McLaren Speedtail

Three-seat hy­per­cars have been in short sup­ply ever since McLaren tore up the rule­book with the F1. Now they’re at it again...

Top Gear (UK) - - WELCOME - WORDS: OL­LIE MAR­RIAGE /

Sleek, isn’t it? Long and low and lean and, well, sleek. A stream­liner. This is it, the McLaren Speedtail, the car for­merly known as BP23 and likely for­ever known as the spir­i­tual suc­ces­sor to the F1. Three seats, strato­spheric top speed and a price tag that’s sim­i­larly out of this world.

Facts, though, have been in short sup­ply. And when we’re starved of facts, we feed off myths. The ru­mour mill spooled up with tales of a 300mph tar­get, of Chiron-beat­ing power, and, to be fair, all we did was fan the flames.

Let’s rein in hy­per­bole and ex­ag­ger­a­tion right now, be­cause here’s what we do know. The McLaren Speedtail will, when de­liv­er­ies start in early 2020, have cost each of its 106 own­ers north of £2.1m for a car that boasts 1,036bhp and a 250mph max­i­mum speed. When they do strap them­selves into the cen­tre seat, line up on a run­way, press the Ve­loc­ity but­ton above their head and nail the throt­tle, they’ll feel what it’s like to ac­cel­er­ate from zero to 186mph in the same time it takes a diesel su­per­mini to hit 60mph.

How is it pow­ered? That still hasn’t been fully re­vealed, but let’s start by look­ing at a broader pic­ture. McLaren likes its Ul­ti­mate Se­ries cars to an­swer ques­tions. Take the Senna, which an­swers “is it pos­si­ble to roadle­galise rac­ing lev­els of down­force?”. Turns out it is, and noth­ing else comes close to the 800kg of down­ward pres­sure the Senna is able to pro­duce at 150mph. Now we’re in the realm of “What if we for­got about down­force and went low-drag in­stead? Say grand tour­ing was still a thing, what would the ul­ti­mate 21st-cen­tury GT car look like? What would it be able to do?”

McLaren’s leap of faith is that grand tour­ing is still a thing, and that peo­ple will want to do it as a three­some. Hy­per GT is the pitch; Bu­gatti Chiron, even if McLaren isn’t ad­mit­ting as much, the tar­get. The Speedtail is about lux­ury as much as speed. Well, head­ing that way. We’ll come on to talk about the clean lines of the cabin, the tac­til­ity of the ma­te­ri­als, but first just look at it: the length of the tail, the el­e­gance of those rear lines. It’s plain stun­ning, a shape that treats the air pass­ing over and around it with re­spect. What air it needs is sub­tly taken, used as ap­pro­pri­ate for com­bus­tion or cool­ing and then calmly rein­tro­duced, be­fore be­ing pre­cisely and del­i­cately de­tached by the samu­rai blade tail. At 5.13 me­tres long, it’s 60cm longer than a Chiron, the sweep­ing car­bon cape car­ry­ing with it a sug­ges­tion of art deco/ steam­punk Thir­ties cool. The kind of car the Rock­e­teer would have driven.

That’s the back, at least. The front is more chal­leng­ing. What ini­tially springs to my mind are mid-Eight­ies con­cept cars, stuff such as the MG EX-E, the Lo­tus Etna. Think it’s some­thing to do with the wheelspats and low, low nose. The more I look, the bet­ter it gets, though, and I re­ally ad­mire how the in­takes and air chan­nels have been hid­den away. Still at this end of the car en­gi­neer­ing is more im­por­tant than aes­thet­ics. De­sign chief Rob Melville de­scribes it as a “comet, with the mass at the front, then this long tail”.

He’s also in­ter­est­ing about the wheelspats: “With­out them, the car would not have been able to de­liver on its top speed and ac­cel­er­a­tion pa­ram­e­ters.” The spats (which re­main static as the wheel ro­tates) re­duce tur­bu­lence

“DE­SIGN CHIEF ROB MELVILLE DE­SCRIBES IT AS A ‘COMET, WITH THE MASS AT THE FRONT, TAIL’ THEN THEN THIS LONG TAIL ’”

al­most en­tirely, the air al­lowed only to es­cape from the whee­larch through a sin­gle notch, smooth­ing flow. They can be re­moved, but McLaren sug­gests you don’t. Just think of the brake dust build-up. And did you no­tice? No ex­te­rior mir­rors. In­stead, pop-out cam­eras with screens at the base of the A-pil­lars.

I don’t think I’ve seen a smoother tran­si­tion from win­dow into roofline – there’s no header rail, noth­ing to de­lay the air’s pas­sage. And how about the cuts at the back of the rear deck? Flex­i­ble car­bon fi­bre, moved by hy­draulic ac­tu­a­tors to ad­just the cen­tre of pres­sure or aid brak­ing sta­bil­ity. We must as­sume that some­where in Wok­ing that vast one-piece clamshell is un­der­go­ing not just air-proof­ing, but child-proof­ing, be­ing con­tin­u­ously flexed, bent and pres­surised so that the Speedtail can re­sist the chal­lenges of Casino Square.

Which, let’s face it, is a likely des­ti­na­tion. Let’s just hope it’s been able to use a de­cent pro­por­tion of that 1,036bhp on the way there. No word yet on how that’s bal­anced be­tween com­bus­tion engine and e-mo­tor(s), but let’s guess 750bhp from the fa­mil­iar 4.0 twin turbo V8 and ap­proach­ing 300bhp of elec­tric. There’s a con­ven­tional bat­tery pack, but no plug-in socket. In­stead, in­duc­tive charg­ing.

Ru­mour is it won’t run on elec­tric alone. Shame. If true, this hy­brid will have re­gressed from the P1. Will elec­tric­ity still be help­ing out at high speed? Is there

a clever gear­ing sys­tem to al­low that? We just don’t know, beyond re­al­is­ing that the 1,430kg dry weight (the P1 was 1,395kg) means the bat­tery pack can’t be that big.

There are a cou­ple of ele­phants in the room. Any­one else slightly un­der­whelmed by the stats? Only 7mph faster than the 25-year old F1, likely no more e-power than the Porsche 918 Spy­der, a mere 1,036bhp to­tal when Koenigsegg’s Agera RS has a full megawatt (1,341bhp), and the Chiron has 1,479bhp. And 1,650bhp seems the en­try point if you want to talk 300mph.

The only stat avail­able so far is 0–186mph in 12.8secs. Bu­gatti’s time is 13.1secs (the Bug might have a hefty power ad­van­tage, but it’s also get­ting on for 600kg heav­ier – the two have near-iden­ti­cal power-to-weight ra­tios of around 740bhp per tonne). Noth­ing in it re­ally, but McLaren has con­firmed the Speedtail is rear-drive only. It’ll be do­ing well to match the Bug’s 2.4-sec 0–62mph time, but might just have caught up by 100mph (4.7secs). Mad enough, how­ever you mea­sure. For ref­er­ence the F1 took 22.0secs to reach 186mph, the P1 16.5secs. So it’s deeply, deeply fast, but not as rapid as the Koenigsegg Agera RS (11.9secs). Braga­bil­ity is good, but not at lev­els the F1 en­joyed at launch.

But maybe that’s the point. McLaren isn’t talk­ing 300mph, be­cause the faster you want to go, the more you have to com­pro­mise – stiffer tyre side­walls are just

the be­gin­ning. Go­ing back to first prin­ci­ples, McLaren wants the Speedtail to an­swer the hy­per-GT ques­tion, not sim­ply bat­tle for big­ger num­bers. Seen from that point of view, it’s hard to con­clude that 250mph isn’t lu­di­crously ad­e­quate. So 250mph it is, reached very quickly.

We can also as­sume McLaren is fo­cus­ing on high-speed sta­bil­ity as a core facet, to make dis­tance re­lax­ing and un­de­mand­ing. Wind and tyre noise will need to be min­imised – in that re­spect, it’s en­cour­ag­ing that the front tyres are mod­est 235-sec­tion, that there’s noth­ing to snag the air pass­ing over the canopy. I sus­pect it’ll have a mas­sive fuel tank (“more than 60 litres” is all Ul­ti­mate Se­ries line di­rec­tor Andy Palmer would ad­mit). Even so, it ought to be an ef­fi­cient car.

Com­par­ing and con­trast­ing the Speedtail is all well and good, but its USP isn’t speed, but seat­ing. This time last year, I drove a cen­tral-seat 720S. I found it cap­ti­vat­ing, al­most in­stantly a more log­i­cal, sen­si­ble place to sit in the car, dis­tanced from both A-pil­lars, the sym­me­try of the view out an ut­ter joy. The catch is get­ting in. Var­i­ous tech­niques are avail­able; none is el­e­gant. Or quick. All in­volve a mea­sure of shuf­fling and skooching. I do like the fact McLaren has in­cor­po­rated re­cessed han­dles in the head­lin­ing, and en­gi­neered “di­rec­tional leather” that aids slid­ing in, then “sub­tly holds the oc­cu­pant in place while they drive”. This was nec­es­sary be­cause the cen­tral seat couldn’t have high bol­sters. You do miss them.

If you want to feel wedged in, drop back into one of the flank­ing chairs. Here, tucked be­hind B-pil­lar, shoul­der over­lapped with the driver, you are gen­uinely hemmed in. It’s com­fort­able but re­stric­tive. You can’t be big. The view out, how­ever, is, like the driver’s, unique. It’s a spe­cial place to sit, and you’re aware of views in in­ter­est­ing di­rec­tions, of the amount of light, of an­gles you’ve never seen be­fore in a car. It’s not so­cial, though, doesn’t treat pas­sen­gers as equals.

The cen­tre seat makes the Speedtail ego­cen­tric. The sym­me­try is em­pha­sised by how much it’s been de­clut­tered. No sun vi­sors; in­stead, the Speedtail is fit­ted with elec­trochromic glass which dark­ens at the press of a but­ton. The LED in­te­rior lights have been in­cor­po­rated into the glass, too. Your eye has less to fall on, and the clean view across the swathe of screen and air vent, mir­rored ei­ther side, chan­nels you into fo­cus­ing on the steer­ing wheel, fin­ished in this glo­ri­ous wood-like ma­chined car­bon. That ma­te­rial, su­per­tac­tile, carved from bil­let car­bon where each layer is just 30 mi­crons thick, is used for the pad­dles too, and forms the bin­na­cle around the port­hole above your head. That’s where you find the car con­trols, but­tons for gear­lever, start/stop and switch­able dy­namic modes. The most in­ter­est­ing one is la­belled Ve­loc­ity.

This pre­pares the Speedtail for high speeds. “No ex­tra key or any­thing,” Palmer tells me, “this will do 250mph straight out of the box.” It low­ers, the ac­tive aero is op­ti­mised and the wing cam­eras fold away. Whether this makes it an il­le­gal mode on the road, like the P1’s track mode, McLaren has yet to ad­mit.

The doors op­er­ate elec­tri­cally, there are stowage draw­ers un­der­neath the outer seats, load bays at ei­ther end (162 litres in to­tal, fit­ted lug­gage matched to the in­te­rior spec­i­fi­ca­tion is op­tional) but no lock­ers in the flanks à la F1... more’s the pity. Cuphold­ers? Those are on the op­tions list, I’m told.

But it’s not just the tech and lay­out that sep­a­rates the Speedtail from lesser McLarens – it’s the de­sign and qual­ity. So here we have Scan­dana­vian leather where air is in­fused be­neath the sur­face dur­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing, to re­duce den­sity and cut weight by 30 per cent. It’s still tough enough that, with stip­pling to aid grip, McLaren has used it in place of car­pet on the floor. Then there’s Ti­ta­nium De­po­si­tion Car­bon Fi­bre (I’m sure it’s sci­en­tif­i­cally ac­cu­rate McLaren, but you shouldn’t put sci­en­tists in charge of nam­ing it as well as cre­at­ing it). Carbo-tanium gets around the is­sue of coloured car­bon fi­bre, which can, ap­par­ently, com­pro­mise the ma­te­rial’s struc­tural in­tegrity. Here, a mi­cron­thin ti­ta­nium layer is fused onto the car­bon weave. McLaren has left the fin­ish nat­u­ral on this Speedtail, but the ti­ta­nium can be an­odised in any colour – you could even have images and words placed into the car­bon. McLaren pi­o­neered car­bon fi­bre. Now it’s tak­ing it to the next level.

The mind bog­gles. I sus­pect it’ll do so again when more de­tails are re­leased. But for now, while we’re still short of full fact dis­clo­sure, I rec­om­mend just gaw­ping at the thing, and re­al­is­ing that one day quite soon, 106 of them will be re­leased into the wild.

“‘NO EX­TRA KEY OR ANY­THING,’ LINE DI­REC­TOR ANDY PALMER TELLS ME, ‘THIS WILL DO 250MPH BOX’ STRAIGHT STRAIGHT OUT OF THE BOX ’”

PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: ALEX HOWE

The se­cret to McLaren’s abil­ity to make amaz­ing­driv­ing cars is re­vealed

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