It´s mid-afternoon, the last clouds have long buggered off, and the sun is putting the whole arena on the grill.
Time for a three-hour showdown, an empty racetrack and a total of 37 laps in Y33MCL. No speed limit. no instructor, no pace car, no holds barred. Il autodromo Vallelunga is a converted ancient horse racing track which switched to horseless carriages in 1951. Recurrently updated, the track length was doubled to 3222 metres in 1963, the year it hosted Rome´s first F1 GP.
In its current metamorphosis, the circuit is 4085 metres long, challenging drivers with twelve direction changes and two long straights, each good for close to 250kph. Painted Aperol metallic, adorned with charcoal carbon-fibre accents and fitted with black 19/20in wheels, the shiny 720S looks a world apart from the original 2011 MP4 12C which later became the Super Series aka McLaren 650S and 675LT.
Designed by Rob Melville rather than Frank Stephenson of Mini I and MP4 fame, the very latest McLaren consciously avoids déjà vus like poor three-quarter rear view, flanks cut open by massive air intakes and door openings restricted to contortionists. Our ground-hugging test car is a smart-looking piece of kit, perhaps a little overstyled in places and visually too close for comfort to the smaller and less pricey Sports Series, but a functional and competent tool nonetheless.
Although 91percent of the content is claimed to be new, r&d had to carry over the old electronic platform which is incompatible with a desirable head-up display and a bunch of advanced assistance systems. Instead, the centre stack once more houses the familiar toggle switches which calibrate handling and performance from comfort over sport to track.
Completing the ergonomic confusion are additional buttons labelled Active (permits manual gear shifts), ESP (can be switched off in part or completely), Aero (triggers DRS at high speed) and launch control. The most obvious cockpit-related novelty is the revolving instrument panel. In normal driving conditions, it acts as a full-size display like the one fitted to the the 650S, but put a knife between your teeth, and the panel will swivel into slim display mode indicating only gear position, revs and velocity.
The other major innovation is known as Variable Drift Control (VDC), McLarenspeak for scalable traction control. Sliding an icon on the touchscreen from left to right increases the maximum drift angle from timid to lurid. Sadly, access to most functions and flippancies is about as intuitive as a software programme written in kizuaheli.
No more theory, no more time wasting. Entering the pit line on cue is a sizzling orangerie with crackling exhaust, steaming brakes and smelly tyres coated in marbles. The test driver hops out, and the 6ft8in amateur is pleased to report that getting into a McLaren has never been this easy: lift the gullwing door, use the cutout in the roof to step over the sill - right leg first - without crouching, then slide down into the seat and buckle up.
While this sequence is so far quite easy even on extreme physiques, tall frames will invariably remember early Pilates or Yoga lessons as they struggle to fuse with the size M racing bucket. Head- and legroom are virtually unchanged, but entry and exit are definitely less painful now, and the optional gorilla glass roof lets in a lot more light (and heat). Like a spiderweb, the fully glazed carbonfibre upper structure removes all blind spots for an uncluttered panoramic view which is as clear as gin without tonic.
Thanks to the optional sports exhaust, the engine starts with a misbehaving gun salute before lapsing into a flowing, dense and somewhat impatient idle. While the infotainment has taken the afternoon off, the in-dash monitor is already beginning to fill with telemetry data including Chris Goodwin´s benchmark lap time - humiliation in five provoking digits.
The first rotations are quite hopeless. Reacquainting myself with the track and adapting to the car is one thing, coping with the juddering marble-studded tyres is another. Looking through the windscreen while being shaken to bits feels like deceiphering a fata morgana under the influence.
There is only one way to clean-shave the well used P Zeros back into shape: hard braking and hard cornering, again and again and again. But just as the grip starts to come back, the orange is ru-n-ni-ng out of juice. You averaged 96.6 l/100km, says the friendly on-board computer, that´s a ninefold increase of the official consumption.
After a splash-and-dash, the crew in their grey polo shirts returns to the pit wall to watch the fat flounder disappear in the distance, climaxing - wham, wham, wham! - at an infernal 8000rpm, through the gears presto, deep into sixth on two occasions, always trying to hug the vicinity of 5500rpm where the torque mountain peaks at a broad-shouldered, honey-fisted 770Nm.
With 720bhp on tap, the featherweight 1283kilo coupé can accelerate in 2.8sec from 0-60mph, storm in 7.8sec to 125mph, reach 188mph after 21.4sec and max out at 212mph. Take that, F12!
Here in Vallelunga, it´s above all the instant seamless mid-range punch which makes the mind boggle, lap by lap. Within less than 15 seconds, the 720S can beam itself from 125 to 185mph. In terms of negative acceleration, it takes only 2.8sec or 29.7 metres to come to a stop from 60mph.
The elastic interplay between the power and torque curves, the rhythm-defining aggressive gearing, and the anticipatory throttle response add up to a grand open-air performance only a handful of street-legal sports cars can match or eclipse. This thing really flies, and it copes like a pro with challenges like sudden camber variations, changing grip levels or tightening radii.
Second-gear junkies who turn in too early and fail to nurse the front tyres end up a touch too soon with mounting understeer which then begs to be neutralized by an early stab at the throttle. So better take it easy and let the car do its job.
You see, this McLaren is more about momentum than raw power, it does not depend on sky-high revs, it does not rely on mid-corner upshifts to keep up the pace, it rewards smooth drivers while punishing indecisive wheelmen.
Like most in-fields, the hairpin snake pit which forms the curly part of the Vallelunga race track calls for a pragmatic line and patient torque feed. The remainder of the circuit, however, compiles the perfect receipe for instant adrenalin release and permanent addiction.
The McLaren likes its corners wide and fast, so we stay away from the kerbs on the entry to the start-finish straight, set the car straight early, shift flat-out into fourth then fifth, roar still full-throttle past the huge temporary sign that says BRAKE. Down the following dip, it´s easyeasyeasy on the throttle until the nose finally starts to hug the looong apex.
Having regained grip and composure, the car approaches the following double-apex right-hander with three machine-gun downshifts like a Stuka fighter plane on the attack. What makes the 720S feel so special on this demanding section lined by gravel traps and tyre walls is the interaction of its talents.
The tactile electro-hydraulic steering puts the blacktop right into your palms, the delicate handling balance overwhelms keen drivers like a drug, the riveting roadholding keeps extending the boundaries of adhesion, the energetic drivetrain pairs instant bite and long legs.
Like its predecessor, the new Super Series employs Proactive Chassis Control for a special blend of poise and compliance. The modified suspension features redesigned uprights and double wishbones for improved feel and grip while taking out 16 kilos of weight.
Hydraulically interlinked dampers make anti-roll bars redundant, there is now a more clear-cut difference between the three drive available modes, Variable Drift Control does a fine job modulating the torque flow to the rear wheels, McLaren Brake Steer replaces the limited-slip differential with an advanced type of torque vectoring, the carbon ceramic brake discs are bigger and fatter than ever.
Drawbacks? You still cannot dial in the preferred personal dynamic set-up, there is no equivalent to much liked Ferrari solutions such as the damper control button and the manettino DNA switch, the pedal pressure is too high when the brakes are cold, the Corsa tyres are useless as soon as the first raindrops fall, and why was that double paddle-pull selects neutral function replaced by a tappet switch buried deep down in the centre console?
There are better locations to test a 720bhp sports car than the outskirts of Rome where bad roads, incompetent drivers and poor signposting pose a constant threat to a 250K Euro bahn-stormer.
In theory, the speed limit in Italy is 55mph. In reality though, it varies from a fully autonomous 30mph with the driver sending a text message to a kamikaze 125mph-plus recorded by the odd Maserrari. In the 720S, at least you don´t have to flee for your life when entering a junction because you can actually see what´s going on behind those bulging buttocks.
With both control units set in comfort, the citrus fruit on UK plates combines commendable compliance with a drivetrain calibration one may describe as toothless on the track but which is quite relaxing on the open road. In stop-and-go traffic, it won´t even hurt to let the seven-speed DCT do the gear changing, but as soon as an empty stretch of blacktop unfolds in front of the McLaren´s LED eyes, paddle-shifting is the only satisfactory form of progress.
Although the new satnav is superior to the previous device, it needs to be faster still and more switched on. McLaren may be waxing lyrical about their latest sound system, but in all honesty the only road music you want to listen to in this coupé are the heavy-metal tunes played by eight cyclinders, 32 valves, four camshafts and two turbos.
The evolutionary 4.0litre unit does not only gain 70bhp and 92Nm over the outgoing engine, it also has become more vocal and more melodical. Lit bright red for a few seconds when you unlock and open the door, the mid-mounted kraftwerk codenamed M840T sounds crisper, cleaner and more characterful, thankfully avoiding the fake heeling and toeing and artificial lift-off blat-blat cultivated elsewhere.
Capable of up to 160,000rpm, the two turbochargers intone a charming background whine and whistle, the high-mounted exhaust adds a high-rev drum roll to the busy working noises, and the full-throttle intake slurp keeps singing a duet with the polyphonic tailpipe baritone. Nice.
At 9am sharp on the morning of day two, we´re back on the track. With fresh stamina, fresh advice from master Goodwin and fresh tyres. No more playschool - this is serious stuff now. The virginal rubber makes a huge difference. It raises the bar in terms of of stability, balance, response, confidence, trust, admiration.
Through that high-speed fifth-gear courage-tester, the 720S is suddenly begging for even more punch - after all, downforce has increased by up to 30percent, and the Pirellis are still young and eager. The occasional waywardness experienced during the first outing has given way to enhanced grip and poise.
As soon as you drop the anchors, the air brake deploys with a whooshing plop, tying that broad rear end firmly to the ground. On the long straights, the tail rudder automatically assumes its lowest-drag position, adding a new emotional nuance to the colourful soundtrack. Through the third-gear esses, drift control beckons and is unleashed, to the great joy of the devil inside...
The new McLaren does a splendid job driving you dizzy. It´s the perfect car for sliding into delirium, for synchronizing racing line and steering angle and g-force, for extending the braking point into an ellipsis. Unlike some rivals who always want the last word in the dialogue between man and machine, the 720S remains benign even when a clumsy autistic is in charge.
Would I want one? Do sharks eat raw meat? Far too soon, the red lights come on again, imposing the final cooldown lap. A quick glance in the mirror shows a lobster-red face framed by thumping temples, crested by a high-voltage hairdo and illuminated by a pair of blue eyes which retain their luster deep into the night.
Even though all the excitement is now safely stored away in memory lane, I´m already game for an encore, perhaps late next year, in the S720 Spyder.