Jay Leno’s Wife Gets His Old McLaren
September 3, 2013 § Leave a comment
Jay Leno tests the new Million Dollar McLaren
I’VE been to the Dunsfold test track in Surrey a few times, once on Top Gear as the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car and now as not much of a star in a really expensive car. Not unless you keep the company of oligarchs could you describe the car I’m driving as reasonably priced. It costs more than $1m.
It is the new McLaren P1, and I am lucky enough to be the first person outside McLaren to drive it. Of course, it may help that I already have every model the company has brought out. Its iconic F1 is probably the car in my garage I would save from a fire if I had time to retrieve just one. I bought it 15 years ago. People thought I was crazy but it’s the best thing I’ve done.
Before I got my hands on the P1 I was invited to see the hybrid-power supercar being made. If you fly into or out of Heathrow you can see the company’s yin and yang-shaped headquarters just to the south. So within minutes of landing I was pulling up at the new McLaren Production Centre (MPC).
Woking may not have the same cachet as Maranello (Ferrari’s home town), but for me this is nirvana. Norman Foster designed the place, and the outside is as sleek as one of the cars made there. I cannot help but feel like a little kid whenever I come to visit.
Inside, it is as clean as a hospital: I ran my finger on the floor and licked it, just to make sure. It’s also as quiet as one. When I walked in I was the loudest thing in there. Until they fire up one of the P1s or 12Cs for a test, that is. It’s then you realise this place is truly alive and inhabited by people whose role in life is to create automotive genius.
Jay Leno becomes the first person outside McLaren to drive the P1
Production of the P1 is starting now and McLaren will be making one a day until 375 are built. The P1 is not constructed on an assembly line. The car is handmade in a space where 61 technicians build it from start to finish in 24 steps. It’s a space-age construction process executed with old-fashioned British military precision.
You see the detail that goes into the P1. McLaren has taken technology from its Formula One team, as you might expect. The brakes, which are made by the Japanese specialist Akebono, are mirrored, and not for the image — they dissipate heat more effectively than standard carbon discs. Everything on the car is there only for performance.
The P1 has an “instant power assist system”, a development of the Kers setup used on F1 cars that uses kinetic energy from braking to regenerate the battery and give an instant boost of power at the push of a button.
The rear wing on the new McLaren apparently not only generates the same downforce as if a baby elephant were sitting on it but also features a drag reduction system. That means — as with an F1 vehicle — it is flattened at high speed and is more angled at lower velocities, for cornering downforce.
Weight is a car’s greatest enemy. Another automotive icon from these isles, Colin Chapman of Lotus, was a master at defining British sports cars as the ones that handled best, partially thanks to low weight. On the P1 everything is as light as possible. I picked up a seat waiting to be fitted: it was lighter than a small bag of groceries.
The balance of the P1 is crucial. The fuel tank and battery array — two of the heaviest items — are right behind the radiator in the middle of the car. The only weight the McLaren folk cannot control in the P1 is that of the humans inside it. I am sure they would if they could. Mind you, they did offer me a largish lunch before the short helicopter shuttle down to Dunsfold and the real reason I’d come to the UK — to actually drive the car.
Two pre-production P1s were parked like Spitfires ready for battle as I landed at the old Second World War airbase. One was a blackish purple, the other yellow and black. The latter was my plaything for the afternoon.
My instructor is Chris Goodwin, McLaren’s chief test driver. Some say he once drove round Dunsfold in a white racing suit and helmet. The first thing you notice about the P1 is that it drives like a 12C on steroids. Everything is pumped up. The sound especially. In the P1 you’ve got bigger turbochargers, so the wastegates pop off, which I rather like. Pachow! Pachow!
The brakes are incredible; the level of grip is incredible — it just holds the road. The electronic aids are also phenomenal but they don’t ruin the driver’s input. In Race mode the suspension drops by about 2in. The rear wing can extend by up to 1ft, maximising the downforce. What you cannot see but you can feel is active aerodynamics on the front axle.
The thing I like about McLaren is it makes proper street cars you can take to the racetrack. And this has probably the most dramatic change from Normal setting to Track mode of any car I’ve seen. You feel it just hunker down. It drops I don’t know how many millimetres but you feel the whole thing tighten up. It’s a bit like watching Bruce Banner transform into the Hulk. The whole thing starts bursting out of its shirt and your power seems as though it’s up by a third.
The obvious question is: how does it compare with the F1? And the answer is that it makes you realise that the F1 is a totally different car from a totally different era. The P1 does 0-62mph in less than three seconds, which is the benchmark for a supercar these days. McLaren claims it will go to 186mph in less than 17 seconds — more than five seconds quicker than my F1 road car.
Leno cruises around the Top Gear test track
Although it has a lower top speed, you actually seem to go way faster in this machine than in the F1. You also feel as though this new McLaren can save you. Nothing saves you in the F1. The P1 feels solid. There’s no scuttle shake, no rumbling through the chassis, nothing fidgeting through the steering wheel. It’s an amazing car.
And the one I’m in is not even finished. It is a prototype, so none of the switchgear is in place and you see some wires hanging and some labels on things. Yet it’s still incredibly tight, and mechanically it’s perfect. After I’d been beating the P1 up all day long, the temperature had not risen one degree. The brakes hadn’t overheated a bit.
When you are done driving like Jenson Button you can choose the electric setting, or E mode. The noise subsides, but still you can break the speed limit by some margin and lap fast enough to pull some Gs. I don’t think anybody would know this was a hybrid car if you didn’t tell them. Or if they did not hear you whistling by in near-silence. The clever thing about McLaren’s hybrid system is it drives direct into the block, so it’s like a supercharger running through the system.
Hybrid just seems a progressive way to go. I mean, you get the best of both worlds. You have countries that are actually banning supercars because they pollute too much, and it probably won’t be long until some city centres ban vehicles that put out a certain amount of emissions.
Well, with this car, you put it in E mode and you can drive down to the centre of town just as if it were a Toyota Prius. It’s proof that a hybrid car doesn’t have to be a compromise.
I get out of the P1 with reluctance — I have just discovered this is my new favourite supercar. But Dunsfold closes at 5pm and we are already past that. The only reason I am not inconsolable is that I have bought a P1 — in yellow and black, like this one.
It arrives in Los Angeles early next year, and I can’t wait to get back behind the wheel. Like my F1, I think it will hold my interest for ever.
And my 12C? I think that will become the wife’s car now.