There has never been another supercar like the McLaren F1 and there never will be. As it moves into its final few months of production, Andrew Frankel assesses its place in history.
You will remember the 1988 Italian Grand Prix. It was the one race that season which did not see a McLaren MP4/4 sweeping across the line to win. Until two laps before the end, it looked like the normal red and white walkover we had seen in the previous 11 races. Sure, Prost had fallen by the wayside on lap 34 with a rare failure within his Honda V6 turbo motor but that still left Senna, powering assuredly on his way to the flag.
That on lap 49 of the 51-lap race Ayrton, with a lead so comfortable it risked becoming tedious, failed to negotiate Jean-Louis Schlesser’s Williams is well remembered; so too is the fact that Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto went on to record a one-two for Ferrari, in Italy, just weeks after the Old Man’s death. It was indeed a momentous weekend.
But McLaren did not stop making history the moment Ayrton climbed out of his stricken car; they were still at it in the departure lounge of Linate airport as they waited for the plane home. It was there that Ron Dennis and Gordon Murray hatched an idea to build a road car. The late eighties were a peculiar time. I knew a city broker who often advised his clients to buy or sell depending on whether his lucky dart landed east or west of the bullseye on the board that hung on the back of his office door. When he took these momentous decisions he was invariably drunk and, on several occasions, blindfolded too. And if you wonder how he managed to stay in business, you do not remember the insanities of this, the silliest of financial seasons.
The city boys called it the tertiary stage of the hull market, knowing the fourth stage didn’t exist, but that stopped no-one; while the sun shone, there was hay to be made.
The McLaren F1 didn’t actually go on sale until 1993 by which time deep depression hung over the economic climate. It cost £634,500, and it is no secret that McLaren lost money on every one of the road cars it made. And by October this year, when production will cease for good, just 100 of the originally planned 350 will have been produced. Economically, then, it was a failure, though it should be remembered that it fared rather better than those other supercars to which 200mph was just another number on the dial. Despite first being shown Paul Rosche’s masterpiece: twelve cylinders, four camshafts, 48-valves, 6.1-litres and 627bhp in 1988 and going into production in 1992 for the comparatively reasonable sum of £403,000, there is still a clutch of Jaguar XJ220s which have failed to find owners, despite being put back on sale with £150,000 lopped off the purchase price. And then there was the Bugatti… You will not need reminding of the fate that marque suffered in the wake of its occasionally brilliant but too ugly supercar.
And, economics aside, the simple truth is that the McLaren F1 was an immeasureably greater car than any of these. Great not because of the undoubted extravagance of its design but because of its sheer sense. Oh yes. There was only one thing you needed for the McLaren F1 to make sense and that was money. That was all that stood between you and not simply the fastest mid-engined supercar ever built, but the most practical too.
For the F1 not only had three seats, two of which were as adept at carrying golf clubs as humans, it also had a preposterously large bin on each side of the car for your luggage. And just so long as you didn’t mind your clothes being kept rather warm, there was no distance too far for the car, while the likes of the Jaguar were so impractical it was hard to pack enough for a dirty weekend, let alone anything approaching a holiday.
There is so much more to admire in the McLaren, from its titanium pedal box to its gold-lined engine bay, from the little `F1′ motifs on the caps that cover the modem sockets to the fact that this allows you to download the engine diagnostics by telephone from wherever in the world you are. But when you drive it for the first time, none of this matters. You do not think of the carbon-fibre structure, each one of which takes over a man-year to create, nor of thousands of aircraft specification nuts and bolts with which this extraordinary car is screwed together. When first you climb awkwardly into that centre seat, clip on the four-point harness, turn the key and press the button, your thoughts are of one thing alone: a road-car experience guaranteed to be different to anything you have encountered, regardless of how old or experienced you may be.
And so it proves. By the time I drove the F1, I had spent the previous six years earning a living from testing every new car that was put on sale. had driven both Jaguar and Bugatti and spent an absurdly fortunate amount of time in other people’s Ferraris. Usually such privilege brings a certain sense of expectation and a knowledge that, however wonderful the experience to follow, it will fall somewhere within the bounds of what you already know. With the F1 this, emphatically, was not the case. I was introduced to its driving seat on May 2nd, 1994, 24 hours after the death of the greatest driver of our generation and as harrowing a time for the staff of McLaren as any since the loss of its eponymous founder. We met at one end of a 10,000ft runway. There were two McLarens there, both experimental prototypes, XP4 being the much-abused hack which was to provide our performance figures and XPS, the rather cleaner demonstrator which would pose for the photographs and provide the basis of the driving impressions.
I had been in an F1 before, slithering around a damp Nurburgring Nordschleife with Jonathan Palmer at the wheel, trying to remember his way around, but so fascinated had I become by watching Palmer trying to put 627bhp onto a damp track he only vaguely remembered that I recalled more of the noise and his flailing arms than I did of the outlandish performance. At Bruntingthorpe and under full throttle in a straight line it was instantly overwhelming, and I became thankful for the fact that traction limitations meant that full acceleration in first and second gears, even on a dry runway, was simply not possible. Even so, it still reached 60mph in 3.2sec and, rather more significantly, sprinted from 30-70mph in 2.1sec. By the time 200mph had been and gone, just 28sec after releasing the clutch for the first time, I had confirmed what I had suspected. This was not simply the fastest car in the world, it rendered the performance of all others purporting to provide the thrill of ultimate speed, whether produced by Lamborghini, Ferrari, or Jaguar, instantly and utterly obsolete.
I drove a Honda NSX within five minutes of stepping out of the F1 and experienced for the first and, to date, only time in my life, a front-line supercar that felt suddenly and pitifully slow.
After that I drove the McLaren up to North Yorkshire, noting how easy and relaxed it was loafing along a motorway at 80mph, attracting a mere fraction of the stares that a Testarossa or Diablo would attract. For the fastest car in the world, the F1 is, remarkably, not in the least bit flashy. The difficulties started as soon as I embarked on the 50-mile cross-country route from the motorway to our hotel on the edge of the moors. There wasn’t a mile that passed under its wheels during which I didn’t want the journey to end. I rounded every corner hoping for the sign which would signal the arrival of the small town and the completion of the route. Though the trip took just a few minutes, it seemed to last an age and when finally, I parlced the F1, I had never felt so pleased to hand over a set of car keys in my life.
The problem was not the car, it was me. In those minutes I fought to keep control, not of the F1, but of myself. I felt drugged, fighting back the urge to drive along public roads at suicidal speeds. My brain would be screaming at me to slow down, but it was all I could do to lift my foot from the accelerator. I decided at least twice to stop the car and hand it over to the driver of one of the support cars that would soon pass by, but found myself unable to give in to such sense. The F1 took me to the limit of my sense of selfpreservation and showed me the red mist that lay beyond.
I never ventured further, never abandoned the safety margin, never came close to being a danger to myself or the public but I was shocked to discover a car existed that could so starkly confront me with my own limitations. Today, I still am.
If there is a problem with the F1, that is it. Several have collided with the scenery while being driven by unusually able drivers and one wonders whether its uniquely addictive personality is at least partly to blame. It’s not that the F1 is, in any way, a dangerous car; its roadholding and braking are barely rivalled in the dry and, when it starts to slide, it does so quickly but consistently; it needs watching in the wet but no more than you’d expect from any car with 627bhp, rear-wheel drive, no traction control or ABS. No, if it is to be doubted, it is because it is so good and inspires so much confidence as it doles out its unparalleled experience that resisting the temptation to dip ever further into its seemingly limitless charms is far and away the most difficult part of driving the car.
When the F1 came out, I remember a vast canon of hot air was produced decrying it as a meaningless car, in the main by those who had not driven it. One such miffed hack remarked to me that he admired the latest Escort more than McLaren’s landmark motor car. I accept that, to the world in general, the McLaren F1 is not important; but what supercar ever was? But to true car enthusiasts, who love the idea of a car created using the best brains and greatest technological resources simply so that it could go faster than any other, there is something wonderful about the F1 that no other before or, I suspect, after, will ever capture so fully again.