There’s currently a box-fresh McLaren F1 for sale. It’s still in its original packaging with every piece of paperwork and extras that came with it present and correct (including a watch and tool box). It could be yours for north of $20 million, but the moment you use it, its price will drop closer to the market average. The whole premise of that makes no sense to me; I’d rather have one I can use and the $10 million in the bank. But some want that unused perfection.
I’m betting there are several of McLaren's hypercar, the P1, in the same unused condition, which is an absolute shame. That certainly cannot be said for my friend's P1. After Pebble Beach this year I went driving for a few days on the amazing roads between there and Santa Barbara in that P1. I had only ever experienced it on the track, so it was a real treat to get to know it on some of the best driving roads I’ve ever been on. As we were hurtling through a canyon I turned to my friend and said “Can you imagine driving this in Scotland?” I love where I come from, especially how beautiful it is and how unbelievable the roads are, driving one there would be a dream.
Fast forward two weeks and an email pops in saying that McLaren is celebrating the fifth anniversary of the P1's unveiling at the 2012 Paris Motor Show by inviting a select few to drive the original test car (and the new replacement one they have produced) in, you guessed it, Scotland.
Ah, yes, the original test car. The famous P1 OOV, which has covered over 20,000 miles of flat-out road and track driving. The P1 you've seen in essentially every video or magazine review when the car debuted. It's not just a P1, it's the P1. McLaren is retiring it to its heritage fleet and replacing it with a car that has seen less of the world, P1 OOU. Like OOV, it'll be used for internal benchmarking and events. It'll also never be sold from McLaren's internal collection, so don't ask for a price. Our job is to take the wrapper off P1 OOU and show it around for the first time. We're also using it to answer a question.
Has the passage of time and the ever increasing performance of every day supercars, like the brilliant 720S, taken the edge and specialness off the otherworldly performance the P1 presented just three years earlier?
Our base for the test was Broomhall House, the ancestral home of the Bruce family on the banks of the River Forth since 1702, about 18 miles from Edinburgh and, most importantly, a place surrounded by wonderful roads that provided every type of challenge you could hope for to test all-around performance of one of the fastest cars ever. It's also close to the fabulous Knockhill Circuit. These were roads I grew up on, the ones I had dreamt about taking the P1 on. Add to that a track I had worked at full time during the early years of my career and I’m ticking off box after box on my “steps for a perfect car test.”
Even in the summer, the weather can be hit or miss in Scotland and we woke to a damp and overcast scene. Not what you want to see when you have a combined 903 bhp (727 from the engine and 176 from the electric motor) and 663 lb ft of torque on tap. We would be helped by the less aggressive Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires rather than the track-focused Trofeo R. The Corsas would have less grip on a dry track, but would make the P1 work better in the rough weather conditions.
Thankfully, I was due to drive in the afternoon, and the improving weather meant I would experience the car on bone dry roads bathed in beautiful sunshine. As luck would have it, McLaren had the 720S on hand for us to try in the morning. What first strikes you are the steps they have made in the cockpit, the quality of finish and every surface is as good as any I’ve seen from other manufacturers. A quick drive on the nearby roads showed how it's such an amazing performer, a true everyday supercar with a bipolar personality that gets it close to hypercar-level performance. But is it more special than its older brother?
The volcano yellow finish of P1 OOU sparkles in the late afternoon sunshine as I reach for the pressure pad to open the butterfly door. I’m hit straight away by a blast of new car smell and a cockpit covered in black leather, alcantara and yellow accents. As I climb over the sill of the carbon tub and slide in the seat, I notice that the plastic cover is still on the infotainment screen. It truly is brand new.
It always amazes me how easy these hypercars are to get rolling and maneuver around. The only thing that warns you of the pending madness is the noises that come from the lack of sound deadening, both from the tires and the engine. The swathes of glass surrounding the canopy make it such a light and airy place to be and it helps the car shrink around you; it feels far narrower than its 84 inch width would suggest.
I roll slowly down the mile long driveway avoiding suicidal pheasants and pull straight into rush hour traffic. Modern tires, even the less aggressive Corsas, need to be treated with respect until you can build up some temperature. Until they're ready I don’t use more than quarter throttle, though the car is impatient. The turbos dominate the engine noise. You hear the boost build, and when you have to lift the dump valve almost sighs with regret that you’ve not been able to unleash full power.
As I head towards Knockhill the traffic thins and I finally get the chance to step on it. People talk about acceleration being like a bomb going off. This is like being in the epicenter of a nuclear explosion. An expletive passes my lips as I correct a tiny step of opposite lock, the tires just can’t cope with the power this thing produces. That's because the electric motor “torque fills” what would normally be turbo lag. The job that Dan Parry-Williams (the design engineering director at McLaren Automotive, but let’s just call him the father of the P1) and his team did with the combination of all these technologies is all distilled down into a great connection between the drivers right foot and how the engine reacts to every throttle pedal position. It’s truly intuitive and rewarding. These are roads I know better than my best friend, but each time I unleash the full acceleration it's like the roads have been reduced in scale and I arrive at each corner a hell of a lot sooner than I expect.
Where I think Dan and his team have done their best work is in the braking department. So many cars are over assisted; the ratio between pedal pressure and retardation is completely skewed and not intuitive in any way. Not so on the P1. It certainly takes more pedal pressure than we’ve become used to, but the relationship between the force you exert and the amount the car slows is just spot on and reminds me very much of the greatest of them all, the McLaren F1. The decision early on not to have the hybrid system recharge from the braking system (it harvests energy from engine braking) was an inspired one and it puts the driver's braking consistency and confidence front and center. It’s the closest thing to an unassisted racing braking pedal I’ve experienced. That makes it awesome.
The road surface in Scotland can be described kindly as “challenging” and honestly like the third world. If manufacturers want to work on a car's ride, this is where they should be coming. But in a P1, you have no clue that the roads are a craggy mess. Its ride quality puts most others to shame, and I'm including SUVs with air suspension in that. It even rolls over a cattle grate with no fuss, soaking up the high frequency inputs with ease. The hydro-pneumatic proactive suspension (or RaceActive Chassis Control, as they like to call it) separates the roll and heave stiffness, allowing each corner of the car to act independently, so it can soak up every bump and pot hole, but remain incredibly stiff in roll. It’s like black magic; you feel McLaren's managed to bend the laws of physics to the point that the comfortable executive sedan I was driven to the airport in was noticeably harsher than the P1 over the same roads.
Arriving at Knockhill, I engaged electric mode and the car turned into an almost silent eco-warrior; it’s seriously impressive and it’s capable of rolling along at a very respectable lick for about seven miles (11kms) on electric-only mode.
Like the roads surrounding it, I know the track here very well, though it had been many years since I’d been on the circuit. It’s a short, undulating blind cornered bull ring of a track, in the mold of Lime Rock Park or Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, and I love every corner. With the sun lowering late in the afternoon, a clear view over the Forth bridges and Edinburgh beyond from pit lane, I was told to go out and have fun. I’d only been driving the car in sport mode on the road (there are three options, normal, sport and track), so now is the point you'd expect me to turn the two rotor switches to track, wait for the car to lower its suspension by two inches, and watch the massive rear wing pop up on hydraulic struts.
Well, I didn’t on this occasion. Here’s why.
All of the time I’ve spent on the circuit in this car previously has been in track mode and on the Trofeo R tire. Even with those settings, the P1's downforce, grip, and power rips the tires to shreds; you start to lose performance by the end of the first lap. Instead, I wanted to see how it felt in sport, since it's a less aggressive performance window and it might look after the Corsas with a little more kindness. And as much as I love the other level of involvement on track that using the Instant Power Assist System (IPAS) and Drag Reduction System (DRS) buttons give, I just fancied exploring the car in its most aggressive road driving mode without the resulting trip to jail that trying it on the road would produce.
As I leave pit lane, open the car up, and head for the blind first corner, the traction control is working overtime to tame the crazy torque the electric/gas combo produces. But it’s so beautifully tuned that it works beneath the surface, allowing a nice amount of slip without killing the forward momentum. McLaren nailed the traction control settings, and even five years on, they have stood the test of time.
I’m able to push instantly. It’s such a treat to know the car, track and have perfect conditions to explore the limits. It’s not just the first corner that’s blind, there are several other corners that you have no idea what’s on the other side of the apex. From the first lap the car spends most of its time just on the oversteer side of neutral, in a nice angle of yaw.
Within three corners, I’m reminded of my sole frustration with this sublime car: the steering feedback it gives at the limit, especially on corner entry. It doesn’t tell me enough about how much grip I have on the front axle or add weight depending on the load on the tires, so I either over-charge the entry and understeer past the apex, or over slow and get annoyed that I could have carried more speed.
Even in the more restrictive sport mode, the surface of the tires is cooked and the pressures rocket skywards in just one lap. This shows itself with a need for more and more steering input, both in turning into the corners and in corrections from apex to exit, and more and more intervention from the traction control.
As I cross the pronounced crest at the start/finish line, the rear of the car goes light and the TC light flashes, I think about giving a small lift and even how superbikes drag the rear brake to stop the front going skywards, but my lack of imagination wins out and I keep it pinned.
The next lap is far more lively. The tires are screaming for mercy as the surface is outside its optimal working window and the pressure of the air inside is exceeding the ideal. The patch is reduced massively but I’m able to react, correct and stay ahead of the car, which is a testament to how communicative McLaren's hypercar is.
I decide at this point to come into the pits to stop torturing the tires; how I wish I could put on a set of slicks for the track stuff, it’s what this car needs. It’s what the chassis, aero, and motors deserve. Even half a decade on, it seems tire technology hasn’t yet caught up with this car.
Still, I’m grinning from ear to ear when I jump out; this is a car that attacks and stimulates your senses in all ways. Five years on from our first look at it, another stage of car development, time has not diluted the madness that this car presents its driver with. It reminds me of the original F1, the Ferrari F40, cars that the passage of time does not affect or dull. They are icons, cars that will thrill the driver until there’s no more fuel to put in them. The next generation of hypercars will, as always, exceed this in performance, but like the greats of the past it will take the driver to the very limit and best of what was dynamically possible during a certain era.
One of the reasons they are retiring the original car is that even with its high mileage, the value is such that the insurers are not happy for it to be put at risk anymore. So, if you are reading this and have an undriven P1, you best get out and start building the miles up. It might eventually be worth more, but, most importantly, you’ll love every moment of it.