On an April day in 1987, the world's fastest cars couldn't catch a 211 mph twin-turbo Ruf known as the Yellowbird. While Alois Ruf was celebrating, on the other side of the water, a South African racing engineer named Gordon Murray was just past his first Grand Prix with McLaren. He was off to a good start, since Prost won it for the team in Brazil.
Throughout the following four years, the Woking-based F1 team scored three drivers' and four constructor championships. Murray also had the ambition to create the world's finest motorcar, getting the most out of McLaren's carbon fiber technology and engineering know-how.
Murray sketched the F1 on his way home from Milan following the 1988 Italian Grand Prix. Back in England, his proposal to the boss was fairly straightforward: let's make the best road car the world has ever seen, my way, or no way. Once Dennis agreed to essentially finance the whole experiment on his own, McLaren started to put together a team, poaching a number of key employees from Lotus, including designer Peter Stevens.
The late eighties were optimistic times fueled by an economic bubble, which meant carmakers couldn't work quickly enough to give the nouveau riche the extravagant supercars they deserved. McLaren's first road car fit the bill, set from the start to become the most expensive of them all.
Murray did a lot of benchmarking, ending up with the conclusion that he likes the proportions of the BMW M1, the steering and handling of the Lotus Elan, the shifter of the Honda NSX, and the air intake of Formula-1 cars. Powered by BMW's amazing 627 horsepower V12, the resulting McLaren F1 debuted in Monaco in 1992.
The F1 knew no compromise. It was built around a carbon fiber monocoque, with parts made of titanium and magnesium instead of steel or aluminum. Its heat shield was layered with gold, its electronics came straight from the motorsport catalog, and its naturally-aspirated, dry-sump engine paired variable valve timing and instant throttle response with unmatched power.
Yet the car was never designed to be the fastest in the world. Nobody at McLaren cared for that.
Inspired by Colin Chapman, Murray's dream was to see Formula One technology built into a road car. The F1 did that, and more.
Its driver sat in the center, yet the car was a three-seater, with sufficient luggage space. It had no driver aids, but it generated negative lift at speed, without having wings. Operation was via a Nardi steering wheel, a precise six-speed manual, a titanium pedal box and the handbrake lever featuring an insert of Murray's favorite South African wood. Everything mattered.
The F1 was unique, reliable, and fast. So fast, in fact that some people started to wonder about its potential as a racing car. The rest, you probably know already. Although Murray never planned to take it racing, the mildly modified F1 GTR finished its Le Mans debut in 1995 with a 1-3-4-5-13.
While McLaren continued to develop the GTR for another two years, the road cars didn't sell as well as they'd hoped. The original plan was to make 300 F1s, but once the bubble burst and the money was gone, supercars became much tougher to sell. To make matters worse, due to McLaren not wasting cars to satisfy federal crash regulations, the F1 wasn't really legal in the United States.
Production stopped in 1998 after the last six cars were built, bringing the total to 106 units, not including one chassis the company kept as a spare. But while busy hands were laying carbon fiber in Woking, McLaren's own F1, XP5 also became the fastest car in the world.
Why in 1998 instead of six years before? Mainly because, although it wasn't a priority, after it won Le Mans on its first try, everybody wanted to see what else the car could do. And since on the 31st of March, 1998, Volkswagen was still three months from signing the check for the Bugatti brand, the world's only dedicated oval was still open for McLaren's business.
The engineering team knew they could top 231 miles per hour, since the formerly Gordon Murray-owned XP3 has already proven that during development. That's also why the odometer shows 231 in the F1 Owners' Manual, hand-drawn by Mark Roberts. But 627 horses and the F1's gearing suggested the car could do more. And to see how much more, McLaren's hauler drove Andy Wallace through Volkswagen's gates.
By then, XP5, the car wearing the K8 MCL plates was five years old, complete with milled from a solid block of aluminum. In retrospect, Andy Wallace believes he only went with the program above 380 km/h because he was "young and stupid" at the time.
What's for sure is that following the first run, he immediately asked the team for more revs. Like, a thousand more. And with the S70/2's redline now raised to 8500rpm, it all came down to keeping his foot in it once the car's nose started to get alarmingly light blasting down Ehra Lessien's 5.4 mile straight.
That day ended with a top speed of 391 km/h (243mph), with Wallace describing the palm-sweating experience like this:
391...391. It will not go any more than 391. But anyway, 391 is quite fast, isn't it? Appropriately, we've got the fuel light on. Gearbox temperature reached 130 degrees, everything else is fine. I still say this is the best car ever built, ever, and will probably never be beaten.
With an average of 386.7 km/h (240.1 mph), the 1993 McLaren F1 is still the fastest naturally-aspirated car in the world.
Today, XP5 lives a happy life on permanent display on the 'boulevard' of the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking. In the hidden rooms behind it, McLaren's engineers are working on their next car, which is set to do at least 243 mph.