McLaren has a long and storied history, but its consumer cars division, which until recently had only produced the F1, is really just getting started. After a rough start with the initial 2012 release of the MP4-12C, it now feels like the company is on a steady and smooth roll. With new models like the 570S, which are being delivered to customers now, and the upcoming 570GT, the carmaker has a far broader range than ever before. It seems that almost every week there's something McLaren-related to report. Even the F1 is still making news. The company just put chassis #069 up for sale after it got a refresh from McLaren Special Operations.
With this in mind, it appears a good time to take a look at the highs and lows of the family. Except for, which I've got on my calendar to test drive soon, I've been lucky enough to have either driven or ridden in every model, including the super-rare P1 GTR and the super-duper-rare F1 GTR. Here's what they are like from the inside.
The 12C only makes sense when it's driven murderously close to the edge. On a tricky racetrack, helmet on, with enough runoff to allow for mistakes. It is only when pushing at nine-tenths when the car's apparent sterility fades away and all the over-engineered wizardry makes glorious sense. The air brake suddenly catapulting up and obscuring your rear view, the front end staying weirdly neutral even under hard braking (the result of the hydraulic suspension/anti-roll system), and the twin-turbo V8 finding its full potency (616 hp) at 7500 rpm.
It is the first road car where I was challenged to exceed the mechanical grip and utilize both aero and momentum. David Donohue, Le Mans champion and son of American F1 driver Mark, was sitting right seat, and he told me to stop driving it like a regular GT car. I'd long become accustomed to relying on a modern supercar's superlative carbon-fiber brakes and incredible power to follow the mantra of "slow in, fast out." "Get off the brakes now!" he'd shout before we'd reached the apex. He was pushing me to retain greater rolling speed through corners and to get back on the gas far earlier than I was comfortable. When I finally started listening, the 12C woke up. It was thrilling.
And this was in the Spider, top up. I asked David if he could tell the difference between the coupe and the convertible. "Um . . . " he said, thinking. "Not particularly."
The 12C is hugely underrated—and a steal on the secondary market.
650 S/675 LT
I don't much love the 650. The car was built in response to criticisms that the 12C wasn't outré enough and lacked the fierceness appreciated by the Ferrari crowd. The styling was a step in the right direction, and it certainly sounds more expressive. But the company was giving us what they thought the customers wanted—more kick-in-the-pants everything. But that surge of torque (500 lb-ft) came at the expense of the 12C's mannerly tip-in. The 650S is a blunt instrument compared with the 12C.
But then Woking dropped the 675LT on us. Taking the "long tail" designation from the F1 models that were redesigned with a longer body and more aero, the new LT and its Spider companion are basically the same length of the regular 650S, but the rear decks look more visually pronounced.
The 675 adds back in that layer from the 12C that the 650 was missing. The little delightful things. The nuanced tip-in has returned. There's a shelf on the floor specifically engineered to allow you to both left-foot brake and still brace yourself in corners. The aero is noticeably better, and the car is more stable at speed. And it sounds so very, very good.
More than any other model, the 675LT shows how quickly McLaren is learning its lessons. It's so good that I can't help but think what the next-generation McLaren hypercar will look and drive like.
The hybrid P1 stretches easily to 180 mph, even when you're not trying to go anywhere near that fast. You're on a racetrack, on the gas, and your eyes pop down to the digital readout and—holy mother!—and then you stomp down on the left pedal and realize how incredibly hard the brakes bite. But it's in the corners, even when you're only on about half attack, that you find yourself wallowing in the slightly too-wide seats, only sort of held in place by a regular seat belt, when the P1's incongruity really hits. The car's capabilities utterly exceed the normality of the interior. The first thing I'd do would be to install a five-point harness.
I drove the P1 and the P1 GTR, its racetrack-only brother, at Paul Ricard, a road course in France where F1 does a lot of testing. I got into the P1 one day and the GTR version the next. Both very much earn their "hyper" monikers.
While the P1's interior may look regular enough at a glance, switching between the hybrid modes is confusing, and you need a decent tutorial to figure out its basic operations. The P1 GTR, on the other hand (the same yellow and green one you see all over the internet), looks like a straight-up race car on the interior, complete with a tiny prototype-style steering wheel. Both were easy to operate at low speeds around the pits, another incongruity when compared to the blurring speeds and wrenching Gs experienced on-track.
I saw more than 200 mph in the GTR and easily pulled away from GT3 racecars who were testing on the track that day. I tested my nerve but never felt like I was anywhere near probing the capabilities of the car. If I could manage the 12C, under supervision, at nine-tenths, and the 675LT at seven-tenths, then you'd have to be a very talented—or courageous—pilot to get beyond 50 percent of a P1.
No, I didn't get to drive a fabled F1. But I did get a fantastical ride-along last year. And yes, it was revelatory and everything you would hope when you imagine a ride in a F1.
The F1's engine is BMW-made, and BMW of North America owns one as part of its historic race-car fleet, which is stored and maintained in Ohio. Chassis #17R was part of a two-car team that BMW Motorsport put together for the 1996 Le Mans. It came in 8th overall. Every year it is taken out and exercised, usually at the hands of BMW's longtime race-car driver, Bill Auberlen. (A nicer more down-to-earth guy you won't meet.)
The F1 driver's seat is in the center of the car, with two passenger spaces in the rear on either side. I ditched my Hans device (I'd just driven the BMW M1 before) and managed to squeeze, barely, into the left-rear space behind Bill, which is equipped with racing harnesses and the world's thinnest seats. We were at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, an old and rather diabolical course, and temperatures were only in the mid 40s. Still, Bill drives one way: hard. And within the first lap he was pushing.
I had the ideal position to watch Bill's footwork. The F1 is a three-pedal affair, and I could see directly into the footwell. The smooth but furious movements of his feet — throttle, downshift/heel-toe, throttle—was akin to that of a master flamenco dancer. Smooth and fast as a serpent strike. Shift after shift, lap after lap.
The smoothness was especially remarkable because, otherwise, the car was violent. Bill pitched it into corners, working the steering wheel busily. Lots of movement underneath, big slides and significant slip angles, almost no sense that the car was ever particularly planted. Very, very fast, but Bill had to work for it. The McLaren F1 is an unruly and devastating beast.
To this day, the best ride-along I've ever had. And still, the most interesting car that McLaren has ever made.