The McLaren MP4-12C sees a Formula One heavyweight making a permanent excursion onto the road to take on its motorsport nemesis, Ferrari.
Intense, and not so long ago bitter and acrimonious, the McLaren versus Ferrari rivalry has often been the equivalent of Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier, or, to give a more modern-day example, Apple versus Samsung. Simply, there is no love lost between them.
Both outfits have been spectacularly successful in the sport, and McLaren would cherish nothing more than to overtake Ferrari’s leading tally of drivers’ and constructors’ titles.
Now, however, the McLaren MP4-12C sees the British company slipstreaming the Italians on the road – with a view to overtaking with a new range of supremely quick and supremely capable supercars.
It has been here before, of course. In 1993 the McLaren F1 was unveiled to the world with a three-seater cockpit layout that placed the driver in the centre of the car, a chassis made from the lightweight material the company pioneered in motorsport, carbonfibre, and a V12 engine from BMW.
The McLaren F1 would go on to lay claim to the title of the world’s fastest production car for almost a decade, though only 100 were ever built and many of those for privateer racers.
This time McLaren, based in its high-tech hub on the outskirts of a humble Surrey town called Woking, is chasing a more significant slice of the supercar market.
The McLaren MP4-12C is the first of a handful of new McLarens that will include a Spider version, which will reach Australia by the end of the year, and a successor to the F1.
As with the original F1, the MP4 12C plays on McLaren’s grand prix pedigree.
The shape of the car was honed in the same wind tunnel used to fine-tune the ever-critical aerodynamics of its F1 cars. Construction of the car centres around a carbonfibre monocoque cell. And there’s even technology based on systems banned from grand prix racing because it was so effective.
You even have to climb over a high and wide sill to enter the MP4-12C, though not before lifting a scissor door that opens not by a door handle but by running your fingers along the underside of a protruding door edge.
And that’s just the start of the kind of theatre buyers expect from their supercar.
Sitting inside the 1990s F1 was quite surreal with its central driving position that was flanked by offset passenger seats. The MP4 adopts the conventional two-seater layout, though slide into the driver’s side and, while you don’t have the sense of history that envelops you every time you pilot a Ferrari, you’re immediately aware you’re in something special.
The McLaren most definitely has that supercar aura. There’s an initial wave of intimidation as I take in my unfamiliar surroundings, assess the array of buttons and digital displays, and remind myself that I’m about to drive a piece of machinery that costs half a million dollars.
The driving position is perfect for many reasons. It’s race-car low yet vision all round is excellent for a supercar, and the pedals have been precisely placed so they’re not offset to the driver’s legs.
Grab the steering wheel and its purity as simply a driving device is expressed by the absence of any buttons.
There’s also a simplicity to the rest of the dash that, like the sills, is predominantly covered in alcantara. Carbon fibre is also featured in parts of the cabin, including the steering wheel spokes and centre stack.
That lean-waisted, bridge-like centre stack arches up from the centre console, with the long and narrow section housing all the key controls for car settings, heating/ventilation, the electronic handbrake mini lever, and the larger dial that manipulates information on the portrait-style display screen (McLaren says people naturally read downwards rather than across).
Time to press one of the crucial buttons on the console, marked Engine Start/Stop, that fires the MP4-12C’s V8 into life with a brief but audible and dramatic bark.
There are city streets followed by a two-hour freeway stint to negotiate before we reach our main driving area destination, and it’s not long before those slight pangs of trepidation have dissipated. The McLaren is quite an easy car to pilot in traffic and around more confined spaces.
There’s even stop-start technology that switches off the engine at traffic lights and restarts it near-instantly when you step off the brake – and it contributes to a respectable-for-a-supercar fuel consumption figure of 11.7L/100km.
The company also proudly proclaims that, with emissions of 279g/km, the MP4-12C emits the least amount of carbon dioxide per kilowatt in the world
The ride is also remarkably relaxed, the MP4-12C’s suspension conforming to the most microscopic of surface undulations. The carbonfibre tub means you can hear some road joins echo through the cabin but you feel them less. Only sharper irregularities intrude a touch though even then never harsh or discomforting.
Other mechanical components are also doing their bit. The seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox capitalises on the V8 engine’s large quantities of low-down torque to move into sixth gear quicker, and at lower speeds, than you may expect for a supercar, striding into top gear once speeds rise above 60km/h.
As the speedo reaches 110km/h on the freeway, engine revs are just 2000 (and yes there is cruise control).
This is only a kind of warm-up lap for the McLaren, and it’s time to see how it fares in ‘qualifying’ trim.
Formula One drivers these days almost need a PhD in Multitasking such is the number of buttons and switches they have to constantly press and flick while also trying to control a carbonfibre missile at speeds that can exceed 300km/h.
The McLaren MP4-12C driver fortunately has fewer controls to tax their brain: just two key dials, named Handling and Performance, on the centre console.
They control the suspension and drivetrain characteristics respectively, and have been sitting in the Normal position till now.
As we move to some beautifully smooth bitumen, we bypass Sport and rotate both dials to Track.
That introduces the fastest and most aggressive shift times from the gearbox, and it also sends a message to the Proactive Chassis Control to take the suspension’s stiffness to a firmer level to further minimise body roll.
It’s here that McLaren’s engineers have done away with the anti-roll bars fitted to almost every car imaginable and instead employed double A-arm suspension front and rear with a rather cunning arrangement of hydraulically interconnected dampers.
Each damper features a compression and rebound chamber, each filled with liquid and connected to their opposite chamber on the opposing wheel.
In a right-hander, with Track selected for maximum stiffness, liquid is expelled from the front-right damper’s compression chamber but is counter-balanced when met by liquid from the front-left damper’s rebound chamber that has been forced into a gas-filled accumulator via a high-pressure valve.
Take on a series of curving roads, smooth or otherwise, in the McLaren MP4-12C and the British supercar corners with a flatness that Lewis Hamilton or Jenson Button would be familiar with in their F1 racers.
No doubt they’d also appreciate the MP4’s direct and highly accurate steering (though perhaps also bemused by the absence of buttons on the wheel compared with their complex tillers).
Turn-in has been given a hand by slightly smaller, narrower (235/35) front 19-inch wheels with 305/30 20-inch inch wheels at the rear.
There are no ‘slick’ compound tyres here, of course, but the road legal Pirelli P Zero rubber is immensely generous with grip levels. (And if you really must there’s an option for even stickier Pirelli Corsa tyres, but each one will set you back nearly $4000.)
Astounding balance is aided by the mid-engined layout that instead of trying to revolutionise sports car engineering simply embraces the most tried and trusted formula. There’s also an active rear spoiler that can be engaged manually for a higher-downforce configuration to help suck the McLaren to the ground, while it will also deploy automatically when braking from high speed to reduce stopping distances.
Which, for the record, is just 30.5 metres if you’re braking from 100km/h.
Forward momentum? Spectacularly rapid, with flat-out acceleration from standstill pinning the driver to their seat just like a full-thrust take-off in a jet.
The 100km/h timing sensor is triggered in just 3.3 seconds (a tenth quicker than the 458 Ferrari), the 200km/h sensor in 9.1 seconds, and the 400m tape is broken in 10.9 seconds.
There’s an absolutely glorious duet from the aluminium twin-turbo V8 and exhaust system as the McLaren attacks those marks, the driver changing up through the gears via the rocker-style metal paddleshift levers – though not before stretching the engine to the 7000rpm point where peak power of 441kW is found, or even the 8500rpm limiter.
The paddles do require a more conscious pull than other set-ups we’ve tried, and it’s clear others have told McLaren that’s the case because there will be an improvement to the action as part of the 2013 update.
The updated McLaren MP4-12C is due any time now, towards late 2012, and brings some extra power (to 460kW), a lifter kit to help with speed bumps and awkwardly angled driveways, the ability to vary the induction sound more, a voice control satellite navigation system, a doubling of the music hard drive to 64 gigabytes, wireless LAN, an upgraded Meridan audio system with seven speakers, and a Bluetooth-enabled telediagnostic system.
There will also be an expanded range of options in the Iris digital menu operating system.
Formula One teams are renowned for constantly developing their racing cars to find even the tiniest incremental improvement that could prove decisive on the track. It seems McLaren may just be applying this philosophy to its road cars as it bids to topple Ferrari.
Price: $493,000 (plus on-road costs)
Body style: supercar
Engine: 3.8-litre twin-turbo V8
Power: 441kW at 6000rpm
Torque: 600Nm at 3000-7000rpm
Transmission: 7-speed sequential auto
0-100km/h: 3.3 seconds
Fuel consumption: 11.7L/100km
CO2 emissions: 279g/km