First Look: McLaren P1 Concept

Martyn Goddard
McLaren P1 Concept

The limited-edition P1 due to go on sale late next year is claimed to outperform, outbrake, and outhandle just about every other street-legal driving machine on the planet. How, exactly, the Brits intend to achieve these goals will remain a mystery for the next nine months, but we'll try to shed some light on the secret technology behind the eye-catching carbon-fiber street-and-track thoroughbred.

McLaren Automotive has been in business for a little over a year. In that time, the company has sold 1200 copies of its sole product, the MP4-12C coupe. This number won't make it into the Guinness Book of World Records, but it keeps the showcase factory in Woking, England, busy enough to command a seven-month waiting list, which also applies to the freshly released Spyder that we will drive next month. Last year, Ron Dennis, patron of McLaren Automotive and McLaren Racing, made it clear to us that the MP4 was only the first of three steps that the carmaker would take to create a complete model range. To reach this goal without spending a fortune, the manufacturer will implement a clever blend of modular processes, common componentry, and scalable technology. A standardized carbon-fiber monocoque now called the MonoCage will form the stiff and safe backbone for all three models: the midrange MP4, the still-nameless entry-level Porsche 911-fighter due in 2014, and the high-end P1, which will soon pick up the red thread that made the awesome F1 famous twenty years ago.

"The concept you see in Paris is 95 percent of what the production car will look like," promises program director Paul Mackenzie. "The P1 will have an immensely powerful engine, superb brakes, and state-of-the-art suspension controls. A major reason for its extraordinary performance is the high level of downforce and the all-around aerodynamic excellence. Our goal was to get great levels of downforce at lower speeds, which is a major boost to driving enjoyment and to a driver's feeling of being in total control. Racing-car-like track performance from a road car was one of the primary targets for the P1. We wanted a car that would feel like a proper racing car and then could be driven home in great comfort and refinement. The astonishing track performance also makes for a better road car. It improves cornering composure at any speed, and it means no nasty surprises."

So far, so good. But which engineering concept has been selected, which engine will be used, what does the suspension layout look like, how much is this car going to cost, and what numbers can we expect when the stopwatch enters the equation? "We won't say until August 2013," quips Wayne Bruce, head of product PR. This "No to Glasnost" policy brings us back to the earlier conversation with Dennis, who kept emphasizing the economies of scale, the adaptive technology, and the need to consider environmental issues. "McLaren has no interest in out-Veyroning the Veyron," says Bruce. Well, the Bugatti Veyron may be the world's fastest road car in a straight line, but it is far too heavy to shine on the track and is about as eco-friendly as a Boeing 737 at takeoff. The real P1 rivals are under development elsewhere: For instance in Maranello, where the new Ferrari Enzo superhybrid can allegedly accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than two seconds. And in Weissach, where the 800-hp Porsche 918 Spyder plug-in hybrid is being trained to return close to 100 mpg.

Some sources suggest that the P1 is powered by a high-revving V-10; others predict an F1-inspired V-12. Our own intelligence suggests that this car will feature the same basic V-8 as the MP4. But to achieve the claimed power-to-weight ratio of more than 600 hp per ton, it takes more than a few sheets of thinwall carbon fiber and a couple of extra turbos. According to the Woking grapevine, the P1 boasts an advanced plug-in-hybrid drivetrain that mates a forced-induction 700-hp V-8 to a couple of electric motors rated at 150 hp each. If Porsche can make a similar concept work that weighs 3650 pounds but costs 25 percent less, McLaren can probably target an even higher-tech iteration that tips the scales at about 3400 pounds. Connect this to a combined power output of 1000 hp, and you will likely end up with a supercar that eats Bugattis for breakfast, even if the top speed is less extreme. With the two e-machines driving the front wheels, the P1 would throw in the benefits of total traction and absolute torque vectoring for good measure. We cannot promise that Dennis and his two main lieutenants have actually decided to go down hybrid avenue, but at this point it seems to be the most intriguing scheme to maximize excitement and efficiency.

"I wanted the P1 to look like a Le Mans racer," explains chief designer Frank Stephenson. "That's why we conceived a striking and functional shape, a low body with a canopy-style greenhouse, a long rear deck, and open-mesh rear styling to put the mechanicals on view and to help cooling. Plus there is the most aggressive rear diffuser ever seen on a road car." The windshield is deeper than it is wide, the LED headlights are small enough to devote more frontal area to cooling, the cab-forward stance gives the car a look of lightness and agility. Simon Lacey, head of vehicle technology, was in charge of the aerodynamic performance: "Thanks to the amazing downforce, the faster you go the more you feel in control. Every panel, air intake, and air exhaust of this shrink-wrapped body was designed to guide in air from the most efficient places and to maximize cooling. The unusual door ducts draw air into the cooling circuit, too, and the extreme teardrop shape of the glasshouse channels more air to the rear wing."

That wing adjusts automatically, extending rearward by up to 11.8 inches on the track and by up to 4.7 inches on the road. The pitch can increase by up to 29 degrees. Like a grand prix racing car, the P1 also incorporates a DRS (drag-reducing system) function. In addition, there are two actively controlled flaps under the body ahead of the front wheels. Together, these flaps and the adjustable wing are said to improve handling, braking, and stability. The rear wing will also act as an air brake when fully deployed. Well below 200 mph, the P1 creates its maximum downforce of 1300 pounds -- five times as much as the MP4-12C. Since more downforce is unnecessary and would in fact put huge loads on the suspension, the car actively trims the front flaps and the rear wing, boosting top speed while actually reducing downforce. The suspension, we believe, will combine an F1-inspired pushrod setup with active dampers and antiroll bars.

Attached to the MonoCage core are large clamshell front and rear body panels with integrated scoops and ducts along with two small access doors. A welcome deja vu feature is the air-intake snorkel on the roof. This car is not a three-seater like Gordon Murray's original design. Instead, the P1 relies on relatively conventional packaging that is very similar to the MP4's. Although the smoked windows of the show car still conceal the interior, it seems safe to predict a similar cockpit layout to the 12C, which boasts a slim center console and a relatively complex door panel accommodating several minor controls.

One of the most interesting details is the race button, which transforms the car's behavior on the track by sharpening the reflexes of engine, dual-clutch automatic transmission, suspension, and the multimode stability control system. You guessed it: Ferrari and Porsche are preparing very similar track-mode programs. Managing director Antony Sheriff sums up the mission of the P1: "Our aim is not necessarily to be the fastest in absolute top speed but to offer the most exciting, most capable, most technologically advanced, and most dynamically accomplished supercar ever made." The estimated list price? Close to $1.1 million. The build run? No more than 500 units -- guaranteed.

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