Apple trying to take over F1 and luxury carmaker McLaren

Matthew Garrahan in New York and Tim Bradshaw in San Francisco

Apple has approached McLaren Technology Group, the British supercar engineer and Formula One team owner, about a potential acquisition, in the clearest sign yet that the iPhone maker is seeking to transform the automotive industry.

The California technology group, which has been working on a self-driving electric vehicle for more than two years, is considering a full takeover of McLaren or a strategic investment, according to three people briefed on the negotiations who said talks started several months ago.

A tie-up with McLaren, whose expertise ranges from automotive engineering and on-board computer systems to novel chassis materials such as carbon fibre and aluminium, could accelerate Apple’s secretive automotive project.

Apple and McLaren declined to comment.

The lossmaking automotive group was likely to be valued at between £1bn and £1.5bn, the people said, adding that it was not clear a deal would be done.

That would make it Apple’s biggest acquisition since the $3bn purchase of Beats Electronics, the audio group founded by Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine, in 2014.

Earlier this year, Apple invested $1bn in Didi Chuxing, the Chinese ride-hailing company. That deal was Apple’s largest equity investment to date, as chief executive Tim Cook gradually breaks with the Silicon Valley company’s longstanding aversion to large deals.

McLaren produces luxury sports cars that can cost as much as $1m apiece and owns an advanced technologies group, as well as the eponymous Formula One racing team. The owners of McLaren Technology control 80 per cent of McLaren Automotive. It produced 1,654 vehicles last year, generating revenues of £450m, and has pledged to invest £1bn in the next six years on research and development.

McLaren Technology reported revenues of £265m and pre-tax losses of £22.6m in 2014, its last published accounts. It is owned by Ron Dennis, its chairman, Mansour Ojjeh, and Mumtalakat, Bahrain's sovereign wealth fund.

Apple’s interest in the Woking-based company centres on its technology, engineering prowess and patent portfolio, according to people briefed on the talks. However, those people cautioned that it was unclear if a deal would go ahead following a recent shift in Apple’s car strategy.

Since 2014, Apple has built up a team of hundreds of engineers and designers to work on the electric car venture, including recruits from companies such as Tesla and Mercedes-Benz. Its original team leader, Steve Zadesky, left earlier this year, and Apple veteran Bob Mansfield took over the project.

In recent weeks, dozens of employees have departed, people familiar with the changes have said, as Mr Mansfield refocuses Apple’s efforts on the underlying systems that would power a self-driving car rather than building an electrical vehicle itself.

Despite recent reports of those changes, some Apple analysts have questioned whether the company would depart from its traditional strategy of controlling both the hardware and software in its products.

Some investors have hoped that Apple would make a move on Tesla, the Silicon Valley electric carmaker led by Elon Musk. At its annual meeting last year, Apple shareholders peppered chief executive Tim Cook with questions about whether he planned to acquire Tesla, which he carefully sidestepped.

Mr Cook has never publicly acknowledged Apple’s automotive project, but many of its top executives are car enthusiasts. Phil Schiller, Apple’s marketing chief, is said to own a McLaren, and Eddy Cue, its services head, sits on the board of Ferrari, while top designer Sir Jonathan Ive has expressed his fondness for Bentleys and Aston Martins.