McLaren F1

>>CAR AND DRIVER<<>>By Peter Robinson
An instant after being launched by a hump in the road at over 100 mph, my view of the sky from the central driving position of the McLaren F1 supercar is pure Cinemascope. The moon could be our destination. In that airborne instant, I believe anything is possible. Forget the moon--with an engine this potent, let's aim for Mars.
When the four-point touchdown comes, it is so velvety that the suspension feels as though it might have been designed for landings. Instantly, the sound of rushing air is shattered by a sharp bark from the engine as the $815,000 McLaren is propelled down the blacktop, accelerating at a rate I've never before experienced. Foot down hard, the straight vanishes. As the speedo needle hits 125 mph, an instant shift--so precise and mechanical it's like pulling back a well-oiled bolt on a rifle--brings fourth gear and another disorienting burst of power that thrusts me forcefully back into the tight-fitting bucket seat.
Still we accelerate. Just 5.4 seconds later, a green up-shift light flashes, appropriately positioned at the 7500 rpm redline on the tach in the center of the instruments. Into fifth gear at 150 mph. Still no lessening of acceleration thrust. The car--squat, stable, a green limpet on the road--shoots forward. Maybe there's space before the corner to grab sixth at 180 mph. Maybe.
No. My courage runs out, the survival instinct takes over. Onto the brakes. I press hard, through the pedal's inert feel before they bite to blunt forward movement.
Less than 30 seconds earlier, I'd waited back up the road for an all-clear signal. Even as the BMW V-12 idled evenly at 900 rpm, I could sense its invincibility. The exhaust note might be subdued, but caress the throttle and the revs soar. I can't resist. Nobody could. This engine responds so instantly it feels as if it doesn't have a flywheel, like a racing engine. The induction bellow is almost ephemeral it can be timed so accurately. The tach needle jerks savagely around the gauge, as if directly connected to the crankshaft.
I'm alone at last, able to contemplate the enormity of a car so swift that itdemands an utterly different mental approach. The McLaren forces restraintbecause there is no way to drive it legally--except on an autobahn or a racetrack--and even begin to probe the full extent of its power and speed. It's an event every time you floor the throttle, producing an irresistible desire to remain behind the wheel, to learn as much as possible about a car so intense in its focus, so single-minded in its approach, that I'm convinced even a top-ranked driver could own it for years and still not explore the outer limits of its staggering performance envelope.
Forget the Jaguar XJ220, Bugatti EB110, Ferrari F40--until now cars deserving to be called rapid. The McLaren blitzes them all. And we have the proof. Confirmed by the Datron optical test gear.
The numbers do the talking: The F1 blasts to 60 mph in 3.2 seconds. The Porsche 959, the previous production-car record holder, needed 3.6 ticks of the watch. We saw 100 mph in 6.3 seconds. The Ferrari F40 took two seconds longer. The McLaren hits 150 mph in 12.8 seconds, a smidgen longer than it takes Porsche's latest, greatest 911 to reach 100 mph. Put another way, the McLaren can accelerate as hard at 150 mph as a Ford Taurus can in first gear.
Zero to 200 mph takes 28.0 seconds. What's impressive is the figures show that above 125 mph, the F1 supercar accelerates faster than last year's McLaren MP4/8 Grand Prix race car.
The standing quarter-mile is dispatched in a dazzling 11.1 seconds at 138mph--about a second quicker and 15 mph faster than any other supercar we've tested.
Suddenly all the usual measures of performance seem mildly laughable. We're talking about a road car that surpasses the performance of most of the racers that will line-up for this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans race.
Top speed? The F1 runs into the 7500 rpm redline in sixth at 221 mph--but it's still accelerating. Gordon Murray, the F1's designer, is convinced that with taller gearing, the car is capable of at least 230 mph.
The motivation behind this speed is a normally aspirated, 6.1-liter V-12, custom-designed for the McLaren F1 by BMW Motorsports. It breaks the magic 100-horsepower-per-liter barrier, yet it is not about power alone, although its 618 hp at 7400 rpm might convince you otherwise.
Helped by BMW's variable valve timing, Paul Roche's masterpiece also pumps out a staggering 479 pound-feet of torque between 4000 and 7000 rpm. At only 1500 rpm, it produces 280 pound-feet. Try trickling along at 1300 rpm in sixth gear and the spread of torque is confirmed, the flexibility so astonishing that unless you glance at the tach, you have no idea of the engine rpm. Floor the accelerator and while there's a trace of engine knock, the acceleration is still assertive.
Such a tractable nature is confirmed by the top-gear acceleration times. Although the engine is only turning 1000 rpm at 30 mph in sixth gear, 50 mph comes up in only 7.0 seconds. From 50 to 70 mph, the engine has picked up enough rpm and torque that the time drops to a mere 3.7 seconds. A Lamborghini Diablo needs 7.5 seconds to cover the same interval in top gear and the F40 needs 12.2 seconds.
Best of all, whatever the right foot does is instantly translated to the rear wheels in a way no turbo engine can emulate. This combination of flexibility and sheer muscle, the perception that the engine is never stressed, together with the howl of a big-capacity V-12 when accelerating and its relative hush at a constant throttle, ensures that this is undoubtedly the finest high-performance production engine in the world.
You pay a price for this performance at the gas pump, yet the efficiency of the engine, a drag coefficient of just 0.32, and the enormous benefits of a light 2579-pound curb weight mean consumption is reasonable. On a diet of unleaded premium, it still returns 19.3 mpg at highway speeds. Thrash the car and it drops to just 9 mpg.
Crucial to the McLaren's handling excellence are three key factors: the central driving position, the car's diminutive dimensions, and a unique patented suspension system.
The advantages of the central driving position are many: the driver can be positioned further forward, his legs slotted between the wheel arches in two long carbon-fiber beams that house the controls. The relationship with an F1 racing car is obvious. There are no offset pedals, and the tiny, almost-vertical steering wheel is positioned so the driver's right hand drops from the rim to the alloy gear lever.
From this position and without the hindrance of an A-pillar, you can see the pavement just five feet in front of the car through the huge windshield. You quickly learn that the compact F1--it's about nine inches narrower and seven inches shorter than a Diablo--can be placed within inches of the apex. And because the driver is sitting in line with the roll center, any impression of body roll--and there is a little--is removed.
Handling? You won't find a finer supercar chassis in the world. There are compromises in building a car to be obedient while driving slowly, yet with the stability required to cope with warp speeds and extreme g-forces, but in the McLaren there are few of the design botches we've accepted as normal in cars of this breed. Yes, the suspension is firm, the tires noisy, and the ride at low speeds and on highways jiggly (especially for the passengers). Yet on interesting back roads--where it counts--the suppleness and composure are remarkable.
There is no ignoring the weight of the steering when parking, but above school-zone speeds, the steering has an almost meaty precision to its feel. Low-speed corners suggest that the steering is low-geared. Wrong. With 2.8 turns lock to lock, the steering is direct and alive, full of feel yet without kickback.
On slow corners, the combination of an exceptional power-to-weight ratio and a driver-oriented chassis allows you to turn into a corner with just a tinge of understeer and then powerslide through it, balancing the car by using both throttle and steering. The power oversteer is so progressive that one does not hesitate to exploit it, despite the consequences of crashing this $815,000 machine.
Ultimately, the McLaren does exactly what it is asked to do. In fast corners, it grips surely and precisely. Unless you have the responses of a Keke Rosberg--one of the F1's early customers--you run out of bravery, as the strength of the g-forces builds up, long before the McLaren loses adhesion or poise.
It is this certain predictability of behavior, the instantaneousness of every dynamic aspect, that makes the F1 so secure to drive, yet because the levels of performance are so high, the driving challenge remains intense and involving.
Only in one area does the no-compromise approach suffer. Finding the right disc-brake pads to cope with slow driving, and dealing with the rigors of 200-mph stops, means the massive, vented four-caliper but non-assisted brakes feel wooden when the pedal is first pressed upon. They need a strong right foot and most drivers would probably appreciate an anti-lock system.
Does the central driving position have any disadvantages? Once you learn the technique of entry, it is--unless you're really bulky--surprisingly easy to get in and out. The secret is to place your bum on the forward edge of the deeply dished left-hand passenger seat (not the right, because of the gear lever) with your legs outside the car. Lean back on both arms and swing your legs into the car, over the hand-brake bank, and down into the foot well. Then swivel your body across and flop into the driver's seat. Then close the scissors-style doors; you can't pull them shut once you're belted in.
Visibility is brilliant up front, but it suffers to the rear. There are two interior mirrors, but with passengers aboard, they are useless. The exterior mirrors only afford a clue of what's going on behind the car. Because the passengers sit beside and behind the driver, conversation can be one-directional. Heat also spreads from the bulkhead into the twin luggage compartments--each containing customized leather luggage--and to the inner edge of the close-fitting two passenger seats.
McLaren's obsession with weight has obviously paid off. The company has produced the fastest, most-accelerative production car the world has ever seen. That it is also a marvelous driver's car is beyond dispute. However, in building a car capable of charting territory no road machine has ever broached before, McLaren is also asking the driver to stifle the car's performance, at least on the road. That the McLaren is capable of delivering pleasure even when the driver is skimming its potential is a real measure of its achievement.
>>ROAD & TRACK<<>>By Peter Egan
Unless some new company miraculously arises within the next two years, blessed with unprecedented resources, clarity of vision, Formula 1 racing experience and profound enthusiasm, the McLaren F1 pictured on these pages will hold undisputed title to Fastest Street-Legal Car of the 20th Century.

Quite a claim, when you consider the competition: Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches, Jaguars, Ruf-Porsches, Lotuses, limited-production Bugattis and so on. But in all those years, no one has so thoroughly pursued the notion of an ultimate car as McLaren engineer Gordon Murray or McLaren boss Ron Dennis. And what a list of ultimates they have produced:

Most horsepower ever: 627 bhp.
Highest reported top speed: 231 mph.
Quickest 0-60 mph: 3.4 seconds.
Most expensive: It costs pounds 550,000 in England. The U.S. list price is $890,000 at current exchange rates -- but with shipping, taxes, fees and modification to meet federal safety and emissions laws, the total cost to us Yanks is $1,131,120.

Least effective air conditioner ever installed in a modern car.

More on that last item later. What matters here is that this is a phenomenal automobile, and we finally got our hands on one to test. Only 100 of these cars will have been produced -- including 20 racing versions -- when McLaren finally ceases production this December, and there are, at this writing, only five of them in the U.S. with a sixth on the way. One is owned by fashion designer/car collector Ralph Lauren, who liked it so much he has a second one on order. And the car tested here was lent to us by a gentleman from Texas who prefers to remain anonymous.

When he decided a few years ago that he had to have a McLaren, he called his friend Harley Cluxton, race driver and owner of Grand Touring Cars, an exotic sports-car dealership in Scottsdale, Arizona. Cluxton arranged the purchase of the F1 from McLaren and the two of them went to England to visit the factory. The car was then shipped to Connecticut, where it was federalized for import by a specialist company called Ameritech, owned by our old friend Dick Fritz, who has legalized all sorts of cars over the years. For U.S. purposes, Ameritech is actually listed as the manufacturer and is the point of purchase. (However, an arrangement has been made for all service to be performed by BMW at its headquarters in New Jersey.)

The new owner and his wife flew to Connecticut to collect the F1 and drove it 2,200 miles back to Texas, where he now uses the McLaren every day to drive to work, and it has 7,500 miles on the odometer. For our road test, the car was trucked to Cluxton's shop in Scottsdale, and our test crew gathered there to enjoy the F1 for three days of driving in the city, through the nearby mountains and on the test track at Firebird International Raceway.

At first viewing, the McLaren appears compact and tidy, and a good deal less flashy and outrageous in design than, say, a Lamborghini Diablo or a Ferrari F50. But a closer look at its construction details and technical specifications soon dispels any sense of the mundane.

First thing to incite the classic double-take for most bystanders is the "1-plus-2" driving position, with the driver seated smack-dab in the middle of the car. Passenger seats and/or baggage compartments flank the driver's seat and are set slightly back of the central cockpit. Gordon Murray designed it this way for optimum balance, a symmetrical view of approaching apexes and to sidestep the usual mid-engine exotic-car problem of having the front wheels impinge on the driver's footwell space. He wanted a comfortable, logical cockpit without limited steering lock, skewed pedals, seats or steering wheel, and he got it.
Because the car comes into the U.S. without side airbags or other passive restraints for the two passenger seats, the law requires their removal, so our test car had the luggage bays installed by Ameritech. The owner, however, is free to install one or both seats after purchase, and most do (likewise the removal of the Ameritech-installed, U.S.-legal bumpers and headlights).
Look down through the glass on the rear decklid and the next marvel unfolds: a magnificent-looking but compact 60-degree V-12 engine with cam covers that read "McLaren/BMW M Power," all surrounded by genuine gold-plated heat foil. The engine, designed specifically for McLaren by BMW Motorsport in Munich, is the work of a team led by senior engineer Paul Rosche. This 6.1-liter gem has 48 valves, four cams, variable cam timing and is naturally aspirated because Murray wanted immediate, effortless acceleration without a hint of turbo lag. He asked BMW for an engine with at least 550 bhp and got one with 627. No complaint there. The engine also puts out a massive 479 lb.-ft. of torque all the way from 4,000-7,000 rpm, with a redline of 7,500.

This, in a car that, at 2,840 lb., weighs nearly 400 lb. less than a Corvette.
And (in European trim) has one extra seat, with acceptable luggage space -- bays with side doors just ahead of the rear wheel wells hold custom matching luggage as well as the car's battery, fuses, jack and wheel nut wrench.

How was this lightness accomplished in a car that churns out such heavy numbers?
Well, the chassis and body are made almost entirely of carbon fiber, with a few sections of aluminum honeycomb embedded in the main bulkheads. The chassis is constructed as an immensely strong "survival cell" with a built-in roll structure, and we were told that a couple of European owners have survived high-speed crashes unhurt.

The engine itself has an aluminum-alloy block and heads with magnesium covers and ancillaries. Following race-car practice, the rear suspension bolts directly to the engine and transaxle, which, in this case, are joined to the rear bulkhead through vibration-damping mounts. Likewise, the front suspension, with unequal-length A-arms and rocker-arm-driven-spring/shock units, is bolted to a subframe that is insulated from the chassis. This allows race-carlike precision of suspension geometry with road-car quietness and absence of vibration.
Ultralight carbon fiber abounds elsewhere in the car too. Everything from the steering-wheel hub cover to the duct that carries air from the scoop in the center of the roof to the fuel injectors is made of carbon fiber.
Much of the car's lightness, however, comes not from lightweight materials, but from missing components.

Missing what?

Well, there's no ABS, for one thing. Murray reasoned (correctly, we think) that experienced drivers don't want the lack of control that comes with ABS. Instead of intermittently reducing traction with ABS, he designed the car to increase traction at the rear under braking with a small, computer-controlled rear flap that pops up under heavy deceleration, adding downforce of its own, but also feeding more air down through the bodywork to the rear brakes.

And in this we have another weight savings: no power assist on the massive 4-wheel discs with their big 4-pot Brembo calipers. By selectively cooling the brakes only during high-speed stops, a softer brake pad compound can be used, making the brakes responsive even at slow speeds when the pads are cool.

Another large lump not present on the McLaren is any sort of power-assisted steering mechanism. No pump, hoses, oil or seals. The car's light weight and careful attention to steering geometry obviate the need for it, Murray reasoned. The F1 also lacks a spare tire, as the specially constructed 17-in. Goodyear Eagle F1s -- mounted on lightweight magnesium O.Z. wheels -- are unidirectional and different sizes front to rear, so no two are interchangeable. There's a pressurized can of tire sealant in the right side trunk, however.
So, we have a 2,840-lb. car with 627 bhp and a reported top speed of 231 mph. Which begs the next question: Without big wings, chin spoilers and other showy aerodynamic appurtenances, how does it stay on the ground?

Not for nothing has McLaren won seven Formula 1 championships. These guys have been preventing cars from taking off and flying away for a long time. Using McLaren's F1 moving-ground wind tunnel, they designed a ground-effects undertray on the Venturi principle, with a wide opening at the bottom of the nose to channel air under the chassis at high speed and a rear, upswept diffuser to pull the air out. Two powerful fans, one on either side of the car, also draw air away from the boundary layer and feed it out through the back.

Gordon Murray tried this "fan-car" approach, if you will remember, back in 1978 when he designed the Brabham-Alfa Romeo Grand Prix car that won its first and only race in stunning fashion and was then banned on the age-old grounds of unfair technology. In designing his ultimate street car, however, Murray has encountered no ground-effects police and has had a free hand, much to the delight of those who would drive the McLaren F1 at a high rate of speed. Which is what we flew to Arizona to do.

To climb into the McLaren, you open the large dihedral door that swings up and forward and kind of roll across the luggage area, rear end first, swinging your legs down (the owner's manual illustrates how this should be done in four easy steps). Each driver's seat is custom-fitted to the car's owner, but we were fortunate in having a glovelike fit in common with our Texas friend. A 4-point harness buckles you in (3-point belts are optional), and the beautifully machined pedals, shift lever and Nardi leather-covered steering wheel are all exactly where they should be. A quick check shows that heel-and-toeing is effortless and natural.

On the right armrest behind the gear lever are controls for air conditioning, and the left armrest has a fly-away type handbrake lever and controls for a front trunk-mounted 10-disc CD player. The latter seems to have been Murray's only concession to frivolous weight, but, in fact, Kenwood was commissioned to build a special lightweight unit for this car. Up in the front hatch next to the CD player are the brake fluid and windshield washer reservoirs, as well as a tool roll filled with almost weightless gold-anodized titanium wrenches made by Facom of France. Each F1 buyer, incidentally, gets a large Facom tool set and rolling cabinet for the garage.

A blind reach over the roof is needed to pull the big door closed, and considerable muscle and conviction are needed to swing it downward. To start the car, you turn the key to its second slot, wait for a second until the many warning and check lights on the carbon-fiber dash go out, then flip up an aircraft-type safety cover to reveal the red starter button.

The engine seems to start instantly, though we are told it always cranks four complete revolutions before firing, probably to get the oil moving. It starts with a nice bark and immediately settles down into a smooth rustling idle. Clutch effort is only slightly higher than it might be in the average sedan, and the 6-speed transmission clicks through its gates in a tight, precise pattern. A button at the base of the shift lever allows you to lock out reverse once you are underway, and this is a good thing; the pattern is so tight it's all too easy to engage reverse when you want 1st at a stoplight. Backing your McLaren into a pickup truck when the light turns green is bad form indeed.

And, speaking of backing up, vision to the rear is not very good. The car has a high tail, as well as a solid air duct down the center of the rear window, so you depend on two electrically adjustable fender mirrors and twin interior mirrors, each showing a small segment of the road behind. Checking all mirrors before a lane change makes you feel like a retrospective fly. Also, those who have installed the side seats report that the passengers' heads completely block the view from the interior mirrors. Not ideal for maneuvering in the city traffic.

In our case, the lane-change problem was complicated by a left-turn signal that worked only on rare occasions, so we found ourselves reaching from the center of the car to make arm signals out the diminutive side windows.

But out on the road, it takes only a minute to get used to the central seating position, and then you stop thinking about it. A little odd at first, though, to find oneself directly over the oil streak in the center of the lane. And in heavy city traffic, you soon discover one of the finer traits of the BMW V-12: It is completely unfussy at low speed and pulls like a truck from about 1,500 rpm up, without pinging or bucking. Below 55 mph, it will run happily in any one of its six gears without complaint, despite the engine having no real flywheel, only a clutch mechanism. Lugging it, of course, is not what this car's all about.

Get on the throttle, use some revs and the car surges ahead in a smooth, almost electrical blur of acceleration, with the engine whirring happily behind you. Then you hit your first freeway ramp and really get on the throttle and the engine bursts forth into one of the most beautiful and visceral snarls in all of autodom. Beneath the high-pitched whine of the valve gear, a deep, menacing tone of heavy-hitting combustion fills the cabin, like a Rolls-Royce Merlin on combat boost in a P-51 Mustang. The engine note is not overly loud or annoying; it is simply resonant and soul-stirring, felt through the sternum as much as the ears, a symphony of power-packed punches overlapping into an unearthly wail.

Slowing again for traffic reveals yet another trait: The engine overheats.

We had the misfortune of testing the car at a time when the temperature in Phoenix was hovering around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the McLaren was not happy. Within five miles of our departure from Grand Touring Cars, the water temperature was maxed out at 120 degrees Celsius, the oil temp was nearly pegged, and both temperature warning lights were on.

Pulling over to let it cool, we checked the water and oil (full) and then called Dick Fritz on a cell phone to ask his advice. He called McLaren in England and was told that the car's high-speed performance demanded a compromise in low-speed cooling in city traffic, and we were not to worry about the high temperatures unless the warning lights came on again.

So we pressed onward, but in our three days of driving and testing, we had to stop three more times to let the car cool. Even on a mountain road, following traffic at 55-65 mph after dark, when the desert air had cooled down, the car became too hot to drive.

Also, the F1's air conditioning proved to be completely inadequate under the hot Arizona sun -- or moon, for that matter. Fan volume, set on 4 -- its highest notch -- feels like a setting of 1 on any typical econobox, and the air coming out of the vents, even in the recirculate mode, feels more like warm dog breath than super-cooled air. Also, the vents are aimed downward from the bottom of the dash, so no air hits the driver's upper body. It was a very sweaty three days, and we ultimately had to drive with the a/c off to keep the car from overheating. We kept the small side windows rolled down, trying to get enough air. The car was an oven.

Even the right door release and a/c console on the armrest became too hot to touch, as the hoses for the two front radiators run beneath them. The thermostatically controlled electric fans for the radiators run long after the car has been shut off, and so does an engine compartment fan that cools the catalytic converter and exhaust plumbing.

We called the owner in Texas, and he agreed the heat was a problem. "My wife and I had to pack the seats and side-panels with towels and blankets to insulate ourselves from chassis heat when we drove it home from Boston," he said. He added that he normally parks it in a cool place and takes relatively short trips.

Once again the Brits have upheld a long tradition in engine cooling and air conditioning of not understanding how downright hot the world can be outside the cloudy British Isles.

In all fairness, if the weather had been in the mid 70s or even low 80s, we probably never would have noticed any of these faults. But, alas, this is planet Earth, and ideally, cars should be made to operate upon it.

But if ever a car could distract you from seasonal physical discomfort, it is the McLaren F1. Dynamically, this car is magnificent.

Out on the twisting mountain roads the chassis, steering and roadholding quickly reveal their race-car breeding. The unboosted steering provides an exceptional road feel and a perfect sense of center-weighting, turning in with an almost instinctive accuracy and ease. Even in slow-speed parking maneuvers, the steering is not heavy enough to make you wish for power assist. It's just right.

As are the brakes. Your first stop in the car might catch you a little by surprise because the pedal does not have that toe-touch sensitivity we've come to expect from most modern (and vastly slower) cars. The McLaren's brakes take a little more leg, but the sheer power, the hard pedal, the balance and the linear modulation of the brakes quickly become the standard by which you judge all other braking systems. As a driver's tool, they are fabulous.

Ride, too, is excellent. There's virtually no sway in corners, except for a reassuring "set" as you turn in, and compliance over bumpy curves is supple, with no disruption of grip, even with the car's considerable power being laid down. On the Interstate or the long, straight two-lane, the ride is firm but never annoying or jouncy.

Handling balance is biased toward understeer -- too strongly, thought our Road Test Editor Kim Reynolds, who ran the F1 on the skidpad. He said the pronounced understeer kept the car from generating anything better than a rather average 0.86g. All the recent Porsches and Ferraris we've tested, for instance, generate more than 0.90g.

On the winding road, however, this understeer does not seem like quite such a bad thing. The F1 lunges between corners with such a ravenous appetite for pavement that a moment's inattention can have you trail-braking late into an off-camber turn, grateful for a little understeer. Also, the front end grips and turns in very well under heavy braking, and there's more than enough power to slide the back end around. There's certainly something lost here in steady-state cornering, but it may be the best and safest compromise for a car of the McLaren's prodigious power and speed.

Except for that slight limitation, it's a real driver's car that does exactly what you want, when you want, with no veils of technology or ill-considered luxury between you and the four large contact patches of the tires. It's a perfectly composed Formula 1 car for the street, but it doesn't beat you up as a race car might. And the power...

Did we mention the power?

While driving through the mountains, I came upon a short stretch of open road between two ridges and decided to run it up to redline in 2nd and 3rd gears, then drop into 4th. The McLaren went from 65 to 160 mph in about the time it takes to pour yourself a small glass of water. Approaching the blind crest of a hill, I got on the brakes and hauled it back down to 65 with the same lack of effort. Just in time to wave at two policemen who were parked at the next highway junction.

Several years ago, I drove a Lamborghini Diablo SE at 150 mph on a desert road, but achieving that speed took on the feel of a land-speed record, where you might call out the numbers over a radio, "Okay, I've got 140...there's 150...155...157..." and so on. The McLaren goes through those numbers so fast, you wouldn't have time to tell anyone. Its 260-mph speedometer needle seems to move almost as fast as the tach needle, and the car howls in the direction of 200 mph with no sense of pushing aside a wall of ever-thicker air or diminishing pace. It could almost be operating in a vacuum. Squeezing off a quick 160 mph is child's play. It isn't even trying.

I've driven a lot of fast, powerful street cars, but the McLaren is the first one that seems to accelerate as fast as an open-class superbike, such as my old ZX-11 Kawasaki. And it has about 50 mph on that bike's top speed. We've come to expect mind-blowing acceleration from high-performance motorcycles, but there is something doubly thrilling about seeing -- and feeling -- a vehicle with the mass of an automobile accelerate with such laserlike speed. It takes your breath away.

This is what 103 bhp per liter -- and 4.5 lb. per bhp -- will do for you. The power and tractability of the BMW engine and the McLaren's light weight together add up to a stunning achievement. There's no other gas pedal on the road that works like this one. And maybe there never will be again.

So, it looks as if the 20th century will end with the McLaren F1 taking top honors for speed and horsepower in a street-legal car. It will stand alone as our ultimate car, as Gordon Murray hoped it would. The car with the most.
But the century will also end without anyone having resolved the built-in compromises of the mid-engine car, once thought to be the only path to our sporting future. Shortcomings in comfort, noise, outward vision, ingress, egress and temperature management remain.

Which brings to mind a scene from the movie Lawrence of Arabia, in which Lawrence extinguishes a match slowly between his fingertips without flinching. One of his fellow soldiers tries it and burns himself, muttering, "Ow! That hurts!" He turns to Lawrence and says, "What's your secret?"
"The secret," Lawrence says, "is not minding that it hurts."
This seems to be true of all our greatest cars. And the McLaren makes you hardly mind at all.