Good news at McLaren


I wonder how McLaren the car company feels about McLaren the Formula 1 team right now. As I understand it, the two are entirely separate, independent entities living under the same roof and yet I imagine if you were to poll the public, even those who know about cars and racing, most would think they are one and same organisation.

On the one hand after a season like McLaren the race team has had, you might think McLaren the road car company might want to create as much distance between the two, not least to stop idiots in the media concluding that the source of the team’s woes is that it has spent all its money making cars with number plates. On the other hand, McLaren and racing are indivisible and the perception that you’re part of one of the world’s most historically successful race teams has clearly done the brand no harm at all, even with the race team’s current woes.

But the truth is that for now at least, while McLaren Racing flags, so McLaren Automotive flies.

From the Archive: McLaren open new factory (May 2010)

You may remember it was as recently as 2011 that McLaren once more became a road car manufacturer in its own right for the first time since production of the F1 ceased in 1998. And you might also recall that the launch of its first product, the laboriously entitled MP4-12C, did not go to plan. The sat nav didn’t work, there were quality control issues and while the car was dazzlingly quick, it failed to provide that vital sense of connection without which few of us have the confidence to drive properly fast. Then Antony Sheriff, the man who had run the company since the start of the project was suddenly not there any more. As starts go, it was if not inauspicious, then certainly highly problematic.

So problematic in fact that now I look back on it, I think those issues clouded what should have been the one shining truth about the MP4-12C: somewhere amid the warranty claims and variable press reports, there was a simply brilliant car waiting to get out.

The proof could not have been more convincing: McLaren’s next car was the P1 and though a distant relative of the 12C, still used a related structure, engine and transmission. Back then some said its timing could not have been worse, because it was launched at the same time as the two most highly regarded supercar manufacturers – Porsche and Ferrari – released their own superficially similar hybrid supercars. In fact it couldn’t have been better. Rarer, at least as dramatically styled and, I very much suspect, the quickest of the three over a given lap, it allowed McLaren to show it was at least as good as the best in the world.

Then came the 650S and how bored McLaren must have been reading that it was ‘the car the 12C should have been from the start’. But it was. Its additional 50bhp was neither here nor there, it was the presence of that hitherto and aforementioned connection (not to mention somewhat sexier styling) that counted.

Next was the lightweight 675LT, a car about which the motoring press quite rightly went into hyperbolic overdrive. I’m not even sure that, until that moment, even McLaren realised just what an extraordinary device it had created. But I am sure that even as I write, they are wondering how on earth to make more than the 500 at which they promised to cap production without welshing on that agreement. A 675LTS Spider is my best bet.

If McLaren was ever going to trip up, it was going to be with its next car, the 570S. This is the ‘cheap’ McLaren, the one with less power even than the original MP4-12 and, crucially, lacking the trick hydro-pneumatic suspension that allows other McLarens to offer an unrivalled blend of ride and handling.

I’ll review the 570S fully in the next but one issue of Motor Sport, but suffice to say for now, three days with it has put my mind at rest. In fact, and for reasons I’ll be delighted to explain fully, it may be the new McLaren’s best car yet. Given the competition, that is truly saying something.

From the Archive: Frankel’s original road test of the MP4-12C (April 2011)

Most significantly for me, I think McLaren has positioned the car not so much in a gap in the market, but a yawning chasm. Yes there’s an Audi R8 or a Porsche 911 Turbo you can buy for the same kind of money and I guess for now an Aston Martin V12 Vantage S, but while that’s one of my favourite fast cars, its rough and tough nature is totally at odds with that of the super-sophisticated McLaren. What there are not are any other low-volume, ultra-exotic rivals. Specifically there is no Ferrari and no Lamborghini in that market segment, which surely presents McLaren with a massive opportunity and its rivals with a considerable headache. One thing is for sure: for Ferrari the much-mooted Dino cannot come soon enough.

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