You will never be as interesting as Gordon Murray. That holds true for Oscar-winning astronauts with boxes full of Super Bowl rings, let alone schmucks like the rest of us. So in his presence, you tend to just listen.
This is easy, too. Murray is probably as good at communicating as he is at engineering, having worked in the era when Formula 1's boffins were expected both to come up with radical new ideas that could take whole seconds out of lap times and then to sell them to cranky team owners. For Murray, the list of former bosses includes both Bernie Ecclestone and Ron Dennis. He talks with a donnish charm that turns difficult concepts easy and then apparently obvious—obvious except that they are ideas he often had first and then used to change his bit of the world more than anyone else. It's the logical progression of a brilliant essay, or an armed robbery—escalating quickly to unexpected outcomes.
So as he explains his plans for his son of the McLaren F1 hypercar, Murray travels quickly from an explanation to the principles of the Venturi effect to the associated problem that flowing air will only follow a shallow slope—limiting the amount of downforce that can be harvested from it—to the idea of removing turbulent airflow with a high-speed fan.
Yes, the upcoming T50 is fitted with a fan. Against tough opposition—this is a car that also has a mid-mounted naturally aspirated V-12 that will rev to 12,000 rpm, a central driving position with two offset passenger seats, and a weight of just 2160 pounds—the smart aerodynamics are set to be the T50's star feature.
Being one of the 99.98 percent of the population with a sub-Murray intellect, I don't catch the full implications of the switchable aerodynamics off the bat. Murray was the brains behind the Brabham BT46-B "sucker car," which used a fan that was nominally intended to cool the engine—to appease F1's rule makers—but actually created a partial vacuum beneath the car, sucking it to the ground. It won the only race it entered, the 1978 Swedish Grand Prix, with something close to embarrassing ease. "It could do a 3-g standing start," Murray remembers. My initial assumption is that the T50 will be similar, but it's actually much cleverer.
The 48-volt motor doesn't try to suck all the air from the car's underside; it just removes the dirty, stalled air that accumulates at the top of its aggressively raked rear diffuser. That makes the diffuser much more efficient, capable of generating big downforce at lower speeds, but also allows the effect to be reduced, meaning the T50 doesn't have to fight against wings and spoilers creating huge drag as it travels faster. It also means the car can have a far softer suspension, which doesn't have to battle against the Hand of God squishing it into the ground.
So at the sort of 200-plus-mph velocities that most hypercars have to barfight their way to, the T50 will be in something close to a jetliner's cruise. At really high speeds, Murray says, the fans stop sucking from the diffuser altogether and draw air from the car's rear flanks—reducing drag further—and then throw it out of the back to create what Murray calls a "virtual longtail," which makes the car more aerodynamically stable. Readers with higher qualifications in fluid dynamics might be able to give that the proper level of scrutiny. For the rest of us, it's closer to the sort of reassuring science they put in shampoo ads. Forget professional skepticism; if Murray told me the T50 had a warp drive and a transporter room, I'd probably believe him.
This efficient sort of tech makes sense on such a svelte supercar. In addition to its feathery weight, the T50 will have a six-speed manual gearbox. Murray says he wants to make the "last great analog supercar," which we would argue he already did once, almost 30 years ago with the McLaren F1. The T50 will cost about $1.5 million at current exchange rates, and Gordon Murray Automotive is going to produce 100. With the F1 now well beyond the eight-figure mark, that qualifies the T50 as an outrageous bargain.
Yet here's the thing with superstar talent: Even what would be significant achievements for many engineers don't warrant space on Murray's greatest-hits album. He admits that the McLaren F1 had a less efficient version of the active-fan system. "But nobody really noticed because there was so much more to talk about."
Then there's another passing revelation. A few years ago, a senior auto executive told me that Murray had worked on what was meant to be a three-seat hypercar in Brazil, a project led by Creighton Brown (another of the "gang of four" behind the McLaren F1) that was to be sold with Senna branding—a good 15 years before the McLaren Senna. Did that really happen? I ask the question expecting the sort of non-answer with which most media-trained executives respond to a wide pitch.
"That car wasn't three seats, it was a two-seater," says Murray, in the sort of curt tone a professor would adopt to get a wandering dissertation discussion back on track. "It was going to be built in Brazil and then sold in Europe. That was the plan. I did the basic design for that car, but it didn't get to production." The Senna family agreed to the car carrying their name, but then the funding fell through and it never happened. So it's not even a footnote in his career. But, once again, Murray got there first.