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McLaren F1 review (CAR Magazine, June 1994: Into Orbit)

By Roger Bell


19 June 2012 10:31

My mind is blown. My soul corrupted. Absolute power has cast its spell. Solo or ménage a trois, I don’t mind. Put me back in the middle, behind the central wheel of the world’s fastest driving machine. I need more, another fix. Two days on the loose in McLaren’s three-seater megacar, and I’m hooked. You would be, too. The 627-horsepower F1, which humbles all previous slingshot exotics, is just what design director Gordon Murray pledged it would be: the ultimate motoring experience, the closest sensation to a street-legal grand prix car. Forget Porsche’s 959, Ferrari’s F40, Jaguar’s XJ220, Bugatti’s EB110. They’re overweight, underpowered pussycats compared with McLaren’s BMW-powered blockbuster. The F1 not only trounces them emphatically, but does so with spine-tingling sound effects.

The F1 is more than a hedonistic plaything. We knew already that it was the fastest, most powerful road car we were ever likely to test: Jonathan Palmer’s 231mph at Nardo had put the McLaren firmly on pole for straight-line speed. We knew it was the most expensive, too: at £540,000, nothing else gets close for outrageous extravagance. That the F1 was the lightest, least compromised of the great modern supercars was ancient history. And that it embraced the Gospel according to Murray was engraved in stone, too. It took a talented team to put the F1 on the road, but Murray is the driving force behind it. The F1 is his car, his dream, his achievement.

We knew all these things and much, much more. What we didn’t know was what the McLaren F1 was like to drive. No-one outside the company bar a few prospective customers had driven an F1, never mind driven one in anger. CAR – who else? – would be the first to do so.

There would be no demonstration run, no inhibiting company minder, no strings other than to sign a rather frightening indemnity. My brief was to be at McLaren’s pristine Woking headquarters by 8am, have Jonathan Palmer, McLaren’s marketing director, show me around the car, and then get it and go. Destination: Wales, via a circuitous route that would take in several favourite roads. God, it’s a hard life.

My departure was delayed by a small technical hitch with XP5, the fifth F1 prototype which is representative of customer cars dynamically, but not in finish. While the snag was sorted, I boned up again on the car’s targets and design.

To dismiss the F1 as a rich man’s toy is to sell it short. Compromise was not in Murray’s script. Perfection and cutting-edge technology were. Murray’s 10-hour concept brief in 1990 to the close-knit team charged with the task of developing the first McLaren road car has already passed into motoring folklore. To provide the ultimate uncorrupted driving experience, Murray decreed a three-seater, with the driver in the middle, sitting well forward as in a racer. Anything that diminished driver pleasure, the car’s raison d’etre, was out. The definitive adrenaline pump would have minimal front and rear overhangs, and all its masses – engine, transmission, fuel, occupants, luggage – would be contained well within the ‘dumb-bell’ weight distribution. Low moments of inertia, regardless of load, were essential. So were low centre of gravity and light weight.

Murray is obsessed by weight. His ambitious target of 1000kg (2200lb) – which was nearly achieved – meant compact dimensions and ruthless paring. Not for the McLaren masterpiece the gross obesity of a Jaguar XJ220 or Testarossa, both of which weigh hundreds of kilogrammes more. It also dictated Formula One carbon-composite construction for the immensely strong body/chassis unit. That a test driver escaped unscathed from a high speed crash in an F1 prototype is testimony to the monocoque’s integrity and strength.

Packaging was key to the F1’s success. Get that right and the rest would fall into place. Fashion would have little to do with the car’s timeless styling. Ground-effect aerodynamics, a cab-forward driving position, spinal air-intakes…these and other considerations dictated how designer Peter Stevens would shape the car. Another Murray edict that raised eyebrows was that there would be no turbo motor. Only the linear delivery of a big, high-revving, normally-aspirated engine would do for a car that was to be the fastest in the world, and civilised with it.

McLaren talked to several engine manufacturers before accepting BMW Motorsport’s proposal to build a 6.1 litre 60-degree quad-can V12. Awesome though it is, this purpose-built 48-valve powerhouse, which yields considerably more torque than a Formula One engine (more than 479lb ft from 4000-7000rpm), draws heavily on existing BMW technology: variable valve timing from the M3 six, for instance. Dry-sump lubrication that reduces the depth of the crankcase squared with the quest for a low centre of gravity.

Drive to the rear wheels is through a slimline six-speed gearbox. There’s no traction control, for that would diminish driver involvement, not to mention add weight. Ditto power steering, anti-lock brakes, and adaptive damping. There’s not even a servo to assist the Italian Brembo brakes – huge, cross-drilled ventilated discs clamped by four-pot callipers. Nothing has been allowed to diminish the tactile relationship between man and machine.

In eschewing modern aids, the F1 is in several respects a simpler, less complex machine than many uprange executive saloons costing a fraction as much. The suspension is essentially subframe-mounted coil and wishbone at both ends, its bushing soft longitudinally (in the interests of ride comfort) and stiff axially (for maximum wheel control).

Jonathan Palmer interrupts my browsing: ‘It’s ready, you can go.’ I sense a twinge of apprehension. Then I recall a Palmer throwaway: ‘Really, it’s just another motor car, Roger.’ Of course it is, I kid myself. Getting  into the driver’s seat is certainly not for the elderly or infirm. Push-buttons one the rear wings release the amazing dihedral doors, pivoted on ball-jointed hinges that reflect the wonderful attention to detail evident throughout the F1. Gas struts waft them into the gadfly position where they protrude no further than ordinary doors.

Never mind being after-you polite – the driver gets in first. A handbook picture sequence suggests a bum-leading technique. Palmer favours the single-seater approach: lean back on both arms, swing your legs over the obstructive spar, then do a buttock-launch into the central bucket. It’s an awkward manoeuvre which immediately exposes  the man objection to a central driving position: getting in and out. Shutting the door is a little awkward too – a long and fairly strong arm is needed.

Once the driver is in – from the nearside to avoid a nasty accident with the phallic gearlever that sprouts from the offside spar – passengers can step aboard without contortion. As a three-seater, the F1 works brilliantly, not least because passengers are so comfortably ensconced.

At last, I’m on my own in the world’s fastest road car. The slimline seat looks less inviting than the flanking passenger ones, but its embrace is tight, its contours perfect. There’s no power adjustment (too heavy), and the pedals and steering wheels need time and a spanner to alter. Owners get a special fitting. I adjust for reach, strap in (customer cars will get a handier harness) and feel perfectly at ease with XP%’s compromise settings.

There’s nothing intimidating about the straight-ahead controls. Flanking the thick-rimmed Nardi steering wheel are familiar (BMW) stalks for turn/dip and wash/wipe. Tucked invisibly behind the horn – a pathetic tooter. You’ve guessed: a strident air horn was rejected on weight grounds. Only two of the infra-red’s nine channels are employed. Could a semi-automatic transmission be on the agenda for the other seven?

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