Before Bruce McLaren’s untimely death in 1970, he was working on what should have been the beginning of McLaren Automotive. The McLaren M6GT, registration plate number OBH 500H, that Bruce himself drove to and from work on public roads was to be the first of 250 built in order to satisfy the World Championship for Makes homologation requirements. Intended to be a Group 4 GT derivative of the M6A, the M6GT was powered by a Bartz-tuned Chevrolet V8 engine, and featured a low, sleek design with performance that would have enshrined it among supercar legends.
The project was shelved after Bruce’s passing, and the world would wait almost 25 years for the first McLaren-badged road car to go on sale in the form of the Gordon Murray-designed McLaren F1. Sixty-four cars emerged from the factory in Woking, England ready for road use while another 28 left in various race-ready trims, plus seven more manufactured as prototypes for a total production of 106. Strictly speaking, those cars were produced under the “McLaren Cars” nameplate.
McLaren Automotive, as we know it now, began in 2010 with the release of the McLaren 12C a year later. Today, the company produces some 5000 cars per year divided into three categories of Sport Series, Super Series and Ultimate Series. Approximately one-third of all McLarens made are sold in the United States.
“I hope there’s never such a thing as a McLaren barn-find,” said McLaren Automotive CEO, Mike Flewitt at a recent Pure McLaren program held at the Circuit of The Americas (COTA). “If there were, that would mean someone owned a car never to be driven, and that would break my heart. We don’t develop all of this technology, and put all this effort into building these cars, so that they can sit in a garage.”
And that’s exactly why I came to COTA: to drive the Super Series flagship McLaren 720S flat-out on America’s only active grand-prix circuit. The Pure McLaren program is targeted at current and prospective owners, but is also open to aspiring McLaren owners and day-dreamers with a bit of cash to blow on an experience not soon forgotten.
Pure McLaren debuted in North America in the summer of 2018 at Mont Tremblant, then made follow-up stops at the Thermal Club and Circuit of The Americas. Within each Pure McLaren program there are a variety of package levels available, and current McLaren owners can opt to use their own car, or one provided by the program.
At the entry level is the Pure McLaren Experience, spread over a half-day with three 20-minute track sessions behind wheel of either a 570S or 720S, plus VIP hospitality and lunch. This program is ideal for bucket-listers looking to get a taste of a McLaren supercar on track.
The next step is the Pure McLaren Performance Academy, which is divided into “Track” and “Race,” then further subdivided into three levels based on experience. Drivers with little or no track driving experience begin with Track Level 1 in a 570S, while those with abundant experience might qualify for a Track Level 3 program behind the wheel of the more powerful 720S. Specific program placement is determined following a consultation with a Pure McLaren representative.
Regardless of level, each Pure McLaren Performance Academy Track Program takes place over one and a half days that includes six 20-minute track sessions, one-on-one driver coaching with the same driver coach for the duration of your program, VBOX data debrief sessions after each track outing, VIP lunch and hospitality while at the track, as well as one-night of luxury hotel accommodation and a sumptuous gourmet dinner at a top, local restaurant, plus transfers to and from the track. Needless to say from arrival to departure, participants are exceedingly well looked after. (Note: At COTA, due to the longer track length, the program was adjusted to five 25-minute sessions.)
I had the opportunity to experience the Level Three Track Program.
The program begins with a half-day session on arrival to the track. It’s a great opportunity to ease into the program and get comfortable with the surroundings before the driving begins. After settling in, there’s an hour-long classroom session, which is a blend of orientation and light driving dynamics theory. The Track Level 1 and 2 programs may have more emphasis on the driving dynamics portion since participants at those levels will have less track experience.
Afterward, there is the track inspection carried out in a minivan with a driver coach giving corner-by-corner guidance over multiple laps, lingering as needed at the more crucial corners.
Then, all participants were whisked off to their hotel to get ready for dinner at a local hotspot.
The next morning at the track, we went through a safety debrief before meeting our driver coach for the day. My coach, Anthony, one of over 75 that McLaren has on its roster, has over 20 years of racing and driver coaching experience in GT cars and single-seaters in various British and European series. We began with Anthony behind the wheel for two quick laps before trading spots for the rest of the day.
Our McLaren 720S is equipped with an intercom system, so communication with your coach is as easy as can be. Personally, I don’t like having a driver coach in the right seat, mostly because I find that they tend to take a one-size-fits-all approach. I try and tune them out with each passing lap. But when you have a good coach, one that takes the time analyze your driving in order to make their tips truly useful as Anthony did, it makes a big difference.
Having never driven Circuit of The Americas, nor the McLaren 720S, the first session was all about familiarization. Having the luxury of five sessions affords ample to time to build speed, exactly as the Pure McLaren coaches suggest. From the get-go, it was obvious that neither car nor track would disappoint.
Following each session, we returned to the debriefing area to review the good, the bad and the ugly. Clearly, none of the participants are vying for a seat with the F1 team, least of all me. Yet, every participant is treated as if they are, in the sense that the debrief is fully focused on helping you to go faster. Thanks to VBOX data, we were able to analyze data exactly as the pros do. Segment times, throttle traces, brake pressures, driving lines, theoretical best lap times and overlays with the baseline lap set by one of the chief coaches are all laid bare to pick apart what’s going well and where time can be gained. Amateur racers familiar with this system know just how invaluable all this data is, and for participants in a program such as this it is doubly so, because it’s the key to maximizing your day. Being able to objectively quantify how much harder the car can be pushed is the single most confidence-inspiring aspect of the program.
“Everything a Formula 1 driver gets evaluated on, we can do here,” said Danny Buxton, Drive Team Leader for McLaren Automotive. “All the answers you need to go faster are on the screen for you to use as much or as little as you want to.”
By the final session, I had dropped my lap time by 12 seconds from the start of the day, and had narrowed my theoretical best lap time to within 0.6 seconds. I set a goal to be faster in each session, just as Anthony encouraged, and we did exactly that. My best lap time of 2m34.2s was exactly 1m02s adrift of the new outright track record set by Lewis Hamilton in qualifying for the 2018 USGP. Closer to reality, the benchmark lap time set by the chief instructor was a 2m24s. Clearly, I have a lot of room for improvement, but when you are handed a 700-horsepower car valued at $285,000 on a track you’ve never driven before, the sense of self-preservation is overwhelming.
The McLaren 720S was a phenomenal car to drive. I could string together a set of superlatives, but the best way I can think to put into perspective is that I was reaching speeds of 170mph on the back straight then braking for a second-gear corner at the 225-meter board in a car that can just as easily be driven to dinner. For comparison sake, F1 cars this year reached the same point at 205mph before stomping on the brakes at the 100-meter board.
Beyond the Pure McLaren Performance Academy Track Level are the Race Level programs that utilize the 570S GT4. Here, the game really steps up, with each driver having their own pit garage over the course of a two-and-half day program. Like the Track Level programs, Race Level consists of three sub-levels ranging from novice to advanced. Successful completion of the advanced level leads to a competition license and the opportunity to enter the Pure McLaren GT Series. According to Buxton, five individuals began with entry-level programs in their own cars, and will graduate to the racing series during this visit to COTA. Currently, races are only held in Europe.
For now, drivers like Neil Langberg, a soon-to-be-retired financial services professional who races in a different single-make series, is getting extra track time and coaching in the 570S GT4 with an eye toward participating in the GT Series next season.
“I grew up in Southern California, so I’m a car kid,” said Langberg, who also has a mission to raise awareness of the autoimmune disease Relapsing Polychondritis “I never thought I’d have the chance to own an expensive, limited production road car, but I’ve had a lucky life. I got into motorsports late, and never thought I myself would get on track.
“The advantage now is that companies like McLaren back up owning one of their cars with a driver experience program like this one. Now I get to go to these racing events with only three goals: to finish, to not be last and to have no incidents. Despite the low bar I’ve set for myself, everyone from my driver coach to the mechanics and techs to the corporate officers that are here take my experience just as seriously as they might a young up and coming driver.”
Competition is in McLaren’s veins. Back in the days of Can-Am, the World Championship for Makes, Formula 5000 and IndyCar, fields were replete with privateer and factory-backed McLaren entries. The racing landscape has changed since then, but in many ways McLaren appears to be returning to its roots of producing a diverse range of race cars, road cars and driving programs spanning from the pinnacle of the sport to the amateur racer.
“Our objective isn’t to build lifestyle accessories or status objects, but to build absolutely the best driver’s cars. If they weren’t great cars to drive, then the there would be no point to Pure McLaren,” said Flewitt. “GT Racing is what gives our road cars more credibility. There’s a new GT3 coming next year based on the 720S, so the breadth of our GT Racing programs are expanding greatly. We have the ambition to bring the GT4 Pure McLaren GT Series to North America in the future because want to offer people the chance not just to spectate, but to participate in motorsport.”
Pure McLaren programs start at $1,550. To learn more, visit: https://cars.mclaren.com/experiences.