It's a debate that's been raging for the past year or so: is the McLaren MP4-12C all it's cracked up to be or, as most motoring hacks the world over have been suggesting, is the sublime Ferrari 458 Italia actually the better car, even if it's by the slightest of margins? Internet forums have been set ablaze over the subject, with perhaps millions of posts written by “experts” who have driven neither cars but who obviously know everything about them.
Well, I’ve spent plenty of quality time in 458s in recent months and, stupid dashboard design apart, there is nothing about that car I don’t like. And now I’m staring at its orange-painted nemesis, readying myself to drive it on road and track to see for myself whether it’s simply a really good first attempt or a genuine contender for the crown of best sports car on the planet.
Function over form – that was obviously the mantra of McLaren’s Design Director, Frank Stephenson. If there’s a fin or an air vent, then it’s there for a purpose. The fact that the 12C can hit its maximum speed of 330kph without resorting to spoilers and air dams is proof, if any were needed, that this McLaren has been designed around the engineers, rather than the other way around.
The result is that, visually, the McLaren MP4-12C isn’t the knockout beauty that the 458 is. It’s purposeful though, and it probably won’t date very quickly, but it doesn’t grab your eyeballs like some of the other exotica out there.
No matter, because the road beckons first and I run my finger under the edge of the door to operate the switch that sends it outwards and upwards. This does add some visual appeal but according to McLaren, that’s not why they designed it this way. The “dihedral” doors “allow driver and passenger to enter and exit the car as easily as possible, while allowing a smaller door opening than would otherwise be necessary”, says the company. Oh, and they save weight, which was one of the main aims of McLaren. Absolutely everything has been designed to be as lightweight as possible, because that’s what helps teams win in F1. And that’s what McLaren does best.
There’s a large sill to negotiate, which forms part of the carbonfibre tub that makes up the central structure of the car, before I plant myself into the 12C’s figure-hugging seat. Once in place, I take in my surroundings. Like the exterior, the interior is simple and functional with minimalist design. The steering wheel (unlike Ferrari’s) is used for just two things: changing direction and changing gear using the F1-inspired rocker that’s mounted behind it. There’s simple, intelligent design everywhere and every one of the controls is within easy reach from the wheel. It’s all beautifully crafted, using bespoke switchgear that McLaren proudly proclaims won’t be found anywhere else, and there’s a sense of airiness in the cabin that makes you feel nice and relaxed.
After familiarising myself with the few buttons on the slender centre console and their functionality, I stab at the starter button and the twin-turbo, 447kW/600Nm V8 that sits amidships and very lowdown in the car’s chassis, barks into life. This highly efficient engine, entirely designed by McLaren, sounds muscular with a deep bass rumble and, when it starts, the car puts itself into automatic mode. I select Drive and ease away, out towards the surrounding roads, which incidentally are covered in standing water from thawing snow and ice.
Immediately I’m struck by the ease with which it trundles around at low speeds. It doesn’t strain at all; it’s entirely free from drama and histrionics and is as simple to pilot as a Volkswagen Golf. There’s plenty of low down torque for nipping around stationary traffic, it’s easy to see out of and the sound of the V8 is muted enough so that it doesn’t become an annoyance. There’s also a beautiful feel to the controls – the steering feels just heavy enough to make you aware you’re driving a supercar and the indicators, wipers and other controls all feel like they’ve been precision engineered. Which, of course, they have.
Something else that strikes me is just how well it rides over rough road surfaces. The suspension system is revolutionary. It’s been designed using actual F1 technology combining adaptive damping with hydraulic roll control, and this makes for a ride quality that owners of Mercedes’ S-Class will be familiar with. Unlike, say a Porsche 911 Turbo, it’s incredibly refined and soaks up bumps without any jarring or twitchiness.
Finding a long enough straight, I hit the Sport button, pull on the left hand paddle for second gear and floor it. Suddenly the car’s entire character changes. The noise becomes a full-throated roar and this empty road is, in an instant, chewed up and spat out the rear end. I’m flabbergasted, speechless. The speed with which this thing gathers pace is shocking, as is the ease with which it tackles difficult corners even when the road surface is pitifully poor. As a road car it’s a triumph and easily meets the design criteria laid down for it to be a car you can use all day long, every day. Brilliant.
So far so good but I need to put it through its paces on a track. Not any old track, you understand, but the circuit at Dunsfold Aerodrome, famous to millions around the world as the test track that Top Gear uses in the UK.
The sky is bruised, there’s snow on the surrounding tundra but thankfully the track itself is reasonably dry. It’s basically a figure of eight but there are precious few visual markers for you to get your bearings, so I carry out four reasonably quick laps to familiarise myself with the layout, trying not to be star struck by where I am.
The car is rigged with cameras and data loggers to record my every movement and it’s fair to say I’m on edge but I take a moment to reflect on what is happening here. What had been a comfortable and refined cruiser on the public road has just become a scalpel-sharp track weapon, and all its race-bred technology is starting to make itself obvious.
I set the powertrain and handling rotary switches to Track mode and I’m enveloped by proper supercar noise. The suspension firms itself (but it’s still comfortable) and the 12C’s transformation is complete. With my heart racing, I power across the start/finish line and the data logger starts doing its stuff, but more on that later.
What follows is a demonstration in engineering perfection. While a 458 or a 911 will happily wiggle their tails through the corners to remind you where all the power is being sent, the McLaren is built with one express purpose: to get around a track in the quickest possible time. Understeer is negated by the Brake-steer system that McLaren used to fit to its F1 racecars before the technology was outlawed, and it’s a more simple, lighter weight version of the torque vectoring systems finding their way into sports cars like the new 911.
The result is a nose that simply keys into the track surface, allowing the driver to follow true, tight lines. Switch off all the controls and yes, you can do powerslides with the best of them but that never made for a decent lap time, did it? The other remarkable piece of kit here is the air brake that can be seen lifting itself if you check the rear view mirror when applying the anchors. It helps the McLaren to stop from a speed of 200kph in just 123 metres and allows later, harder braking on a circuit like this.
Fun over, I climb out with my knees knocking and head for the warmth of the office where I can look through the telemetry results and watch a video of my performance. My first timed lap comes up at 1:26.85 and I shave another second off that time with the second. On the third I mess it up exiting Chicago and post a time of 1:28.11, so my mishap has cost me almost three seconds but then it all starts to come together. My lines are spot-on, I’m carrying more speed into corners and braking to better effect. The result is 1:25.25, which turns out to be the fastest lap set by any of the journalists here today and quicker than The Stig managed it in a 911 Turbo.
I’m happy enough with that but my smugness is short lived because I then experience of couple of hot laps with one of McLaren’s test drivers who really shows me how it’s done. He thrashes the 12C in the way its maker intended, demolishing my best lap time by nine seconds.
Once again I’m dumbstruck, not only of this man’s incredible skill, but in the way this car can tackle absolutely anything that’s thrown at it. A 458 might feel more lively but it’s no match for this thing round a track. It’s a magnificent achievement and, as a first attempt at building a full-on production car, stands on its own in the pantheon of true greats. In fact for me, right here, right now, it’s the greatest sports car there is. If only it just looked a bit more outrageous.