You would think that finding a place to build the new headquarters for a glamorous Formula 1 team, with a growing supercar company attached, would be a pretty easy thing to do. Local authorities would be falling over one another to land such a terrific prize, which would provide of jobs, finance and glitz for their their area.
Yes, there are always a few NIMBYs who argue that nothing should ever happen in their back yard, but when McLaren’s Ron Dennis set out in the late 1980s to build his new headquarters, nicknamed “McLarenello” by some of the media, as a nod to Ferrari’s Maranello factory, he found that it was a lot harder than he had imagined it would.
He had a team of people in Woking, Surrey, so he wanted a new facility to be close to the old factory, in order to keep his staff. He also wanted a test track, and the best way to get this would be to find an old airfield and rebuild it. Britain is chock-full of crumbling old WW2 Royal Air Force stations, built hurriedly between 1941 and 1945 for use in the war. Their presence played a big role in the growth of the motorsport industry in the UK in the 1950s, the most famous of them being Silverstone.
In the Woking area there were several aerodromes: Fairoaks, owned by former racing driver and team owner Alan Mann, Farnborough, a celebrated aviation centre and Blackbushe. There was also potential at the old Brooklands and at the Military Vehicles and Engineering Establishment on a 315 acre site in Chertsey, next to a motorway. The last-named as unavailable at the time but would probably have struggled with planning permission because it is close to Wentworth golf course. The problem with Surrey, you see, is that rich people live there. Rich people can afford lawyers, and lawyers find ways to stop development if paid to do so.
The one venue in the area that looked most promising was an old airfield at Wisley, next to the junction between the A3 highway and the M25 motorway. Originally farmland, it had been requisitioned during the war on the understanding that it would be returned to farmland again after the war. But flying ceased there only in 1973, but it would be seven years before anything happened, because theere was no paperwork to cover the terms of the requisition and the local council insisted that the owner remove all trace of there ever having been an airfield, something which obviously costs money. In the end, after Parliament had been involved, there was a compromise. The buildings were all knocked down, but the runways remained. The land was farmed and the runway used for occasional film-making. There were so many legal arguments involved that in the end Dennis gave up on Wisley. It was a wise decision, nearly 20 years later there are still arguments going on, as the local council now wants to convert it all into housing and the locals are up in arms. The old airfield remains empty and unused.
Dennis turned instead to a different idea: to acquire the Lydden Hill racing circuit, 95 miles east of Woking, near the port of Dover and close to the Channel Tunnel, which was due to open in 1994. This, he felt, would make a terrific McLarenello. It was well-positioned for access to Europe and close to the A2 highway, a fast road to London. In March 1991 Tom Bissett, the owner of Lydden, agreed to a joint venture with McLaren and planning permission was applied for to build the McLaren headquarters. Things moved slowly. Bissett and Dennis fell out, the planners were not keen and the whole thing was cancelled when it became clear that a large number of McLaren staff would not move from Woking to rural Kent. In the end McLaren had to pay a sizeable sum of money to buy out Bissett and the team then leased the facility to people who wanted to use the racing circuit – for racing.
By then Dennis had given up on having a test track and in 1995, he bought Mizens Farm, a 155-acre facility just to the north of Woking. It was located in a protected “Green Belt” area and so McLaren had to go to court to win planning permission. Ironically, it was next door to Fairoaks Aerodrome, but perhaps there was an unspoken plan to one day buy the airfield, if it became available. The vast McLaren Technology Centre was finally completed in 2003, with all manner of restrictions having to be overcome. The Woking planning committee, for example, insisted on a height limitation and so the facility had to be sunk into the ground and shielded from view by earth banks and 100,000 new trees. Despite the problems, the MTC has been a great success and earned architects Foster & Company many accolades. McLaren had to go through similar problems when it needed to expand to create a new road car unit, called the McLaren Production Centre, which opened in 2011. Alan Mann sold Fairoaks airfield in 2008, but it remained an airfield. A year later Formula 1 testing was banned and so creating an F1 test track became less of a priority, as the teams turned to simulation instead. Ferrari remains the only team with an on-site testing facility, although Force India is located next door to Silverstone.
Dennis was removed from his functions at McLaren in late November last year – a week before it was announced that the owners of Fairoaks plan to close the airport, and build a “Fairoaks Garden Village”, with up to 1500 new habitations. Opposition to the idea is building up.
who knows? Perhaps one day McLaren will be able to acquire Fairoaks to test its road cars – with occasional (quiet) F1 runs as well…