McLaren has only just begun shipping the first of its 375 P1 hyper cars, each a 903-hp plug-in hybrid costing $1.15 million, billed as a successor to the McLaren F1, one of the greatest supercars of all time. Getting a chance to drive one is a big deal; McLaren has let only a few select people in the world behind the wheel. So when Chris, my sales person from Park Place McLaren, asked about my interest in driving the McLaren P1 — on Top Gear’s famed Dunsfold test track, no less — I had to laugh; I thought he was kidding.
A few weeks later, there I was, preparing to ignite the twin-turbo V-8, jet-lagged and yet feeling more awake than I’ve ever been.
The P1 exists as a rolling testament to McLaren’s work on the track. Formula 1 leads technical innovation in motorsport, and its teams pay fastidious attention to detail, materials, aerodynamic efficiency and now even hybrid technology. Until the LaFerrari hits the streets, the McLaren P1 is the only road car in the world that shares not just technology, but a factory and engineers with a successful F1 team. The P1’s drag reduction system works just like the one on the McLaren's race cars; hydraulic suspension dampers allow for an active selection of handling modes- from "sport" to "track" to "race" which, along with lowering the car, also stiffens the suspension to make it less likely to morph into a flying missile. Hybrid IPAS, a device like an F1 KERS systems, allows for a 176-hp "go even faster" boost button whenever you need it…because you know, at 727 hp you generally need help passing people, right?
It’s the car of my dreams. And after some familiarization with the cockpit, some photographs, and many liability waivers, I belted into a two-seat carbon-fiber fighter jet.
It was raining. And Dunsfold, the proving ground of the Stig and sundry celebrities, was treacherous. To your average supercar buyer, this may be seen as somewhat sacrilegious. But not for me. I drive my McLaren 12C, Porsche Carrera GT and my (now gone) Bentley GT and Ferrari 599 as much as possible, in any conditions – the more grueling the better. One of the other future P1 owners on hand scoffed at my enthusiasm, saying that, "at least it isn't my car, (when I get mine) I'll never drive this thing fast or in the rain."
We gave him the nickname Parking Lot Pimp.
Preserving one of these things as works of art is fine, and from a business perspective, quite wise. (A 1997 McLaren F1 sold for $8.5 million in August, and it had less than 14,000 miles.) But for real enthusiasts, life is too short to look and not touch. This machine was built to be driven. And driven fast.
As I entered the track, I mashed the gas pedal and heard the glorious sound of the turbo waste gate. The twin turbos felt like they were right on my shoulder — every lift produces a WHOOSH POP KKCHCHCHCHC. It’s like a monster, sputtering, spitting, growling in its mid-chassis carbon cage — a glorious, powerful, lag-free beast. Turbo lag has gotten less prevalent in the last 10 years, primarily due to software tuning. But the P1 has that hybrid system that kicks in to fill any remaining torque lag from the turbo. And it kicks your ass into warp speed the instant you punch the pedal.
On the drenched racetrack, I could discover the car’s limitations much faster and therefore understand its balance that much sooner. While emotionally committing to drifting a car of this nature is not easy, I can assure you, it can be done. And in Race mode, it will happen effortlessly on power exiting corners. But it's not scary. It's exhilarating, and since the chassis is so well balanced, the P1 is more fun than hard to handle. Chris Goodwin, McLaren’s chief test driver, explained it plainly: "We have to make it easy enough to drive or it won't get driven.”
It handles being provoked better than my 12C. It boasts the balance and grip of an open-wheel race car, while offering the ease of use Parking Lot Pimp would enjoy. Obnoxious hooligans like me, however, will enjoy letting the hellhound off the leash with power oversteer most.
Once you're hitting the apexes around 80 mph, the active aerodynamics ensure the P1 remains glued to the road, and demolishing your intestines in the process. It’s capable of generating cornering force of 2Gs; a track-ready Porsche 911 GT3 or an SRT Viper tops out at around 1.25G. If you’ve never been in a race car, 2Gs can suck your stomach deep into your pockets, and morph your face into an evil grin. Nothing can hang with this car on the street. Only my experience driving a high-downforce Formula 3 race car prepared me for this kind of a beating.
"OK, now I want you just to test the acceleration for yourself," says my young and enthusiastic co-pilot. So, as we ventured onto the wet runway and nailed the gas, I saw 60, 80, 100 mph, gone, gone, gone. Then I hit the DRS button and activated the KERS power boost; I was doing 130 mph at the time in 4th gear. Despite this, I got massive wheel spin – even going in a straight line. Of course, I burst out in maniacal laughter, and on my cue so does my official McLaren co-hooligan. Onto the brakes I went, activating the aero wings and carbon Akebono brakes, bringing me to a gut-wrenching stop. Internally, I was lamenting about an inevitable night spent in jail for testing this fun trick in the middle of nowhere. If only law enforcement offered as many waivers as McLaren.
This is the car of a lifetime, and I am grateful for staying out of trouble long enough to be able to afford one. If you see me driving mine next year, wave and come say hey. My car will be distinct, thanks to my visit to McLaren’s Special Operations center and its custom fit and finish division. It will look like a spaceship, or Cerberus in a tuxedo. And it’ll go like stink. Unlike Parking Lot Pimp’s ride, this beast will be driven.