Anybody who believes that supercars aren't what they used to be should drive either a McLaren 600LT or a Ferrari 488 Pista,because they offer absolute confirmation. Supercars are not what they used to be - they're demonstratively better. The speed, excitement and sheer breadth of talent both these cars offer is genuinely remarkable; all the more so when you consider that they're nowhere near the top of their respective line-ups. A Pista has 60hp more than an Enzo, lest we forget - and the 600LT is quicker to 124mph than a McLaren F1. By more than a second...
However, that's a discussion - or argument, rather - to have for another day. This one is an attempt to discover which of the LT and Pista is the more rewarding and more thrilling driver's car. Both, as you're probably aware, follow a similar path: take five-star sports cars, make better still with extra power, less weight and a renewed dynamic focus on circuit superiority. Send media, customers and Instagram into a mouth frothing frenzy, congratulate team on a job well done and then move on. But not before spoiling the race pedigree with a convertible version, of course. That will somehow always end up being worth more.
A brief reminder of the vital stats. With the right options, the Longtail is 600hp and 1,247kg dry, capable of 0-124mph in 8.2 seconds and, as we discovered at the Hungaroring, one of the finest track day driving experiences you can buy. It starts at £185k. The Pista is 90kg lighter than a 488 at 1,280kg dry, reaches 124mph (or 200kph) in a frankly ludicrous 7.6 seconds and will set the lucky few back at least a quarter of a million pounds. While they aren't direct rivals - the Pista at some point will more naturally face the next Super Series Longtail - the temptation was too great to resist. Tough job etc etc.
Given the cars are part of Autocar's Britain's Best Driver's Car line up, both were driven and assessed in and amongst many others. Both in the dry too, despite what some of the pics suggest. The schedule eventually ended up being McLaren on the road, Ferrari on track, McLaren on track, Ferrari on road. Not for as long as hoped for, of course, because that would have meant several days away. Still, without further ado...
On the best roads that North Wales can offer, the McLaren is a revelation. Even with knowledge of previous McLarens, even having driven this car on circuit and even in the company of 2018's finest cars. Many comparisons have been made in the past about McLaren's cars driving like those from Lotus, but that isn't the case here - because it's better. On the same road the Longtail steers and rides better than the Exige Sport 410 that's also there - preferable steering feel (because there's less kickback), a more supple ride (that loses nothing for control) and that same sense of organic connection to the car, albeit heightened even further from a 570S, that British sports cars do so well.
Really, that's the key to the 600LT's genius: it's harder, faster and angrier than a regular Sports Series, while also more satisfying on a regular B-road. Indeed by having more going on around you - additional engine noise, the feel of the road through those Senna seats, the thump of upchanges in Track mode - the LT engages and entertains at lower commitment than a regular 570S. They're not euphemistic terms for a car that's wearing or overly physical to drive, either, it's simply that the Longtail makes what was already a great road car experience into a sublime one.
It's nothing you won't have already heard, but the traits bear worth repeating because they're so seldom found: an impeccable driving position, with a view out that makes all other cars seem like pillarboxes; perfect hydraulic steering, that requires no modes or adjustment; and a reassuringly firm brake pedal that, once beyond some dead travel at the top, is a joy to use. Oddly, even the LT's biggest flaw proves quite charming on the road: the engine and gearbox simply aren't the sharpest around, but leaving the car in one gear and feeling the boost build, build, buil... then explode you down the road is, frankly, absolutely tremendous fun. Look at the scores given for the Longtail by the other BBDC judges on the road: only one scored it less than 20/25 (because he's mean), one gave it 100 per cent, the others all not far off. It really is a stellar road car, the LT, which is not always something that can be said about 600hp, mid-engined supercars.
The Ferrari's opportunity to match (or perhaps surpass) that will come later, but first it's time for the track drive. Not just any track, either; it's the stunning Anglesey Coastal circuit, somehow bathed in scorching October sunshine. And not just any old Pista; Ferrari has sent a squad of technicians and six sets of tyres to accompany the 488. Standard.
Full disclosure: it was a bit scary. 720hp, harnesses, Cup 2 Rs that need temperature and a battalion of Ferrari bods will do that. The joy of recent Ferraris, though, has been in their relative accessibility, given the performance potential, and their ability to make a driver of any talent level feel like an absolute superstar; without wishing to spoil the surprise too much, the Pista absolutely does that. And then some.
Much like the McLaren, the Ferrari takes all that's so beguiling about the standard car and amplifies it, yet seemingly not to the detriment of usability or drivability. For the 488 that's approachable, absorbing, extraordinary track dynamics, which the Pista takes to an incredible new plane.
Well it can, once you're over just how obscenely, terrifyingly rapid it is. Cast your theories about what Ferrari does to Ferrari's press Pista, but this 488 feels as fast as a Senna. Honest. With that very clever Variable Torque Management, there's a real sense of it getting faster and faster as the gears go through, no let up even through fifth, sixth and seventh. You know a car is really, really obscene when you feel the need to back off. On a race track. With no speed limits. And nobody else around.
So it's quick. But back to the point. However you want to drive the Pista on track, it's amenable to that. You want to drive like it's a Challenge race? Fine. It's 1.7 seconds quicker at Anglesey than the LT. During that time it's completely exhilarating, with a superlative dual-clutch gearbox, the best brake pedal feel of any car on sale and incredible traction given the prodigious power. There's no let up, either, the Pista's insatiable appetite for lapping almost as impressive as its entertainment during them.
You want to cut loose? You want to hurl it around like an old M3? The Pista is more than happy to accommodate. Honestly, it's one of the most gratuitously skiddable cars around. And it's a 720hp, mid-engined Ferrari - lunacy. Race mode on the manettino works nicely, feeling like the quickest mode without being too locked down; CT off is otherworldly, Side Slip Control and whatever else indulging loutishness while also keeping a discreet, near-imperceptible lid on things, better than any other car does. Then everything off isn't as scary as you might imagine, the searing response and reach of that V8 combining with the F1-diff to open up all manner of very silly cornering options. Well, if there are six sets of tyres...
If anything the Pista's performance on the, er, pista is as enthralling as the McLaren's off it, the best bits of each really spectacular to experience. So what about when the roles are reversed? The LT, as hopefully was surmised from the first drive, is just sensational as a track car. There's speed, composure and braking ability seemingly to spare, that communication so compelling on the road always there on track, too, which makes working up the limits as inviting as it is richly rewarding.
The problem? There isn't one. Rather the fact remains that the Pista does a few key things just that bit better. The McLaren's brakes are superb, both in performance and feel, but the Ferrari's move it on again. This is the best installation yet of McLaren's 3.8-litre V8, but the 488 boasts one of the finest turbocharged engines ever made. The 600's dual-clutch 'box is good, but that in the Pista is extraordinary, seemingly with a bandwidth between smooth torque converter auto and race sequential. The reality is of pretty fine margins (apart from the engine, where the Ferrari is comfortably ahead), though there's no escaping the Ferrari's superiority.
Of equal importance is the greater sense of fun imbued into the stripy stallion and not quite there in the Woking wonder. Without a locking differential or the throttle response, the McLaren feels ultimately less willing to amuse than its adversary. You'll argue that's of no consequence, because nobody is backing in Longtails on track days, but the more realistic impact is that the Ferrari gives the impression of being more adjustable and excitable on the throttle, even at sensible commitment levels. And that should be important to everyone.
The 488 on the road? Better than you might expect, actually. Like the McLaren on track, it's the best second best you'll ever know. The Ferrari is certainly more visceral, the cabin more exposed and road noise greater, but there's real sophistication here - it's not simply some undriveable track renegade.
It rides just as well as a GTB (which is to say, extremely well), and may in fact benefit from suspending that bit less mass. The carbon wheels will no doubt play a part in the plushness, too. The gear ratios seem short, proffering the opportunity to use a few on the road. And it's just so urgent, insatiably eager to change direction, shed speed or very rapidly accrue it again.
Trouble is that can make the Pista seem, if not on edge, then not quite at home on the pubic highway. It rather tolerates road use where the McLaren seems to actively embrace it. Actually, that's a little harsh on the Ferrari, because it's great on road, but the gulf in enjoyment between road and track use is larger than in the McLaren. Consequently you always feel like a little something is being missed out on.
Inescapably, therefore, the really simple and broad conclusion is that the McLaren is the more enjoyable road car, the Ferrari the more enjoyable track car. The 600LT deserves the victory morally, coming as close as it does to the Pista for considerably less money and even surpassing it in certain areas.
But it doesn't. It can't. Or rather, it can't in this test. You'll see in the Autocar showdown the McLaren's ability to immerse its driver in more situations, more of the time, is enough to just edge it ahead of the Ferrari. Of course the counter to that, and what ultimately secures victory for the Pista here, is that it's harder won, more fleeting highs are at a level of effervescence and joy that even the LT can't match. That, for us at least, makes it the more memorable, more thrilling driver's car - potentially the most memorable and most thrilling out there right now. Given the calibre of performance car currently available, regardless of what's said about the old stuff, that's a phenomenal achievement. Bring on the 720S Longtail.
SPECIFICATION - FERRARI 488 PISTA
Engine: V8, 3,902cc, twin-turbocharged
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 720@8,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 568@3,000rpm (in 7th gear)
Top speed: 211mph
SPECIFICATION - MCLAREN 600LT
Engine: 3,799cc, twin-turbo V8
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto (SSG), rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 600@7,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 457@5,500-6,500rpm
Top speed: 204mph
Weight: 1,356kg (DIN kerbweight, without driver)
CO2: 276g/km (WLTP)
[Photos: Luc Lacey, Olgun Kordal, Max Edleston]