DOWN-CHANGE FOR the hell of it. Just to hear the V12. Because that dab provokes probably the best induction bark ever to emanate from a road car. There is almost a mirroring between the air rushing through the intake directly above your head, down to the engine behind you, and the tingles that start in your scalp and run down the length of your spine.
A glance right through the black arc that bisects the side window and there is the roof scoop of the wildest road car ever to be called a 911: the GT1. A glance left and there is the caricature face of the most expensive Mercedes road car ever made: the CLK GTR. I’m sitting in a McLaren F1 and yet I’m in the least rare car of our trio. By some margin. Not for the first time today, I find I can’t help but smile at the absurdity of what’s happening here.
These are three of the most exciting road cars ever made, two developed from Le Mans racers, one conceived to be the greatest road car ever, and which happened to win Le Mans. Outright! When James Cottingham from DK Engineering first asked me what the greatest trio of roadgoing sports cars could be, I instantly told him: these three. But actually, getting them together? All right, I knew they had the GTR, but still. And that they should all be in silver makes this even more surreal. Here we have the story of a golden era of endurance racing. The GT1 racers and the incredible road cars they spawned are something that even today, with the new LMH category, the FIA is striving to recreate.
Famously the McLaren F1 was never intended to go racing. Gordon Murray and the team created a road car. And you can feel that as soon as you get into it. Granted, there is a convoluted technique (that I’ve yet to master) required if you want to get into an F1 as gracefully as you would a Ford Fiesta but, once ensconced, you can revel in a cockpit that feels all at once fantastically focused but also supremely spacious. Comfortable, too, despite the thin seat. You could imagine covering long distances in it. In fact, as the whole car is only 4288mm long and 1820mm wide, you could also happily conceive of popping into town.
Anyway, despite the obvious habitability of the F1, it was nonetheless created to exacting standards by a race team. As a performance road car, it had no equal at the time it was launched and so it was almost inevitable that, in a race series based on road cars, would also be top of the tree. When customers convinced McLaren that a race car program should be undertaken, it dominated the BPR Global GT Championship, winning both drivers’ and team titles in 1995 and 1996.
But it was the car’s victory, first time out, at Le Mans in 1995 that really put the cat among the pigeons. The victory may have been a little lucky, with the atrociously wet weather playing into the F1’s hands, but nonetheless, it made the F1 GTR an instant icon.
Driving the F1 today remains an extraordinary experience. This, chassis 037, is the third F1 that I’ve been lucky enough to drive but these are such special cars that getting reacquainted isn’t the work of a moment. The 6.1-liter V12 dominates the experience because it is so responsive, so alive to every movement of the throttle. The power really is palpable and it’s intimidating. It takes quite a bit of courage to really extend the engine, partly because the gearshift has such a tight gate that for the first few miles there is a real concern about missing a shift across it as you go from second to third.
What’s more, in comparison to the whip-crack V12, the rest of the controls can feel a little slow in their responses. The steering is full of feel but also heavy, with very little inclination to naturally re-center. The brakes are certainly not the most reassuring. Combine these with suspension that allows a lot of movement in terms of roll, squat, and dive, and tires that have plenty of sidewalls to flex, and you can quickly find your hands very full. Brake hard, sense that delicate nose dip, add a bit of steering lock, feel the weight of the engine behind you, and... well, you want to be very careful about what you do next with the throttle.
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