Besting the competition in a McLaren MP4-12C on Top Gear's track
As much as I dearly love Astons, Porsches, Lambos, Audi R8s and all the rest, the Ferrari 458 Italia has been my benchmark sports car since it was launched two years ago.
And here I am, on a cold and windswept roadside staring at its nemesis: a very orange, slightly bland-looking, low-slung piece of genuine British engineering. It's been dissected by the world's motoring press over the past 12 months, with the general consensus being that it's almost - almost - as good as the Italian. The McLaren MP4-12C has had a bit of a rough ride so far at the hands of the press when compared to the Ferrari but now it's my turn to drive it on road and track so I can make up my own mind. Have I ever told you how much I love my job?
Visually, the McLaren isn't the sock to the jaw that the 458 is, even in this orange hue. It's purposeful, it probably won't date very quickly, but it doesn't grab me like some of the other exotica out there. But that isn't really important, is it? What's important is whether this car is a game-changer or simply a really good first attempt.
The road beckons first and I run my finger under the edge of the door to operate the switch that sends it outward and upwards. This does add some visual drama but that's not why McLaren designed it this way. According to the company, these "dihedral" doors "allow driver and passenger to enter and exit the car as easily as possible, while allowing a smaller door opening than would otherwise be necessary". And they save weight, which was one of the main aims of McLaren. Absolutely everything has been designed to be as lightweight as possible, because that's what helps teams win in F1. And that's what McLaren is famous for.
There's a large sill to negotiate (this is part of the carbon fibre tub that makes up the central structure of the car) before I plant my derrière into the 12C's hugging seat. Once in place, I scan my surroundings. It's a functional interior with minimalist design. The steering wheel - unlike Ferrari's - is used for two things only: changing direction and changing gear using the F1-inspired rocker mounted behind it. There's simple, intelligent design everywhere, with all controls within easy reach from the wheel. It's all beautifully constructed using bespoke switchgear you won't find anywhere else and there's a sense of airiness rather than bleak claustrophobia.
I press the starter button and the twin-turbo, 592hp V8 that sits amidships and extremely low down in the car's chassis barks into life. The engine, entirely designed by McLaren, sounds meaty and purposeful, if a little uninspiring, and I select drive from the small array of buttons between the two seats. Easing away and out towards the surrounding roads in Surrey, UK, I'm immediately struck by the ease with which it trundles around at low speeds. It doesn't appear to be straining at all; it's free from drama and histrionics and is as simple to pilot as a Ford Focus.
The other thing that strikes me is just how incredibly well it rides over rough road surfaces. The suspension system is revolutionary, using actual F1 technology combining adaptive damping with hydraulic roll control, and this makes for a ride quality not dissimilar to a Merc S-Class. It's incredibly refined. It's also pretty quiet in here until I hit the sport button, tug on the left-hand paddle for second gear and floor it. Suddenly, the entire character of the car changes; the noise becomes a full-throated roar and what was a fairly straight stretch of empty road is devoured in an instant.
I'm flabbergasted, speechless. The speed with which the 12C gathers pace is shocking, as is the ease with which it tackles difficult corners even when the road surface is pitifully poor. So far it's been every bit as thrilling as the 458 but I need to get back so I can put it through its paces on a track. Not any old track, but the circuit at Dunsfold Aerodrome - famous to millions around the world as the Top Gear test track. Yep, I'm going to be hammering it round Hammerhead, trying to not experience any follow through on the Follow-through or losing it on Gambon.
The sky is leaden and there's snow on the surrounding landscape but thankfully the track surface is reasonably dry. It's extremely cold, though, so my instructor wastes no time in climbing in to show me round the track. It's basically a figure of eight but there are precious few visual markers for you to get your bearings, so I can fully understand how some of the track's more famous visitors have got lost on the way round.
I carry out four quick laps to familiarise myself with the layout, trying not to be mesmerised by where I am. The most obvious Top Gear association is Follow-through, which is a high-speed left-hand corner, marked by a wall of tyres. Lift off here and you really will experience follow through - never has a race track corner been more aptly named and I'm having to pinch myself. Yes, I really am here. Yes, I really am doing this.
The car is rigged with cameras and data loggers to record my every movement and I'm feeling nervous. My passenger, one of McLaren's test drivers, talks me through another lap and I pile on the speed. What was a comfortable and refined cruiser on the public road is now a scalpel-sharp weapon and all that race-bred technology is baring its teeth. The powertrain and handling rotary switches have been set to track mode and the noise is even more heady than before. The suspension is firmer and the 12C feels like a car built by one of the most successful F1 teams in history should feel.
My first timed lap comes up at 1:26.85 - not too shabby. I shave another second off that time with the second lap but on the third I overcook it, exiting Chicago and the rear of the car goes wide, with the tyres screaming in protest before the computers sort me out. 1:28.11 is the time, so my mishap has cost me almost three seconds. Then it all starts to come together. My lines are spot on, I'm carrying more speed into corners and using the superb brakes to better effect. Result? 1:25.25, which turns out to be the fastest lap set by any of the journalists here today and quicker than The Stig managed it in a 911 Turbo. Result indeed.
Fun over, I return to base and I'm offered a couple of hot laps with another instructor. Knowing full well that my smug self-satisfaction will take a hammering with an expert behind the wheel, I reluctantly climb in and he really shows me how it's done. He throttles the 12C in the way its maker intended, obliterating my best lap time by nine whole seconds. I am officially in awe. I'm in awe, not only of this man's incredible skill, but in the way this car can tackle absolutely anything that's thrown at it. A 458 might feel more lively, more keen to kick out its tail, but it's no match for this thing around a circuit. Oversteer is fun all right, but it's not time-effective, so McLaren has engineered this machine to operate at maximum efficiency at all times. It's a towering achievement and a happy pointer to what the next McLaren models will be like.
Yes, I want one. It's undoubtedly quicker than the 458, even if only slightly. It's more comfortable and almost as practical as a 911 Turbo and it's better on a track than a GT3. In fact, for me, right here, right now, it's the greatest sports car there is. If it just looked a bit more dramatic I'd be seriously considering selling everything I own for one. It really is that good. Ferrari, over to you.
Updated: February 24, 2012 04:00 AM