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Tracking pain: Lapping the glorious McLaren MP4-12C at Monticello

McLaren's 616-horsepower supercar has a tendency to hurt your body if you're not prepared. But when speed comes this easy, we'll take it.

By Clifford Atiyeh Oct 8, 2013 7:18AM

When you’ve checked out of a cheap hotel and your ass hurts, it’s not like you can tell somebody. Not on this afternoon, and not in Monticello, where the rare air of Manhattan vanishes into the Catskills. In this corner of New York state, there is nothing but Jewish summer camps, a lonely Days Inn, one decent restaurant that’s closed on Wednesdays and a private race track.

I’ve just parked the McLaren MP4-12C Spider in the pits of the Monticello Motor Club, a sort of country club for car-crazy millionaires. Companies like McLaren invite customers to these remote tracks, and occasionally, people like me tag along, race its quarter-million-dollar cars till the brake pads smoke, and walk out with a sore bum.

Because I sit writing all day, I appreciate a good seat. The McLaren doesn’t have one. While taking a tight right-hander at 70-plus mph, a good seat has thick bolsters so your torso doesn’t tumble from one side to the other. It’s the difference between driving comfortably and bracing your left leg stiff against the footwell, straining to fight the car’s ridiculous lateral acceleration. For three hours, those G-forces never let up on me, because the McLaren finds traction in places you never saw coming. It simply cannot unstick itself from the road.

Other seats, like those in the softer Jaguar XK and Bentley Continental GT, offer side or thigh adjustments that clamp bodies like mine in place. Then there’s the nonadjustable seats found in the old Porsche Boxster Spyder, which lock your shoulders in place as if prepping for a shuttle liftoff. The McLaren’s one-piece seat, while racy in appearance, accommodates bigger, chunkier guys with bigger, chunkier wallets than mine.

This doesn’t mean the MP4 is difficult to drive. It’s so well-behaved and tolerant to driver error that it could make Mel Gibson hold Shabbat. It’s so progressive and instinctive to drive fast that it makes the brilliant Nissan GT-R feel like a pickup truck in comparison. It is effortless to turn and almost manic in how it responds to gear changes. At full bore, the engine’s induction roar will probably ruin your hearing even while wearing a full-face helmet. The MP4 hurts. 

If you aren’t familiar with McLaren, you’re not alone. They’re not a household supercar maker like Ferrari. They’re an orange-coated racing team that’s only made road cars for 15 of the past 50 years, and in such limited, sporadic time periods as to be unnoticed on the street. McLaren is one of the very best Formula One racing teams, having dominated the sport for decades with some of the world’s top drivers such as Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. They pioneered carbon-fiber construction in the 1980s before anyone knew how to assemble such a material, leading to lighter, faster and safer cars.

McLaren engineers are so methodical -- chairman Ron Dennis reportedly specified how the soap dispensers in the company’s U.K. headquarters should squirt -- that their road cars have been miracles. Witness the first McLaren F1 in 1993, a 240-mph three-seater with the world’s first production carbon-fiber body, a supercar that still eclipses nearly everything the MP4 can do 20 years on. The F1’s modern-day successor, the P1, packs more than 900 horsepower from its V8 hybrid powertrain and sucks itself to the ground. Surgical, four-wheeled perfection is at McLaren’s core.

Take the MP4’s suspension, or rather, the lack of one. Four springs sit at each corner, but they only function as a backup for the hydraulic dampening system, a closed circuit of pipes that run through high-pressure pumps near each wheel, eliminating the need for antiroll bars.

Essentially, each wheel acts independently with its own spring rate, unlike an independent suspension’s connected structure that transmits force to the opposite wheel when under load. Hydraulic fluid ebbs and flows throughout the pipes, leading to an abnormally smooth ride for a track-prepped sports car, and can be forcefully pumped to a desired wheel in the blink of an eye. The car does all of this for you, but there are three firmness settings controlled by a rotary switch. I can feel the body tighten at the highest setting and notice it roll more when dialed back down. 

Then there’s the transmission, which preps one of two clutches as soon as it senses your grip on the steering wheel paddles. Then-- bang!-- it shifts before you even release. Leave it in automatic mode and all seven gears summon to your exact delight, which you can vary with another three-way switch in the ultrathin center console. That console, along with the dashboard, is a single cast aluminum piece for greater handing and minimal squeaks and rattles as the car ages. With McLaren, it’s what you can’t see -- the super-rigid carbon-fiber passenger cell and bonded aluminum subframes, the rising air foil that tilts forward when you brake -- that allow the MP4 to stay planted around turns, even if you’re not. 

Need I wax poetic about the brakes? Whether in steel or carbon-ceramic, they’re just what you need to drop from 120 mph to 45 mph, lap after scorching lap. Like the suspension, the steering runs on hydraulics and feels incredibly natural and tactile. The interior leaves nothing to waste. Because McLaren wanted the two occupants to be as centrally weighted in the car as possible, the center console is impossibly thin. So the air-conditioning controls go on each door sill and the infotainment display is aligned vertically, like an iPhone, showing a simple, bespoke interface. The huge central tachometer relays the 3.8-liter V8’s twin-turbo thrust (there is a hint of lag, but we’re talking a split second before 616 horsepower rains down). Everything has a justifiable purpose on this car, so its driver is left with little distraction other than to speed and stare at it when parked.

And, might I add, there’s plenty of space in the glove compartment. For aspirin.

Clifford Atiyeh has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own. Based in Baltimore, he is the senior news editor for MSN Autos, and also reports for Car and Driver, Road & Track, The Boston Globe and other publications.

Oct 8, 2013 8:54AM
Leaving us mere mortals to dream--nice article.
Oct 21, 2013 8:27PM
Perfect for borrowing to the grocery store for a few things-not TOO many things, though. "I was taking that turn at around 80 mph and the bag bounced off the passenger door, then the  eggs went all over the place-I hope it won't cost too much to get cleaned up."
Oct 8, 2013 9:14AM
Wasn't the F40 the first carbon fiber bodied production car?
Dec 16, 2013 4:33PM
The only MP4's I'll ever own are on my iPad. 
Dec 16, 2013 4:32PM
The only MP4's I'll ever own are on my iPad. 
Oct 8, 2013 7:49AM

3.8 liter twin-turbo engines are becoming all the rage- just drove a new Maser Quattroporte GTS on Saturday and, although it puts out "only" 530 hp, it felt as though it could make good on Maserati's claimed 191 mph top speed. I redlined it in the bottom 3 gears and hit 90 mph- with 5 gears left to go in the ZF 'box.

Not a huge fan of the McLaren's styling- the Ferrari 458 is much prettier.

Didn't realize that Clifford Atiyeh is in Baltimore- so am I. Sounds like a good guy with whom to have a beer and talk cars!

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