|>>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.
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
Most horsepower ever: 627 bhp.
Highest reported top speed: 231
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
again for traffic reveals yet another trait: The engine overheats.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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?"
secret," Lawrence says, "is not minding that it hurts."
to be true of all our greatest cars. And the McLaren makes you hardly mind at all.