McLaren vs the world - Pt 2 (CAR, July 2011)

Published: 31 August 2012

The weather at Rockingham  racetrack is perfect for this test of the titans: clear skies with a balmy track ambient to help tyres bite bitumen. As the sun beats down, poker-faced crews unload their darlings from immaculate trucks; stopwatches are fondled, new tyres pressured. Yet the way I drive on them, these tyres will be snuffed after two laps, leaving a short window to post a fast time and assess the ultimate performance of these supercars.

 I’m in the SLS first. With its hefty 6.2-litre engine mounted ahead of the driver, the rest of the machine revolves around it like Eeyore’s tail. The nose darts into corners swiftly, but the tail can’t match its poise and quickly falls into smoky slides. I dispense with second gear for tight corners altogether because it just spins the wheels into the rev limiter. Third’s as low as I need to go.

 In fact, avoiding gearshifts isn’t such a bad thing in the SLS: even though its dual-clutch gearbox is the same as the Ferrari 458’s, software programming means the shift is laboriously slow when you’re in a hurry.

The brakes have decent feel and good bite, though, so I run through the fast banking of Turn 1 at 100mph, accelerating up to 133mph before standing heavily on the pins for the sharp U-bend at the end of the straight. The big bird pulls up in time, but with more interference from the ABS than I expect. ‘Don’t try that again sunshine,’ it seems to say.

After a couple of laps of sloppy cornering I post a best of 1min 33sec. Time to switch to something more agile.

The Lamborghini Performante and the Audi R8 both share the same V10 and common running gear. But boy do they feel different. I take the Lambo first, ripping from the pitlane to the tune of its rich, extravagant roar that’s punctuated by staccato barks with each brutal gearshift.

The only way to drive this Lambo fast is to hurl it into corners hard, then smash the throttle pedal to the floor. Do this and you’ll bypass the understeer and fast forward straight to the most adorable four-wheel drift. Crucially, the drivetrain is also flexible enough on the limit to allow you to scrabble into corners with both front and rear axles skidding – rare in a four-wheel drive.

The Pirelli Corsas (Pirelli’s competition-grade rubbers) are strong enough to make the most of the Lambo’s stiff suspension, but they’re taking a serious pounding here. I push and push and push until finally I feel the times falling away and pit to save the tyres. The time? An impressive 1min 29.9sec.

Driving a Lamborghini by the scruff of its neck is not for the faint hearted and the Audi R8 provides the everyday antidote. But, wearing standard Pirelli P Zeros and weighing around 100kg more, it’s already on the back foot when it comes to hot laps. So I’m surprised when it all starts to click: the Audi is easier to drive because its all-wheel drive is more rear-biased than the Performante and its suspension settings are slightly softer; the transition of weight into corners is totally predictable and allows me to feather the throttle on my own terms, rather than driving like a hooligan; the steel brakes bite instantly, unlike some carbon discs which need heat to wake up; the chrome gearbox gate takes some getting used to, but it gives the R8 character. Best of all, there’s no rolling across the front tyres like there is in the Lambo, and it’s more planted at high speed too.

But even after a great drive, I’m still astonished that the Audi is only 1sec slower than the Lambo, and matches its sibling’s 135mph peak speed.
 Now for the one I’ve been building up to: the fearsome Porsche GT2 RS. It’s running Michelin’s  Cup, a suitable shoe for what is in essence a racing car. Porsche has done a fine job of nearly eliminating the GT2’s rear roll endemic from its rear-mounted engine, but it’s replaced the cougar in the passenger seat with a pair of spitting king cobras. The turbos on this thing...

Laying down the staggering 516ft of torque without killing yourself takes some focus. The power surges through the rear wheels so viciously that I have to apply the throttle in four stages on the exit of every corner: once to create some movement in the rear axle, followed by a cautious increase, then I ride the surging boost before finally pinning  the throttle to the metal, hanging on and jabbing opposite lock. I absolutely f***ing love this car.

Fire round the track in the Porsche and every bump and change in camber clangs through your fillings, yet that hard suspension works wonders in the superfast Turn 1 to yield a 139mph top speed and 1min 28.8sec lap.

Can Ferrari or McLaren topple that? Right now it feels unlikely, but the 458 has the perfect balance of support and suppleness. Like Luke Skywalker’s Landspeeder it seems to ride on a cushion of air that allows the chassis to move into each wheel – not too much, just enough for the driver to feel every dynamic element of each and every corner.

The mid-mounted engine means that all the movement revolves around the driver. You feel connected and important at the centre of gravity. As the back end squirms, you increase the throttle and expect to find the limit. But the car takes more. The E-diff alters the power delivery across the rear axle, compensates for the loss of traction, allows you to push further, harder.

The Ferrari lets you sense everything and responds to your every input. The slightest crack of the throttle changes its pitch, making it so driveable you could balance an egg on the end of your toe. Then there’s the bellowing V8, the seamless gearshift, the fantastic brakes and unintrusive ABS… but what I love most about the 458 is that when you really overcook your entry speed, it doesn’t make a big deal out of it. It just puts you back on line with only a modicum of driver input. That it beats everything that’s gone before with a 1min 28.3sec is the icing on the cake.

The 458 handles better than any supercar I have driven, and differently to any supercar I have ever driven – until now.

During the Cold War the Americans stole Russian MiG fighter jets in order to assimilate their successful traits for aerial combat. When I set out in the McLaren, it feels as if this car is designed to stand toe-to-toe with the 458 the way the F-16 once took it to the Ruskies.

McLaren insists that I drive the 12C with traction control on, albeit on its most reduced track setting, but I fight the computer from the first corner. Every time I accelerate and get some yaw into the chassis, the TC cuts power and a series of jarring wiggles ensues. The 12c’s brakes are sensitive and powerful, but the ABS is inconsistent and intrusive. It cuts in too much, giving me lurid close-ups of the gravel run-off areas because it overly reduces my braking effort.

However, the turn-in is crisp and utterly refined and something special happens mid-corner too, where the chassis really hooks up and beckons me in for more. Shame that in high-speed turns the 12C is more edgy and quickly chewed through its P Zeros. And we’re all shocked that my best efforts yield only a 1min 30sec – not only 1.7sec slower than the Ferrari, but slower than the Porsche and Lambo too.
And then the controversy really starts. I drive into the pits and an alarm bings as a message pops up on the dash saying that the hydraulic system that controls roll requires attention. I pull up and a puddle of hydraulic oil seeps onto the Tarmac. McLaren’s mechanics swarm around, hoiking the car up on a jack, pulling off wheels, burning forearms on scolding carbon discs as they frantically try to remedy the problem. It could be terminal they say, not sure if we can fix it.

Was the car broken when I lapped it? I don’t think so – the problem was the intrusive traction control. But after half an hour of faffing and flapping, the McLaren boys are back. They’ll let us do a lap with the traction control off, but there’s a catch: we’ll also be lapping on the optional, stickier Pirelli Corsas, not the regular P Zeros.

With no interference from the stability systems and unbridled control of the engine I discover this is the sweetest road-going turbo I’ve driven. The lag is brilliantly managed so you can fine-tune the throttle through corners, although it’s not on a par with the 458’s non-turbo V8.

The 12C mirrors the ‘cushion of air’ sensation of the Ferrari, as well as its mid-mounted poise, but the chassis response is faster and it’s beautifully balanced through the stop and go sweepers of Rockingham’s infield.

Does it knock the 458 off its perch? No, but it’s close. There are too many agents at play between driver and function for the McLaren to outshine the immediacy of the Ferrari. It can outpace the Ferrari in a straight line, but weirdly the Fezza just feels faster. And even with those stickier tyres, all I can summon is a 1min 29.2sec – still the best part of a second off the Ferrari.
But for once lap times mean nothing to me – I simply prefer the 458 because it’s purer and, ironically, closer in spirit to the McLaren F1.

Ben Barry delivers the final CAR verdict:

You have to feel sorry for McLaren – the hydraulic leak in the suspension that caused the 12C to be so much slower than the 458 was unfortunate. Still, a lap time is only one element of what decides our final ranking, and this misstep doesn’t alter our verdict, as the car we drove on the road – where, ultimately, it matters most – was perfectly representative.

Choosing a last place is always tough when you’ve got an amazing selection of cars, but this time it’s the Merc SLS languishing in sixth. It’s a very nice thing to live with and has a character and style all of its own, but it’s dynamically outclassed by everything else, plus the R8 is just as capable as a GT.

Fifth goes to the Lambo. If you want undiluted supercar thrills, the Performante is for you. But none of its strengths can disguise the fact it’s getting on a bit and becomes tiresome when you’re not in the mood. The Audi R8 edges it because it’s both thrilling to drive and easy to live with. It’s also a bargain in this company.

Now it gets tricky. I could justify handing gold to the Porsche, because it’s so exciting, and actually pretty easy to live with in the right conditions. But there are two rather contradictory caveats: the tyres don’t work in the wet, and our car had no air-con. There’ll be times when you wouldn’t want anything else, and times when you’d want anything but the GT2 RS. If you’ve got a garage full of cars, maybe that’s not such a problem, but here it’s third best.

There are all sorts of ways in which McLaren bests Ferrari, particularly composure through fast turns, ride quality and outright speed.

Yet the 12C’s all-round polish can’t compensate for the fact that the Ferrari is the more engaging, more interactive, more compelling machine to drive hard, and if your supercar is going to tick any box, it’s a good idea to prioritise that over everything else.

The Ferrari lifts your spirits in the way the McLaren can’t, and, you know what, a 458 isn’t such a chore to live with. We’d have never predicted but… Ferrari beats McLaren.