Ex-Ferrari tech boss is aware of what needs to be done to cement McLaren as a world-class car maker.
There are tough jobs in the automotive industry, and then there’s the CEO of McLaren Automotive. The ambition for the Woking firm, still only a decade or so into existence as a car maker, was always as tough as it gets: to take on and beat Ferrari.
And who better to lead you into the next generation than a heavyweight from your biggest rival? In this case, that’s Michael Leiters. The new McLaren CEO has a formidable track record: most recently he was technical director at Ferrari during a golden age for the Prancing Horse’s models and he also did a stellar stint at Porsche that included the development of the Cayenne.
He has arrived at McLaren at a tough time, though. The firm has struggled to get its new Artura hybrid supercar into production and has a range of models that are all frankly too similar to one another, with plenty of overlap and not enough to distinguish them.
Like all car makers big and small, McLaren has found itself undergoing change like never before with the dawn of the electrification era – something even a giant the size of the Volkswagen Group is struggling to adapt to, let alone such a small car maker as McLaren that lacks a technical partner or a link-up with a larger manufacturer (something that it’s known to be pursuing).
Its first step into the electrification era is with the Artura, which has been beset by software problems in its development but is now finally ready to be launched.
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Despite many challenges and issues, from the self-inflicted to those that it was caught in the crossfire of, McLaren has still achieved what seems quite unbelievable: it has not only become a Ferrari rival, but it has forced Ferrari to raise its game.
This is something that Leiters knows only too well, as we discuss when Automotive Daily Network partner Autocar is granted a world-exclusive first interview with him in his new role, just five weeks into his tenure in Surrey.
“How we can beat them?!” is how Leiters answers when asked what he thought of McLaren when sat in his old office in Italy. We cover plenty of ground, from the firm’s first foray into electrification to its long-term plans to launch an SUV, while also addressing McLaren’s quality and reliability issues and how it can become sustainably profitable.
Leiters is precise in the way he speaks and doesn’t shy away from McLaren’s problems. Even after being in the role for such a short time, it’s clear that he has already made an impact on the team he leads and the firm’s priorities.
Quality must be improved, the supply chain must be shored up and McLaren’s test procedures need to get better to stop problems before they happen – messages that are frequently repeated in our near hour-long chat.
There’s never a sense that Leiters is shying away from the scale of the task that he has taken on, nor caught in the headlights of the job that needs doing. He’s refreshingly free of BS or hyperbolic comments.
McLaren is known for being uber-corporate, a by-product of the Ron Dennis era, yet Leiters isn’t a traditional suit – and not just in terms of the clothes he wears. He gets his hands dirty: he has just successfully developed the first hybrid supercars at Ferrari and also led the development of its first SUV.
McLaren has beaten Ferrari in product terms at times over the past decade, but it has now slipped behind. While it would be a leap to suggest that it’s on the cusp of beating Ferrari once again, under Leiters it soon hopes to join them. After that, perhaps with a new technical partner in tow, Leiter’s successor in Maranello could well be plotting how to topple Woking once more, only this time, a Woking that’s a great car maker rather than simply a maker of great cars.