The past and present of McLaren came together at Silverstone last week with John Watson driving the company's new MP4-12C road car as part of a commemoration of McLaren's role as a carbon pioneer. Former technical director John Barnard was also in attendance.

The MP4-12C is the first of a new range of McLaren road cars with a hollow carbon fibre chassis. Watson won the 1981 British Grand Prix in a McLaren MP4/1 F1 car that introduced the concept of the carbon monocoque which offered lightness, while preserving strength, a trait Watson attests after walking away from a high-speed crash that same season.

“I'm very proud to have been a part of McLaren launching the first carbon fibre chassis in Formula 1,” said Watson. “After that crash in Monza, I was back driving one of our Formula 1 test cars within four days at Donington. Despite the accident appearing horrific to those watching, I was clearly protected by a safety cell of the strength and rigidity the world of Formula 1 had never before seen. I'm sure that because of that innovative technology, I walked away unscathed.”

Since then McLaren have routinely used carbon structures in the F1 machines, as well as the McLaren F1 sportscar that won the 1995 Le Mans 24 Hours and the Mercedes Benz SLR McLaren – to date the most commercially successful carbon-based car.

The new car will try to surpass that mark, being the first car with a one piece carbon chassis available for less that £200,000 and with the manufacturing process honed further the MonoCell safety cell can be made in just four hours, compared to the 300 hours needed for the SLR. This process is central to McLaren's plans to produce a range of carbon based sportscars.

“The MP4-12C is mind-bogglingly quick!” was Watson's frank assessment of the 592hp machine. “It is by far and away the fastest road car I've ever driven. Between 80-130 mph it really feels as fast as my old Formula 1 car. I only drive it in Normal mode, so I can't begin to imagine what it is like in Sport or Track modes!”