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McLaren F1 review (CAR Magazine, June 1994: Into Orbit)
19 June 2012 10:31
The rev-counter, black-blobbed at 7500rpm, dominates a light-faced instrument cluster. The speedo is relegated to a small, secondary dial which is so finely calibrated (to 400km/h) – 249mph – in XP5 I couldn’t read it. Other ‘driving’ switches – lights, fogs, spoiler, hazards, screen heating – are within a handspan of wheel rim. Everything else is deployed on the two carbon-composite spars that flank the driver’s torpedo-tub. Buried down in the footwell, on view to passengers, are exquisite floor-hinged pedals. You could hang them on the wall as engineering art. Let’s go. I turn the ignition key, on the right-hand span down by my shin. There’s a whir of fans, the sound of mating crickets, a brief electronic buzz and lots of flashing red lights – information displays on a small, hard-to-read checkout. All’s well. I fire the engine (foot off the throttle to let the management system do its own thing) by punching a flap-protected read button.
The V12 idles with the smoothness of flowing cream, purring softly, evenly. To blip the heavy throttle – yeeow, yeeow, like a Rottweiler’s bark, is to reveal the ferocious side of the engine’s dual personality. The immediacy of the response is down to the minimal flywheel inertia demanded by Murray. The carbon clutch is much lighter than I expect, but the short-throw gearlever is quite stiff into first – top-left, as in a conventional gate (a lock-out slide prevents inadvertent selection of reverse, which requires an even heavier hand, better still two), I lower the small, effective handbrake, which normally lies flush, to extinguish the last of the red-alert lights. There’s a hint of judder as the sharp clutch bites, a wooshy rumble from the tyres – huge 315/45s at the back – and a classy whine from the powertrain. We’re off.
The central driving position felt perfectly right and natural from the moment I clambered inside the F1. There’s a small visibility problem when overtaking, but by leaning to the right, you can see round it, especially as the car is not monstrously wide. The view over the low scuttle through the huge, electrically-heated (and solar-insulated) screen is panoramic, despite the low, semi-reclined driving position. Reversing is tricky, because you can’t see directly behind (the dorsal intake gets in the way) but the mirror views aft, all four of them, leave no serious blind spots when you’re solo. Three-up, you see only mug shot reflections of your passengers in the interior mirrors. Being piggy in the middle I feel very self-conscious, but then it’s the car that everyone’s gawping at, not the driver. For jaw-dropping, conversation-stopping presence, the F1 has few peers.
It’s late, I abandon the favoured route to Wales and head instead for the A4. The F1 is a doddle in traffic. It skims quietly along at low revs in a high gear, the patter of rubber overwhelming the rustle of the engine, its note gently oscillating like a draught through a chink. Fifth gear at 1000rpm, even sixth, causes neither hiccup nor pinking. There’s no need to change down. Squeeze the throttle, and BMW’s percussion section strikes up with a hard hammering boom, as if an echo from a chamber deep within the car’s bowels. Docility gives way to ferocity as a brutal slug of raw, mountain-moving torque wells the car forward. Amazing.
Long before I’m beyond urban limits, I realise where the mighty F1 is going to score over all its distant rivals: no matter what gear you’re in, or what the revs, the huge muscle of its fabulously potent and tractable V12 engine can be switched on and off like a light bulb. It’s that immediate. No wonder Murray eschews the lag-prone turbo. The harder you squeeze the F1’s throttle – and there always seems to be more movement, more revs, more decibels in reserve, so huge is the car’s performance envelope – the greater the ferocity, the more strident the noise. No Ferrari V12 gets close for aural uplift, never mind for sheer, pulverising power. The world’s greatest road-car engine is right here, behind my back in the F1.
It was the McLaren’s maximum that made the headlines, but it’s the car’s breathtaking acceleration that frightens and thrills. Nothing, but nothing gets anywhere close to this car, which has the world’s best power-to-weight ratio. Even now, I’m not sure which is the more addictive: the slingshot thrust when you slash through the gears, left leg and right arm pumping like pistons, (Palmer had warned that shifting was lightning-fast), or the breathtaking sound effects that go with it, terminating in a Formula One-style demented yowl.
Murray says the yowl is perfectly natural, not technically orchestrated. What makes it all the more enriching is that it’s throttle-induced, lending aural excitement only when it’s required. Back off and the decibels subside, so you can cruise – and cruise fast – with barely a murmur from the engine. Trouble is, the drone of the tyres, which slap Catseyes and cracks with the ra-ta-tat of a machine gun, denies the F1 cruise quietness.
It rained in Wales. Wet roads merely underlined the F1’s colossal grip, though. Beyond initial first-gear getaway, there’s no wheelspin in the dry, just stupendous acceleration that pulls 100mph in less than eight seconds – with three gears to go (in round figures, intermediate maxima are 65, 95, 125, 150 and 180mph). What impresses in the wet is just how much power you can deploy without breaking traction. To avoid all risk of wheelspin, you simply opt for a higher gear and torque your way out of trouble. Who needs traction control?
Who needs anti-lock brakes, for that matter? Passengers gasped at the way the F1 stopped in its tracks, as though arrested by some mighty elastic hawser. Little did they know how hard I was heaving on the pedal. Never mind. The heavier the brakes, the easier it is to modulate them. Heel-and-toe downshifts are also facilitated by a solid brake fulcrum. Unless you look out for it in the mirror, the levitating rear spoiler – a brake and balance foil in McLaren-speak – that pops up to stabilise the car under high-speed braking goes unnoticed. It’s the only surface-breaking aerodynamic aid on the F1, which achieves downforce via a fan-assisted ground-effect system.
Initially, I was disappointed with the car’s steering. It’s wonderfully tactile and accurate, but not nearly as sharp as I expected. A Porsche 911’s is decisively sharper. You certainly can’t drive everywhere with your hands locked in the classic quarter-to-three position, as in a racer. Not with 2.8 turns lock to lock. On fast corners, the wheel is perfectly weighted. On slow ones, worse still on manoeuvres, it’s pretty heavy: 235/45 rubber takes some swivelling around without hydraulic assistance. I was to change my mind about the steering, though. Familiarity bred respect for such a communicative system of unerring precision. To miss an apex by more than an inch is to cuss your clumsiness, not the car’s.
Jonathan Palmer was anxious to know what I thought of the chassis, particularly, its user-friendliness. The ride? Firm and jiggly, but never less than controlled and composed. So I got the tail out, did I? What gear was I in? Third? Fourth? He’s serious. I was actually in second (good for 95mph). You’ll have to ask DR Palmer what it’s like to powerslide at three-figure speeds, but I dare say it’s feasible. Know your F1 well and you know a forgiving car of fathomless ability. No mere mortal, though, is going to explore the outer limits outside the confines of a racing circuit.
Day two started badly – with an engine that wouldn’t start. It fired, only to stop again down the road. The pattern became familiar: go, stop, go, stop. Alerted to the probability of an electronic glitch on this prototype, the McLaren back-up machine swung into action: mechanics were diverted to the Brecon Beacons, a helicopter was scrambled from Woking. Boffin and black box were on the way. Why not? McLaren promises its customers unparalleled after-sales attention. After some electronic surgery, all was well.
The delay meant ambling back to Woking on a dark, wet night – the sort of conditions that make for hell-hole driving in some supercars. Not the McLaren. I didn’t think much of XP5’s lights and its tyres are very noisy. But Murray’s two major concessions to cockpit comfort – a lightweight Kenwood CD (but no radio) and air-conditioning – work well. Otherwise, my cruise down the M4 was as relaxing as in a BMW saloon.
End of story? Not quite. I made copious notes while driving the F1, but referred to none of them while driving this piece. The unforgettable, etched in my mind, needs no aide-memoire. Murray disliked my tape recorder, anyway. It weighs 10 ounces.