revisions

Part of the improvements in this Spider and current model Coupes stem from the rolling revisions instigated and retro-fitted to owners cars that improved engine output and dynamics mid-way through 2012, only around six months after the car went on sale. This is an approach that sets the company apart from its competitors, and one it plans to continue, confirms Goodwin – potentially good news for existing McLaren owners too.

‘McLaren is a Formula One team known for its rate of development – you start the season with one car and finish it with a completely different car. You’re developing it all the time and that’s how you win a championship. We’re not trying to do it the same as everyone else. We’re not saying it’s the right way, but it’s how we think we should do it.’

When he’s not back in Woking testing and developing the cars, Goodwin is travelling, meeting and riding with owners and taking ardent note of their feedback. ‘You’ve just got to do your research,’ explains Goodwin, ‘I’ll never build a car just for me.’ This is a company that listens very carefully to its customers, and that can only mean better cars.

Interview with McLaren chief development driver, Chris Goodwin, about 12C Spider

2013 McLaren 12C Spider

Specs
Price: AED1m ($275k) Approx.
Engine: 3.8-litre V8, 616bhp @ 7500rpm, 443b ft @ 3000-7000rpm
Performance: 0-100kph 3.1s, 329kph
Transmission: Seven-speed auto, rear-wheel drive
Weight: 1474kg

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *