McLaren today is Usain Bolt in the drive phase, right as he comes out of the blocks, exerting every muscle and sinew to get up to speed. Head down, legs pumping, no distractions. Sports Series, Super Series, and Ultimate Series cars are arriving in an endless stream that is the byproduct of the furious work rate. 570S begets 600LT; brilliant, limited-run 675LT is usurped by a faster, more capable 720S; P1 morphs into P1 GTR; and then along comes the Senna. What next?
More. Faster. Lighter. Back in July, McLaren announced its Track 25 plan, a commitment to launch 18 new models or derivatives by 2025. You wonder when the company might start cruising, allow itself a little glance across to see how far ahead of the competition it has traveled.
Yet no matter how fast McLaren runs, no matter how many new products it develops and releases, the company still can’t outrun history. The F1, McLaren’s first road car, remains the supercar against which all others are measured. A few cars have gone faster since then (it was released in 1993, after all), and many can accelerate harder or go around a track quicker. But for purity of purpose, engineering ingenuity, elegance of execution, and raw excitement, the F1 is still king. So when McLaren revives the three-seater layout and central driving position, it better know what it’s doing. Understandably it doesn’t want us to think of its new Speedtail as an F1 replacement, but when you tap into that heritage, you must be prepared to measure up to the highest standards imaginable.
It doesn’t want us to think of it as an F1 replacement, but when you tap into that heritage, you must be prepared to measure up to the highest standards imaginable.
So what do you think, on a gut level? Forget the $2.62-million-plus-taxes asking price, the headline output of 1,036 hp, and the 250-mph top speed. Do you like it? The Speedtail has already divided opinions like few other cars. We attended the car’s official reveal in a rather unremarkable industrial unit just outside of Woking, England. And it looked amazing. As the silk was pulled from the carbon-fiber bodywork, the volume built slowly. Layer upon layer of chuckles, excited ooohhs and aaahhhs, little groups pointing out details to each other, and questions red hurriedly at Andy Palmer, vehicle line director for the Ultimate Series. Stand next to the Speedtail, walk around it, and you can’t help but fall under its spell.
Of course, in today’s hypercar hyper reality, individual opinions make little difference. All 106 Speedtails—a nod to the total number of F1s produced, but remember this is not an F1 replacement, revival, or re-creation, no siree—have been sold. Production starts in late 2019 with deliveries slated for early 2020. Around a third will come to the U.S. even though the car won’t be homologated for the North American market. Blame that central driving position, which makes side airbags for the driver impossible. Oh, and the retractable rearview cameras in place of traditional side mirrors. U.S. owners will import them and attempt to register them under Show or Display criteria.
Palmer is excited and exhausted. “It’s been a busy month,” he says before correcting himself. “It’s been a busy couple of years.” His job means he has one of the coolest business cards in the game to make up for the fact that he probably rarely sleeps more than 20 minutes at a time. He and his team defined the Speedtail’s goals and are now setting about delivering them.
“It was never a successor to the F1—that’s not what we set out to do,” Palmer says. “We knew with the central driving position that people would compare it, but that wasn’t our intent. We hold that car in such high regard. Every time I walk past it, every time I look at it, it sends shivers down my spine. The Speedtail is McLaren doing what McLaren— modern McLaren—does very well: creating something that enables us to express our engineering, our design, our innovation, and allowing the great people we have to put their ideas forward. It enables us to show the world what we’re capable of.”
So let’s put the F1 stuff to one side for a second and examine what the Speedtail can do and what it says about McLaren. The basics are that it’s a three-seater “Hyper GT” car weighing 3,153 pounds (dry), and its teardrop, streamliner shape measures a huge 202.2 inches long (a Porsche Panamera is 198.9 inches). The maximum combined power output of 1,036 hp is produced by the familiar 4.0-liter twin- turbo V-8 found in the Senna (where it produces 789 hp; McLaren won’t reveal the exact output of the Speedtail’s V-8) plus an electric motor. Palmer says the way this hybrid system is deployed is all-new, but he remains frustratingly coy on details.
“We’re using the system in a very different way to P1,” he explains, “which I feel is more in keeping with the Speedtail. It means the customer can use hybrid technology to give a very different form of driving experience to what’s in the market today.” For the record, there is no pure electric mode.
McLaren isn’t coy about its potential: 0 to 186 mph in 12.8 seconds and a top speed of 250 mph—once you select Velocity mode to drop the Active Chassis Control’s hydraulically linked dampers by 1.4 inches and retract those rearview cameras. Why so slow? Silly question, but the F1 did 240 mph with just 627 hp. The Speedtail is more aerodynamically efficient and uses elegant tricks like the movable rear carbon bodywork, which exes when pressure is applied by hydraulic motors, to trim the car’s balance. Surely 250 mph downplays the potential?
“We capped it at 250 mph on the tires,” Palmer says. “I’ve driven a car on the almost Kevlar-style tire that you’d need to go above , and you would not want to drive this car on those tires on a conventional road. It’s too harsh; the sidewall stiffness gets so hard that you’re rattling around.”
So how much will it differ from other McLarens? “I want the customer to jump in it and feel like they’re driving a McLaren,” Palmer begins, now really animated about his new baby. “What do I mean by that? I mean that it gives the level of feedback, the level of steering feel; it is still a grand tourer.”
Part of that is the way the Speedtail will sound.
“We’ve pushed the exhausts right into the rear diffuser, so you’re not going to get a level of volume of Senna or 720S,” he says. “We’ve lowered idle sound, and again I feel that the design statement is such that it doesn’t need a loud exhaust. It will still be a McLaren, but nevertheless I don’t want it to be a loud, popping, banging supercar. This has to be elegant.”
Beneath the skin, McLaren modified the Monocage tub (this is version four) to accommodate the central pedal box, and extended it slightly for the two passengers, but it retains the integrity we’re used to from the 720S and Senna; the engine is familiar, and we’ve seen hybridization in the past with the P1, too. What we haven’t seen is this level of luxury.
The details are stunning: electrochromic glass for the canopy and top of the windscreen that can darken at the touch of a button; “titanium deposition” carbon-fiber for the front splitter, diffuser, and side skirts (a micron-thin layer of titanium is fused onto the weave, which can be anodized or used to create images or symbols); and “thin-ply technology” carbon fiber that can be machined to a unique finish, to name a few. Nor have we seen this level of performance. Forget the top speed: 0 to 186 mph in 12.8 seconds is nearly 4 seconds quicker than a P1. The F1? It would need 22 seconds. Still, McLaren will probably never outrun the endless shadow of its tiny, perfect icon.