Not many people know the story of the SLR McLaren, the car that resulted from the unthinkable-55-years-earlier relationship between the German Mercedes-Benz and the British McLaren. So here, for the first time, is the story of the tennis match that shaped the SLR McLaren.
It’s April 3, 2000, an unusually cool morning at the Mercedes executive tennis courts situated in the shadow of the company’s Stuttgart museum. Here, warring on the immaculately-maintained grass, are Peter Pfeiffer and Gordon Murray. This isn’t an unusual setting for a Wednesday morning, but the wager is. Peter Pfeiffer is 57-years-old, and has a tenacity that is wrought from years of elite-level athletic competition, mostly in bass fishing and air hockey. Today, he is the senior vice president of design for Mercedes-Benz, and the man tasked with penning Merc’s next supercar – currently known as the C199, but later as the SLR. Gordon Murray is 54-years-old, the young gun here, and in reasonable shape for his years thanks in no small part to a demanding wife. He is McLaren’s chief engineer and the man who penned the mighty McLaren F1. Today, Gordon is also Pfieffer’s foil. The intensity of the two competitors will not be rivaled on any court until more than eight years later, at the Wimbledon 2008 Men’s Final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
Even then, tennis historians will forever be split into two camps – those who think that the Nadal/Federer match was better and those who think that the Murray/Pfeiffer match was better. What’s at stake in Stuttgart isn’t a mere trophy; it’s the direction of the SLR supercar.
Gordon is playing for a 53/47 rearward weight bias and a engine placed behind the driver, in the middle of the car. He wants the SLR to be a focused, track monster that is more in the vein of the McLaren F1, and therefore a better competitor for the upcoming Porsche and Ferrari supercars. If Gordon wins, the SLR will be 3,100 lbs, tops. A true McLaren F1 for the 21st century. To the left is what Gordon imagines himself imagining:
Peter is playing for 50/50 weight distribution and classic GT proportions with the engine in front and a long bonnet to house it. He wants the SLR to be a luxurious supercar with all the safety features and technojunk that Mercedes customers expect. If Peter wins, the car will be luxurious, pampering, and quick. Like an SL65 AMG, but a little lighter and a little better to drive. Straight line speed will still be its strength, like every modern Mercedes. To the right is what Peter imagines himself imagining:
It’s been 4 months since Mercedes decided to bring on McLaren to help design and construct the SLR. It was a brave move on the part of Mercedes. Asking for help isn’t what Germans men do best, but then again, it’s not what any men do best. It was also a slightly stupid move because after the contract was signed, it became apparent that both sides failed to predict the very predictable clash in ideologies between the two companies, as represented by both Peter and Gordon. This is a clash that is now being resolved on a 23.77m by 8.23m swathe of rye grass groomed to 8mm in length.
It’s the fifth set. The game has been going on for over three and a half hours now. Both men are fatigued, but their principles fuel a fire that burns within them. As Gordon breaks Peter’s serve to go up 5-4 in the fifth, a “Fick dich, Wichser” echoes off the mid-afternoon walls of the Stuttgart compound.
All Gordon has to do now is hold serve, but the pressure is unlike anything he has ever felt before. The yelling and tension and sheer length of the match has now attracted a small gallery of engineers, designers, and watch-holders. (N.B. Mercedes assigns a watch-holder to every employee to ensure that they always know what time it is and are never late. A watch-holder goes through a two-year apprentice programme and is remunerated handsomely, even if they’re treated like Scheiße).
Gordon’s throat is getting scratchy, his palms sweaty, as he think about the C199. He double-faults.
He can’t believe that he’s cracking under the pressure. “Come on, you can do this. Don’t pull a Jana Novotná”, he mutters to himself. He serves a third consecutive serve into net, before spinning a second serve in, only to have it ripped back down the line by Peter.
Getting frustrated now, Gordon hammers a first serve right into the body of his sprightly opponent. Peter somehow manages to get out of the way of the ball but he can only get enough on it to lob it high and soft over the net. He’s a sitting duck. Gordon, rushing the net to seize the opportunity, misplays the bounce and squanders the net volley. Gordon just stands there for a moment, stunned, in utter disbelief. He walks back slowly to the service line shaking his head, not saying a word.
The crowd can feel the nervousness of their British guest. They can sense the imminent collapse and they love every moment of it. As much as Germans can love a moment, or at all for that matter. Gordon, now disheartened and fading, plays a weaker first serve, just to get a rally going. He’s successful in creating a rally but he’s just too tired to keep up with the fitter Peter on this fast surface.
Game. 5-5 in the fifth.
Peter, now riding the momentum, easily holds serve. 6-5. Gordon needs to win this next game (the next 3, actually) to keep the C199 pure and uncluttered. As he throws the ball in the air, he imagines a manual transmission being replaced by an automatic. He shanks the ball into the bottom of the net. Luckily for the shaky Gordon, his second serve takes a strange bounce that catches Peter off guard.
Peter, unperturbed by the unlucky break, rips two big forehands off his tense opponent’s next two services.
Peter, then sensing that his opponent is mentally fatiguing, shouts “Vouldn’t icht be schön to have Shatellite Navigation in ze C199?”. Gordon turns furiously red like the leather seats that will one day the adorn the interior of the disputed supercar. His fury fuels a 124 mph serve that Peter never had a chance at.
Gordon then hits a serve that should be out of reach for the German, but somehow is returned with a long stretch. Then, trying to bury his unbalanced opponent, he blasts the shot just an inch wide. He didn’t need to be so aggressive with that shot, he just needed to get it in, but the passion of the moment overtook him.
30-40, Match Point Pfieffer.
After a serve and return, a prolonged rally starts, with each hitting incredible shot after incredible shot. Peter tries to end the rally and the match by going into the net for a volley. Gordon, seeing his opponents intent, sends a high, top-spinning lob over the head of the startled Peter. Peter, finding a burst of energy, sprints back to catch the ball. He watches as the ball bounces in front of him, in-bounds. Now it was time for something miraculous, a shot he had practiced as a kid, but hadn’t used in years. As the ball returns to the grass for the second, and final, time, Peter runs right over-top of it and jumps, spread-eagle, as he flails his racquet at the yellow Wilson now in mid-air between his legs. Confused, Gordon just stands there. Peter makes perfect contact and as the ball comes back over the net, Gordon is woefully unprepared for it as the tennis ball hits the tape and dribbles over, in apparent slow-motion, onto Gordon’s side.
Game, Set, Match.
After rightly recognizing the fortitude of his competitor on this warming Stuttgart morning, Peter decides that although he has won, although the SLR will be more Mercedes than McLaren, he will make four concessions to Gordon and the Männer from Woking. The SLR will still be a front-engined GT, but the engine will be placed entirely behind the front axle, essentially created a front-mid-engined car. The second gracious concession is the building of the car, it will be hand-built by the skilled labourers of McLaren in England. This will allow Gordon to claim a smaller victory to his team back home. Thirdly, is the brake system. The brakes will be track, rather than street, orientated. The vented carbon disks at the front and the solid carbon disks at the back will therefore be completely devoid of feel but will hold up to 2000 degree Centigrade abuse. The very last concession is the name: SLR. Although it is a German acronym, standing for Sport (sport) Leight (light) Rennsport (racing), and even if the second one is ignored, Gordon is still happy to have it in spirit.
Peter and Gordon, both weary and embattled, shake each others’ hands and walk off the Germanically-manicured grass court, never to speak of their audacious wager again.