Andrew Frankel drive’s the incredible, the exclusive, and the multi-million dollar McLaren Speedtail before it touches Australian roads.
We’d been on the road for hours. Hours in which I thought I’d come to know and understand the extraordinary, $3.2 million McLaren Speedtail. And if it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, that was just fine. It’s always good to have an element of the unexpected, even with a prospect as interesting as this. I knew it was fast, fast in a way perhaps no other road car has ever been. And fascinating, too, for its engineering, design and significance.
But then – and forgive this very necessary opacity – I found myself able to open it up in a way that had hitherto not been possible. That was when I discovered the Speedtail had been toying with me all day. After 30-something years of testing road cars, here was an entirely new experience. Turns out I didn’t know it at all.
That’s strange, because it’s not as if someone with a decent level of knowledge and experience shouldn’t be able to take an educated guess. This wasn’t like when, 26 years ago, we first drove the McLaren F1 – a car not only designed like none that had existed before and with performance to boot, but also one that shared no significant part with any other car.
The Speedtail has a carbonfibre tub, a mid-engined configuration, a twin-turbocharged V8 engine, a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox and rear-wheel drive so, in such crucial regards, is no different to any other McLaren of the past 10 years. Yes, it has a hybrid powertrain, but so did the P1 back in 2013.
It’s easier still to draw comparisons between the Speedtail and the F1, not just due to their arrowhead, three-seat driving positions but also because, by making the same 106 units as with the F1, McLaren is appearing to invite the association. But they’re nervy about it, too. The F1 is as famous for its exploits on the track as on the road, having enabled McLaren to join Ferrari as the only marques to win Le Mans at the first attempt, and the Speedtail is absolutely not a track car. According to McLaren’s staff, it’s a ‘hyper-GT’, whatever that may be.
So join me. I don’t usually dwell on cars’ looks, because I’m no better positioned to judge them than you. But how can I ignore this? One can’t. People will crash their tin boxes to get a better view of it. One bloody nearly did. Another on Woking high street was so fixated that, had there been a lamp-post or open manhole in front of him, he’d have stood no chance.
For me, it’s more than just achingly beautiful. I find it utterly beguiling, the way it takes a late-1960s sports racer idiom, with its forward cockpit and extravagantly extended tail, and transports those flowing curves to the present day without the result looking hackneyed, derivative or even conspicuously retro.
The interior is the best of any modern supercar, period. The central seat is so natural; it’s the driving position of every other car and not the Speedtail that forever after feels awkward and displaced. And for those F1 owners who struggled in and out of their cars, know that access is immeasurably easier here.
There are three digital screens: driving data ahead, flanked by a sat-nav touchscreen on one side and an entertainment touchscreen on the other. It’s that simple. When I think back to McLaren’s hopeless original Iris system of a decade ago, well, the mind truly boggles.
Buttons are exiled to the headlining for functions you need regularly (engine start/stop, doors and tiny windows), while others are banished out of immediate sight ahead of your knees. If McLaren can reproduce interior forms of such crisp, clean beauty in the less unaffordable cars of its future, they will by themselves provide temptation of a new kind for the company.
Passengers fare worse than in conventional supercars and, surprisingly, in the F1. If the driver is short and thus has the seat a long way forward, all will be fine. But if the seat is positioned rearward, there’s simply insufficient space for the inboard shoulder of each passenger. Children and the slightly built will fare reasonably well, but anyone planning on using their Speedtail in its intended hyper-GT role may find their holiday plans somewhat stymied by passenger-seat protests if they don’t do their homework first.
Luggage space, by contrast, is fabulous. There’s a load of room in the nose, a load more in the tail and the almost racing certainty of at least one vacant passenger seat. Oddment storage, however, is almost non-existent, unless you count small cubbies beneath each passenger seat.
There are no trim levels or equipment packs for the Speedtail. Customers sit down with McLaren interior designers and clothe their car how they want. And if they don’t want any other Speedtail to have all or part of their spec, McLaren will ringfence it for them. How much? Each car is so individual that it’s impossible to say, but when I tell you that one particular paint finish adds $180,000 to the cost of this $3.2m car, you too will believe that transactions of $5.5m and above have taken place.
The visible carbonfibre has threads three times finer than that used in other McLarens and, if you ask, it can be woven and blended with genuine gold thread. The interior leather is 30 per cent lighter than standard yet neither thinner nor less durable. The edges are painted by hand. The badge on the front can be made from gold or even platinum, each bearing its own unique McLaren hallmark stamp.
The Speedtail starts like any other McLaren and makes the same noise – which is disappointing. Given it has a flat-plane-crank V8 like every other McLaren, I’m not sure what I was expecting, but its hard, gruff voice isn’t that of a GT, hyper or otherwise.
No, of course McLaren couldn’t package another cylinder at each corner, and for just 106 units it would be ruinously expensive even if it could. But if ever a car required a V12 (dare I say like that in the F1?), surely a hyper-GT is it.
We ease into the suburban traffic. It’s hilarious how effortlessly this 787kW car (thanks to the almost combined efforts of its 557kW 4.0-litre engine and a 230kW-plus electric motor) slips into the real world. Because the hybrid drive is set purely for power provision, there’s no electric-only mode like in the P1, nor can you plug it in, although you can charge it through an induction pad built into the floor of the hermetically sealed, dehumidified vault you’ll undoubtedly have for it at home. This also keeps the 12V system topped up, so there’s no need for a trickle-charger, which is a neat touch.
But the Speedtail doesn’t feel like a 720S turned up to around 14, nor a less angry Senna, nor any other McLaren, current or former. The ride quality is exceptional, more like that of the 12C than any subsequent McLaren. Flawed though it was, the 12C was the best-riding McLaren to date. But it’s not as good as this. The steering, too, has a lovely languid quality to it, thanks not only to one of the lower-geared racks at McLaren’s disposal but also a wheelbase that’s extended by 58mm, in the interests of comfort and stability as well as the need to package the hybrid drive between the engine and gearbox.
So I did those hours at the wheel. The moment I was in that central seat, looking at those screens and beyond, all thoughts of whether it was worth $3m more than the 720S I ran last year fled my mind. It’s a much-abused word, but the experience provided by the Speedtail is unique, and for those who can afford it, that fact plus its scarcity makes it worth the money. As for everyone else, bluntly, who cares?
Yet as the miles accrued, I learned to love the Speedtail for reasons I hadn’t expected, because all along I’d been programmed to think of it as a GT. But it’s not and, to be honest, with that engine, it could never be. I’ll admit that it took a while to recognise that fact and discard my preconceptions. The Speedtail may be state of the art in engineering terms but, philosophically, it’s actually what in the 1970s came to be known as a supercar. It’s like a post-modern Ferrari Daytona (albeit with three times the power, to within a single kilowatt), effortless over a distance, of course, but meant firstly, secondly and thirdly for drivers and driving.
Once I’d realised that, the rest fell swiftly into place. All performance issues aside, this is an awesome, unforgettable device to fire at the horizon. Its handling is just superb. Indeed, because it’s imagined that no Speedtail will be used for track days, McLaren has optimised its oh-so-clever suspension for street use, with the result that it breathes beautifully with the road. Remember too that this car is properly light: at 1499kg, around 500kg lighter than the Bugatti Chiron. It flows as it flies, athletic, balletic, beautiful to behold and exquisite to command. And then it happens.
You need the car in Sport driving mode, otherwise you won’t be given the full 1150Nm of torque. And you can’t transmit 1150Nm to the road through two 315mm-wide patches of rubber until they’re rotating extremely quickly. So what happens is different to anything almost anyone has ever experienced in a road car, and it happens at a different speed, too.
It’s acceleration, but not as we know it. This isn’t a bludgeon like the Chiron, using brute force to shatter the air around it, but a bullet, so slim, stealthy and slippery that the air scarcely notices it’s being penetrated. This is why the only performance figure McLaren quotes is a Bugatti-busting 13.0sec run from 0-300km/h, despite the evident traction limitations. So when your nerve fails and you finally lift, the car, instead of headbutting an aerodynamic wall, barely slows. So you need good brakes and, once you’ve got through the pedal’s initially quite dead feel, my goodness have you got them.
Of course this car can hit 402km/h, and it would have been capable of a whole lot more had McLaren not concluded that it wasn’t worth the extra ride-wrecking unsprung mass (heavier wheels, tyres, suspension and brakes) required to make it safe at speeds nobody would ever reach.
That headline-grabbing top speed is a distraction. In essence, the Speedtail is just a wondrous car to guide along a good road. You don’t have to be doing 402km/h to savour its looks, interior, driving position, displays, ride or handling. You don’t even need to be doing 240km/h.
Is it a replacement for the F1? No, in a word. But not just because the F1 went racing and the Speedtail won’t. Remember, the F1 was never designed to be a racing car. Indeed, its designer, Gordon Murray, once told me that had he intended it to race, he would have designed it in an entirely different way. It’s not a replacement for the F1 because that car was designed with lightness as the number-one priority. Top speed, a clear consideration for the Speedtail, mattered so little that it took Murray four years to bother to find out what it was (386.4km/h).
But the F1 and Speedtail are far closer relatives than you think, and not just due to their seating layouts and identical production runs. Just like the Speedtail, the F1 was designed to be usable, whether anyone was going to use it or not. It too rode uncommonly well, had generous cargo space and, by the deeply dodgy standards of 1990s exotica, offered decent air-con and entertainment.
At heart, both are supercars in the original sense of the word, aiming to provide a unique driving experience over a long distance to a massively moneyed and discerning clientele. And in their own eras, both do that job better than any other that I’ve driven.
Yes, the Speedtail is rare and exotic, but far more importantly, it’s an exquisite thing just to be aboard. And even if there is another that can get close to what this car does, I don’t believe any can do it the way the Speedtail does. Because it’s more than just powerful and fast: it’s light and clever, too. A McLaren, in other words.
McLaren Speedtail spec and price
Price in Australia $3.2m (est) On sale Now Engine V8, 3994cc, twin-turbo, petrol, plus electric motor Power 787kW (557kWbhp engine, 230kW electric motor) Torque 1150Nm (800Nm engine, 250Nm electric motor) Gearbox 7-spd dual-clutch automatic Kerb weight 1499kg Top speed 402km/h (limited) 0-300km/h 13.0sec Rivals Koenigsegg Regera, Ferrari SF90 Stradale, Lamborghini Sián