SET AMONG THE OLIVE groves of Andalusia, Ascari is the longest motor-racing circuit in Spain and easily the most difficult track I’ve driven on. It throws everything at the driver – changes in elevation, flat-out bends, corners with double apexes, chicanes and blind descending turns – it’s anti-clockwise (and hence goes the “wrong” way), and it’s so complex that at any given point on its almost 5.5km length it’s almost impossible to remember where you are, what comes next and how you should line the car up for the next surprise. It’s what petrol-heads call a “technical” circuit, which makes it an ideal venue for McLaren to show off its latest supercar, the 650S, to the world’s media.
While the British company’s racing cars have been uncharacteristically languishing mid-field since the start of last year’s Formula 1 season, its roadvehicle business is on a roll. When Chairman (and now returned CEO) Ron Dennis presented the P1 hypercar at the 2013 Geneva show, he announced that the sensational US$1.35 million, 903bhp, 350km/h hybrid would be followed by a new McLaren model every year. The unveiling three months ago of the 650S was a first fulfilment of that pledge – and once the much-rumoured “entry-level” P13 goes into production in 2015, output at the marque’s Woking-based factory will rise to almost 4,000 cars annually, a roughly threefold jump from current levels.
A development of the 12C Coupe and Spider, but with extensive bodywork revisions that flaunt the dramatic design language introduced on the P1, the 650S was originally billed as an additional model within the range. By early April, however, when I arrive in southern Spain to drive the new car, the company line has changed: as every McLaren order since its February announcement has been for the 650, it’s now officially acknowledged as the 12C’s replacement.
Technological tour de force though the 12C is, the general consensus is that in key areas such as brake feel, power delivery and driver engagement (though not that of ride quality, in which it has few peers) the British car has been shaded by its main rival, the Ferrari 458 Italia, not to mention the latter’s more hardcore variant, the Speciale. That being unacceptable to the notoriously perfectionist and competitive Dennis, McLaren’s designers and engineers were instructed to make their already remarkable machine even more brilliant.
The result of those efforts is the vivid orange 650S Spider that I’m now about to wriggle into outside my hotel near Marbella. Although the car’s shape and proportions are almost identical to the outgoing 12C’s, the swirls of black carbon fibre around its nose and tail are strongly reminiscent of the P1. McLaren’s spokesman points out there’s a serious purpose behind the dramatic new look, which at the front helps generate massive increases in both downforce and cooling over the older car, as well as noticeable improvements in handling. Likewise, the dynamic wing/airbrake has been enhanced to operate whenever increased pressure on the rear end is required, and not merely under braking.
Beneath the glass panel on the rear deck lies McLaren’s familiar twin-turbocharged 3.8-litre V8 engine, though thanks to new pistons, valves, cylinder head and exhaust system this now produces an eye-watering 641bhp (in other words, the 650 “metric” horses that give the car its name) and a positively gut-wrenching 678Nm of torque, numerics that are comfortably in excess of those even for the 458 Speciale. New, too, are the handsome alloy wheels with five slender spokes that now wear Pirelli P Zero Corsa rubber as a standard fitting – and, more important still, the carbon-ceramic disc brakes mounted inboard of them. These help haul the 650 to a standstill from 100km/h in just over 30 metres.
Like every McLaren built since the MP4/1 F1 car of 1981, the 650 is constructed around a carbon-fibre monocell that’s light and immensely strong, and endows the drop-top Spider with the same structural rigidity as the Coupe. Along with Pro-Active Chassis Control, that very stiffness also contributes to the superb ride that impressed me so much when I first drove the 12C in Britain two years ago.
On that former occasion we were kept on a fairly short leash: some laps of the Top Gear circuit at Dunsfold, and a 30-minute run through the surrounding countryside. But here in Spain we’ve got a full day with the 650S – an 80km drive out to Ascari, a supervised session on the track with the development team and a further couple of hours before lunch, when we’re free to jump into the car and wander wherever it takes us, with the final lap being a 145km journey back to the hotel. With luck, our round trip means we can expect to cover at least 300km.
Swinging open the dihedral door reveals a cabin that, excepting some bare surfaces of carbon-fibre, is trimmed entirely in faux-suede Alcantara. One of the coolest materials known to man, its grey expanse also covers the inside of the roof – which, this being a Spider, retracts fully into its bay in front of the engine in just 17 seconds – as well as the optional carbon-fibre racing seats and even the tiny steering wheel, and imbues the cockpit with an air of class that seems unusually restrained for a market niche as braggadocious as this.
Selecting S from the three chassis and powertrain modes for the run-up to Ascari seems the logical choice, and it’s evident that while the limousine-quality ride is hardly compromised with the firmer setting, the car feels so much sharper, more immediate and faster than the 12C – which itself was epically quick. In fact, helming the 650 is quickly revealed to be an intensely sensory experience, the slightest changes in direction and speed being transmitted back to the driver through the wheel, the pedals and even through the seat into which my backside is so tightly wedged. If there’s another production machine that offers a more satisfying and involving interface between car and driver, I’d be very much surprised.
And the speed is staggering. Even half pressing the pedal unleashes a minor tsunami that hurls the car forward in a relentless surge of torque and power. There’s so much of both that I’m unsure whether to run the engine up towards the red line before changing up, or to shortshift the seven-speed dual-clutch box and let the torque do the work – either way, I’m moving so swiftly and the G-forces are so extreme that several times I’m in serious danger of losing my breakfast. The figures – 0-100km/h in three seconds flat, 0-200km/h in 8.6 seconds (8.4 for the Coupe) and 329km/h maximum – tell only part of the story, as they don’t even begin to convey just how ridiculously rapid this thing is.
Just for fun, McLaren has even engineered some extraneous aural and visual drama into the 650, perhaps as a riposte to those who claimed the 12C sounded anodyne compared with a 458 or Gallardo. Ignition is slightly delayed during part-throttle upshifts to provoke a mighty crack once the mixture in the cylinder is ignited, accompanied by a jet of flame from the exhaust – a trousers-on-fire moment that driver, passenger and spectators can all enjoy.
Only when I’ve strapped on a helmet, though, and pointed the 650S out onto the hot, smooth tarmac at Ascari do I get the fullest sense of what the car is really capable of. With power unit and chassis in their most extreme T (track) mode, I floor the pedal and the 650 slingshots forward like an F-16 on afterburner. Onto the brakes for the first corner, which is already looming in the windscreen, and I can feel through the pedal as the pads bite into the carbonceramic discs, and our momentum is arrested so ferociously that I swear my sunglasses are pressed against my eyeballs. Off the brakes, into the corner and onto the power for a sweeping left-hander, and I’m awestruck at the phenomenal grip, the balance that approaches perfection, the acceleration that verges on the insane – and the car’s amazing ability to keep this up, corner after corner and lap after lap, with no apparent degradation in the stopping power of those extraordinary brakes.
It’s forgiving and even flattering, too, when on a couple of corners I feed the power in way too early and come close to losing it, and the electronics step in swiftly to forestall disaster. Indeed I’m starting to think I’m a much better driver than I really am, an illusion that persists until I pull into the pit lane and my instructor takes the wheel. After three flying laps of Ascari as his passenger any such notions are
firmly laid to rest, though not my astonishment at this incredible automobile.
For what’s not in doubt is that by improving on its predecessor in almost every conceivable respect the 650S has made a great car even better. Time will tell whether it’s qualitatively superior to a 458, Huracán or 911 GT3, but I’d have to doubt whether any of the above will match the British machine’s broad spectrum of capabilities. It’s the car the 12C should have been all along – and that could mean that this time around, McLaren has well and truly nailed it.