McLaren P1

Why the company’s latest missile is actually two cars in one | by Andrew Frankel

McLaren says its P1 hypercar costs £866,000, but it doesn’t. The only way truly to understand its proposition is to deem the cost to be £433,000, but that you have to buy two. They may come wrapped in the same sleek, carbon fibre shell, but more than any car I’ve driven the P1’s ability to change character is so complete that it feels like a change of identity. And it’s all done at the touch of a button.

So let’s meet the first P1. I won’t be calling it Dr Jekyll, for not only is that about as lazy a cliché as exists but there is nothing mild-mannered about it, nor do I spot torture in its soul. Instead there’s a 727bhp, twin turbo V8 assisted by an electric motor that, fed from two lithium-ion battery packs, can provide up to a further 176bhp. But for now we’re going to stick with the dull old 727bhp and use the electrics for a different purpose that I’ll come to in a moment. Gears (all seven of them) come and go via paddles from a double clutch transmission related to that in the conventional 12C, but with longer, strengthened ratios.

The tub started life as that of the 12C, too, with a stressed roof section added, but the P1 has evolved during four years of development and now shares only the basic concept with its less potent stablemate. Like most of the body, it is of course made from carbon fibre.

The aero package is massively complex, not least because the deployable rear wing varies its position according to which mode the car is in – normal, track or race – and incorporates both an air brake and a rather gimmicky drag reduction system, whose sole appeal to most owners will be to allow them to point out the button on the steering wheel. Rear downforce is balanced by active flaps operating through a 60 degree arc ahead of the front wheels.

The cabin is closely related to that of the 12C – too closely related, given the additional cost of almost £700,000 – but with more exposed carbon, additional switchgear to operate all its different systems and carbon fibre bucket seats that offer world-class location for your body and also far more interior space.

Even with the scope of what this manifestation of the P1 can provide, there are normal, sport and track modes for both powertrain and aerodynamics. I spent enough time in ‘normal’, chuntering around the perimeter road of Dunsfold aerodrome, to know the ride is challengingly firm (McLaren says the wheel rates equate to a 12C in ‘sport’), but sufficiently nuanced to make it an entirely sensible if not exactly cosseting conveyance on a long journey.

There’s even room for a couple of bags in the nose.

But that’s not why we’re here. With no time to test every combination of modes, I turn everything to ‘track’ and head out onto the flat, featureless and very quick circuit.

Without using its electrics to boost peak output, the P1 has approximately the same power as a Ferrari F12, but with about 180kg less to carry. This gives it a power to weight ratio similar to that of a Bugatti Veyron. Even at the tamest it can manage, you’re thus very unlikely to become bored. The engine sounds deeper and more like a conventional V8 than the related 12C motor, even though it retains a flat-plane crank; as you approach your first decent straight all you’re pondering is just how much turbo lag a 3.8-litre engine must have to generate 727bhp all by itself – how long will you need to wait for the bang, and how big will it be? But there’s lots of space and no reason not to plant the hoof and find out.

At once at least half of the P1’s secret is revealed. There’s no lag at all. By which I mean zero. The throttle response is as sharp as the best normally aspirated engine I know. At once all you thought you knew about turbo motors vaporises. But it’s not the engine that’s doing this: it’s the electrics. The hybrid system is not there just to give more power, it also fills in all the holes in the torque curve that, left unaided, would look more like craters. I’ve driven neither LaFerrari nor the Porsche 918, but their hybrid systems cannot provide such benefits because both are normally aspirated. You might observe that they don’t need to.

So there’s no bang in the back, you’re just pressed firmly and inexorably ever deeper into that bucket as the revs flick to 8000rpm in gear after gear. It is mesmerically, majestically quick in a way that makes conventionally fast cars seem frankly impotent.

But the brakes are better still. Its bespoke Akebono discs hurl you forward fast enough for your seat belt to think you’ve crashed and lock around your body. If you’re one of the 375 with a P1 on the way, a proper harness will transform your comfort on the track. I’ve known 500kg racing and track day cars lose speed like this, but never something weighing a tonne and a half. Still it’s the pedal feel you notice most – perfect weighting and progression, vindicating McLaren’s decision not to harvest electrical energy from deceleration and put up with the inevitably compromised pedal response that results.

Inevitably you arrive at corners travelling slower than you’d anticipated, but in this particular P1 mode that’s fine. It gives you more time to appreciate the steering’s linearity and, despite the car’s weight, how light the nose feels and how keen it is to dart into the apex. In time and as speeds rise you find it understeers a little on the way into corners and oversteers really quite a lot on the way out, even if you don’t switch off the ESP, but the car is fundamentally faithful. In the way it lets you dose the rear tyres with great gobs of impeccably meted torque at the exit, it is also remarkably reassuring.

There is one more facet of this character to explore before returning to base and turning the car into the other P1, one more button I’ve yet to push. It’s on the steering wheel and is called IPAS, or Instant Power Assist System. Press it when the car is travelling in a straight line and electrics turn their attention from making pretty pictures of your torque curve to the provision of all the grunt they and the engine can muster. All 903bhp of it.

This is another world, a place so far beyond the perimeter of the road car radar that when you lift your thumb and return to an everyday, boring, ho-hum 727bhp, the P1 actually feels slow. It’s easier to understand in a racing context, where I reckon you’d need at least a full factory Le Mans Prototype to get anywhere near this level of shove. It makes you want to laugh and your passenger scream. I could hurl numbers at you all day – 0-62mph in 2.8sec, 0-124mph in 6.8sec, 0-200mph in less than 20sec and so on, but even these times, traction limited as they are, fail to provide a proper picture. So let me put it this way: whatever idea you have of what constitutes a fast road car, be it BMW M5, Porsche 911 or Ferrari F12, the P1 will take it and burn it before your eyes.

So part one is complete. I head back to base, trying but failing to look nonchalant about what’s just happened. All I’m going to do now is press two buttons: one marked ‘boost’ to switch off the IPAS system, so all the power is there all the time, and another marked ‘race’. What happens next takes 30 seconds, in which time the P1 sinks 50mm lower to the ground and the rear wing flips up into maximum downforce mode. The lowering of the ride height and additional rear wing provides 600kg of downforce at 150mph, and there are entire road cars that weigh less than that. Above this speed the wing deliberately spills downforce to improve maximum speed (217mph), negate the need for stiffer springing to support the body and keep the car in aerodynamic balance front to rear. As owners are unlikely to be on the limit above 150mph, it’s a sensible move.

Even at 10mph you are aware you’re in another car as it wriggles over every pit in the surface as you return to the track. This is because in addition to all the aero benefits of dropping the car by 50mm, it also increases the spring rates by 300 per cent.

What happens next, curious though it sounds, is that the car becomes much easier to drive. You don’t have to think about the IPAS button, you can just get used to having 903bhp all the time. And, because of the way it is delivered, it is simpler than you’d think. Sure, the numbers are properly scary, but if you can rid your brain of the distraction and focus instead on the fact it’s just a car with a steering wheel, pedals and paddles, you can make sense of the phenomenon that is the P1.

Because now it feels like a racing car. I hate it when journalists invoke motor sport metaphors to describe road cars, because today they feel less like racers than ever: they have neither the downforce nor the spring rates required to deal with it. The P1 does. Through slow corners you notice all the body roll has gone, though the car doesn’t feel like it is generating any more grip. Through fourth-gear curves taken at substantial, three-figure speeds, however, the fairly violent forces it exerts are quite unlike those in any other road car I’ve driven. You can turn and brake too, all the way into the apex from dizzying speeds. Instead of throwing you into the nearest District General, as would any other 1450kg car, you can just hear tyres chirruping their approval as the P1 tracks your chosen line like the highly sophisticated guided missile it is. McLaren says its downforce is similar to that of an FIA GT3 racer, but rather sophisticated in the way it is affected by pitch, yaw and roll. In the time I had I can’t vouch for the latter statement, but the former seems about right.

Yet neither this nor the P1’s ability to do an entire lap of Dunsfold in complete silence, on electric power alone at up to 100mph, preyed most on my mind as I reluctantly slunk back to the hospitality unit knowing, in all likelihood, I’ll never sit in a P1 again. It is the car’s accessibility I’ll most fondly recall, long after my neck has stopped hurting from all that downforce.

A car of such vast potential would at best be a wasted opportunity if it did not provide you with the confidence to push it to the limit, at worst a lethal menace. Yet I would say that any reasonably skilled and sensible driver could be taught to drive the P1 quickly and safely, if not absolutely to the giddy technical limit of what the car can do, but certainly to a point where they’d feel not the slightest desire to go any faster.

It can be criticised, especially in the context of the LaFerrari and Porsche 918, because its roots lie in a car than already exists rather than being a bespoke creation. And good though its turbo V8 sounds, I’d be happy to bet their normally aspirated V10 and V12 will sound better still.

But I don’t see it like that: I see a machine touched by genius with the potential to influence cars relevant to far more than 375 P1 owners.

There is no question that the future of the combustion engine lies in small capacity turbo units boosted by hybrid power. The way its electrics make all the traditional turbo problems vanish, while adding a new swathe of talents as relevant to a zero emission city as the Nürburgring, provides a lesson all car manufacturers should heed.

Or am I thinking too hard about it? Should we not simply celebrate that the P1 exists, and feel proud to come from the country that made it?

The truth is that this is a car with many levels, both literal and figurative. And just as any McLaren should, it works on every damn one.

Price: £866,000
Engine: 3.8 litres, eight cylinders, turbocharged, hybrid assisted
Power: 903bhp @ 7300 rpm
Torque: 531lb ft @ 4000 rpm
Transmission: Seven-speed paddle shift, rear-wheel drive
0-62mph: 2.8sec
Top speed: 217mph
Economy: 34mpg
CO2: 194g/km