Flashback to 1992. Three days before the 1992 Monaco Grand Prix, McLaren Racing team principal Ron Dennis and his chief engineer, Gordon Murray, rolled out the F1, a low-slung three-seater that was about to rewrite the supercar rule book. Even next to the minimalistic monoposti piloted by messieurs Senna and Berger, the silver sliver looked outlandish and extreme. A glance at the final spec sheet confirmed the competition’s worst nightmares: a body and chassis made entirely of carbon fiber, a curb weight of 2500 pounds, a BMW V-12 making 627 hp, 0 to 62 mph in 3.2 seconds, a top speed of 240 mph—and no ABS, traction control, power steering, power brakes, or airbags. Sheer fear on four wheels, outrageously priced at more than $800,000.
Enter the P1
In September 2012, at the Paris auto show, Dennis reached for the supercar crown a second time when he took the wraps off a volcano orange projectile badged P1. Again, a list of incredible superlatives made the rounds: a hybrid drivetrain with an aggregate power output of 903 hp, a curb weight of 3303 pounds, a carbon-fiber monocoque, an adjustable suspension and active aerodynamics, 0 to 62 mph in 2.8 seconds, a governed top speed of 217 mph, average fuel consumption of 28 mpg, and production of only 375 units at $1.15 million each. Despite the steep tariff, the allocation for most markets, including America, was quickly spoken for. Famous F1 owners such as Rowan Atkinson, Ralph Lauren, and Jay Leno allegedly got to jump the que
Design and concept
Our black P1 prototype fuses past, present, and future into a striking new whole. Penned by senior designer Rob Melville and exterior designer Paul Howse under the supervision of styling chief Frank Stephenson, the awesome two-seater shares certain essentials with the legendary F1: the so-called bone line that defines the side view, the wedge-shaped greenhouse, and the surprisingly homogeneous blend of brutal race car elements and charming show car cues.
“The conceptual breakthrough element of the F1 was the central driving seat,” recalls Dick Glover, technical director at McLaren Automotive. “What makes the P1 so special is the ability to switch from a 24/7 supercar to a totally uncompromising street racer at the push of a button. This Jekyll-and-Hyde character is supported by the hybrid drivetrain, which allows you to choose between silent, laid-back, zero-emissions progress and hypercar performance with a Formula 1–style KERS effect.”
McLaren’s family ties
Unlike the F1, of which only 100 units were built, the McLaren P1 is part of a sports car family. The bottom shell of the body, the wheelbase, and the chassis are in essence identical to the 12C and an upcoming entry-level model, code-named P13, due in 2015. Despite these commonalities, the P1 incorporates several unique elements.
“The vehicle dynamics are by and large determined by two complementary traits,” explains chief engineer Dan Parry-Williams. “The interaction between the hydropneumatic suspension, which we call RaceActive Chassis Control, and the active aerodynamics, which continuously adjust front and rear downforce. The drag coefficient varies between 0.34 and 0.40 depending on the angle and position of the rear spoiler. When the driver hits the DRS button, downforce is reduced by 40 percent in favor of a higher top speed.”
Green, Black, Blue, and Red
Enough talking. We can’t wait to get behind the wheel of this mighty mauler, to hear and listen to it, to sense and feel it. Threading oneself into the P1 may require fewer contortions than, say, getting into an Ariel Atom, but telescopic limbs and rubber bones would nonetheless facilitate the process. Once inside, we find the dimensions of the carbon-fiber passenger cell not overly tight, but the slim single-piece bucket seat is pure masochism. Rearward visibility is essentially via two small side mirrors only, and the TFT instrument panel looks like something out of The Fast & the Furious. Upon closer inspection, we detect five uncommon buttons: green activates E-mode, black equals boost, blue triggers DRS, and red kicks in the push-to-pass effect that briefly gives an additional boost to acceleration and to the adrenaline flow. Next to the E-mode button, a charge selector instructs the engine to divert a greater portion of its power to the battery pack until it is 85 percent full.
Gentleman, start your engine
One stab launches a machine-gun staccato followed by throttle-induced shrapnel salvos as the 3.8-liter V-8 picks up revs, only to drop them again in dying-away-fireworks style. The long black intake plenums slurp up cool air through the roof snorkel, the twin turbochargers spin up to 155,000 rpm, and the electric motor clonks into and out of play at a constant 18,000-plus rpm. With crooked right index finger, we engage first gear, blip the throttle, and prepare for the forward thrust. The next thing we know, first gear has come and gone, second has climaxed and exited with raw furor, and even third stuffs our ears with noisy thumbfuls of longitudinal g-force.
The P1 plays a very different drivetrain melody than the 12C. The engine wah-wahs impatiently on the approach to redline, the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission’s every gearchange is accompanied by a waste-gate whistle and a deep blat-blat from the flame-spewing trapezoidal exhaust. Are you ready for goose bumps from head to toe? Then push Charge, which means full regeneration, maximum engine stress, and enough noise to merit a surgeon general’s warning.
We drove the P1 on public roads around McLaren’s headquarters in Woking, England, and on the nearby Chobham proving ground, which features a wide, high-speed loop with plenty of elevation changes as well as an infield handling course dubbed the Snake. At one point, the circuit widens and becomes a long, multilane straight that is perfect for testing brakes and for trying out launch control. Before the V-8 can summon its 727 horses, the 176-hp electric motor unleashes its peak twist action of 192 lb-ft all at once, light-switch-style. A blink of the eye later, the entire hybrid system kicks us forward with up to 664 lb-ft of rubber-melting, tarmac-blackening, fast-forward urge. Apportioning that torque is the dual-clutch automatic, which responds promptly to shift-paddle inputs. Kinetic-brake-energy regeneration is conspicuously absent, so the energy cells must be charged en route by the engine. Alternatively, the system can be hooked up to a wall socket. With full batteries, the zero-emissions range is approximately twelve miles—but not at the maximum EV speed of at least 112 mph.
After five laps, the P1 has finally warmed up its Pirelli tires, whisked the fluids to working temperature, and awakened the brake pads. All a keen driver needs to do now is hit and hold two traditional controls in the correct sequence—and then brace for the ultimate acceleration experience that follows. Here we go: left foot on the brake, right foot on the throttle all the way to the firewall, neck muscles tense just in case. Now step off the brake and refocus, because the horizon approaches faster than in one’s wildest dreams. Upshifts are automatic, coming well before the 8300-rpm redline. Why? Because peak E-power, maximum grunt, and full overboost are available at about 5000 rpm. With traction and stability control working overtime, the rear-wheel-drive P1 whips us through the gears in a raucous, time-warp, wham-bang sequence. I could swear that one single full-throttle pass was all it took to clear the remaining foliage from the tall trackside trees.
Sure, the McLaren’s ability to sprint to 62 mph in only 2.8 seconds is truly remarkable, but when you’re strapped in beneath that glass-and-carbon-fiber double-bubble canopy, an even bigger eye-opener is the 62-to-124-mph acceleration, which takes an unreal 4.0 seconds. Although we never saw 186 mph, McLaren claims that such velocity is attainable in only 16.5 seconds. The Porsche 918 Spyder would need an extra 3.4 seconds for the same job, but LaFerrari is 1.5 seconds faster.
Entering Race Mode
To prepare the P1 for true high-speed capers, you first need to coax it into race mode, a procedure accompanied by no small amount of brouhaha. The system requires about forty seconds to whir the front and rear air dams into position, to lower the ride height by two inches with an exhaust hiss, and to alert all those bits and bytes. The whole transformation can be followed real-time and in full color via the onboard monitor. With race mode engaged, the dampers feel almost inflexible, the springs are stiffer by a factor of three, the steering suddenly goes almost syrupy-stiff and, at the same time, Yessir! quick. Stability control casts its safety net creepily late, and full-throttle upshifts threaten to inflict bodily harm. The acoustic background changes, too; new audio tracks include chassis rumble, deceleration hiss, tire scrub, rev-limiter protest, and air-brake rustle.
So, is there anything about this new McLaren that disappoints? Well, the ergonomics are not quite as up-to-date as the rest of the car, visibility is largely a guessing game, and the ride can only be described as uncompromising, even when all systems operate with pursed lips. On a more personal level, I would like to make reference to that constant ebb tide in my bank account and to the zero likelihood of gaining access to a long-term test car. Worldwide allocations have sold out, although there’s a waiting list in case anyone backs out. At $1.15 million, the P1 is even more expensive than the 918 and about on par with LaFerrari, but if the value trajectory of the McLaren F1 is anything to go by, the P1 supercar could still be a lucrative investment. Reason enough, then, to empty the retirement account.
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