720S AERO

All you need to know about the McLaren 720S

Top Gear (UK) - - Mc720S DRIVE -

“it looks like it’s mov­ing even when it’s stand­ing still”. And yet, as a short­hand, maybe they’ll do. The front end has a shark-like profle, and the air in­takes around the head­lamps give them an eye-like na­ture. The side profle is stretched, for two rea­sons. First the gloss-black glass bub­ble efec­tively low­ers the painted body­side, and also be­cause the doors and wings hide their air­chan­nelling. In­stead, you have a smooth dune-like sur­face that dances with the light. The outer pan­els are aluminium, be­cause it can be painted to a bet­ter fnish than car­bon fbre.

Round the back, it’s long and low. In fact the en­gine’s top is sig­nif­cantly low­ered ver­sus the 650S’s. The en­gine is lit by red LEDs when you frst un­lock it. The tail-lights, more LEDs, defne the swelling form of the rear wings. It’s lovely. One quib­ble: the num­ber of cut-lines in the cock­pit, be­cause of all those pieces of glass and the doors carv­ing into the roof, make mat­ters a lit­tle messy in the rear-three-quar­ter view. But the tint of the glass helps dis­guise it, and any­way most on­look­ers will be gaz­ing at ex­hausts and trans­mis­sion cas­ing, vis­i­ble through big grilles as if in mu­seum dis­play cases.

Above those me­chan­i­cal parts, a com­pound-curved spoiler is raised, an­gled and low­ered again at the be­hest of a com­plex se­ries of al­go­rithms whose in­puts in­clude the aero mode you’ve se­lected and the speed you’re go­ing. Plus whether that speed is ris­ing or fall­ing, and how much you’re steer­ing – re­spec­tively DRS, air-brak­ing, or down­force.

At the mo­ment, I’m on the road and the cor­ners are too tight for down­force to play. Here I’m all about the fun, not about the ab­so­lute grip. Ev­ery other car­maker claims that elec­tric steer­ing is needed to save the odd gramme of CO2. I’m not con­vinced: its end­less march is be­ing per­pet­u­ated by the fact it en­ables lane-keep­ing and self-park­ing and other stuf

that has lit­tle place on a sports car. But what­ever, McLaren has dug its heels in and stuck with the hy­draulic sort. It’s even im­proved the sys­tem, via front-end ge­om­e­try changes.

The re­sult is mag­i­cal. This is no mere com­man­dand-con­trol ap­pa­ra­tus from you to the tyre treads. It talks back, en­gag­ing you with end­less bil­lets doux on the state of afairs down there. Yet it has dis­cre­tion too: de­spite all the feed­back on grip, it never blurts too much about pot­holes or cam­bers. It flters these out amaz­ingly efec­tively. The weight and gear­ing are spot-on too. It ap­pro­pri­ately draws it­self back to the cen­tre whether out of a sec­ond-gear hair­pin or a long mo­tor­way curve. And it avoids the fash­ion for gear­ing that’s so high it’s nervy. No, this sys­tem re­mains calm and col­lected, even as you ask it to do hec­tic works.

The cool­ness of the chas­sis’ re­ac­tions stems in part from McLaren’s cross-linked adap­tive (they call it proac­tive) sus­pen­sion. It was present on the 650S and 12C, but for the new car it gets more sen­sors and op­er­ates with even more bofny com­plex­ity and light­ning speed. Fluid pipes link across the car, giv­ing roll con­trol. And con­ven­tional elec­tronic damp­ing con­trol adds to the mix. De­spite years of at­tempt­ing to get my head around this sys­tem, the only thing I conf­dently un­der­stand is that I don’t un­der­stand it. That doesn’t mean I don’t know it’s work­ing. If you think Bri­tain’s roads are un­kempt, you’ve never been to Italy. Some of the roads north of Rome where I drove the 720S were di­a­bol­i­cal. It’s a lot cheaper to put up a load of “bumps” warn­ing signs than it is to fx the bumps. So I’m us­ing com­fort mode a lot (the 720S ofers Com­fort, Sport and Track, each put­ting a suc­ces­sively high pri­or­ity on con­trol and grip over a smooth ride). A lot of sports cars aren’t happy in their Com­fort modes, be­cause the dampers are then too foppy for the springs and anti-roll bars. Which makes them wob­ble from side to side and foat a bit. Not the 720S. Be­cause it can mod­ify damp­ing and roll stifness, it keeps a level head as it passes over lumps and ridges and dips and craters. Oh, and by the way, there’s lit­tle wheel hop, be­cause McLaren’s used new wish­bones and up­rights that to­tal 16kg lighter than the old ones: the car soon tells you its un­sprung mass has fallen.

Yet the mo­ment the need presents it­self, it can stifen it­self in roll as well as damp­ing, so the Com­fort mode is ac­tu­ally all you need for most road driv­ing. In too many cars you’re cease­lessly fd­get­ing the knob be­tween difer­ent chas­sis modes with­out ever be­ing sat­is­fed. In the McLaren, Com­fort or Sport modes are both per­fectly OK, both beau­ti­fully har­mo­nious in them­selves.

Most be­witch­ing of all, though, and equally most sur­pris­ing, is the stream of chat you get from the chas­sis long be­fore you’re at the limit. So many cars with huge grip are pretty much mute un­til you’re about to ex­haust it. That’s bor­ing, be­cause on the road you sel­dom will. If you want to have a good time all the time, the 720S is your su­per­car. You’re al­ways in the loop about the state of the front-end grip and the rear-end trac­tion, and the re­main­ing re­serves of both. And if the chance does present it­self, you can be conf­dent of prob­ing them.

And then to the track. Time to switch to Track mode. This one really locks the car to the tar­mac. The chas­sis-con­trol sys­tem’s job de­scrip­tion now be­comes keep­ing the tyres up­right and con­sis­tently press­ing down. The ac­tive aero does its bit, se­cur­ing you to the ground with ve­he­ment in­ten­sity through fast curves.

The re­newed rear sus­pen­sion ge­om­e­try is sup­posed to make things more sta­ble un­der brakes, though I never no­ticed that was a prob­lem be­fore. Any­way, as the air brake rises, it pushes down on the rear tyres so they can carry more brak­ing load, again keep­ing things straight. That’s why you stand up and lean back­ward on your push­bike when you’re brak­ing hard over bumps. The brakes them­selves have epic power, which is a mighty fne achieve­ment con­sid­er­ing how vel­vety-pro­gres­sive they are at road speed. Whether in the pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive lon­gi­tu­di­nal di­rec­tion, this car has prop­erly sewn up the busi­ness of the sec­ond de­riv­a­tive of dis­tance over time.

As you’d ex­pect, if you come into a corner too sud­denly it’ll un­der­steer a lit­tle. Only a lit­tle, be­cause the brake-steer gadget is re­tard­ing the inner rear wheel and piv­ot­ing the car to your ad­van­tage. Lift of and the tail be­gins to move out. But as al­ways with this car, it sends out the town crier good and early to tell you what’s hap­pen­ing. On a long corner you get time to feel this balance, be­cause you mustn’t get on the power too early. There’s just too much of it. They’re grippy, those back tyres, but give them a chance. It’s like try­ing to fll a pa­per cup with a fre hose. You’ve got to get a good grip on the cup be­fore you turn on the water or it’ll be jet­ted out of sight. So, get a good view of the exit be­fore sum­mon­ing the tur­bocharg­ers.

With that comes a de­par­ture down the straight with al­most ridicu­lous haste. Or, to taste, a bit of a slide. The slidey busi­ness isn’t con­trolled just by how you’re driv­ing. It’s also afected by the po­si­tions of a few con­trols. Touch the ESP but­ton and it’ll let the car move around more. Or get into the touch­screen and sum­mon vari­able drift con­trol. This is ba­si­cally a set of cal­i­bra­tions for the trac­tion-con­trol part of ESP. Move the slider down and it’ll cut the power early and you can’t spin. Move the slider up and you go to­wards a state where in­ter­ven­tion is more lax, and at the ex­treme set­ting, ab­sent. In the up­per por­tions of the scale, if you don’t ac­tu­ally add some op­po­site lock or re­duce the throt­tle your­self, you can spin. It’s not a hero but­ton then. Get it wrong and you could still land up, de­pend­ing on your luck, em­bar­rassed, poor, or hurt. McLaren peo­ple now won­der if the drift con­trol part of the name was wise af­ter all. It’s a track trainer. Well, fair enough to have this sort of thing on this car. It’s not a car for car-park burnouts. It’s at home on a track, and not just awe­somely com­pe­tent like a racer, but ready to give im­mense fun as it goes. Even when, as in my case, it’s man­i­festly bet­ter than its driver.

Af­ter a day en­com­pass­ing all these con­di­tions, we need to sum up the 720S. But that’s a trou­bling job. Be­cause it’s al­most all peak and no trough, it doesn’t lend it­self to car­i­ca­ture. If not, does it have a char­ac­ter? The frst new-gen­er­a­tion McLaren, the 12C, was also a dra­mat­i­cally com­pe­tent car for its time, yet it was called soul­less. Now we have the sec­ond full gen­er­a­tion and again it’s a car with im­mense speed but a sur­pris­ingly sub­tle na­ture. But this time, don’t pi­geon­hole it the same way.

Some peo­ple, when you frst meet them, daz­zle you with their cre­ativ­ity and en­thral you with their hu­mour. And their dom­i­nant na­ture slowly starts to drive you mad. Oth­ers re­veal them­selves to you more slowly yet end up, be­cause of the mu­tual un­der­stand­ing, as the ones you really want to spend your life with. That’s how the 720S is. It’s not about telling you how great it is. It’s brilliant, but it brings you along.

“As al­ways with this car, it sends out the town crier good and early to tell you what’s hap­pen­ing”

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