INSIGHT: Tanner Foust’s excellent McLaren adventure

Image by Marshall Pruett

INSIGHT: Tanner Foust’s excellent McLaren adventure

Vintage Motorsport / Historic

INSIGHT: Tanner Foust’s excellent McLaren adventure


What do you give a professional driver who has already pedaled just about everything? A McLaren contract and access to one of the most impressive heritage collections on the planet.

That’s perhaps how best to summarize Tanner Foust’s time at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca last weekend, where the veteran racer, stunt driver and TV host got behind the wheel of a “childhood dream car” as well as two of the most iconic Formula 1 cars in history.

Heading to the Velocity Invitational event at the central Californian road course at the invitation of McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown, Foust knew he’d be handed the keys to McLaren F1 GTR 15R, the same car his Extreme E teammate Emma Gilmour drove at Goodwood this summer and a perfect example of a car that defined a generation.

“I had on the calendar ‘coming to McLaren Heritage event,’ where they have some of the vehicles that they have out on the track with private owners,” he said, “and one of the private owners, who obviously hasn’t seen what I do for a living, was letting me drive his $30 million F1 GTR, which was a childhood dream car for a big percentage of automotive enthusiasts.”

But there were two other surprises in store once he got there.

“I had no idea that I’d be sampling some of the most historic Formula 1 cars to ever hit the track,” he said.

Over the weekend Foust got a chance to drive the Honda V10-powered MP4/5B-07 — the very car Ayrton Senna drove in the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, where he clashed with rival Alain Prost to ensure a second drivers’ crown — and Prost’s 1985 MP4/2B-3, a monster from F1’s original turbo era.

Despite being reluctant to wring its neck, Foust found the performance of the MP4/5B to be “confidence-inspiring”. Marshall Pruett photo

“You’re basically just told that this is an $8 million car and your head is taller than the roll (hoop) so it wouldn’t be a good idea to wreck it,” Foust said with a laugh.

“I followed Mika Hakkinen out onto the track and got an understanding from him about how long he allowed the tires to warm. I haven’t driven many downforce cars and I didn’t want to push either of these rolling pieces of history [too far], but I wanted to feel what they were about.

“The MP4/5B is a naturally aspirated car, about 750 horsepower and was actually fairly easy to drive. The gearbox was very positive — they’re H-pattern, six-speed cars so no paddle shift, no traction control or ABS obviously. But it had a lot of grip, the tires warmed up quickly, and it was very confidence-inspiring. It had a very long and thick torque curve, so I think that made it quite forgiving if you were in the wrong gear for a particular corner.

Turning his attention to the MP4/2B, Foust described it as “a different beast.”

“They asked me when I went out to let them know what the boost gauge was reading because it doesn’t collect data, and they weren’t sure the boost controller was functioning properly,” he said. “So I cut down the straightaway, and I pointed the thing in a straight line and started laying into it, and barely had time to glance down at the boost gauge and it was registering three bar, which they said was around about a thousand horsepower. For a 500-kilogram (1102-pound) car.

“I’m telling you, it was the most exciting, exhilarating, experience with a steering wheel I’ve ever had,” he said. “The front straightaway at Laguna Seca is fairly long from the slowest corner to a quite fast Turn 1, and it felt like it took less than a second once the boost hit to be shot out of a cannon under the bridge and hanging on for life over the crest while the car is scraping the ground into Turn 1. It was just absolute insanity.”

F1 cars are new to Foust. But with an automotive resume that boasts rally cars, rallycross cars, drift cars, all manner of race cars, and the cream of the supercar crop from his time as a “Top Gear” host, surely he’d built up enough four-wheeled experience to have some idea of what he was getting himself into…

“[There was] zero reference point from anything I’ve driven,” he insisted. “If you think about a drift car, they are three times the weight, minimum, and with slightly less power, so it’s like nothing I’ve experienced. The power-to-weight ratio was 2-1, horsepower to kilograms, and that is something I don’t know if I’ll ever achieve again.

“And then to have these huge slicks on there… I wasn’t pushing it nearly as fast as Pato (O’Ward) for example, through corners, and utilizing the downforce much, but I’d come out of some turns in fourth gear and feel like ‘OK, things are warmed up enough and I have enough downforce, I can probably feed into full throttle out of this corner,’ and then I would get a bit of a slide. So the short wheelbase really made them rotate around quite a bit, which is fine, but man, wrecking one of these cars would just be heartbreaking.”

All that said though, the fear of binning a priceless sporting relic wasn’t enough to stop him from going toe-to-toe with the legendary Mario Andretti, with whom he was sharing the track — the legend getting behind the wheel of a modern F1 car (a 2013 MP4/28).

“(I’m) pretty sure I said in my helmet that ‘I’m catching Mario f***ing Andretti. In a Formula 1 car, this is amazing!’” Foust enthused. “It was just an absolutely epic experience. I came out of both of these McLarens with just an utmost respect for the racers of the time, but just so much gratitude.”

Andretti, meanwhile, wasn’t hanging about.

“Mario’s just such an unbelievable… I mean, it’s cliche to call him a legend but (he’s) arguably one of the most recognizable names in the world of motorsport over the last 100 years and he is still pushing his own limits, ripping around a racetrack in this Formula 1 car at very high speeds and loving every minute of it,” Foust related. “And when he gets out… I’m like, ‘Thank you so much Zak, that was great.’ He’s like, ‘Oh, I really think if we worked a little bit on this seating position and maybe change the shifting a little bit I could go faster.’ He’s fine-tuning it — he wants to set a time!

“I just love that about him and I really enjoyed spending time with Mario and Mika and Zak and Pato this weekend, it was amazing.”

It was an impressive hat-trick for Foust: two F1 cars and a car wearing an F1 badge. For most, merely being in the presence of any of them is enough. For Foust, the trio gave him a rather amusing perspective.

“The F1 (GTR) is… it’s so sad that it’s the ‘slow’ car on the track with all of the Formula 1 cars ripping by,” Foust mused. “But it’s on tires that are quite old, so it feels like it’s on snow, really. But the sound and the purity of that driving experience and the fact that it’s nearly 30 years old… it’s just a miraculous car and such a very cool piece of automotive history.

“Everything about the purity of that car shines through, from the persistence of Ron Dennis in pushing a sketch to reality, to just how transparent the car is to drive — it has no power steering, no power assist in any way and everything that you could feel from the road just comes straight into your hands and your butt and your back. It’s such a satisfying car to drive.

Although an awesome drive in its own right, the F1 GTR required Foust to keep out of the way of even faster machinery. Marshall Pruett photo

“With some slicks, and in a race setup, it would obviously be a much faster experience around this track, but it was definitely a pure experience that I’ll never forget. No driver in an F1 GTR has had to check their mirrors as much as I did, cruising around Laguna Seca with four Formula 1 cars ripping around with you!”

It was a crazy weekend on familiar turf for Foust, so where does the man that really has checked every motorsport box go from here?

“It never feels like this pursuit of carvana is complete — you’re always chasing the next car to drive, the next skill, always wanting to learn the track that you’ve never been to,” he said, but added, “I need to utilize some of Zak’s toys more often, I think!”