The sun was still high in the Florida sky when my thoughts turned, quite reasonably, to the possibilities of cannibalism.
It was a Saturday afternoon at Sebring International Raceway. I was the guest of Eric Kerub and his Montreal-based Motorsports in Action team, its abbreviation, MIA, pronounced like the name of Frank Sinatra's willowy third wife.
I'd met Kerub and the rest of the crew at oh-dark-thirty that morning, watched them roll a pair of McLaren 570S GT4 race cars one at a time from a slick black transporter onto loading arms suspended 10 feet off the ground. I've witnessed this procedure countless times, with other teams at various tracks, but there was a bit of extra drama here, a slight additional concern at the way the McLarens wobbled on the insubstantial fingers of the ramps. After all, one of those cars was here for me to experience, to flat-foot through Sebring's infamous Sunset Bend. I did not turn away until they were both safely on the ground.
Our itinerary was straightforward: We would be participating in the advanced run group of a private track day, sharing the course with everything from a first-generation Miata on mismatched wheels to IMSA-spec prototype racers. I was to refamiliarize myself with Sebring, using an orange 570S street car with just 320 miles on the odometer.
Meanwhile, the fellows at MIA would be doing some learning of their own, shaking down the two McLarens in preparation for an upcoming race at Sebring.
"Everybody here is very experienced," Kerub had told me earlier, "but we are putting all these parts together for the first time." This was putting it mildly, on both counts. Prior to our meeting, the team had completed just one event: the season opener for IMSA's Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge at Daytona.
Also brand-new for 2017: the 570S GT4 itself. As with many great British institutions, the McLaren product lineup is a severe and rigid hierarchy which requires a modest amount of explanation. At the top of the pyramid is the Ultimate Series, which consists of the 903-hp-combined hybrid P1 and a track-focused variant, the P1 GTR. A step below, the Super Series features the beautiful 650S and sublime 675LT. Those cars are the successors to McLaren's first large-scale-production sports car, the MP4-12C, and they both include the company's full menu of dynamic goodies—active aerodynamics, the wickedly effective Proactive hydraulic suspension system, and so on. Below that, you have the "entry-level" Sports Series, anchored by the 570S. Derived from the Super Series cars, these cars have conventional dampers, larger door openings for easier entry and exit, and less aggressive aerodynamic bodywork.
For the last six years, starting with the MP4-12C and continuing with the 650S, McLaren has sold factory-built racing variants of the Super Series to teams across the globe. Those cars are homologated to FIA Group GT3 rules and are therefore eligible for a wide variety of races, including the British GT championship. Here in America, they've been most visible as part of the Pirelli World Challenge.
Two and a half years ago, I drove one of those World Challenge GT3 cars. Everything about it, from the F1-derived rectangular steering wheel to the sequential-shift Ricardo transmission, screamed purpose-built racer. But it was also cramped and complex—a specialized tool for a customer base consisting almost entirely of established professionals. In theory, you could tow a GT3 McLaren to a club race or a casual track day and operate it yourself, the way you would an old Formula Ford; in practice, you'd want a team of competent mechanics. Plus, a fully prepped GT3 McLaren costs around half a million dollars.
McLaren's decision to offer a less complicated, more affordable Sports Series of street cars also opened up space for another factory-built racer, beneath the 650S GT3. As it happens, there's now also an FIA race series beneath GT3, imaginatively named GT4. The new-for-this-year 570S GT4 is the obvious and delightful result of these circumstances. It's also the definition of a screaming bargain: just 159,900 British pounds to you, sir, including power windows and air-conditioning. At press time, that's 195,793 in freedom dollars. Keep in mind that a base 570S costs $188,600.
More perspective: The price of a new Mazda MX-5 Cup car is $58,900, against the base price of $25,750 for a street-legal Miata—quite a deal. You could, of course, go racing with a Porsche 911 GT3 Cup for about the same money as this GT4-classed McLaren, but for some people, the McLaren heritage and history are irresistible propositions.
Eric Kerub is one of those people. As a child, he was lucky enough to meet McLaren partner Mansour Ojjeh. As an adult, Kerub has owned both roadgoing and track-oriented McLarens, including an MP4-12C GT3. An avid club racer and successful aviation-industry professional, he started Motorsports in Action a few years ago.
MIA is well-known in Canadian racing circles for building the country's popular Nissan Micra Cup spec racers, but 2017 marks the shop's debut as a full-scale pro team. "This wasn't a case where we were going to start a team and choose a car," Kerub notes. "It was McLaren, or it was nothing."
The Continental Tire series, like the 570S GT4, is considered an entry point for professional road racing. There are two classes: ST, for sport compacts, and GS, for sports cars. Teams typically operate by pairing a pro driver with a gentleman driver. The former is paid for his efforts, and the latter writes a substantial check to the team in exchange for both driving and the privilege of displaying any and all resulting trophies in his office, vacation home, or radiology practice. The size of that check can range from $15,000 for a single weekend guest-driving in ST to more than half a million dollars for a complete season with a top-ranked team in GS.
This is a well-understood system that makes nearly everybody happy. The funded driver gets to test his skills in a highly competitive environment full of different cars, and he also gets to put "professional race-car driver" on his Tinder profile. The hired gun gets to earn a few bucks while auditioning for the more prestigious IMSA classes. The fans enjoy seeing production-based cars bang fenders. And finally, if a Continental series team is managed correctly, it can be somewhere between mildly and wildly profitable.
In Kerub's case, profit was the last thing on his mind. "We're the new team. We don't have any established history to attract the gentlemen drivers. Also," he smiles, "we want to win." So he's taken a different approach. Most of MIA's startup expenses, including purchase of the team's two cars, came from his pocket. Kerub's plan was to run two pros in the primary car and fight for wins from the first race. The other car would be made available to gentlemen drivers as and when they appeared. In the tech world, this is called "fast burn." It's risky.
Yet after meeting MIA's two pro drivers for 2017, I can't help but feel that there's some method to the madness. Montreal-born Chris Green is the seasoned veteran: 32 years old, with an impressive résumé in both karting and open-wheel racing. Aggressively fit, youthfully handsome beneath blond hair, and possessed of a contagious enthusiasm, he seems a little too on-message to be real, as if you've stumbled onto the set of a movie about MIA's 2017 season and he's the actor playing Chris Green. During our conversations, I am struck by an urge to scan the area for hidden cameras. Green seems to accept my swiveling head as a natural consequence of not being as talented behind the wheel as he is.
Green's co-driver, Jesse Lazare, isn't as polished. Not that anyone expects him to be. Just 19 years old, he's already picked up a Porsche GT3 Cup championship, in 2016. In January, he landed a class win at the Rolex 24 in a Porsche 911 GT3 R. He's not old enough to drink, but he's already had a better career than 95 percent of the world's pro drivers.
As fate would have it, Lazare's sole problem as a driver is a blessing for both Kerub and your author. At six-foot-one and a muscular 180 pounds, he was too big to pursue an open-wheel career. Which led to him choosing sports cars, which led to the No. 69 MIA McLaren being set up for a tall, wide driver. Which means that I—an inch or so taller than Lazare—am going to fit.
There's just one problem: Come Saturday afternoon, the No. 69 car is very much hors de combat, the victim of an electrical gremlin. Swapping his helmet for a cellphone, Green calls every McLaren dealer in the state, looking for a replacement wiring harness. "Come in on Monday," one dealer tells him, "and you can pull it off the one we've got in the showroom."
"You mean it's a stock 570S harness?" I ask.
"Absolutely," Green replies. I start to get ideas.
"Well then," I say, nodding toward our 570S test car, "let's get this party started." (Get it? As in Donner Party. As in, Let's cannibalize this $210,000 street car so I can drive the race car, like, right now.)
Kerub steps in. "I plan for everything," he says, eyes crinkling. "Tomorrow we'll put you in the backup, the No. 68 car. I put on the same Corum livery as on the No. 69. Just in case."
"You're gonna move the seat, though, right?"
"Of course." He nods toward engineer Gerald Bouffard and Mathieu Hall, car chief for the Sebring test. They grimace; it's not a quick task.
Come Sunday at noon, however, the work is done. As the team loads me into the car, Green briefs me on the differences and similarities between the street 570S and the GT4 car. We still have air-conditioning, power windows, and the center infotainment screen. The airbag-equipped steering wheel gives way to a stunning, deep-dish carbon affair, the cardinal-red McLaren emblem at its center. The LCD dash panel is similar, right down to the start-up screen, with its picture of the car. The mirrors are stock. I have a suspicion that the center one would dim automatically during a night race. Posh.
Compared with the old MP4-12C GT3, this GT4 has a lower floor, wider door openings, and a lower side-impact brace. The GT3 was a claustrophobic nightmare of X-braces, intrusive halo bars, and utter blindness behind the side windows; this one's a peach by contrast. You'd feel more cramped in a stock Gallardo. The cage doesn't intrude much, and the wing out back bisects the rear mirror in such a way as to render it less than half as useful. But there's still enough visibility to see the prototypes coming up behind you.
To give me a little more visibility, a crew member hits a big red button to release the cockpit's center safety net. It springs open with a deep ping! I feel in my chest.
As with the street 570S, there are two rotary controls on the attenuated center console: one for chassis adjustments, one for driveline. Green sets the former to Sport and the latter to Track. This will give me a bit of stability-control intervention if things go haywire, but it won't save me from a big mistake the way a street-based system might.
As I head out of pit lane, with Green on my heels in the thankfully intact 570S street car, I'm far from comfortable with the situation. The team's next race is soon enough that Kerub wouldn't have time to source a replacement car if I kill this one, so he's basically put the immediate future of his race program in the hands of a sullen middle-aged father from the Midwest whom he's just met. Yet Kerub seems more at ease than I feel. Later on, he'll confide that he didn't even bother to buy track-day insurance for the car. He will chuckle, as if we've just pulled off a caper of some type. (Which we have; the premium for a single weekend in this car would pay my mortgage for a couple of months.)
Thankfully, I don't know any of this during my first few laps of Sebring. What I do know: This is a brilliant car to drive. After more than a decade of club racing, I've come to expect that the racing version of anything from a Plymouth Neon to a Ferrari 458 will be distinguished by an inability to idle properly, a tendency toward steady-state oversteer in fast turns, and an inclination to wag its nose under braking like a truffle-hunting pig.
Not the McLaren. Part of it comes down to the unique restrictions of both the GT4 class and the Continental Tire series. McLaren says the standard 570S makes 562 horses, but the GT4 car's engine control unit cuts about 140 of those. It's also got a nontrivial wing out back that adds noticeable drag, particularly in fifth and sixth gears. Last but not least, there's a 150-pound ballast weight—an entire Chris Green!—in the passenger footwell. So where the street car lunges down Sebring's straights, the GT4 merely sprints, with acceleration about what you'd expect from a stock Corvette. Green is omnipresent in my mirrors.
Those disadvantages become virtues when it's time to bend into a corner. The brakes have that reassuring feel that racers often liken to standing on a block of wood, even though they're steel rotors instead of the carbon-ceramics of our street-car tester. The new Continental slicks are extremely grippy—more stick than any Toyo or Hankook R-compound club-race tire, obviously, but progressive, unlike a lot of modern slicks. So for the first five laps or so, I'm simply underdriving the car to an embarrassing degree.
Yet other than the IMSA prototype that drives by in Turn 1 like I'm the sightseeing bus at the Nürburgring, there's nothing at this track day that comes close. Porsche and BMW club-race cars are easily swatted aside. Corvettes wave you by from two turns ahead. Even that prototype that roared past in disconcerting fashion never reappears in my mirrors.
Don't tell anybody, but the GT4 car is actually easier to drive at speed than its roadgoing sibling. It's more compliant and far better damped, as you'd expect, and the brakes are far more predictable—there's not much take-up, a more subtle ABS engagement. The 570S's pedal squishiness, which multiplied as the weekend went on, is absent. And chiefly, none of the 570S's limit behavior: The road car suffers from an overactive traction control that kills your first hundred feet of drive out of every corner. You have to completely disable stability control to make time, at which point you have to deal with the natural consequences of a V-8 behind you and no aerodynamic aids to help keep the tail in line. It's probably easier than it should be for the road car's engine to write a check that its chassis—deliberately constrained by the factory—cannot cash.
Earlier in the day, I pushed the road car just a little too hard through the Turn 14 kink, which led to a lurid and terrifying slide at well over 100 mph. It was a handful, always just an errant Sebring bump away from washing the nose five feet. The power never fails to impress (and occasionally concern the driver) out of a corner, and it's a tremendously rewarding car to drive, but it's also a little short on mechanical grip and a lot short on downforce.
By contrast, the GT4 model reminds me of McLaren's 675LT road car. The LT feels like the proverbial seven-league boots; it turns in with delicate precision and holds the tail in line effortlessly at ridiculous velocities, helped by a big aero flap that rises at speed. Except the GT4 car is even better, more responsive. You can hang out the rear bumper if you like, either under power or with a throttle lift in midcorner. The fixed wing will moderate the effects of your stupidity and keep the tires warm for when you return to your senses. It never feels overpowered; the GT4 is less puissant down low than the 570S and utterly without that car's demented, twin-blown final rush to 8500 rpm. And where the steering of the street car can feel nervous when you're searching for grip on corner entry, the GT4 might as well have a rheostat mounted on ball bearings. Turn the wheel and, pow, you're at the apex. The car just hunkers down and rolls. After 10 laps, I have complete confidence in it. I'm ready to let it take me places.
And then I nearly take the thing off the end of Turn 1. I've overestimated the grip. Have to unwind the steering and drive out to the edge of the curb between 1 and 2. I don't raise any dirt, and it's the only curb I hit with any real force during my entire session, but it's a warning that the laws of physics still apply.
I catch up to another Continental Tire series car. I follow it for a lap or two, feinting with the McLaren's nose for no reason other than to feel like a race driver, before I finally make a move that sticks. I've beaten another GS-class car in fair combat, I think. Or was that just his cool-down lap?
I don't want to know. Behind me, Green is gamely hanging on, even if my rearview makes it look like he's auditioning for a job as a stunt driver. At one point, I can see his entire driver's door facing me for well over a second, tire smoke trailing behind him.
I don't envy Green; no street-tired supercar can hang with this GT4 when it's on the boil, despite the restrictions. Of course, McLaren will sell you this car in full-power form: It's called the 570S Sprint. But it's not legal for any race series, so why have it? The thrill of the GT4 model is in its peerless competence as a tool: for competition, for winning, for finding the gentleman racer living somewhere in your amygdala, buried beneath all those spreadsheets and C-suite meetings. It's easy to drive solely because that makes it more usable, more competitive. Supercars are typically produced as self-contained Everests, a challenge for the driver to overcome. You have to admire the way the GT4 redirects the challenge of racing from mere operation to competition and personal development as a driver.
A short while later, Green disappears from my mirrors. A Ferrari Challenge car is swelling in the windshield. I realize that I forgot to wear my earplugs, and that it doesn't matter, because the engine is hushed. When the tires squeal through the ultra-fast Turn 6 kink, they do so in a civilized whisper.
I could drive like this until the fuel runs out. This white-hot feeling, 8000 rpm through five gears then straining my neck with the grip and laughing so hard behind my visor that my cheeks hurt afterwards. It doesn't come cheap. Still: You want to do it. Kerub would be delighted to talk to you. You can call him and ask the price.
I know that I asked him the minute I got out of the car. It's more than I will ever have. Your mileage may vary. Talk to your wealth manager. If he or she tells you that you might lose a house or a plane or a motor yacht, might have to engage in a bit of financial cannibalism, don't be dismayed. Once you try it, you'll be willing to chew off an arm to get back behind the wheel. Let's get this party started.
Special thanks to Toronto's Pfaff Automotive Partners and Continental Tire for making this test possible.