March 20, 2014 1:15 PM | By David Booth for MSN Autos

McLaren P1 first drive



McLaren P1 (© Photo: McLaren)
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McLaren P1

McLaren builds a race car for the road

McLaren P1 (© Photo: McLaren)

Dunsfold Aerodrome, England – Imagine my surprise. I had been lead to believe that McLaren's new P1 was all but unmanageable. I was told this — indeed, we were all told this — by no less an authority than Jeremy Clarkson. Yes, that Jeremy Clarkson, the Top Gear presenter known worldwide for his sardonic grin and rapid-fire turn of phrase. He had labeled Woking's hyper hybrid as untamable, his attempts at yet another pithy edition of Top Gear constantly interrupted by Tourette-like spews of expletive deleted as the P1's incredible 903 horsepower kicked in.

And yet, here I was at the famed Dunsfold circuit in England — famed because it is Top Gear's official test track — driving the very same deep purple McLaren's hyper-hybrid P1 that rendered Clarkson so apoplectic and I was, to be perfectly honest, totally non-plussed. Oh, the P1 was extremely rapid — certainly rapid enough to garner your full attention — but, to be frank, it was anything but intimidating. Having prepared myself for the racecar from Hell, I was driving what felt like an MP4-12C with a few extra ponies. Extremely fast to be sure, but nothing otherworldly. Indeed, I mentioned to the P1’s race-car-driving steward that I was less than whelmed with what I had been assured would be an out of body experience.

Related link: Most exciting cars of 2014

On a scale of 10, it’s a 20

McLaren P1 (© Photo: McLaren)

So he reached over to the centre console and flipped the little mode selector switch to the P1's Race mode which, in a 28 second electro-mechanical pas de deux, lowered the entire car 50 millimetres, elevated its ginormous rear wing some 300 mm and recalibrated the suspension for racecar-like stiffness. Most important of all, it awakened the hitherto dormant 176 horsepower electric motor that McLaren has seen to attach to the 3.8-litre, twice-turbocharged V8 transforming the up-till-then mild-mannered supercar into a horsepower-belching Le Mans racer.

You see, in the first three of the P1's selectable modes — Normal, Sport, Track — one is motivated primarily by the 727-hp gas-fueled engine. Oh, the electric motor is always on partial duty, filling in the hole in the bottom of the powerband caused by the upgrade to larger, lag-generating turbochargers. And one can, if one is in Track mode, hit a little red IPAS (Instant Power Assist System) button on the steering wheel and get more of the electric motor's boost. For the truly gluttonous, however, this seems an unnecessary complication, especially when one can just press the Race button and have the all of the power all of the time.

All the power, as I mentioned before, is 903 horsepower; more than Porsche's 918, more than the stillborn Jag C-X75, but less than the 949-hp the LaFerrari is reputed to possess. More important than the mere quantity of all that power, however, is its quality and, in Race mode, the P1 comes a little closer to deserving the opprobrium Clarkson heaped upon it. The throttle response, massive turbos or no, becomes superbike swift, the punch at any rpm immediate and decidedly more energetic than the 918.

Truly and deeply unhinged

McLaren P1 (© Photo: McLaren)

But, perhaps more importantly — because distinguishing a 903-hp P1 from an 887-pony 918 (and even the 890-hp C-X75) on horsepower alone is ridiculous — the P1 sounds the part. Unlike the MP4-12C, which always feels stifled no matter how ferociously it is accelerating, the P1 barks and spits like an angry Rottweiler. The exhaust note on the way up the rev range is electric with crispness, one seemingly able to count each and every individual internal combustion, even as it revs past 8,500 rpm. The steam blowing off when the turbochargers' wastegates dump unneeded boost is an almost Bugatti-like sigh of relief. Where the MP4 always sounds contained, a P1 in Race mode sounds like Ron Dennis has finally given approval to let loose all the hounds. At the very least, it's proof that McLaren's 3.8-litre V8 can indeed produce a soundtrack worthy of the script.

Said script, by the way, has the P1 bludgeoning its way to 100 km/h in just 2.8 seconds. Four more will take you to 200 klicks and, if you hang on for a total of 16.5 seconds, you'll see an amazing 300 km/h. That's quicker overall than anything save the Veyron Super Sport, though it must be noted that the Porsche 918 is half an eye blink quicker to 100 km/h thanks to its all-wheel-drive systems.

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