McLaren's wild wedge
I would like you all to humour me for a second. Put down this newspaper and go find a notepad and pen. Got it? Right, now I want you to close your eyes for a minute or two and think of the word "supercar".
Go on; mull it around your brain until you see something emerge from the darkness.
Okay, I'd like you to sketch whatever it was that came to mind. Nothing too technical mind, just the basic shape.
Wonderful. Now I'll bet you R100 that your impromptu masterpiece looks something like the McLaren MP4-12C you see above.
Coincidence? Not in the slightest. In fact, ever since it was released last year, the spirited successor to the iconic McLaren F1 (you know, the car Rowan Atkinson keeps on crashing) has been a dead ringer for everyone's perception of how a supercar should look. Not necessarily a bad thing, but in an era rich with radical Ferrari 458s and Lamborghini Aventadors, the McLaren's simple, wedge-like shape seems generic. What's more, it also lacks identity. For whereas either of the two Italians mentioned are easily recognisable, capable of causing a riot every time they appear in a public parking lot, the MP4-12C could, to the casual observer, quite easily pass as something else. A new Noble. A Lotus Evora. A
Tesla. It leaves people scratching their heads.
And this is why, whenever I overhear a bunch of petrolheads talking about parking fast exotics deep inside their fantasy garages, the latest McLaren rarely registers. For the money, or so I am told, its architecture does not leave enough of an impact. There is no pantomime. And that is what's so important, isn't it? Theatrical zeal in the veins?
Hmm. I'm not sure. Because in my relatively short career I've met many ravishing über-cars that write cheques that their looks alone simply cannot cash. The Aston Martin DB9 is a perfect example. It is utterly gorgeous in the flesh but, after a few minutes behind the wheel, the disappointment is tangible.
This is why, standing on the side of the Top Gear Test Track at Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey, UK, the MP4-12C is starting to make sense. For even though the McLaren is comparatively plain when you park it next to one of its rivals, none of them can really come close to the level of engineering beneath the surface.
For example the chassis is made of pure carbon fibre - just like in a Formula One car. Officially dubbed the MonoCell in McLaren-speak, not only is it super-light (a mere 75kg) but also incredibly stiff and rigid - qualities that help contribute towards perfect handling.
But the F1-derived technology doesn't stop there. There is that seven-speed dual-clutch transmission; the new-fangled Brake Steer system that kills understeer when exiting a tight corner; and an adaptive hydraulic suspension setup for which no track is too fast, or public road too bumpy.
All of this, and plenty more, have their roots tapped in the acme of motorsport's most glamorous formula.
But what is this hand-built supercar like to drive?
Well to find out, McLaren have plonked me inside a bright orange MP4-12C with British Touring Car ace Mat Jackson riding shotgun in the passenger seat.
Settling down behind that leather steering wheel (apparently it's modelled after Lewis Hamilton's), I tap the start button and taxi out onto primetime television's most famous racetrack. So, a wannabe star in an unreasonably priced car? You bet. Only this one wants to dominate the leader board.
Now it takes a while to get used to The Stig's backyard, because there are no conventional racing curbs or markers with which to orientate yourself. But after a few siting laps and some cowboy wisdom from Mr Jackson, I'm ready to put the McLaren into Track Mode and show Surrey my mettle.
And the first thing I notice after doing so is just how focused the MP4-12C becomes.
Around the country roads, this machine was as forgiving as a Toyota Corolla. Seriously, you could drive it to work every single day.
But now, with everything from the weight of the steering to the responsiveness of the engine and traction control set to mimic that of a racing car, this McLaren feels like nothing else I've ever piloted.
Charging through famous corners such as Chicago, Hammerhead and The Follow-through, the MP4-12C delivers a handling performance that is flawless. It is composed, full of grip and capable of following your chosen line like a razor blade tracking through flesh.
Then there's the acceleration. Powered by a twin-turbocharged V8, the way it builds up speed is almost biblical. Most supercars simply shift your internal organs to the back of your abdomen, but when you put your foot flat, the McLaren punches the air from your lungs.
McLaren worked hard on perfecting the acoustics and consequently, when you give the MP-12C beans, there's a sonic wave of thunder that rolls up through the engine bay and crashes into the cabin. And it's the kind of brutal roar that reminds you that you're piloting something incredibly special. Ditto the driving position. Some cars, even up in this rarified echelon, are a little compromised.
This one, however, fits you like a Savile Row suit.
Lastly, there are the brakes. Mine has the optional carbon ceramics (more tech borrowed from Formula One) and when combined with the Airbrake that shoots up to aid in retardation, the McLaren stops like it's hitting an invisible brick wall. No joke, it takes 123m to stop from a speed of 200km/h. With this kind of bite you can hit the anchors at the last nanosecond; an act that sees your eyes bulge like a Pekingese.
Sensing my increasing bravery and will to finish ahead of all the other journalists visiting Dunsfold Aerodrome, Jackson, fearing for his life, orders me back into the pits - though not before I cross the rain-soaked finish line to record a lap time of 1 minute 25 seconds.
That's not rapid enough to give The Stig sleepless nights, but quite sufficient for me to learn that the MP4-12C is a truly incredible effort. It's proof once again that, just like with a book and its cover, you shouldn't judge a coupé by the curve of its carbon skin.
Because doing so means turning your back on what will most certainly be the world's supercar benchmark for at least the next decade.
- Watch the video at http://tinyurl.com/89jj6mf