“Winning isn’t everything,” the legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi used to posit. “It’s the only thing.” A quotable quip from the stoic bard of the ’60s gridiron-actually first uttered by UCLA Bruins football coach “Red” Sanders in 1950-it’s been memorialized over the years as a uniquely American sentiment. But there’s little doubt that it also translates well into the “English” English spoken around McLaren’s headquarters in Surrey, England.
The McLaren Technology Centre may reside in a land where footballers run around in shorts and don’t wear helmets, but an unyielding commitment to maximum success-a.k.a. winning-has long been the guiding principle here. We mention this early because the new McLaren MP4-12C is a car designed from the start with the supremely ambitious goal of taking on the world’s greatest supercars and winning.
I traveled to Woking, in Surrey, to see the new McLaren being built before flying to Portugal with the very first wave of journalists invited to drive the car. And having now driven it on and off the track, I’m declaring the 12C a winner. Call back in a while-things change fast-but for now it’s the greatest supercar I’ve ever driven.
Supercars are blindingly fast, by definition, and drivers of the new McLaren, with its 3.8-liter twin-turbocharged V-8 (code-named M838T) won’t have any difficulty remembering what league they’re playing in. Built in England by internal-combustion specialists Ricardo to a McLaren design, the engine is blessed with 443 lb-ft of easily accessed torque (all of it available between 3000 and 6500 rpm) effortlessly dispensed via a magical, paddleshifted, seven-speed dual-clutch automatic supplied by Italy’s Graziano. According to McLaren, the 592-hp car will knock off 0-to-60-mph runs in 3.0 seconds when its cast-aluminum wheels-nineteen-inch front, twenty-inch rear-are clad in optional, high-traction Pirelli PZero Corsa tires. (On standard-issue PZeros, it makes the run in 3.2 seconds.) It will assassinate the quarter mile in a heart-stopping 10.9 seconds, by which time it will be traveling 135 mph on its way to a maximum velocity of 205 mph.
When it’s time to haul the 12C back down, massive ventilated AP discs-plus a standard, hydraulically controlled air brake-ensure that you’ll need but 100 feet to stop from 62 mph. Optional carbon-ceramic discs, likely to add plenty o’ thousands to your bill, slow you no more quickly but resist fade better and so are useful for serious track duty and those seeking extreme bragging rights.
Speaking of extreme, the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve circuit in Portugal is Satan’s own assortment of just under three miles of hills; blind, fadeaway corners; and a long, screaming straight where I saw only 180 mph because I was feeling kinda slow. But it’s the bumpy pavement that makes for a track so punishing that Formula 1 stopped testing here. (The track’s CEO, Paulo Pinheiro, told us that a resurface is imminent and that the F1 teams will be back.)
The McLaren posse that hosted us-including McLaren Automotive’s managing director, Antony Sheriff, and senior members of the car’s engineering team who drove the cars to Portugal from England in rapid convoy — didn’t mind. Indeed, they said they relished the opportunity to put their chassis to the stiffest test.
We soon saw their point. The 12C’s acceleration and braking figures make impressive reading, but getting cars to go fast and stop quickly is the easy part. For a car to work as a practical daily-driving proposition, extraordinary dynamics must ally with a pleasant, comfortable ride, sensible ergonomics, and a measure of social responsibility. These are the new targets for supercar makers, and as our day unfolded, it transpired that McLaren has them nailed.
More relevant now than ever, this car delivers best-in-class fuel economy, according to its maker. The dry-sump, flat-plane-crankshaft V-8 will rev to 8500 rpm and make wonderful noises, but despite being among the world’s quickest supercars, the lightweight (as low as 2873 pounds dry) MP4-12C is also the most efficient. McLaren is hopeful that it will earn relatively superlative fuel-economy numbers and avoid a gas-guzzler tax once it is tested by the EPA before the first cars reach customers in the United States in late August.
Gobs of power with a social conscience is a neat parlor trick, but what’s even better is the best ride this side of a luxury sedan, a surprising feature closely related to McLaren’s having leveraged everything it ever learned in F1 racing to make the 12C sing. Unburdened by old production facilities, ideas, and ingrained ways of doing things yet blessed with the company’s massive wind tunnels, computer facilities, and nearly five decades of uninterrupted experience in chassis design, it’s “all of the technology with none of the baggage,” as Sheriff described it. With McLaren making many of the ancillary bits-its own HVAC controls, for instance, to save space-and thousands of hours of endurance testing, this is the antithesis of a kit car.
You could write a book about the new suspension, a conventional control-arm setup with coil springs but no antiroll bars. Instead, adaptive dampers are hydraulically interconnected and linked to a gas-filled accumulator to keep roll in check (a system McLaren calls Proactive Chassis Control, or PCC). A postmodern interpretation of Alex Moulton’s hydragas suspensions from the early days of the Mini? McLaren wouldn’t say no, but with drivers able to select from three possible settings, Normal, Sport, and Track, PCC makes the 12C a wondrously adaptable machine. It delivers comfort and composure around town and on rutted roads, along with less roll while cornering on the track than most will have ever experienced, minus the inevitable downside of a roll bar’s permanent connectedness — a loss of ride smoothness. Braking hard on a pocked downhill stretch at Algarve before a tight left-hander said to shred most other cars’ tires, we find that the McLaren’s otherworldly body control means braking is easier, speeds are higher, and rubber is spared.
Further enhancing driver confidence is so-called brake steer, which applies the inside rear brake when a turn has been entered too quickly or when a rear wheel begins spinning on its way out of a corner. As evidenced by this effective technique’s increasing popularity among other automakers, it saves weight and cost compared with limited-slip or torque-vectoring differentials. A McLaren innovation for the 1997 F1 season so effective that it was quickly outlawed by sanctioning authorities, it was a practical solution just waiting for the proper McLaren road-car application.
Technologies like these allow the 12C to make the best drivers faster while flattering lesser ones, and inevitably they will one day save lives. Simply put, the McLaren’s best feature is its ingenious chassis, the living embodiment of forty-plus years of winning.
As executive chairman Ron Dennis reminded us back in Woking, McLaren has won 25 percent of all the Formula 1 races held since it entered the fray in 1966. He proudly recalled the company’s very first venture into road cars, the mind-blowing F1. That spare-no-expense, three-seat Saturn V rocket for the road, built from 1993 to 1998, was an instant classic. It’s also one of the very few cars of recent memory so highly regarded that it soon began trading in multiples of its original asking price at sums well into the millions, a market assessment that hasn’t stopped.
Limited to just 100 examples, the blue-chip F1 must surely be the ultimate halo car of the last quarter century, although critics might say the need for a halo wouldn’t truly appear until the arrival of the F1’s follow-up in 2003, the higher-volume SLR, a joint venture with former McLaren stakeholder Mercedes-Benz. Some were perplexed attempting to pinpoint the SLR’s mission-too large for wieldy sports car duty and lacking beauty, it was brutally fast but left many cold. No matter, it sold many more units (2153 total) and brought money McLaren’s way (are you surprised to learn that a winning F1 racing effort burns up all the cash anyone can raise and more?). It also provided crucial experience with the volume production and use of carbon fiber. That costly space-age polymer’s strength and weight-saving properties were first proved to the world by none other than McLaren when it used the new material to form the monocoque on the 1981 MP4-1, the revolutionary F1 winner designed by John Barnard shortly after Dennis acquired control of the racing enterprise.
Needless to say, carbon fiber is found everywhere in high-end racing these days and it’s migrating to road cars, but prior to now, only a few of the latter — the Bugatti Veyron, the Porsche Carrera GT, and McLaren’s F1, for instance-have had entire monocoques formed of the material. (A Lamborghini thus endowed is on the way.) As against these other cars, the 12C’s central tub is significant for being a one-piece pressing that is considerably cheaper to manufacture, in terms of both time and material and, at 165 pounds, is even lighter than anything that has come before.
Unlike the SLR, which used carbon fiber for its body panels, the 12C is built around a carbon tub but deploys aluminum and other composites for bodywork. Although carbon panels saved weight in the SLR, they didn’t add much to the package beyond marketing cachet — it still came corpulently close to 3800 pounds. By contrast, the 12C not only takes greater advantage of the material’s potential for light weight (credit, in part, a manufacturing breakthrough that permits hollow rails), but its $231,400 list price marks a comparatively proletarian price point at a level with the likes of Ferrari’s $230,000 458 Italia. Having set a price dramatically lower than the F1’s original $1.0 million, or even the SLR’s $450,000, McLaren hopes to move approximately 1500 examples of its new supercar globally per year.
With a “popular” price and a weight-to-power ratio of fewer than five pounds per horsepower, it is correct to assume that this car will compete with the fastest Aston Martins, Porsches, and all manner of exotica, but it is the 458, heretofore the best car in this segment, that strikes us as the obvious bogey, and McLaren doesn’t deny it. “The Ferrari is wonderful, amazing,” Sheriff said, leaving little doubt that there is another car he likes even better.
There is, too, some irony in the fact that McLaren is back to building road cars to augment an already diversified but still Formula 1-dependent business, but as Dennis has observed, “the economics of a Formula 1 team is precarious at best.” But there is something appropriate, too. Since 1966, 109 teams have turned a wheel on an F1 track, but only two teams-Ferrari and McLaren-have competed in every single race. Now here they are, about to slug it out again, off the track, from the streets of Beverly Hills to Hong Kong to London to Moscow to Abu Dhabi and back again. Adventures on the racetrack will surely follow.
So whither the Ferrari 458 Italia? It is prettier than the 12C. Tending to the generic and looking more like a Saleen S7 than the late, great F1, the MP4-12C looks better in person than it does in pictures. Its makers take pains to remind us that its looks are driven by function and the massive role that aerodynamics play in its roadholding and cooling. Perhaps. But while looks mean a lot in this realm, the McLaren is hardly offensive to behold, and it will undoubtedly attract many with its airy cabin and dihedral doors, which are supercar cool. Better yet, they actually afford additional room for ingress and egress versus conventionally hung doors. Requiring only normal effort to close from inside the car, they pivot up and away from the curb and other cars and make getting in and out significantly easier.
The 458’s engine sounds more exotic and revs higher (9000 rpm), and its interior is more opulent if a bit garish in spots. McLaren will offer its new baby in seventeen basic colors, but the company is prepared with an infinite number of wallet-draining custom paint and interior schemes for those so inclined. In standard form, however, it is tastefully austere and well equipped, with firm, comfortable seats trimmed in leather. Its simple, handsome, digital gauges are easy to read, and controls are usefully placed on the driver’s door panel or on stalks. Unlike in modern race cars — we’re happy to report-there are no steering-wheel buttons and controls to mar the simplicity of the driver interface. Meanwhile, an airy, floating console-à la Volvo-leaves adequate room for easily accessed oddments.
The 12C is, in fact, lighter, lower, shorter, and narrower than the 458 Italia. Perfectly tractable around town and not at all painful to pass hours in, it could be a daily driver like an Audi R8 or a Porsche 911, and it’s certainly up to long-distance road trips, although I doubt my license could withstand any of these scenarios. All I know is that McLaren has won. The MP4-12C does everything, which, in any language, is the only thing.
2012 McLaren MP4-12C
BASE PRICE: $231,400
ENGINE: 32-valve DOHC twin-turbo V-8
DISPLACEMENT: 3.8 liters
HORSEPOWER: 592 hp @ 7000 rpm
TORQUE: 443 lb-ft @ 6500 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
STEERING: Electrohydraulically assisted
SUSPENSION, FRONT AND REAR: Control arms, coil springs
BRAKES: Vented discs, ABS
TIRES: Pirelli PZero Corsa
TIRE SIZE F, R: 235/35YR-19, 305/30YR-20
L x W x H: 177.5 x 75.1 x 47.2 in
WHEELBASE: 105.1 in
TRACK: F/R 62.3/65.2 in
WEIGHT: 2873 lb (dry)
FUEL MILEAGE: 15/22 mpg (est.)
0-60 MPH: 3.0 sec
1/4-MILE: 10.9 sec @ 135 mph
TOP SPEED: 205 mph