Driving a McLaren P1 is not something those few lucky enough to have had the experience are likely to forget.
A powertrain with 673kW in a car weighing about the same as a family hatchback tends to leave its impression on you, as does a chassis capable of generating double the force of gravity through fast corners, where most road cars would get nowhere near even 1g.
And yet if the truth be known, and extraordinary as it sounds, the P1 is actually nothing like as fast as it could be. Its powertrain has not only to develop more than 670kW, but also pass all emissions tests in every country in which it is sold, and that costs a few kilowatts.
The active aerodynamics must be arranged so that they provide downforce when it’s needed, but don’t add to overall inefficient drag when it’s not, and that’s a compromise too. And those Pirelli tyres, vast and specially made for the P1 though they are, must also work in all weather conditions, provide reasonable ride quality and last for months or even years in normal use.
Which rather begs the question: what would a P1 be like if relieved of all these restrictions? What would it be like if tuned in its powertrain, aerodynamics and chassis simply to be as fast and exhilarating as possible? The answer is before you.
The McLaren P1 GTR is a P1 with no strings attached, save for the rather awkward fact that even at £1.98 million, or approximately AU$3.83 million (a standard P1 costs £866,000 or AU$1.67 million), McLaren has now shut the order book. It hoped it might sell up to 35 cars and stopped when requests passed 40 units.
Its engine now runs unrestricted all the way to 1000PS – which we call 736kW – its vast rear wing is fixed in the most aerodynamically-advantageous place and those treaded tyres have been replaced by race-specification slicks with a life expectancy measurable in hours or, if you’re really going hard, minutes.
This makes it quite possibly the most unhinged car based on a production design that has ever been created. And I have presented myself in my race suit at the Losail International Circuit just outside Doha in Qatar to drive it.
It was not McLaren but Ferrari that first proved you could sell race versions of ultimate road cars for vast amounts of money, even when they’re not homologated to race in any recognised series around the world. Cars like the Ferrari FXX and 599XX (not to mention the Ferrari FXX K) have been vast money-spinners for Maranello and now it seems the P1 GTR will do the same for McLaren.
Like Ferrari, McLaren will organise events all over the world for P1 GTR owners to attend with their cars, where they will receive one-on-one driver training as well as advice about fitness, nutrition and anything else you might like to know about driving a car with capabilities outside the experience of all but full-time professional racing drivers.
But while McLaren will also look after your car for you, and transport it around the world, if you prefer to take it home and use it to make every single person at your local track-day venue feel entirely inadequate, you can do that too.
Visually, it is utterly intimidating. While ‘normal’ P1s have a Race mode that allows them to sink nearer to the ground, the GTR doesn’t have anything else, so with its shrunk-wrapped surfaces, near non-existent ground clearance and that huge new wing, pumped out body work and vast front splitter, it appears to be not so much hugging the ground as sprouting from it.
The interior is passingly familiar to those who’ve looked inside a P1, but with all the major buttons relocated to a steering wheel (based on that gripped by Lewis Hamilton as he powered to the 2008 F1 World Championship). There’s no roll-cage in here, as the carbonfibre monocoque is already far stronger than any mere steel cage could ever be.
You start it by pushing a button just as you would a P1, but from thereon in you are in an entirely different world. While a P1 will sit and idle quietly enough for those around you to carry on their conversations, when the GTR’s 3.8-litre V8 blasts into life your first inclination is to duck, your second to find somewhere to hide. And only then do you really focus on the fact you’re listening to an engine with 736kW, and it’s powering a car that’s even lighter than a P1.
Is all that energy going to be even containable for a mere mortal like me, or is it simply going to recognise that Lewis works somewhere else these days and throw me into Qatari scenery? There is but one way to find out.
And the very first thing you learn from the P1 GTR is that above a certain level of performance, and particularly at low speeds, the power you feel is only that which can be transmitted by the tyre. So the P1 has 673kW, but under violent acceleration in the lower gears electronics have to intervene simply to stop the tyres boiling with wheelspin.
The GTR on its hot slicks has no such problems. It not only has more power, it can use it too. The acceleration doesn’t feel strong, so much as an act of violence committed against you. Instinctively you lift.
It’s the same in the corners and under braking. Driving the P1 GTR can actually be a very demoralising affair, a car whose primary purpose appears at first to be to remind you of your limitations as a driver. You push the car hard, yourself harder still, yet in its ability to shed speed far faster than you’d ever anticipated, and hit every apex without discernible over or understeer, it gives the impression of not being taxed at all.
On the main straight it will do the best part of 320km/h, yet will lose more than half of that speed in what seems to be the blink of an eye while simultaneously making your body feel likes its being crushed into the seat by the hands of some giant malevolent being.
But then something curious happens. I can remember talking to an F1 driver who was brave enough to admit (off the record) that every spring when he climbed back in the car after the winter break, he quickly concluded all his talent had disappeared, the car was impossibly fast and he would never, ever be able to control it. ‘But,’ he told me, ‘by the end of the first day testing I’d be screaming at the engineers for more power and telling them I’d ridden mopeds with better performance.’ In short, you adapt.
After a short break to process the information force fed into my head, I had time to steel myself before getting back into the car with some knowledge of the experience to come.
Now I was ready for it. So when the acceleration came I relished every scenery-shrinking, time-warping second of it.
I enjoyed watching numbers appear on the speedo faster than I could even understand, let alone count; I relished every tap on the paddle and the way the thrust continued unabated, the engine apparently unaware it was now pulling a higher gear. And I became determined not to leave this flat, fast and featureless circuit until I had pushed both it and myself to the limit.
But there’s a problem, one I’ve found in every racing car I’ve driven capable of generating meaningful amounts of downforce. The faster you go, the more the air works to push the car into the tarmac, and the more grip is provided. As a result the car doesn’t feel less stable as speeds rise, but more so.
Indeed in fast corners taken at over 160km/h where the wing, splitter, bodywork and diffusers are doing their best work, the car feels a lot more precise than most cars do at less than half that speed. Simple physics will tell you there is a speed at which the car will not negotiate any given turn, but with the car feeling better and better as the speeds rise higher and higher, what happens when you reach that point?
This is perhaps where the P1 GTR is cleverest of all. If the car had been designed simply to lap a circuit as fast as it could possibly go, it would be set up like a modern GT3 racer. This would mean you’d brake all the way into every corner and the moment you hit the apex, smash the accelerator to the floor and cannon your way out. The car would not slide at the back or front, it would simply go around the corner. Or not.
The GTR is not like this. McLaren recognised from the start that it would be driven by owners of widely differing skill levels and that above all, above even the need for it to be faster than anything else they are likely to have driven, the GTR needed to be friendly and even indulgent on the limit. It’s a fast car, but it needed to be fun too.
And it is: when finally you feel the front tyres first start to slip, the signal is communicated so beautifully clearly through the steering you find yourself not being scared by the news, but actually relieved. You realise you are in fact good enough to work this car hard, and when you do, it’s not going to try to mug you.
So you push and probe a little further and find a car of immaculate manners, despite the preposterous speeds at which it is travelling. It’s not the kind of car in which to do long drifts, but you can reach the stage where you can feel it moving around beneath you at both ends.
And, if you do apply a little more power than usual quite early in the corner and feel the back step out, instead of backing off and trying to save yourself, the car gives you the confidence to ride it out, correcting with the steering while keeping the taps open.
Only the brakes required more time than I had. Because of the downforce, you can hit the left-hand pedal at 305km/h with all the force your thigh can muster and you won’t be able to trigger the ABS.
Instead your effective body mass will triple under the G-force, but then you must remember that as the car sheds speed, so too does it shed downforce, so the deeper into the corner you go, you actually have to reduce brake pressure. It’s not actually an inherently difficult technique, but it is different and takes time to learn.
So by the time you’re finished with the McLaren P1 GTR, the thing that had frightened you most at the start, that 736kW kick in the kidneys, is the thing you’ll actually remember least about driving the car.
Indeed by the end the power becomes merely a means to get you to the speed at which the GTR can show you what it’s really good at: namely cornering so hard you wonder how your head is staying on your shoulders, and slowing like you’d driven into a vat of treacle. In my experience no car based on a road car design has ever had a performance envelope like it.
Of course the McLaren P1 GTR will be seen as an irrelevance to all but those immensely wealthy 40-something individuals who have ordered one. But as a device to show, in the most stark way imaginable, just what can be achieved when one of the fastest road cars ever built is released from its duties to comply with international legislation, it’s not just thrilling, but fascinating.
5 out of 5 stars
Specs: McLaren P1 GTR
Body: 2-door, 2-seat coupe
Engine: 3799cc V8, DOHC, 32v, twin-turbo; electric motor
Bore/stroke: 93.0 x 69.9mm
Ice power: 589kW @ 7300rpm
Electric power: 147kW
Combined outputs: 736kW/900Nm+
0-100KM/H: 2.8sec (claimed)
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch
Suspension: A-arms, coil springs, hydraulically-linked dampers (f/r)
Brakes: 390mm ventilated carbon-ceramic discs (f); 380mm ventilated carbon-ceramic discs (r); caliper data unavailable
Wheels: 19 x 10.5-inch (f); 19 x 13.0-inch (r)
Tyres: 285/650 R19 (f); 325/705 R19 (r) Pirelli slicks
Price: Sold out