Kevin Hines pulls a weighty three-ring binder from the shelf underneath his workbench. "This was a hand-me-down," he tells me.
He flips through the pages. Text, illustrations, graphs and tables splash by, each holding one tiny piece of the puzzle that, when it was first put together in the early 1990s, became one of the greatest and most renowned cars ever made: The McLaren F1.
Hines stops, points out a hand-drawn schematic in a corner of a page. "Sometimes you see notes," he says. The manual once belonged to the team at BMW responsible for the 6.1-liter V12 at the heart of the F1. Each engine—each cylinder of each engine—was individually tuned, fuel and spark profiles tweaked to compensate for minuscule variances. The experts added notes as they learned how to finesse this motor.
"I have a vacation coming up," Hines says. "I’m gonna take this and sit down and read through the whole thing. I’m excited to see what I find."
Most of us love and respect the McLaren F1, the fastest, quickest, most powerful and most expensive car of our formative years. Kevin Hines lives it; he reveres it. And as the only factory-trained F1 technician in North America, he’s responsible for protecting, preserving and maintaining this piece of automotive history.
It’s in a windowless warehouse with no sign on the door, at the end of an anonymous industrial park, in a suburb so indistinct it could be anywhere, that Hines practices his craft. As Senior Technician for , Hines has been working on new McLarens since the MP4-12C first debuted.
Just over a year ago, McLaren decided to establish a new F1 service center in the US. Previously, BMW of North America housed factory McLaren technicians in port facilities in New Jersey and California, but the German automaker recently discontinued this service. There are enough F1s in North America to justify McLaren creating an official service center; shipping each to McLaren's headquarters in Woking, or flying a mechanic to the US for each major service, was proving complicated.
Hines, with his experience in McLaren Philadelphia's service department and years driving and working on race cars of his own, was invited to train at MSO Heritage, the arm of McLaren Special Operations dedicated to serving F1 owners. He learned under Pani Tsouris, the longest-serving McLaren F1 road car technician and likely the man with the most F1 miles in the world.
His racing experience proved to be crucial training for Hines' F1 experience. At MSO Heritage, besieged by jet lag, Hines was instructed in the McLaren F1 test-drive procedure. It’s an extremely rigorous checklist, measuring every aspect of the car’s acceleration, braking and handling so thoroughly, it requires a closed course—in this case, Dunsfold Aerodrome, the former airfield that became McLaren’s (and for a while, BBC Top Gear’s) test track.
"They said, now it’s time for you to go do the procedure. Hopped in the center seat, on my two or three hours of sleep, on eight-year-old tires, 40 degree weather," he said.
How fast did he go? "The problem with this car is that it never stops accelerating. Most other cars feel like they start to hit a wall. This car just keeps accelerating at the same rate. Even in fast cars, there’s a point where you feel comfortable, you can look to see how fast you’re going," he tells me. "This was all business. Keep looking straight forward.
"I could’ve spent the rest of my life driving that car out there."
Hines’ workshop is miles away from McLaren Philadelphia’s main service center. It’s even further from what you find in the typical mechanic’s setup. It’s peaceful, painstakingly organized, clean to the point of surgical.
North America’s lone F1 technician works mostly by himself. "Before I go to sleep at night, I think about all the bolts I tightened that day," he tells me. "If there was somebody else working on the car, it makes that self-checking process nearly impossible."
His process is methodical, meditative. It begins long before he lays his hands on an F1. "I take a couple minutes before I get close to one," he says. "Just, alright, this is what’s going on today, this is what I have to do."
When we visited Hines’ workshop, he’d just finished pulling the engine out of a white F1. “It was an honest day and a half,” he tells me. "Turn the email off, put the phone on Do Not Disturb, just pay attention."
The F1 demands frequent maintenance even if it’s not being driven. There’s an annual service, checking over the car to ensure that, should the owner wish to probe the 231-mph speed limiter, the car will be up to the task. Every five years, the drivetrain comes out so the rubber liner of the fuel cell, buried in the bulkhead behind the passenger compartment, can be replaced.
"You can see the different personalities of the people who’ve worked on the car," Hines tells me. "The last person to touch this car was Pani. Everything is meticulous—all the zip-ties were perfectly spaced, and the heads of the zip-ties were all lined up. The exhaust clamps are all perfectly aligned. It’s those little things that this car deserves."
Hines spends a lot of his time working on modern McLarens, particularly the P1; prior to his tenure as a British supercar specialist, he spent more than a decade as a Porsche technician. I ask him how the F1 compares to today’s machines.
"This is good honest mechanical work," he says. "The kind of stuff that you don’t really get to do anymore. A lot of the work nowadays is digital stuff. It’s yes or no, it’s fixed or not fixed. Mechanical cars, there’s a range of ‘it works.’
"Nuts are nuts, bolts are bolts," he continues. "But it’s how those nuts and bolts are assembled. You could go to the warehouse at MSO, pick all the parts off the shelf, and put them together. But if you don’t do it in a very specific way, it’s not gonna be what was intended. That’s what I love about it. It’s more old-school."
The F1 requires special tools. The torque wrench for the center-lug wheels embodies Gordon Murray’s minimalism. The handle is lightweight composite; the gauge only has one number.
The tool list to perform a clutch replacement includes a slab of granite. The F1 uses a multi-disc clutch and a small-diameter flywheel with a replaceable friction surface. To eliminate clutch chatter, the new friction surface must be adjusted to less than five hundredths of a millimeter of runout. Measuring this requires a dial indicator and a dead-flat surface on which to spin the flywheel. Hines' chunk of granite comes with a certificate, verifying its flatness down to 0.00004 inches.
He also has "the laptop"—a mid-1990s Compaq running custom DOS software created by McLaren when the F1 was new. This gray brick was, for many years, required to access the car's engine control and body control modules. Today, McLaren uses a modern Windows computer running a software emulator for day-to-day computer maintenance. Hines keeps the vintage Compaq around just in case.
"You know how, on an old Nintendo game, you blow in the cassette, push it in just enough to make it work? Getting this thing to fire up is like that," he says of the old computer. "You have to make sure the sun dial is set correctly."
I ask Hines if he remembers hearing about the F1 when it first came out. Not really, he says. As a younger man, he was almost exclusively into American muscle.
Then, in the late ‘90s, he became a BMW technician. "There were still E30s and E34s trickling into the dealership," he says. "Some of the last mechanical greats. I drove an E30, and I said, wow. It’s not the fastest thing I’ve ever driven, but this is just fun. It feels good. So naturally I went out and got an E30, traded in all the American muscle stuff."
Fast-forward 20 years. "I go to MSO, start training on the F1, and I see a lot of the same switches. A lot of the same thought processes. It was like a warm fuzzy feeling. The turn signal stalk, the wiper switch is the same one I saw back then.
"My dad always had some classic cars. I’d help him in the garage," Hines says. "He actually told me I shouldn’t work on cars professionally. He said keep it as a hobby. I wish he was still around so I could call him and say, guess what I’m doing now. I think he’d be proud."