Motor (Australia)

SPOILER WARNING

You didn’t think we’d book Phillip Island and not bring the 720S, did you?

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BY ALL ACCOUNTS I should have been ready to pull up stumps. It was day four of this year’s bumper Performanc­e Car of the Year testing, and I’d just spent the last seven hours putting our entire 18 car field through their paces at Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit. Track testing that many vehicles is a mammoth task in its own right, but adding in intermitte­nt rain showers, suicidal Cape Barren geese, and the mental workout of keeping on top of the logistics required to keep the show running smoothly meant I was one missed caffeine injection from becoming a standing corpse.

The rest of the judging panel had removed their helmets for the last time, but my work wasn’t done yet. Car number 19 for the day demanded its pound of flesh, and I was more than willing to provide. It wasn’t a contender for either of this year’s awards, but ‘our’ McLaren 720S long term tester. Things were about to get very, very fast.

While no longer a possible entrant for Australia’s premier performanc­e car award, we weren’t going to let an opportunit­y to have the 720S tag along for the final days of testing slide. If Phillip Island was a daunting plank above the ocean for our PCOTY and SCOTY contenders, the 720S was the golden-toothed pirate telling them to start walking. Not so much a wildcard, but a 530kW measuring stick that we promptly used to beat the field into submission with.

Before I wrap my hands around the svelte Alcantara-clad steering wheel, the indomitabl­e Warren Luff slides over the carbon sills and we strap timing gear to the windscreen. Of the 18 car combined PCOTY and SCOTY contenders, only one was quicker than the 720S around Phillip Island. No prizes for correctly guessing it would be the Porsche 911 GT3. Less than a second separate the two, with Luff’s best time in the McLaren being a 1:40.19, compared to his PCOTY-leading 1:39.74 benchmark set at the helm of the GT3. However, unlike the Porsche, which focuses heavily on track ability, the 720S is a road car first and foremost. An incredibly dramatic, powerful, and capable road car, yes, but we wouldn’t call it a track toy by any stretch.

The more natural rival for the 720S at PCOTY was the $498,665, 470kW/600Nm 5.2-litre naturally aspirated V10-powered Lamborghin­i Huracán Fluo Capsule. The Italian costs just $8765 more (practicall­y pocket change in the half-million dollar price bracket), is down 60kW and 170Nm compared to the heavily turbocharg­ed V8

McLaren, but uses an extra pair of driven wheels. Both the Huracán and 720S came equipped with Pirelli P Zero tyres that, frankly, aren’t up to the task of providing adequate grip for the amount of speed these vehicles can pile on in short order. There is nowhere to hide for the Huracán, which is just a tenth shy of being three full seconds behind the 720S over a 4.4km lap. There’s no amount of excess Staedtler highlighte­r paint that’ll cover that gap.

Watching Luff’s flying laps is an experience akin to seeing a lowflying fighter jet buzz a tower. You see the McLaren before you hear it, but the once-distant speck of white is suddenly atop you with a delayed burst of sound that is much a mix of air displaceme­nt as it is angry combustion.

Approachin­g a 278km/h V-max at the end of the front straight, it sounds like the air itself is being torn asunder as the 720S passes. There are no theatrics-by-design, with the shock factor coming from raw presence and speed alone.

Warren Luff is not a man easily challenged by modern road cars, but the wide-eyed stare upon returning to the pits was telling of the 720S capabiliti­es. More so was his claim that this is the first road car he’s driven that has the same cut-throat personalit­y of a racing car. Get it wrong and it’ll bite. I think of this as I remember the fact that there are no small accidents at a circuit as fast as Phillip Island.

Excitement masks anxiety as I belt on the brain bucket tighter than I have all day. My turn.

Instead of disaster, I experience an adrenaline high that I’m yet to come down from.

Such is the level of the 720S’ firepower that it often struggles to deploy it appropriat­ely. At the exit of the last turn on my first flying lap I thought something had gone awry with the car. I was applying throttle progressiv­ely but it felt like the engine wasn’t building boost. A traction control light that was fixed alight from apex all the way down the first third of the straight singled out traction as the true culprit. Patience is a virtue in the 720S, as I had to wait longer to get on the throttle than any other car on the day, and apply it deftly to avoid unwanted wheelspin – which you’ll still encounter with all systems on. A cheeky look at the speedo confirmed I was exiting the last corner slower than I did in either the GT3 or Huracán, but had a nearly 10km/h advantage come the braking zone for Turn 1.

The greatest criticism that can be levelled at the 720S on track is focused entirely on the front tyres. McLaren’s choice of 245-section rubber for the front

WATCHING LUFF’S FLYING LAPS IS AN EXPERIENCE AKIN TO SEEING A LOW-FLYING FIGHTER JET BUZZ A TOWER

end leaves the 720S short-changed. Through the seriously fast corners, where you need confidence in the front axle the most, I was left wanting. Thankfully steering feel and feedback is superb. Being a hydraulic steering system, every texture of the circuit’s surface was transposed directly into my fingertips, making me consistent­ly aware of the waning grip levels mid-corner. Still, the early signs of understeer aren’t something you want to encounter at 200km/h. A more aggressive Corsa compound is available as a no-cost option. Take it. You won’t be making a meaningful sacrifice in daily noise and gaining a significan­t performanc­e benefit in return.

The 720S is a car that challenges you instead of coddling. It demands your respect, and talent. But that’s the point. This isn’t a supercar you can get into, halfarse, and still go quickly. Given the opportunit­y to spend an entire day on Australia’s fastest permanent circuit with Luffy’s tutelage and the choice between a GT3 and 720S it’d be another tally in the win column for England for me. Yes, even in the hands of a profession­al it’s not as quick as the Porsche, and when both are road registered the

McLaren would command almost double the price. But there’s more to learn from its bristles, a skill to develop at every corner. The 720S provides a driving test with ever-present consequenc­es, demanding an elevation of your skills. Many will prefer the Huracán’s styling and soundtrack, but there’s something about the 720S, and its permanent spectre of consequenc­e, that’s simultaneo­usly scary yet hard to resist.

Modern supercars are derided for being too friendly, protecting hamfisted pilots with a thick electronic support network of systems designed to flatter egos. On the track, Woking’s wonder is not that kind of supercar. Cars & Coffee posers need not apply. – CK

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Kirby en route to a new personal high-speed record. Somehow he managed to avoid ending up in the sea
LEFT Kirby en route to a new personal high-speed record. Somehow he managed to avoid ending up in the sea
 ?? ?? RIGHT When Warren Luff gets out of a road car struggling for words, you know it is a serious thing
RIGHT When Warren Luff gets out of a road car struggling for words, you know it is a serious thing
 ?? ?? BELOW A range of screen configurat­ions are available, but the full-stealth fold down setting is ace
BELOW A range of screen configurat­ions are available, but the full-stealth fold down setting is ace
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 ?? ?? ABOVE Corners that were once sweeping arcs become much tighter on approach in the 720S
TOP RIGHT The carbon-fibre shifters are mounted on a central rocker, meaning you can click both up and down on each paddle
ABOVE Corners that were once sweeping arcs become much tighter on approach in the 720S TOP RIGHT The carbon-fibre shifters are mounted on a central rocker, meaning you can click both up and down on each paddle
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Stopping power is almighty thanks to the carbon-ceramic discs, aided by the wing lifting to act as an air brake
ABOVE Stopping power is almighty thanks to the carbon-ceramic discs, aided by the wing lifting to act as an air brake
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