The creator of the Maserati MC20 reveals the secrets of the work on the car. 'We didn't have a plan B'.

For no one is the Maserati MC20 more unusual than for Maserati itself, which has never before in its history created such a model. Chief Engineer of the MC20 model line, Gianluca di Oto, tells us how the manufacturer tackled the task and the behind-the-scenes story of the brand’s latest sales hit.

Mateusz Żuchowski: The MC20 is the first model of its kind in Maserati’s history: a supercar with a centrally located engine. How do you work on a car you haven’t dealt with before?

Gianluca di Oto: Our starting point was the engine. We placed it in the lowest possible position. If you look through the rear window, you can see how impossibly low it is. It is connected to a top-of-the-range, dual-clutch automatic transmission with eight gears. Around this unit, we designed a carbon-fibre frame. During its development, we kept in mind the car’s driveability, but placed just as much emphasis on ergonomics: after all, this is still a product of Maserati, a brand for which the spirit of gran turismo is very important.

We only had 20 months to develop the model. We had no plan B in case something went wrong – simply nothing could go wrong. In the meantime, the coronavirus pandemic and associated restrictions on movement and meetings started. The rapid yet precise and efficient development of the model under these conditions was made possible by the very extensive use of computer programmes for testing and control. The first real prototype we put on wheels had already been built to pre-production car standards – in other words, it was practically finished. I had a few sleepless nights because of this, but we trusted all the calculations and simulations and it worked out well.

We could afford to do so because we were using a top-of-the-range simulator located in our Innovation Laboratory, which is about 5 kilometres from the historic Maserati plant in the centre of Modena, where the MC20 is produced (and where we are now based). This simulator is able to replicate the operation of a real car in great depth: physical parts from the MC20, such as the gearbox and steering gear, are used. It is connected to our engine laboratory, which is located in the factory behind us. So if the person driving the car in the simulator in one part of Modena accelerates, the revs of the connected engine pick up in another part of the city.

M.Ż.: What external companies did you use for the design work on this model?

G.d.O.: We used the expertise of top specialists in the sports car league, such as the famous engineering company Dallara. It helped us in the area of its main specialisation, i.e. work on drivability and aerodynamics, but also in crash test simulations. Because of the carbon-fibre construction, they were the most difficult part of the whole development process for us and it took 12 months.

Our aim was to create a car with powerful aerodynamic characteristics, but without any protruding or moving body parts such as spoilers. Such ’embellishments’ not only disrupt the lines of the bodywork, which in the case of Maserati cars are always supposed to remain timelessly elegant, but also add unnecessary weight to the structure. The agreement we made with the design department led by Klaus Busse was that all elements contributing to aerodynamic downforce had to fit below the wheel axle. ‘Our’ bodywork parts are painted black (or are made of clear-coated carbon fibre), ‘his’ – the bodywork colour.

For us, it was a completely new type of car, so we inevitably looked at the solutions used by the competition – Lamborghini, Ferrari, McLaren, etc. We used their cars as our reference points. Analysing their products also gave us a fuller understanding of what are the weaknesses and what are the unique features of Maserati cars. This insight gave us clarity that the MC20 is destined to become an extreme flagship model with which you can fight for results on the track, but it must also be a full-fledged Maserati that can be used on a daily basis without giving anything up.

So before starting the design work, we set for ourselves ambitious targets in terms of ride comfort, ease of ingress and egress, visibility. At this point, we once again became convinced of the advantage of a carbon fibre frame. It gave our stylists much more freedom to achieve the lines and shapes we wanted. A direct result of this is the very large cabin entry opening and the possibility of wide opening of the butterfly doors.

M.Ż.: I don’t know to what extent such upward-swinging doors can improve ergonomics, but one thing I do know for sure – they guarantee the driver a strong entry wherever he parks this car.

G.d.O.: For us, using this solution was largely a rational decision. When opened upwards, the MC20 doors also take with them a good portion of the front wing and the entire side sill. Thanks to this design solution, among other things, we were able to make the cab floor run that low to the ground and the entrance opening that large.

These may seem like mere details, but they matter a great deal, because supercars are not just for the young and athletic, they are for everyone: of all ages and frames. Looking from the outside, it seems as if some of our competitors have forgotten something as mundane as the fact that people are supposed to use them when developing their supercars. This ends up having the exact opposite effect in the situation you mention, where the owner pulls up somewhere with his extreme coupe and wants to make a good impression with it, while having to do some impressive gymnastics on the way out. In many of the everyday situations, such exotically expensive models with a centrally located engine are actually frustrating. Even travelling on a level motorway at 130 km/h can be tiring in them: the engine is noisy, the steering reacts nervously to all manoeuvres. This is one of the reasons for the success of super-SUVs, which are increasingly luring customers away from traditional supercars.

With many supercars from small manufactures, there is also the problem that, despite the very high price of these models, they are plagued by a lot of limitations, such as multimedia systems with very limited capabilities. Maserati has the privilege of being part of one of the world’s leading automotive concerns, Stellantis, and has access to all the latest technical innovations from its group. Many components, such as the navigation system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, we can simply take off the shelf ready.

Despite the niche nature of the MC20’s production, we apply the same production quality standards to it as models produced on a much larger scale, even if this means a high production cost for us as a manufacturer for each unit. In the construction of the chassis, we use adhesives that are also used in the aerospace industry: they hold the parts together in aircraft. Our carbon-fibre chassis supplier also produces similar components for helicopters. Maserati’s approach in this area and the opportunities that come with being part of a leading concern are counter-intuitively not so obvious in this segment.

M.Ż.: So you can expect great driving comfort and fashionable equipment – but can you find any hint of the exotic nature of a supercar in the Maserati MC20?

G.d.O.: We are currently testing the high-performance variant of the top GT racing class, the MC20 GT2, and we are seeing that we actually have nothing to improve. We are only adding the parts required by the regulations, and so in terms of construction, aerodynamics or other body elements, the road-going MC20 is already a finished race car. And in many key respects a top-of-the-range one at that. Its carbon-fibre frame is manufactured in an autoclave. This is by far the most expensive, but also by far the best possible technology for producing carbon fibre parts. After all, the MC20 is our flagship product and we really didn’t make any compromises in its development.

Also, the aerodynamic efficiency of this design, for which the design of the floor and other elements hidden beneath the smoothed body planes is mainly responsible, can only be compared with high-performance machines. Air from the front air intakes is directed to the radiators and then out to the sides. This is a solution actually used in race cars. In the vast majority of road cars, at least some of this air always goes under the floor, which means that it is impossible to achieve the ground effect at the front axle. In the MC20, this air is precisely directed to the front wheel recesses, from which it is in turn guided out through deflector-covered openings. You can see just how extreme this solution is when you open the front doors. You then see the carbon-fibre structure that tightly surrounds the cabin and shapes the front wheel recesses. For me, this is a very exotic and satisfying sight. It poignantly demonstrates the MC20’s unparalleled class of construction.

In many even sports cars – or rather pretend sports cars – you will find imitations of such openings. In our case, not only are they real, but they make a big difference to the performance of the entire chassis. Not everyone takes on the task of designing such solutions, as their implementation is a task for the best specialists. We, however, were able to rely on Dallara’s unrivalled experience in this area – the company helped us a great deal with this element of the bodywork.

M.Ż.: Will MC20 drivers really feel the difference resulting from such extreme solutions?

G.d.O.: If I am to be honest, the MC20’s capabilities are serious enough that the ordinary driver will not directly feel the effects of many of the solutions I have described here, such as the ground effect at the front wheels, when driving this car on a public road. However, the many small signals and the gigantic reserve of possibilities of this car in any situation on the road will build up in the driver the realisation of what a serious and extraordinary machine he has.

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