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Revolutionary road

With its Formula One technology and humungous hybrid horsepower, the hotly anticipated McLaren P1 has all the makings of the world’s most thrilling road car. Simon de Burton reports

May 23 2013
Simon de Burton

When Jenson Button and Sergio Perez line up on the starting grid ahead of Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix, there’s a good chance that the usual pre-race pressure might be enhanced by the hand of history – because the constructor they both drive for, McLaren, has won Formula One’s most glamorous event more times than any other. Fifteen times since 1984, to be precise, five times alone through the genius of the late, great Ayrton Senna (1989-1993 inclusive) and four times in the safe hands of Alain “The Professor” Prost (1984, 1985, 1986 and 1988).

Indeed, a close look at the majority of vital F1 statistics compiled over the decades across the Grand Prix circuit reveals McLaren to be running a very close second to Ferrari in terms of outright success, and ahead of the legendary “Prancing Horse” in other categories.

That racetrack rivalry reared its head again at this year’s Geneva Motor Show when the two marques simultaneously attempted to grab the limelight by unveiling the fastest, most expensive, most technologically advanced and most covetable road car of the event.

Most definitely in the “red” corner was Ferrari’s dubiously named “LaFerrari”, a hybrid supercar that combines a 6.3‑litre V12 engine, producing almost 800 horsepower, with a KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) unit to add an additional 163 horsepower for use in short bursts. Top speed exceeds 220mph and just 499 examples will be built, each costing an estimated €1m (plus local taxes).

In the “orange” corner, McLaren pulled the wraps off the production version of its much-anticipated P1, first previewed as a design study at the Paris show in 2012. Even more exclusive than LaFerrari, the P1 will be limited to an edition of 375 cars with a starting price of £866,000. It features a 727-horsepower, 3.8-litre, twin-turbo V8 engine matched with a KERS-style electric motor, producing a further 176 horsepower – providing a top speed of 239mph, which will be electronically limited to 217mph on customer versions.

Although the Ferrari is undeniably impressive, it is the P1 that seems to have won the hearts and minds of supercar fans – both those who can afford one and those who can only dream – not least because McLaren’s history of making road cars replete with racetrack DNA is probably more consistent. Indeed, the P1 name harks back to the code used for its first ever road car, the F1, which went into production in 1993. Powered by a 12-cylinder, non-turbocharged, 6.1-litre engine especially built for McLaren by BMW, the F1 was notable as much for its three-seat configuration with central driving position as the fact that, in 1998, it became the fastest non-turbocharged car in history when one was driven to a record 240.1mph.

When new, an F1 cost £634,500 in the UK, plus taxes; by the time production ceased in 1998, with 107 cars built, lack of demand had seen the price drop to around £500,000. Since then, the F1 has become the most collectable “modern classic” on the market, with the highest publicly recorded sum paid for one to date being £2.53m.

The strong likelihood that the P1 will achieve equally collectable status has already ensured that McLaren Automotive (the firm’s road-car arm, launched in 2010) has taken at least 200 firm orders for its latest creation, despite the fact that first deliveries won’t take place until autumn.

So what, exactly, will the lucky few owners actually get for their money? For a start, a car that has truly been designed from the ground up with the benefit of McLaren’s considerable knowledge, gleaned during nearly 50 years of F1 construction – or, to put it another way, the fastest and most technologically advanced series production car ever built in the UK.

Thanks to the specially developed, F1-derived KERS-style motor, which McLaren is calling “IPAS” (for Instant Power Assist System), the P1 will accelerate from a standstill to around 186mph in less than 17 seconds, as well as being able to travel for up to 20km at slow speeds in emission-free, full electric mode. To rein in the velocity at which most P1s are more likely to be driven, however, the car is fitted with brakes developed by McLaren’s F1 partner Akebono and made from a type of carbon ceramic previously used in areas such as the space industry.

Another F1-derived technology used on the car is DRS (Drag Reduction System), which automatically reduces the angle of the car’s rear wing in order to cut down on wind resistance as speed increases.

Elsewhere, the obsession with weight saving that is common to all F1 constructors (and which is especially prevalent at McLaren) manifests itself in a carbon-fibre chassis and a distinctly minimalist, highly functional interior, which is more akin to the cockpit of a fighter jet than your average road car.

Although the P1 retains “luxury” features such as climate control, satellite navigation and a bespoke Meridian audio system, switchgear has been kept to the basics and the cabin is largely made from carbon fibre, including the dashboard, floor, headlining, door trims and centrally mounted control unit. And, to demonstrate the aforementioned obsession with lightness, it’s worth pointing out that all of the interior carbon has been left unlacquered – an omission which, apparently, reduces overall weight by 1.5kg. There is no sound-deadening material, and carpets are an optional extra which, when fitted, are supplied with a special, featherweight backing.

Similarly, only a thin layer of foam coats the 10.5kg bucket seats that, in deference to the fact that the P1 is designed as much for the track as for the road, have backs that can be adjusted from 28° from vertical to 32° in order to allow head room for helmets. You also get fixings for a six-point competition harness, a steering wheel modelled on those used by past McLaren F1 champions and a digital dashboard that can be set to “race” mode in order to activate a digital gear-shift indicator.

But it was only by walking around the P1 with Frank Stephenson, the design director for McLaren Automotive, that I began to fully appreciate just how much of McLaren’s fabled racing heritage has been absorbed into its design.

“We wanted a car that was striking but also functional, a real statement of intent, and probably my favourite aspect of it is that it does not look like any car out there,” says Stephenson. “It wasn’t designed with beauty in mind but built 100 per cent for purpose, and, as it turned out, that resulted in a shape I think is going to age very well, due to the fact that it is not linear.”

That aim to “build for purpose” resulted in some remarkable features that, at first glance, might go unnoticed. The windscreen, for example, is deeper than it is wide and extends over the cabin of the car, as on many military aircraft. There are no conventional tail lights because the major part of the rear of the car is devoted to heat dissipation, meaning that the LED lighting system had to be incorporated into the trailing edge of the body and parts of the bumper – and, on a more whimsical note, the headlamps have been based on the shape of the decidedly spare McLaren logo.

Inside the cockpit, Stephenson pointed out the fact that the windscreen wraps round and extends over the cabin to afford the driver a clearer line of vision, and that the carbon-fibre roof lining is pre-moulded to allow the fitting of a race-specification roll cage. Even the weave of the carbon varies, depending on whether or not a component is structural.

But perhaps the most significant carry over from McLaren’s F1 experience is in the use of the aforementioned adjustable rear wing, which, combined with the body being tested in a wind tunnel using “computational fluid dynamics” (whatever they are), has resulted in up to 600kg of downforce – more than any current road car and almost as much as most current endurance racers. In layman’s terms, that statistic means the P1 should corner as if on rails.

Ron Dennis, executive chairman of McLaren Automotive and the McLaren Group, says his firm set out to build the most exciting, capable, technologically advanced and dynamically accomplished supercar ever made. But not until the P1 has been properly driven by people outside of the McLaren circle will we know whether or not that aim has been achieved and, for this weekend at least, Dennis probably doesn’t care. He’ll be far more concerned about encouraging Button and Perez to notch up that ninth constructor’s win at the Monaco Grand Prix.