McLaren P1: Driven

This is a story about driving the McLaren P1, not a technical summary. There's a link to the full McLaren press pack at the bottom of the page. I'd urge you to read it if you want to fully understand the P1.

The driving programme for this P1 event was quite simple - a McLaren driver training expert would sit next to us and give us exactly the same demonstration of the P1's different chassis and powertrain modes as he would a paying customer. Mine was called Duncan Tappy. He's a very accomplished racing driver.

C'mon in, make yourself comfortable...
C'mon in, make yourself comfortable...
As we belted up and we rolled out onto Yas Marina's southern loop I asked what the hell it was like driving a car with over 900hp. "You'll be impressed", was his calm response.

Impressed is one adjective I'd use to describe the first time you push the P1's right pedal two thirds of the way through its travel on cold tyres and, thank god, with the traction control fully activated. Others would be, in no particular order, alarmed, stupefied, elated and, perhaps most pertinently, bamboozled.

Head scratcher
Bamboozled, because the P1 is just so fast. I'd love to construct a clever simile to vaguely categorise or contextualise how it feels, but the gut reaction is that of a choice Saxon adverb followed by the word 'fast'.

The tyres are cold, the thrust is all-consuming and I feel tense and apprehensive in a way I haven't for years.

Cool Chris meets over-excited Chris
Cool Chris meets over-excited Chris
I have a very simple set of procedures for this part of my professional life. The bit where I'm handed something fast and expensive and expected to understand it in not many laps. I digest the basic specification of the car and use that information to predict a car's behavior. That determines how I'll go about finding its limits and, perhaps most importantly when you're shooting a video that requires some level of idiocy, determine what the hell the car will do when provoked.

No bull: according to my method of categorisation, the P1 carries potentially the biggest warning sticker of any modern hypercar. It is heavily, make that brutally, turbocharged for potentially treacherous power delivery. It carries a concentrated bevvy of batteries within its wheelbase, not to mention an internal combustion engine, to create the type of polar moment that is as likely to induce soiling of underpants when it lets go, as it is extreme agile before that point. It is only two-wheel drive and, as is the McLaren way, it uses a completely open differential.

It all just points to a massive red flag. Take it easy, find your way. Spank it and you'll get a call from Ron.

Big numbers appear here very quickly
Big numbers appear here very quickly
Ron calling
So we trawl half a lap of this short loop - the one that runs underneath that indigo hotel you see on the F1 race - and I try to push quite soon because I know time is limited. Five laps at most. For the first lap, we're in normal mode, the suspension in its softest setting which roughly equates to a ride comfort and level of support you'd have in a 12C in its Sport mode. Well, that's what the press pack says.

The car is agile and seems lighter than its claimed 1,450kg. The steering is appreciably faster than a 12C's at 2.2 turns and it gives a much better sense of connection to the front axle. The scuttle is low, the view forward truly panoramic and the tops of the front wings act as perfect references for positioning the car - that visible peak sits precisely above the centre of the front wheel.

The car feels taut and flat, the tyres take a lap to warm a little, by which time we're barrelling down the main straight, hitting 150mph in no time and I'm already whooping the whoop of a man who has never before experienced this kind of performance. Or been so hexed by a braking point. Given claimed acceleration of 0-186mph in 16.5 seconds it should come as no surprise to hear you arrive at places a lot sooner, and carrying a whole lot more speed, than you ever thought possible.

Also seen out on the street, in Abu Dhabi anyway
Also seen out on the street, in Abu Dhabi anyway
The braking zone into turn one has a patch that's been resurfaced. I pin the brakes from 160mph over that surface, the rear axle wriggles and I completely fail to hit the apex. Duncan squirms a little. A GT3 would have been doing less than 140mph at the same point. The P1 is fast enough to require cerebral recalibration, and five laps ain't enough time to complete the process.

Just one squirt from 30mph to 150mph confirms that the P1 creates its own new performance category, one that we all suspect the La Ferrari will soon occupy, but which sadly for Porsche the 918 doesn't have the requisite firepower to qualify.

Next lap, Duncan changes the settings to Sport mode. The chassis stiffens, but the process of comparison between this and the softer setting is muddied by the tyres still building more temperature and beginning to work properly. The car is certainly more agile now, the rear wing has raised itself 120mm and through the two fast turns on the back of the circuit I can lean on the tyres, albeit slightly struggling to hold a balanced throttle in fourth gear at 115mph.

Torque-fill. Get used to that phrase because it is Woking-speak for the amalgamation of electric and combustion power. If the 918 dispelled many concerns we had of Eddisson's invention contaminating that of Herr Otto's, then the P1 shifts the discussion to that of raw celebration.

Here is electricity that allows the fitment of larger, slower-spooling turbochargers that run at 2.4 bar and push this 3.8-litre V8 to 737hp. Here is electricity that allowed the powertrain engineers to literally plot the engine's torque curve and say 'we can fill a hole there, and there'. Here is electricity that can speed gearchanges and even replace the starter motor. And of course here is electricity that can add 179hp whenever either you or the ECU chooses.

Wing in track mode - now even larger
Wing in track mode - now even larger
There is no doubt that the P1 is a much better, more exciting and faster motorcar because it has an electric motor. There, I said it.

Pow, zap
That electric motor is, in essence, the access point to the engine because it brings the kind of throttle response never before seen from a turbocharged engine - the type that allows you to take small stabs of throttle mid-corner in order to trim the chosen line. It serves as an introduction until those big puffers are spinning fast enough to push you forwards the way you haven't been pushed before. This electric motor is the best fluffer you ever met.

The witchcraft lies in the seamlessness of the process. You enter a slow second gear turn at 40mph, you accelerate hard until the front outside tyre calls understeer, then you peel away a few millimetres and the line trims, then you push a little harder to bring the rear axle into play and it obliges and only as you scream down the following straight does it dawn on you that you're driving the P1, and it is responding to your inputs, like a normally aspirated machine. One that exists on a completely new performance level to even a Ferrari F12. But the key point is that the only reason you know it's turbocharged is the rowdy chirps and whooshes from the blowers themselves.

Track mode literally transforms the P1 experience
Track mode literally transforms the P1 experience
Duncan now selects a button marked boost. This disables the automatic deployment of the KERS system and transfers it to a button marked iPAS (Instant Power Assist) on the wheel for manual operation. Now we have just 737hp. Children of my generation will have yearned for the moment Michael Knight hit KITT's turbo boost button, and the P1 realises that dream. Push it with your right thumb and the P1's extra kick is yours to control. I can see no reason why you'd not have it delivered automatically other than in the name of theatre, but it's a hell of a party trick.

I'm just beginning to feel my inputs match the speed and responses of the car when we have to slow down, cool down and head back to the pits - to select race mode.

Race mode
Does a hybrid hypercar need to have a specific mode that requires it to sit stationary, with the engine running, as its hydraulic suspension lowers itself a vast 50mm? In the case of the P1, yes it does. Because lowering it brings that vast front splitter into play, and requires the rear wing to extend 300mm skywards. The car's appearance, already aggressive and semi-porous, changes into something quasi-experimental: The Right Stuff for supercars. For now, it is the only road car of its type to claim 600kg of downforce at 161mph, and the ability to pull an honest 2gs of lateral cornering force.

Sitting lower, the hydraulic springs add roll stiffness by a factor of 3.5, and heave and pitch stiffness by a factor of 1.4.

In Race mode, the P1 is a little bit different.

Fear factor didn't last too long then
Fear factor didn't last too long then
I scream out of the pits because I want tyre temperature as soon as possible. Into turn one the car feels immediately flatter, keener to change direction - a little more nervous. A scoop of throttle sends it sideways so I wait for the ESP intervention as it begins to move into opposite lock. It keeps sliding so I add some lock myself. And it keeps sliding, until it gets very big on me and then the big-foreheads from Woking calm the mayhem. In race mode, the P1's ESP allows enough leeway for impressive angles (or rope to hang yourself, depending on your viewpoint).

Through the two fast right handers it's just remarkable. The car has proper aero-grip. Not the type of face-bending stuff you feel with full wings and slicks, but certainly in quantities I've never before experienced with air conditioning. And a Meridian hi-fi.

Scream if ... oh
It's addictive, and the car now feels even more alive, so much like a race car with way too much power for the available traction that you want to push harder and harder. And this uncovers the first dynamic limitation of the P1 - the Pirelli P Zero Corsa tyre that was specially developed for the car, and which carries the highest specific load rating of any product the company has built for a street car. It seems so unfair to cite the tyre as a problem, because the way it handles everything from calm road use to explosive 916hp track acceleration is little short of genius. But after a while you get the feeling that the powertrain could do its thing all day, as could the immense brakes, as could the aero, but the harder you push, the more you feel the tyre move and squirm, and begin to overheat. It's an obvious result of the process, I know, but worth noting all the same.

Off you go then, the circuit is yours...
Off you go then, the circuit is yours...
We run two fast laps, I try to push harder, work those Akebono brakes to their maximum potential, but can't quite get where I want to be. I'm still nervous of letting the car move around too much, still repeating to myself '900hp', and sadly, my time's up.

Lucky break
What follows is fortuitous and no doubt fundamentally altered how I now feel about the P1.

We went off to shoot the circuit for the video. We often do that by running backwards and forwards through turns, sometimes straight, sometimes sideways. As I mentioned earlier, this is the best chance to test the preconceived notions of how a car behaves in the conditional tense, and it's often just me and videographer Neil, so I don't have people watching me. In other words, I can practice.

The stability control is easily deactivated in the P1, unlike the 12C. Now you just aim it at a corner with some run-off, and see what happens when you try and provoke a 900hp, mid-engined, two-wheel drive car. And the moment it first broke traction, I just knew it would be fine - all the messages were there. The mass felt contained, the steering responded perfectly and, crucially, I had so much control over the power delivery that I felt completely confident gathering up the slide.

Flames too, in case you weren't sold yet
Flames too, in case you weren't sold yet
For the next hour I grew more confident and, without actually realising as much, ended up completely comfortable with the car's responses - pulling great big slides the way I would in a GT3. And of course this broke down that level of fear and trepidation that had slightly tempered those earlier laps.

So I asked McLaren if I might go again, at the end of the session, 11.30pm, and drive on my own. And then the P1 opened itself up as the most extraordinary road car I've driven. Fast as hell, accurate and razor sharp if you wanted but willing to accommodate small slip angles on the exit of every turn; vast smoky slides if you so wished.

Brief flicker
Video evidence shows that in the middle of some slides the brake lights flicker - clearly indicating that the car is using some rear brake to replicate the effects of a limited slip differential. On every run, the car laid two black lines. Did I even notice the lack of mechanical LSD? No. Do I need to officially apologise to C Goodwin of McLaren for chewing his ear on the subject? Yes, I do.

Only the tyres expose any limitations
Only the tyres expose any limitations
I did one lap in race mode, with the traction control on, and just left my right foot buried on the exit of every turn, relying on the electronics to calm the power as I turned the wheel. It was a new experience. Quarter turns of opposite lock, crazy braking points - a blur of the most intense speed imaginable.

And then I just cut loose, tried to drift everything but the fastest turn. And by the end I had the confidence to back it in into turns, get a slide going with momentum, then catch it with the power and ride it through. If you'd told me that was possible two hours earlier, I'd have laughed at you. You might already have read and seen stuff telling you that the P1 is an unhinged monster. Not in the dry it's not. Maybe in the wet it might be but in the dry I honestly think it's easier to control on, and beyond, the limit than a 12C. That in itself it a stunning achievement by McLaren.

And then there's the noise. From inside it's a blend of unexpurgated turbo porn and flat-plane V8, from the outside it's 12C by a full orchestra. It's angry too. Like the performance itself, the noises are something new; something special.

Chill out zone
Five hours earlier, I'd been rolling outside Abu Dhabi, breezing along at 70mph in full electric mode. The suspension was in comfort mode, the view out and backwards was good, the level of intimidation was as small as the exterior dimensions. The intake and turbocharger noise were invigorating and of course the effect on other people was dramatic. Even in the land of supercars, they stopped and stared. It is easy to dismiss as glib McLaren's claim of being able to drive the P1 to a circuit, destroy everything south of a Porsche 956, and then saunter home again. But that's what it can do.

You want a pic to sum up the words? Here...
You want a pic to sum up the words? Here...
Its ground-clearance was so good I didn't even need to use the front-lifter, the gearbox was smooth in auto-mode, the turning circle wasn't too bad. I didn't get to drive it on a good rural road, but having experienced the 916hp on a track, I think I might not be too bothered about trying too hard. I'd enjoy the special sensations it offers even when you're not giving yourself neck-pain.

The level of development is stunning. This is especially noticeable at low speed. Those brakes are the most powerful I've experienced on a road car, but the pedal movement is so progressive at low speeds, as is the throttle. It's an easy, enjoyable car to drive slowly.

There's a full video on the car coming next week. I'm now sitting back at home, still wired from the experience of driving the P1; privileged to have had the chance; a little sad because I might never drive one again.

But we need to end with some choice hyperbole, right? That's the way this stuff works, isn't it? Okay, here goes. The P1 is the bestest, fastest, most exciting car sports/super/hypercar I've driven. Nothing else comes close.

3,799cc twin-turbo V8 with integrated electric motor
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic
Power (hp): 916 (Engine 737@7,300rpm plus 179 from electric motor)
Torque (lb ft): 664 (Engine 531@4,000rpm plus 192 from electric motor)
0-62mph: 2.8 seconds
Top speed: 217mph
Weight: 1,450kg (kerb)
MPG: 34 (NEDC combined)
CO2: 194g/km
Price: £866,000 (sold out)

See the full press pack here.


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Comments (621) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Speed_Demon 11 Feb 2014

    Wow cant wait to watch.

  • marcgti6 11 Feb 2014

    Great review. Told me more about the car than a 15 minute piece on Top Gear ever could!

  • Bargenosenti 11 Feb 2014

    Picture of the week please:

  • Andy N 11 Feb 2014

    Lovely Chris, but I would like to hear your overall comparison to the 918.... obviously in outright performance the McLaren would win, but would be interested to hear the comparison taking into account the four wheel drive etc.

  • bromers2 11 Feb 2014

    Can the La Ferrari go quicker ???

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