Mclaren 650S

Farewell drive in Wok­ing’s su­per­car


Those who can drive a Mclaren around the block and de­cide on such slen­der ev­i­dence that this is the right car on which to drop a six-fig­ure sum of hard-earned cur­rency, I salute you. Were I to do such a thing – or rather, were I pos­sessed of the means to do such a thing – I’d con­clude sim­ply that this was a spec­tac­u­larly won­der­ful car for some­one else and ad­just my think­ing in a more ap­pro­pri­ately Ital­ianate di­rec­tion.

Two thou­sand miles, from a onepub ham­let in the Welsh bor­ders to Geneva via Spa and the Nür­bur­gring and back again, pro­vides a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. And plenty of time in which to won­der how Mclaren got from that place to this, from the botched launch of the tor­tu­ously en­ti­tled MP4-12C to the re­veal of the all-new 720S, the hottest ticket at the most im­por­tant mo­tor show on earth.

Mclaren has never re­placed a car be­fore. Its first road cars, the iconic F1, the SLR project with Mercedes, even the orig­i­nal M6GT, stood alone, as has the P1, the only Mclaren from the cur­rent era to cease pro­duc­tion. So when I put it to one se­nior mem­ber of Mclaren man­age­ment that the re­place­ment of what they call P11 (the code that cov­ers the en­tire Su­per Se­ries cars, from 12C, past 650S to 675LT) was the sin­gle most im­por­tant mo­ment in the mod­ern his­tory of Mclaren Au­to­mo­tive since the launch of the 12C, I didn’t ex­pect the words to be bat­ted back at head height. “Oh no,” he said. “It’s far more im­por­tant than that.”

You will read elsewhere in this mag­a­zine about P14, the car we now call the 720S, so for now join me in its pre­de­ces­sor, the hum­ble, 641bhp 650S. We’re do­ing a steady 150mph along a south­bound stretch of au­to­bahn and it has just started to rain. The ques­tion is, what should be done about it? The in­for­ma­tion that adds up to an an­swer has been both two days and six years in the ac­cu­mu­la­tion.

Six years. Is that all it has been since Antony Sher­iff de­liv­ered the first 21st cen­tury Mclaren? He didn’t last long at the com­pany, but his vi­sion was for a state-of-the-art, F1-in­spired, car­bon­fi­bre-tubbed su­per­car that would be lighter, stiffer, stronger and faster than any­thing else sim­i­lar money would buy. And he de­liv­ered, in spades: the MP4-12C hit all its pre-des­ig­nated marks with the cer­tainly of Giel­gud tread­ing the boards at the Old Vic.

And yet, so too was some­thing miss­ing. The re­al­ity was clear­est to see at the 2011 edi­tion of Au­to­car’s an­nual quest to find Bri­tain’s Best Driver’s Car. Held that year at Rock­ing­ham on a track con­fig­u­ra­tion that ab­so­lutely did not play to its strengths, the 12C was still

The sat-nav re­mains rub­bish, but the car it is try­ing to di­rect is some­thing else

a sec­ond a lap quicker than any­thing else out there, in­clud­ing a brand new Porsche 911 GT3 RS. Yet when the votes were counted, it came home fifth over­all, shock­ingly placed by one judge be­hind a Vaux­hall Corsa VXR. The 12C was ca­pa­ble but aloof, a car so fo­cused on go­ing for­ward it ap­peared to have for­got­ten the bloke be­hind the wheel. “No rider wants to be out­wit­ted by the horse,” was one tester’s gloomy but pin-sharp as­sess­ment. And that’s be­fore you con­sider the some­times in­ex­act con­struc­tion qual­ity, a sat-nav sys­tem that didn’t work at first and was then rub­bish when it did and ex­te­rior looks that were de­scribed, more un­kindly than un­fairly, as be­ing those of a Korean con­cept car.

The sat-nav re­mains rub­bish: not quite so knuckle-gnaw­ingly aw­ful as a pre-db11 As­ton’s nav, per­haps, but close. But the car the sys­tem is try­ing to di­rect is some­thing else.

My route from home to the coast, across the wa­ter and to Spa was as dull as ever, save a brief de­tour to Wok­ing to visit the home of Mclaren and catch up with an old friend, in the shape of the ac­tual F1 I road tested for this mag­a­zine no fewer than 23 years ago. It seems in­cred­i­ble to me that the 650S, Mclaren’s sta­ple prod­uct, has more power and bet­ter ac­cel­er­a­tion than the totemic F1, the car I’d once pompously and en­tirely in­ac­cu­rately pre­dicted would be the fastest car the world would ever know.

Spa is im­por­tant be­cause the old cir­cuit is where, in 1968, Mclaren won its first grand prix and its founder, Bruce Mclaren, his last. If you want a re­minder of how F1 has changed, and not al­ways for the worse, Bruce’s M7A was one of just six cars to fin­ish a race over­shad­owed by the death the day be­fore of Lu­dovico Scarfiotti, who, after Jim Clark and Mike Spence, be­came the third F1 driver to die that sea­son. A fourth, Jo Sch­lesser, lost his life two races later.

As we ate frites out­side the chip shop at the exit of the fear­some Masta kink, we thought about Bruce ham­mer­ing down the straight, sum­mon­ing the men­tal strength not to lift. And then we went to the banked turn at Stavelot, where the cars would stream through and howl back up to­wards the pits. That day, in a car with­out wings, with less than half the power of mod­ern machines and on treaded tyres, Bruce av­er­aged over 147mph for the en­tire race.

The drive to Spa may have been bor­ing but it spoke vol­umes for how ef­fec­tively the 650S works as a de­vice for do­ing dis­tances. The vis­i­bil­ity for­ward and to the side is as good as I’ve known that of a mid-en­gined car to be, and the ride qual­ity is in a dif­fer­ent post­code to that of any ri­val. It’s quiet too, and has su­perb seats. To use one sim­ply as a week­end recre­ation is to build a man­sion and then live only in the kitchen.

The jour­ney from Spa to the Nür­bur­gring was any­thing but dull. The route I know well, but never has it been so com­pre­hen­sively de­voured as it was by the 650S that day. This is Mclaren ter­ri­tory: open, sweep­ing and fast, roads that, even on Pirelli Sot­tozero win­ter tyres, the 650S dis­patches with­out ap­par­ent ef­fort. At low speeds the ac­cel­er­a­tion some­times seems a lit­tle lack­lus­tre, but you need to spot the blink­ing trac­tion con­trol light to re­alise why. But once it grips, you still feel caught in the pres­sure wave of a small bomb det­o­nat­ing be­hind you. I’m chas­ing edi­tor Mark Tisshaw in a 570S and it’s in­ter­est­ing to see how dif­fer­ently it works. The 570S looks lighter on its toes, more will­ing to change di­rec­tion but also more eas­ily un­set­tled by ridges and sur­face changes that the 650S scarcely no­tices. All things are rel­a­tive: by any nor­mal stan­dard both are im­pe­ri­ous.

The ’Ring is shut, as we knew it would be, and be­sides, lap­ping any track on win­ter tyres is prob­a­bly some dis­tance short of a good idea. But we had to come here, had to visit the place where, 10 years be­fore his Spa tri­umph, an un­known 20-year-old called Bruce Mclaren took part in his first For­mula 1 race and came home fifth. Mo­tor Sport mag­a­zine de­scribed his drive as ‘out­stand­ing’, a con­sid­er­able un­der­state­ment given that he was hob­bled by the size­able im­ped­i­ment of driv­ing a For­mula 2 car at the time. It was right here, amid these tor­tu­ous turns, that the name ‘Mclaren’ ar­rived in the col­lec­tive psy­che of the global mo­tor rac­ing com­mu­nity.

Next for us is the au­to­bahn and the rain. I’m not sure why, and as ridicu­lous as it looks on pa­per, but I sim­ply pegged back the speed of the 650S from 150mph to 135mph. I ex­pect it’s more per­cep­tion than re­al­ity, but at 150mph you can sense the 650S just begin­ning to try. At 135mph it is not ex­tend­ing it­self at all: the car just skims across the sur­face of the planet, twin-turbo V8 singing con­tent­edly with deep re­serves of ev­ery­thing in ev­ery di­rec­tion. It is its nat­u­ral gait. I have a mem­ory of a long curve on the au­to­bahn, the Mclaren set­tled on its springs by its own down­force, sta­ble even in the slight cross­wind, steer­ing loaded and in con­stant

To use a 650S sim­ply at the week­end is to build a man­sion and live only in the kitchen

cor­re­spon­dence with my fin­gers. In that mo­ment, I looked in the mir­ror and saw the mi­cro-cli­mate of Sot­tozero-gen­er­ated mist the 650S was tow­ing to­wards Geneva. The Mclaren had me safe and se­cure in the eye of a storm of its own cre­ation, and I loved ev­ery sec­ond of it.

You don’t go fast in Switzer­land, at least not if you want to stay sol­vent. And, as they tend to in this coun­try, soon the road started to climb as rain turned first to sleet and then very def­i­nitely to snow.

You may ask what I thought I was do­ing 4000ft up a moun­tain in March, driv­ing a rear-drive, mi­dengined 641bhp su­per­car, and all I can tell you is that it seemed like a good idea at the time. And un­like my more calami­tous ca­pers, it still does. We hoped it would pro­duce pictures un­like those you see in most su­per­car tests, and I hope you agree we de­liv­ered on that. But I also wanted to see how the 650S coped when taken as far from its com­fort zone as you could go, this side of push­ing it off a cliff to see if it will fly. And even here, even when the road dis­ap­peared be­neath the snow, it kept its com­po­sure. It didn’t twitch and it wasn’t shut down by its safety sys­tems; only the oc­ca­sional – and en­tirely ami­able – slow-mo­tion slide sug­gested that this wasn’t en­tirely what it had in mind for a trip to the con­ti­nent.

And then we were on the shores of Lake Geneva, just down the hill from where the 720S would be un­veiled the very next day. A trip through five coun­tries, through sun, rain and snow, through times when 135mph felt slow and oth­ers when 10mph felt ter­ri­fy­ingly fast, was over.

Be­fore we set out I won­dered whether I’d con­clude that the 650S was even in need of re­place­ment at all, but I can see now that it is. El­e­ments have aged, par­tic­u­larly its in­te­rior and rear styling, and there is no com­peti­tor more able or fe­ro­cious than the Fer­rari 488GTB.

But I was still stag­gered by this car all over again, not just by what it is and what it can do, but most of all by where it has come from. Ex­actly how Mclaren re­con­fig­ured the recipe to turn the un­der­done orig­i­nal 12C into the per­fectly cooked 650S is a story that still needs telling. And it is im­por­tant, be­cause with­out it would we now be look­ing for­ward to find­ing out how on earth the 720S can ma­te­ri­ally move the game on from here? I don’t know. So maybe the most im­por­tant car in the mod­ern his­tory of Mclaren Au­to­mo­tive is in fact nei­ther the old 12C nor the new 720S. Per­haps you’re look­ing at it right now: it was the 650S alone that es­tab­lished Mclaren as a cred­i­ble ri­val to Fer­rari, and it is on its shoul­ders that the 720S now stands. We look for­ward to mak­ing its ac­quain­tance.

No VIP treat­ment here; all cars are equal on Le Shut­tle

The drive to Geneva in­cluded a pit­stop at Mclaren’s Wok­ing HQ

Blend­ing in isn’t re­ally an op­tion in a 650S

Mclaren’s founder had his first GP win on the old Spa track

When the chips are down, it’s time for lunch

Go the dis­tance: for a su­per­car, the 650S makes a fine GT

The 570S is shaded by its 650S big brother

Not all su­per­cars could keep their cool here. The 650S man­ages it

Closed ’Ring still of­fered a fine photo op

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.