OF THE NUMEROUS supercar posters that covered my bedroom walls as a boy, none ignited my automotive passion more than the fabled McLaren F1. Remember the poster? You know – the one with the burnt-orange F1 and Harrier Jump Jet parked on a deserted airstrip. Yip, I spent many hours staring at that picture wondering if some day I’d ever get to see one in real life, let alone clamber aboard and experience the signature three-seat, central-steer layout for myself.
Of the 106 complete McLaren F1s built, it appears just two found their way onto South African soil. One resides here in the Cape at the Franschhoek Motor Museum. After a dozen phone calls and a dossier of emails, we’ve managed to secure a few hours with the museum’s F1. Today, my childhood dream is about to come true. And to top it all, my chariot to this retro rendezvous is the new McLaren MP4-12C, the car that’s reignited the company’s road car torch in a major way.
The plan is to take the 12C on a pilgrimage to meet its regal forebear, but instead of taking a direct route along the N1 freeway, we’ll detour, taking in much of the sinuous rural Tarmac that cuts through the hills surrounding Durbanville. These roads boast a collection of fast sweeps with camber changes that will no doubt prove an ideal test of the 12C’s handling prowess.
However, before I can fire it up, I first need to fathom how to open the door. Why McLaren’s designers felt the need to complicate such a rudimentary procedure Ron only knows. Access requires a deliberate swipe of your hand on the underside of the door’s air inlet recess. You soon learn it takes more of a stroke than a soft caress to activate the touch-sensitive switch. Thankfully, those easily frustrated can just press the unlock button on the key fob.
For a twin-turbocharged vehicle the 12C is surprisingly loud – it almost sounds naturally aspirated such is the ferocity of the V8 mill on start up. The driving process is intuitive and the centre-stack control unit, complete with integral vehicle switchgear, is fairly easy to navigate. The stack houses two very important dials that control the characteristics of the suspension and engine/transmission. Marked ‘Powertrain’ and ‘Handling’, the dials function in much the same way as the Ferrari Manettino switch but offer only three modes: Normal, Sport and Track. With Normal selected, the 12C is disconcertingly easy to drive at low speeds. Sport mode makes things a little stiffer but the ride quality is still unbelievably compliant. It doesn’t feel anywhere near as firm as you’d expect from a supercar thanks to its revolutionary suspension system, which combines adaptive damping with hydraulic roll control. This suspension arrangement is very clever because it eliminates the need for anti-roll bars. Instead it provides three levels of roll control that can be selected on the Handling dial. But just how different are things in Track mode? It’s time to hit the twisty stuff to find out.
The effect is immediate as I turn both dials to Track– especially the engine vocals and throttle sensitivity. I can’t feel any change in the suspension characteristics yet but the first corner looms – a tightly cambered left-hander that can be taken pretty much flat out. I tuck the 12C’s nose into the corner and guide it through the apex which doesn’t seem to be much of a challenge for the McLaren’s chassis. The steering and suspension dynamics have definitely beefed up but there’s no real drama at the rear, just unrelenting grip.
Again, I push hard through the next corner; this time I give the accelerator a decent prod mid-exit in an attempt to unhook the rear end, even just slightly. Still nothing, not even a hint of wiggle from the tail. Things get a little trickier further up the road with a descending 90-degree right-hander. Surely, the change in elevation and curvature of the road will unsettle the 12C’s chassis? Nope. The levels of lateral adhesion are just frighteningly good. In fact, the only real sensation comes from the ESP-controlled brake steer system, which tugs the chassis straight when either under- and oversteer is detected.
The brake steer system is mighty impressive, but perhaps too clever for its own good. You see the system’s clinical precision doesn’t allow the driver to explore the full extent of the car’s limitations – rather it lets you scribe the fastest line through the apex without any tail theatrics and tyre squeal. That’s all well and good but it starts to get somewhat predictable after several corners – not in a bad way, though. It’s just so consummate and planted that it makes even an average driver look like a seasoned pro racer.
As I gaze down at the clock I realise I may have got a little carried away in the hills. It’s now 4.30pm and I’ve only got 30 minutes to get to the museum. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue but the peak-hour traffic has turned Durbanville into a suburban maze. This at least gives me an opportunity to test the 12C’s ride comfort as well as how it copes with a heavily congested road. I turn both dials to Normal and approach the first set of traffic lights. The 12C soaks up road inconsistencies with ease. The throttle response, though, is a little twitchy and the engine eerily quiet – I can hardly hear the V8 spinning in the back. What I can hear however, are cries of appreciation from bystanders as I trundle down Durban Road. The 12C really is a special car. The attention it garners is always positive and the feeling you get when driving in traffic is nothing short of a quasi-celebrity experience.
The N1 turn-off is only a few metres away and the thought of unleashing some of the 12C’s power sends my heart rate into race mode. I turn both dials to Track and flatten the throttle pedal as I take the off-ramp. OMG! The acceleration is like nothing I’ve experienced before from a road car. The power surge is unrelenting, the revs climbing to an acrophobic 8500rpm before an upshift is necessary. Strangely I find myself short-shifting every cog because the large chunks of mid-range torque tricks you into thinking you’re much closer to the red-line than you actually are. The engine is boorishly noisy for a blown V8 and at higher velocities the magical sound of the Ferrari-style flat-plane crankshaft saturates the cabin.
Using launch control, the MP4-12C can go from zero to 100kph in 3.3 seconds. Only 5.6 more seconds are needed for it to get to 200kph – that’s hypercar territory. The 441kW/600Nm mid-mounted 3.8-litre V8 and seamless dual-clutch seven-speed automatic transmission are only partly to thank for the neck-snapping performance. If it weren’t for the super-lightweight 75kg Carbon MonoCell, the 12C wouldn’t be the performance machine you see here.
Weighing in at 1301kg (with lightweight options), the 12C has a power-to-weight ratio of around 345kW/tonne – that’s Ferrari Enzo territory. This means the 12C’s accelerator is a very addictive apparatus. So addictive that I almost miss Exit 47 to Franschhoek. Hard on the brakes, and the bite from the calipers isn’t immediate but is brutal enough to give my spinal column a rigorous shakedown. There’s also a pop-up air brake that, along with blocking all rear visibility, aids downforce and helps keep the car stable under heavy braking.
It’s about 5.00pm now and the GPS says I’m just 2km away from the museum. The sun is still shining brightly overhead and the temperature readout on the instrument cluster is showing 39 degrees – it’s autumn here in Cape Town but no matter the season it’s always hot and humid in the winelands. Just as the photographer and I start to discuss options for the photoshoot, our conversation is halted by a high-pitched, almost superbike-like staccato…
Like a gunslinger exploding through a Western saloon’s swing doors, the McLaren F1 announces its presence with requisite drama. Wrapped in silver and kitted out in the optional high-downforce kit (a carbon fibre front scoop and GTR wing) it looks more spectacular than I remember. As it parks alongside the 12C, it’s clear that both these vehicles were inspired by and shaped for speed. It’s not hard to see why many pundits list the F1 together with the Ferrari F40, Jaguar XJ220 and Porsche 959 as the last of the proper supercars. In fact, bar the jewellery and almost comically small 17-inch rims, side by side the F1 looks the more modern of the two.
The 12C is strangely nowhere near as visually intriguing as the F1, especially from the front. The design is too generic, almost Lotus-like, but the 19-inch front/20-inch rear wheel combination and scalloped flanks do help to lift the overall aesthetics. The 12C’s rear end incorporates a unique exhaust tip configuration and bares the most resemblance to the F1, albeit a modern interpretation. However, it’s only when you see the two cars parked face-to-face
that the F1’s superior design language comes to the fore. Like a Michelangelo sculpture, not a thing is out of place – every line and groove serves a purpose. It’s the most Bauhaus of supercars. Although styled by Briton Peter Stevens, much of the credit goes to South African-born F1 project chief engineer Gordon Murray. His masterful engineering and simply brilliant packaging certainly made Stevens’ life that much easier.
Start filling up the F1 with people and its superb packaging comes to the fore. It’ll comfortably seat a trio of adults – quite astonishing given the limited interior space. Much of the F1’s allure is the peculiar seat configuration that places the driver in the middle of the cockpit with a passenger seat located on either side. The cabin is basic with no gratuitous items or novelty luxuries. Instead, carbon fibre and alcantara line the carbon fibre monocoque, giving it a genuine racer feel. Like the F1, the 12C makes use of 100% bespoke parts – no carryover pieces here. The 12C’s interior is more luxurious than the F1, but driver interaction is still very much the main focus – the large McLaren-branded rev counter and leather-clad racing bucket seats reinforce this notion.
The F1 is even better than what I imagined as a boy– the aroma of the leather, the sturdy feel of the three-spoke steering wheel and the heavily sprung pedals all bristle with images of performance. In the back resides an exclusively designed naturally-aspirated 6.1-litre V12 BMW engine built by Paul Rosche. Producing 468kW and 651Nm of torque, the F1 could dash from 0-96kph in just 3.2 seconds, and that’s without the aid of any launch control system. The F1 uses a six-speed manual transmission with a painfully stiff clutch pedal that makes stalling the car potentially an everyday occurrence.
The attention to detail on the F1 is astonishing – 20m2 of heat-reflective gold foil line both the engine and exhaust bay. The instrument panels are forged from stainless steel with hand-painted numbers. Even the needles are hand-machined from stainless steel. No wonder the F1 came with a new sticker price of £634500 (equivalent to around R7.6 million in today’s money).
As the sun slipped behind the surrounding mountains and the light began to fade, I realised my time with the F1 was coming to an end. Before we packed away and headed home I took a few moments to admire the F1 and absorb not only the purity of its form but also the precision of its intricate design. It’s hard to believe that this vehicle is approaching its 20th birthday – the design is timeless and, in many ways, superior to the somewhat generic, designed-by-algorithm contours of the 12C.
A 35km drive home gave me time to gather my thoughts about the 12C. What’s patently clear is that it’s not an F1 successor. Whereas the F1was a blue sky design out on the fringes of supercar thinking, the 12C is distinctly more segment focused and, crucially, designed around a vastly superior business case. And in many other ways too, it is a much better car – safer, more affordable, less polluting and just as quick. Truth is, they’re nothing more than relatives that share the same DNA, heritage and tenets – kind of what Ferrari’s 458 is to the F40.
The McLaren MP4-12C is a fantastic car, probably one of the greatest vehicles of the last decade, but to truly appreciate its brilliance, it’s probably best not to park it next to an F1.