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McLaren P1 (2013) CAR's race-speed Goodwood ride

Tue, 05 Nov 2013

The McLaren P1 leaves the startline like a shard of shrapnel riding the percussion wave of an explosion. It needs high-definition slow-mo to describe it, like those films of a bullet shattering an apple, or the slow-motion shots of an F1 car skipping over a kerb, front wing flexing, tyres deflecting, all that physics captured in beautiful, drowsy detail.

In my mind, when I re-live the first moments of my ride up the Goodwood hillclimb in McLaren’s new hypercar, I see the release of energy in the same 1500-frames-per-second style. It starts when McLaren test driver Chris Goodwin presses the accelerator, his right foot gliding slowly down to fix the pedal to the floor. The turbo V8 responds instantly, the pistons going to work like a boxer throwing long punches, turbines spooling, gases flaring in hidden chambers like clouds of flame beneath a Saturn rocket. But already the car is moving: before the V8 has time to crank up to the full 531lb ft, the P1’s electric motor is already on – instantly on, like a light bulb is on when you throw a switch – delivering maximum torque to the back wheels. There is no wheelspin, just the gradual, elegant flexing of the suspension, as it handles the immense shove from those fat rear tyres.

Inside the cockpit, Chris’s head and mine rock back in unison, neck muscles momentarily overcome by the physical shock, and already Chris is pulling back the right paddle with his fingertip. The twin-clutch seven-speed gearbox engages second so fast even slow motion can barely capture it, and the acceleration is now making me pull an odd face. It’s about now I make a noise – I had a dictaphone clutched in my fist, recording our run up the Hill, and playing it back, I can hear myself. My lungs compress like I’ve been hit in the chest by a medicine ball, and you can hear me make a kind of quick, wheezy ‘Uh!’

So let’s leave the slow-motion movie paused right there, at that exact moment. Look at Chris Goodwin: frozen in time, muscles taut, his hawk-eyes glaring down the road; and there’s me, face contorted like I’ve been stung by a wasp, mouth open, gurgling a deep ‘Uuuaaaarrgghhh!’.

I think that sums up my feelings about the new McLaren P1 perfectly. All this happens in a thunderclap. My son, standing behind the bales at the startline, tries to take a photo on his phone. The result is a picture of an empty track, with the P1’s tail in the extreme right of frame.

Goodwin reaches the end of the first straight and absolutely throws the P1 into the right-hand bend. He knows what he’s doing. I have that uneasy grin that passengers always have when they’re telling themselves ‘the driver knows what he’s doing’. The car hunkers down and spits us out of the apex. Another brief squirt of acceleration follows, so forceful I feel nausea in the hollow of my stomach. Goodwin turns right again, the car squatting into the grip as he slices across the grass of Turn 2 like a rally driver, before nailing the throttle once more. He’s actually. Going for it. Wow.

By the time I think ‘Wow’ we’re already up to fourth under Goodwood’s famous white footbridge. The sound is incredible, like a low-flying Spitfire cresting a ridge, as we swoop over the rise at the end of the straight, and dive into Molecomb, a tricky left-hander that delivers us on the steepest slope of the Hill. Up to third, fourth, the P1 flies towards the top, shift lights blinking on the dashboard as Goodwin changes up around the 8000rpm redline. Engine noise fills the cabin, a steely V8 growl punctuated by long shshshsh exhales of wastegate pressure every time Goodwin comes off the throttle. We squeeze past the Flint Wall, Goodwin making small, neat adjustments at the wheel, then we’re into the last two corners, a long right and a long left, then up into the trees to power through the finishing line as I burst out laughing. Like I said, ‘wow’.

My god, how do I even begin to frame the McLaren P1? Let’s think: the Space Shuttle is fast but I’ve never driven one. The Bugatti Veyron – yes, that’s fast, so fast it’ll shock a man who drives a Lamborghini to work every day. The Veyron has that kind of sustained, gear-upon-gear acceleration that makes you feel like you’re riding a demonic express train. But Veyrons don’t win races, set amazing lap times or conquer track days. When it was launched in 2005, the Bugatti was Ferdinand Piëch’s personal triumph over the laws of physics – with an 8.0-litre W16 engine and ten (TEN!) cooling radiators, it was a relatively heavy supercar. Somehow, in the end, the tireless VW engineers got it all to work, and the Veyron felt light and agile on the road; but you can’t hide 1888kg of kerbweight on a track.

The P1, on the other hand, attacked the Hill like a racing car. It’s not just the pure acceleration – McLaren claims 0-62 in 2.8 seconds(a standard Veyron does it in 2.5), and 0-125mph in 6.8 (the Veyron gets there in 7.3). That’s brutally fast, but the Bugatti’s been there, done that already. Where the P1 moves the game on is the way it corners: it is Veyron-meets-Formula 3. It feels utterly glued down, shifting under the extreme forces with those taut, abrupt little movements of roll and dive you associate with a stiffly sprung racing car.

Naturally we went up the Hill in Race mode (there are also Normal, Sport and Track options for losers). To engage Race you press a button, and wait for about 40 seconds as the car transforms itself, visibly sinking down on the road, tucking the wheels up into the arches, that extraordinary rear wing rising up like a Thunderbirds launch pad.

This little bit of kerbside theatre is the key to understanding the P1: how do you top the McLaren F1? The answer, it appears, is with mind-numbingly complex control systems, where the old McLaren had ancient springs and dampers. You see, Gordon Murray’s 1990s supercar – and the Bugatti Veyron that followed it – have together made it pretty hard for hypercar manufacturers to make their mark. Take carbonfibre for instance: the F1 was the first all-carbon production car, but now everything’s made out of carbon – you can buy a toilet seat made out of carbonfibre (seriously, you can, look it up). Then there’s the engine: on paper the P1’s 3.8-litre turbo V8 sounds distinctly like the 12C’s 3.8-litre turbo V8, but the P1’s engine is actually 90% new – even the block is a new casting, to include the P1’s electric motor. The resulting spec is awesome: 727bhp from the V8 and another 176bhp from the single electric motor – a combined 903bhp. Impressive, yes, but it’s not like having a 1000bhp W16, is it?

Even chasing top speed is a thankless task these days. Who wants a car that does 300mph? The P1 is limited to 350kph, just short of 220mph. Fast enough, but hardly headline-grabbing.
So how do you top the McLaren F1? I talk about this thorny problem with Dan Parry-Williams, chief design engineer on the P1 project, just before I go for my ride. Wasn’t it intimidating, I ask him, trying to do an F1 Mk2?

‘It was to start with,’ he admits. ‘There is a legacy there, the F1 was a high watermark; but the P1 is a different generation, a different era, and so we came up with a different ‘big idea’. The big idea for the F1 was that central driving position, and that was fantastic – though it had its limits in real life, at barriers and that kind of stuff. The big idea for the P1 is a Jekyll and Hyde car: the ultimate driving experience on the road, without the compromises many supercars have in terms of ride comfort; and then at the press of a button, it can turn into a race car.’

The heart of the P1 then is that sophisticated chassis – the adjustable hydro-pneumatic suspension system called RaceActive Chassis Control, that lowers and stiffens the car, allowing computer-controlled four-corner adjustments. That stiff, stable platform is then married to an active aero package, overseen by Simon Lacey, former head of aerodynamics at the McLaren F1 race team race team, no less.

‘The suspension drops the ride height by 50mm in Race mode, but it isn’t just about lowering the car,’ explains Parry-Williams. ‘The spring rates are also 3.5 times stiffer, so you can control the bottom of the car relative to the race track, and introduce ground effects’.

Ground effects – along with the monster wing on the back – mean the P1 can produce 600kg of downforce in race mode, as much as a GT3 Le Mans car, according to McLaren. No wonder it went up the Hill like a rat up a drainpipe. These sophisticated systems – along with the hybrid power – are what make the P1 an unmistakable product of 2013. ‘It’s like comparing Ayrton Senna’s F1 car to this year’s McLaren MP4-28,’ says Chris Goodwin. ‘That’s the race car Gordon Murray was working on in 1988, when he started thinking about the McLaren F1. I drove it yesterday, it’s an amazing bit of kit, and it was state of the art in its day, but compared to a modern Formula 1 car?’ Goodwin shakes his head. ‘It’s centuries – it feels like centuries.’

So the 1993 F1 road car might still have cult status, but on the track with a 2013 P1? I suspect ‘the legend’ would get humiliated at the first corner. So would a Veyron, I’m sure. Okay, I know I haven’t driven it yet, so let’s not get carried away, but my best guess is that the P1 really has moved the supercar game on. Now all it has to do is see off the ‘LaFerrari’ (name – cringe) and the new Porsche 918, in this year’s once-in-a-generation ding-dong Battle of the Hybrid Supercars – do that, and McLaren will have well and truly laid the F1’s ghost to rest.

‘Ah yes, we were testing alongside the Ferrari and the Porsche in Italy last week,’ says Goodwin, casually. ‘And...?’ I ask him. He smiles. ‘We’re not worried.’ Bring it on!

PS: Dear McLaren, when I end a story ‘Bring it on!’ it actually means ‘please can I drive the P1 now’. You’ve got my number. 

Words: Mark Walton Photography: Richard Pardon

This feature first appeared in the October 2013 issue of CAR magazine. To view subscription offers and download back issues, click here