I shit you not. At 100mph the GTR version of the McLaren F1 – the 25-year-old game-changing sports car designed by iconoclast Gordon Murray – generates so much downforce that it could drive upside down across your ceiling. It is also incredibly light, due to McLaren’s pioneering use of carbon fibre, and has a race-ready central driving seat and a naturally aspirated BMW V12 nestled in an engine-bay lined with gold foil to help expel heat. All of this enabled the street-legal version to clock 240.1mph, the highest speed ever recorded for a production car in the 1990s. A fleet of racing F1s entered the 1995 Le Mans 24 Hours and set an incredible record on the car’s debut, with the McLarens claiming 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 13th places.
So, it takes a hell of a lot to impress Ray Bellm, the racing driver who convinced Gordon Murray and McLaren boss Ron Dennis to create the competition GTR version of the F1. Yet he is absolutely mesmerised by the Richard Mille watch, specifically the McLaren RM-50-03, the lightest tourbillon split-second chronograph. He gasps audibly after being told its near million-dollar price tag. Ditto Simon Kidston – impresario in chief of the vintage car world and nephew of Bentley Boy Glen Kidston – as he peers into the inner workings of the mechanical marvel.
I explain that like Murray, Richard Mille was pioneering in the use of carbon fibre, becoming the first person to use the material in high watchmaking. And although it has now become commonplace to use carbon fibre for watch cases, Mille actually started by using it for the base plate – the chassis onto which all parts of the movement are attached. He did it because he wanted to make his watches as light as possible. The titanium RM 006, which was made for F1 driver Felipe Massa, featured a base plate in carbon sourced from the same supplier as the Airbus brakes.
When I add that Mille knew from his experience in motor racing that carbon was supremely strong, incredibly light and did not react to thermal variation, Bellm nods his head appreciatively. Then, as he is unstrapping the watch’s Velcro bracelet, unused to its almost surreal lightness it suddenly slips off his wrist. For a moment we all watch in apparent slow motion as a million dollars of tourbillon split-second chronograph with barrel-torque and power-reserve indicators goes tumbling like Icarus. Each mouth is frozen in a rictus of horror as we see the watch spinning like a downed fighter jet, before bouncing off the floor once, then twice.