DUNSFOLD, England – Does the world need another constructor of unaffordable high-end sports cars, like the 2014 McLaren P1? No question.
In fact, this is the best time for McLaren to extend its range of road cars and take advantage of its heritage as the second most successful Formula 1 team after Ferrari. McLaren has design and engineering clout and provenance that Pagani and Konigsegg can’t match.
McLaren—eight-time winner of the World Constructors’ Championship—can’t claim its cars have lane-departure control, full-stop active cruise control, or other active safety features that get them a step or two from becoming autonomous. A McLaren has no big touchscreen in the center of the dash. Like Ferrari, McLaren has no plans to add a four-door or a crossover/utility vehicle to its lineup.
Yet, 375 people were convinced that the 903-horsepower hybrid McLaren P1 is worth at least $1,150,000 (destination included) or a rough equivalent in euro, yuan, and a few other currencies, plus applicable local taxes. As I write this, production car number sixty-four, yellow and black, is being completed in nearby Woking. From there, it will be delivered to the car’s first American customer, Jay Leno. (McLaren Automotive is discreet about its customers, although Leno has always been up-front about his intentions.) Does this little story convince you to buy one? You can’t, at least until they begin to appear on the used—sorry, pre-owned—market. Perhaps off-lease?
That makes the car I have just folded myself into—pre-production car number three, in amethyst black with gray seats and orange Akibono brake calipers—a lame duck.
There may be controls for the satellite navigation, the HVAC, and the Meridian sound system on that small screen at the top of the flying bridge center console piece, but I have no time or interest in sampling any of it—not while I’m short lapping the airstrip that is the site of Top Gear’s “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car” and “Power Lap” segments. The purplish-black PPV #3 is the very same P1 that Jeremy Clarkson gushed over on his show.
You’re familiar with the specs by now. The McLaren P1’s bespoke longitudinal mid-engined 3.8-liter V-8, with twin turbochargers producing a healthy 2.4 bar, makes 727 horsepower on its own, with another 176 horsepower from a 130 kWh electric motor. The kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) fills in and eliminates lag from the big turbos until they kick in, providing a seamless surge of power to a governed 217 mph and quickly flicking through the twin-clutch’s seven gears whether the driver shifts them or not.
Still, you can run on pure electricity for up to 6.8 miles, or up to 120 mph, whichever comes first. An on-board charger can recharge the 3.9-kWh lithium iron phosphate battery, which is tucked into the rear cowl, in two hours flat at 240 volts.
This is all enveloped in an ultra-stiff, very light carbon fiber monocoque chassis and bodywork. The 180.6-inch-long supercar, riding on a 105.1-inch wheelbase, weighs 3075 pounds dry, which means probably close to 3400 pounds with fluids. The P1’s aerodynamic package includes the rear wing, which raises 4.7 inches in track mode and to 11.8 inches in race mode, and front flaps that balance out the car when the rear wing is up. It has brake steer, banned from F1, a DRS button that levels the rear wing from its pitched angle when you’re aiming for that 207-mph top speed, and an IPAS (Instant Power Assist System) button boosts power after the turbo has spooled up, using stored electric energy. It works much like the Kinetic Energy Recovery System of the past few Formula 1 seasons (which changed to Energy Recovery Systems, or ERS, in 2014).
Before this story begins to read like an FIA rulebook, let’s point out that if you’re too old but not too rich to aim for an F1 career, having missed out on karting as a prepubescent, there are two modern, street-legal choices: LaFerrari and the McLaren P1. Sports-car prototype fans might prefer the Porsche 918.
So what’s it like out there?
Quick, fast, sharp, relaxed, and easy. The other supercar of this sort that comes to mind is the Honda/Acura NSX of two decades ago and perhaps the modern Audi R8, neither of which comes close to playing in the same ballpark as this car.
McLaren delineates the P1’s dynamics into three engine settings: Normal, Sport, and Track. There are four chassis settings: Normal, Sport, Track and Race.
I balance myself under the dihedral door and let a photographer take a few snaps before I shut it. Then I move the unheated gray Alcantara driver’s seat forward with its manual lever and manually adjust the steering wheel forward to the dash. If you’re driving this car in weather cold enough for heated seats and wheel, which are not available, then it’s also too cold for the tires, which are Pirelli P Zero Corsa 245/35ZR-19 front and 315/30ZR-20 rear. There’s no fear of scraping the lower front fascia in Normal mode. Except for the central air scoop, the roof is mostly glass, giving it an airier feeling than the tight interior might allow.
Development driver Duncan Tappy is in the passenger’s seat, handling the suspension changes for me. For today’s drive, the engine mapping will remain in Track mode. When Duncan pushes the ignition button at the top of the thin, vertical center stack, it unleashes a breathy turbo V-8 growl and sends a constant rumble through the chassis. As I buckle in, he taps the Drive button on the floor console and pushes down the electronic handbrake. I steer left and leave the seven-speed sequential gearbox in the automatic mode, although I upshift with the right paddle anyway, and it’s early at maybe 4000 rpm. The instrument panel, its dotted digital-horizontal rev counter lighting up like a high-fidelity equalizer, isn’t the easiest to read, and it doesn’t catch my attention during the drive as much as the airport tarmac and the turn-in points ahead. When I glance down to see “115” on the speedometer, I assume it’s kph. It’s actually mph: 115 can feel like 71 mph in this car.
P1 Program director Paul Mackenzie refused to go bigger on the rubber because he didn’t want to diminish steering feel and feedback, which is, in fact, fabulous. It’s quick and precise and feels as good as manual steering on a super-light car. The weight of the electric steering gets heavier as you progress from Normal to Track in the suspension settings, although it’s something I don’t notice as I make this progression, perhaps because I’m driving faster with each lap and each turn of the dial. The steering feels perfectly organic.
The P1 accelerates with the sort of aggressive forward progression that can give you one of those Mercury astronaut g-force faces, but without slamming the back of your neck. It’s brutally benign. This supercar wants you to feel comfortable going fast but constantly reminds you that you could go far faster if you were a better driver. That’s me behind the wheel. It’s not until I drive it casually for car-to-car and in-car photography that I realize how compliant and comfortable Normal mode is. It’s not until Duncan Tippy takes over for a couple of hot laps that I understand how much faster I might have driven.
Sport stiffens the suspension and adds to the steering effort, but I don’t really notice as I build speed and get used to the rather convoluted Top Gear modified figure-eight-like airstrip circuit. Respect for The Stig builds. Duncan switches up the suspension each lap. The one that catches my attention, for now, is when we go all electric. Duncan fires the right button, and the turbo V-8 rumble is instantly replaced with a jet-turbine whine. I’m driving quickly, cleanly.
I have to come to a complete stop before Duncan toggles over to Race mode, which lowers the body two-plus inches, much in the same way you lower a Range Rover to let Milady climb in in the driveway, and it lifts the wing. Traction and stability control are gone. Who needs it when you’ve got 1323 pounds of downforce at a buck-fifty?
With all that torque twisting the rear axles, it’s slow in, fast out through the corners. The forward acceleration feels like that of any racing car I’ve had the privilege to ride in. For this lap, I’m shifting myself, and it feels like I’m matching the SSG’s ability to fire off upshifts and downshifts.
The car is complimentary and complementary. The steering seems to transmit every possible bit of information available from the diversely surfaced track. There’s so much grip that the only time the rear tires loosen and oversteer the car into the corners is when Duncan drives it.
Throughout my four laps, I’m aware that there’s too much to take in: there’s no chance I’m going to drive as fast as I want, or even can, although I’m also confident I’m not going to do anything bad to the car. I’m no Jenson Button—much more like a potential owner, minus the millions of dollars.
If I was one of the lucky 375, I’d schedule the earliest possible weekend at a country club racetrack or, better yet, Road America, to do laps all day in Race mode.
Remember, this is full DRS wing, with no traction or stability control engaged—not an ounce of either.
There is launch control, in which you tap the eponymous button on the center console, jam the brake with your left foot, floor the throttle with your right until boost builds as indicated on the IP, and then release the brake. But it’s all academic until you invite friends with a Porsche 918 and/or LaFerrari to join you at Road America.
The best way to spend your first weekend with the car, dear lucky 375, is to plunk down whatever four-figure price it takes to rent a track all by your lonely and then just practice lap after lap in the McLaren P1. Most laps will be better than the ones before. You will have shaved off several seconds by the end of the day.
So, make the most of it, you lucky few. At least one of the 375, a retired talk show host, certainly will.
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