I am here to drive the McLaren P1 GTR. This is the machine at the tippy-top of McLaren’s supercar heap, based on the P1 and meant for the track only. It’s a race car refracted through an anime lens, exaggerated in all the right places, with a cartoonish yellow-and-green livery and more horsepower and torque than any real GT race car would ever be allowed to have. If any automobile deserves the ridiculous moniker of “hypercar,” the P1 GTR is that car.
There’s only one drivable version in existence so far, the specimen McLaren first showed in a video racing against the Le Mans-winning F1 GTR and recently brought to the Goodwood Festival of Speed for the dash up the hill. It is this monster that I’ll manhandle around this track in southern France. Which is fabulous except for one thing: I’ve never been to the track in my life. Call me crazy, but before I’m loosed in a 986-horsepower one-of-a-kind machine with a price that starts at 1.55 million British pounds, or $2.4 million, I’d like to learn the track first.
"The step up in performance from the P1 to the P1 GTR is equivalent to the gap between the $280,000 650S and the $1.1 million P1."
The McLaren folks don’t want me cracking it up either. I’m only the second journalist in the world to have a go. So they send me out in the regular ol’ $1 million-plus McLaren P1 first. Running recce laps in the P1 sounds like the stuff of dreams, but in truth it’s the stuff of stress. A better vehicle to learn this track might be a hot hatch like the Ford Focus RS, where power never outstrips asphalt and mistakes are correctable with a dab of brake. The P1 is a different animal. Panther versus panda, perhaps.
Circuit Paul Ricard is the former home of the French Grand Prix, but it’s now owned by that haughty Trump of motorsport, Bernie Ecclestone, and hosts all manner of track machinery. There’s extra grippy tarmac in the runoff areas and an uphill straightaway long enough to hit top-of-sixth-gear speeds. But one corner looks much like the other, and it’s easy to get lost.
Just to ratchet up the stress levels, there are real race cars testing today, including a McLaren 650S GT3 and a Lamborghini Huracán GT3. The drivers are pros, and they’re buzzing around like kamikaze horseflies. I fold myself into an all-black P1 and motor out. Like the Porsche 918 and LaFerrari, the P1 is a hybrid. An electric motor and a twin-turbo V-8 sit just in front of the rear wheels. Clearly it’s fast, and I could easily outstrip the race cars.
That’s if I had any idea where I was going. I don’t. I’m Mr. Magoo in a supercar, bumbling from one side of the track to the other, one eye in the rearview and on the lookout for a fixed rear wing closing in on me. Cue the “Jaws” theme. The universal rule of thumb when you’re the slower car on a racetrack is to hold the racing line and let the faster car find its way around you. I can only guess at the racing line, so I’ve become a $1 million rolling speed bump.
I toddle back to the pits having gleaned two things: 1) I’d immediately install a racing harness in my street-legal P1, because it’s eerie to slide around in your seat at 190 mph, and 2) I wasn’t even trying to hit 190. It’s just that easy in a P1 on Ricard’s back straight.
My knowledge of the track hasn’t improved much, though, so I take my case to McLaren’s test driver and all-around goodwill ambassador, Chris Goodwin. He crinkles his blue eyes, grins, and takes pity. I buckle into the P1’s right seat, and he makes a very slow lap, pointing out markers (“Get right up on the curb here, almost hitting that pylon”) and then lays out a blistering lap. “Sleep on it tonight,” he tells me. “Tomorrow you’ll drive the P1 GTR, and the difference between these cars is the same divide in performance between the 650S and the P1.”
The power is uprated: 986 hp versus 904, 738 lb-ft of torque over 664. But what makes the real difference is that McLaren chucked all of the road-legal considerations. It has a wider body and a constant ride height, and it wears racing slicks. The active rear wing adjusts to reduce drag when necessary. Front clearance is nil, and there are no airbags.
It’s a strange duck, though. Since there’s no rollcage, it’s not a true race car. You couldn’t enter it in an IMSA or FIA race. But McLaren engineers say that a rollcage would only add weight without added rigidity or safety benefits. The carbon-fiber monocoque does its job well. The interior is straight-up race car. Comforts are minimal (though you do have air-conditioning), and the steering wheel is tiny with two LMP1-style handles and an intimidating number of buttons.
As for its extreme exclusivity, McLaren made 375 examples of the sold-out P1. McLaren will only make 40 P1 GTRs, and they’re only available to those who already own the P1. One might wonder just where you’d drive this $2.4 million toy. McLaren has that sussed by offering the GTR as part of a $3 million driver’s package. You get the car and a half-dozen track events around the world with fellow 0.0002 percenters.
That’s a long way off, though. On my second day at the track, the crew is still adjusting the setup. McLaren also invited a few customers—lucky men who have already purchased the car. Unlike me, on this day they’ll only be getting right-hand-seat rides in the car. Who’s lucky now?
Goodwin gives them their glory rides, and I finally get my turn, nerves jangling. The other race cars are still pounding around the track. My helmet and HANS device on, I slip into the cockpit. Singular among carmakers, McLaren has perfected its customary driving position, the driver’s legs pointed dead center toward the road. The car pulls out easily from the garage and is relatively quiet as I motor out of the pits.
The author, left.
I negotiate out along the blend line and drop my foot. Hello, gorgeous.
The instant-on of the electric motor warps me down the track—no slack, no delayed pickup, just teleportation. The V-8 is fully awake behind me, but there’s no tremor or weight transfer as the turbos engage. The gas pedal is an instru-ment controlled in fine increments.
The 986-hp P1 GTR can easily outstrip race cars, as it proved at the Paul Ricard racetrack.
The acceleration is sharp yet feels more controlled than the P1. The five-point safety harness has me sucked so tightly into the race seat that my hips are an extension of the car. I can feel the texture of the tarmac transmitting through the body into mine—a sure nightmare on I-95 but sensory perfection here.
I work up to speed, and a GT car appears in my rearview. I wend through two slower corners and then flat-pedal down a short straight. The GT disappears from my mirror. I won’t see him again.
Circuit Paul Ricard is tricky, with dips and rolls and corners that decrease in radius where you expect them to open up. When I get them wrong, the stability and traction controls flicker on—barely noticeable but pivoting me toward the direction my hands are turned. When things go right, though, the car feels freer, more balanced, happier. It likes to be driven well. It just doesn’t expect it.
And then there’s the long back straight. No skill required here. Hands straight, foot pinioned, try not to brake before you pass under the Paul Ricard sign. Easier said than done. The digital speedo flicks through kilometers in a mad rush: 260, 290, 310. But it’s at the top of the hill where things get interesting. I’d watched Goodwin do this in the P1, and it seemed unbelievable. Near the brow of the hill, at the end of the straight, he’d brushed the brakes for a short, short time, downshifted twice, turned, and then went back to gas along a right-hand curb.
If the McLaren P1 GTR is really that much better than the P1, even I should be able to pull it off. I stay on the gas far longer than I feel comfortable—the gauge reads 326 kph (202.5 mph)—I put pressure on the brakes, come off, click the left hand paddle twice, and turn and … back to gas. Easy. Too easy. I’m going slower than I should, actually. But, well, I’m no Chris Goodwin, am I? The P1 GTR is meant for mortals, but it’s radiant in the hands of a pro.
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