RACER editorial staff members are writers by profession and bench racers by hobby. When we were offered the chance to drive the folding hardtop version of the mighty McLaren 12C on track, we felt it best to throw the keys to someone with real driving talent. This was Justin Wilson’s report
Justin, David Donohue and Terry Borcheller with their dream cars (Images by Dirk Abinakad and David Malsher)
When RACER called me to see if I wanted to try out a McLaren 12C Spider on track, I got back to them within 20 minutes to say, “OK, I’ve booked a flight.” It was that simple a decision. As supercars go, the 12C had ticked the boxes for me from the moment I saw it in on websites and read about it in magazines. It’s good looking, it comes from one of the classic racecar companiesoh, and it’s fast.
Interestingly, I do have a vague and distant connection with the brand: my former manager, ex-F1 racer Dr. Jonathan Palmer, was McLaren test driver after he quit racing, and one of his jobs was development of the McLaren F1, which was the McLaren Group’s first road car. But that was a limited-run machine, with just over 100 made, whereas the 12C is McLaren’s weapon against supercars made by traditional road car makers from Germany and Italy. But take my word for it, this car is a long way from being mainstream.
McLaren is fairly new as a road car producer and its road cars are very new to this country (not many F1s made it across the Atlantic from the Woking, UK, base), but the McLaren brand itself has fantastic heritage here in America. I’d heard about the famous “Bruce and Denny Show”, when the marque’s founder Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme dominated Can-Am races, and I knew that Peter Revson picked up the baton after Bruce was killed. But still, when I checked on the internet, I was amazed to find that between 1966 and ’72, McLarens scored 43 Can-Am wins. That’s just incredible in such a short space of time and with such short seasons. And then there’s the Indy car heritage too: Mark Donohue won the Indy 500 in ’72 in a McLaren run by Penske, and our present-day IndyCar pace car driver, Johnny Rutherford, won the “500” in ’74 and ’76 driving for the works McLaren team.
Those stats, combined with worldwide success in Formula 1 (182 wins!) and that brilliant victory for the F1 at Le Mans in 1995, is what should make McLaren have major appeal for RACER readersand racecar drivers. This isn’t some start-up kit-car company with a name that sounds like a child’s toy or a remote area of Iceland. This is McLaren the real deal.
The 12C has a 3.8-liter twin-turbo V8 engine developed in conjunction with Ricardo in the UK, and it makes 616hp at 7,500rpm and 443lb-ft of torque. Great figures, obviously, but the best part is that, being small turbos, they come in early so up to 80 percent of that torque is available from 2,000rpm. As I discovered, this is very noticeable especially in a car that weighs not much more than 3,000lbs
When I arrived at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana for this McLaren Automotive track day, the first surprise was meeting two of my rivals from when I’m moonlighting in the Grand-Am Rolex Series Terry Borcheller and David Donohue. They were there as experts to guide the media, owners and potential owners of McLarens, and they’re ideal: very good guys, very good drivers, very good at representing McLaren. But would they be very good passengers? Well, I was about to find out as my first instructor for the day was Mr. Donohue. How cool is that? Instructed by the son of a guy who used to race against McLaren in Can-Am but with a McLaren in Indy car racing. And just to add the cherry on the cake, “our” 12C was in that distinctive McLaren orange. Pretty sweet.
David showed me around the course which was a modified version of the Fontana road course I tested a Champ Car on a couple of times. He started the lap with a demonstration of a full launch. Despite the track being dusty so the Pirellis were hunting for grip, it still felt quick and we were doing about 90 to 100mph before the traction control light stopped flashing, but it was then that it felt truly extraordinary. You see, it just didn’t seem to want to stop accelerating.
I know things always feels quicker as a passenger, but a lot of cars can push you back in the seat initially and then you start feeling the power easing off. The McLaren, though, is just relentless. The official 0-60mph time is 3.1 seconds, but it’s the standing quarter-mile that makes my point: Road & Track magazine recorded it in under 11sec at over 130mph, and trust me, this car whose maximum is over 200mph is still pulling hard at that speed.
One reason for this amazing acceleration is the car’s lightness. McLaren pioneered carbon fiber monocoques in Formula 1, so it’s appropriate that the 12C uses a carbon fiber one-piece tub, called the Carbon MonoCell. It weighs less than 180lbs and to it are attached aluminum subframes front and rear with double-wishbone suspension, coil springs and linked hydraulic/pneumatic dampers.
Also worth noting is that because the car was always designed to have a convertible version, the Spider weighs only 88lbs more than the hardtop version. When it came time for me to take the wheel, smartass remarks that the Spider version would allow me to lower the roof and see over the windshield were proven wrong: I felt fine in the McLaren, even with the roof up and even with a crash-helmet on. Being 6’3.5″, I deliberately sink myself down in any car to keep the center of gravity lower, and in this case there was more room for my legs than I’d expect in any sports car.
From the get-go, I loved the steering wheel it was the right shape, the right size but how it behaved was even more impressive. It was immediately responsive, not light but not crazy-heavy either. How do you make hydraulic power-steering deliver such great feedback? I don’t know, but I think McLaren should keep that secret to themselves.
But I think the most impressive thing for me was the chassis behavior. From about 150mph, with a corner rapidly approaching, I changed down, braked, turned in and thought, “OK, maybe I’m a little bit quick for the corner considering the track’s still dusty, the front’s going to wash out a bit,” but as I released the brake pressure, the car just felt like it rotated around its centerpoint. The sheer precision of the 12C was a genuine shock and, as a result, over the first two laps I probably clipped more apexes than I think I’ve ever done in my racing career!
I’m still not sure how much I was driving and how much the car was, because even with all the driver aids turned off, the car just felt fundamentally right in a way that you don’t expect from a closed-wheel car, especially not one that’s built primarily for the road. But it was also effortless. To me, McLaren’s racecar heritage shines through with this car. You know how you can read road tests where the writer will say the car “handles like a go-kart”? Well that’s usually based on how light it is or how sharp it turns inand it’s almost always a massive exaggeration! With the 12C, the go-kart comparison is valid not just because of how responsive it is but also because of its ability to transmit to the driver what it’s about to do.
From the cockpit, you can adjust the rollbars, the damping, the suspension, and you can also adjust the transmission settings and turn off traction control for track use and, honestly, by the time I’d done that, it was like having a two-seater racecar to play with. But when I also tried the McLaren with its most protective modes on, I became confident that almost anyone could jump in and drive it without stuffing it in the fence. It has a really nice traction control system because it allows you to drive right up to the limit of the tire but not past that, and yet it doesn’t feel artificial in any way. It’s very subtle when it kicks in.
I suppose the sign of a great car is when you’re struggling to decide which of its list of strong points is the strongest. One of the contenders in the case of the 12C is how well the car’s planted to the road under braking. Normally, even in a low-slung car, when you start really taking it to the limit, when you hit the binders it will dive and, rather than looking ahead to plan where you can get back on the throttle, you’re busy trying to feel which way the car might wriggle as the rear end tries to come over your shoulders. (Yeah, I was pushing it). With the McLaren, I didn’t feel any of that, even when I jumped hard on those excellent six-piston calipers.
Obviously the active aero that cool rear spoiler that shoots up when you’re slowing from high speed plays a major part in that stability, but Donohue explained to me that the real magic is in the Z-bar at the back, which acts like a torsion bar but to eliminate heave and pitch. Combine that with a front suspension system that replaces the typical front stabilizer bar with a computer-controlled hydraulic one (the compression valve on one side links to the rebound valve on the other) and you have a car that is stunningly stable on the limit. Each time I braked, it felt like the car argued with the laws of physicsand won!
Certainly the 12C defies road car convention, and in particular sports car convention, as I found out when it came time to take one of these Spiders on the road. With another instructor as first my chauffeur and then passenger, we lowered the two-piece top one stab at the button and the roof’s gone in 17 seconds and headed out onto the badly surfaced streets of Fontana.
Believe it or not, I did half of the road test with the suspension in track mode, and it was stiff but never uncomfortable. Here again, the hydraulic stabilizer bar and Z-bar played their part because, by eliminating the need for harsh spring rates and anti-dive geometry for the track, the suspension is easily supple enough for road use. With the suspension switched to road use, I can honestly say that I’ve driven big, long-wheelbase, luxury cars that couldn’t ride any better. I ran the McLaren over potholes, railway crossings and transitions and it just absorbed it all. There was one transition where I saw it coming, braced myself, lifted my backside off the seat andI felt like an idiot because the car hardly transmitted it to the cabin. Incredible. Stick your 12C in fully automatic, so you just brake, gas and steer, and it’s as usable as any car out there (as long as you leave the kids at home). And roof down, there’s no loss of rigidity, which, from what I hear, makes it unique among drop-top sports cars.
I’m reading back over this now, and realizing I’ve found nothing to criticize, and everything else is high praise, which seems ridiculous. Racecar drivers are supposed to be the harshest critics of all when it comes to road cars butI mean it, I’m really struggling here. Maybe some people would expect it to be more luxurious, but that kind of misses the point. It’s comfortable, there are really good quality materials inside, it feels rock solid and everything’s designed to be functional. That’s all I’d expect from the interior of a 200mph supercar. I suppose if I were to be unreasonable, I’d say that the mirrors are quite big but I sometimes wanted better rearward vision because there are some blind spots. But I can’t think of a mid-engined sports car where that isn’t the case.
So, I think it’s safe to say I was beyond impressed. As we left the track, I had three thoughts on my mind. One: Where can I find a spare $250k a very reasonable sum for a car that’s so fantastically capable and usable. Two: I went into this test anticipating a great car because of McLaren’s heritage, and yet somehow the 12C Spider easily exceeded my expectations. And three: Bruce McLaren would be very, very proud. This is a racecar for the road, but also a road car for the racetrack.