I have just bought the new McLaren P1. I didn’t set out to have the complete set of McLarens but, you know, it’s fun to get in on the ground floor of something. And it was certainly exciting to be the first person outside McLaren to be invited to drive the P1. And in the company's 50th anniversary year. There is a lot of heritage at McLaren but, unlike a lot of other marques, they don’t rely on it as a crutch. It’s just something that happens to be there. The thing I like about McLaren is that it’s all about science and technology.
The fun thing about driving a McLaren is that the people who know, know. The people who don’t know, don’t know. I like the seriousness of it. It’s built for a particular type of enthusiast. In LA, I see McLarens up in the canyons where the car guys go. Or I see them by the Rock Store where the motorcycle guys go. I don’t see them in front of the kinds of restaurants where you see other supercars. And I have yet to see a McLaren in valet parking.
Before I got my hands on the P1, I was invited to see it being made, and that was a thrill. Woking might lack the cachet of Maranello but, for me, McLaren’s yin/yang-shaped HQ is Nirvana. Norman Foster designed it and the outside is as sleek as the cars made inside.
Inside it is as clean as a hospital. I ran my finger on the floor and licked it, just to make sure. It’s also as quiet as a hospital. When I walked in, I was the loudest thing in there. Until they fired up one of the P1 or 12C engines for a test, that is.
Production of the P1 is starting now and McLaren will be making one a day, by hand, until the 375 are finished. The 61 technicians involved build the car in just ten steps from start to finish. It’s a space-age construction process executed with old-fashioned British military precision. McLaren has taken technology from its F1 team, as you might expect, and on the production line you see the detail that goes into the car.
Everything on the P1 is there only for performance. It has an active rear wing with a Formula 1-style DRS (drag reduction system) and, unlike a lot of other hybrid supercars, the electric hybrid system is integrated so that your electric motor is driving your transmission the same as a crankshaft would. Everything is as light as possible. I picked up a seat waiting to be fitted. It was lighter than a small bag of groceries. And the car even uses bespoke P Zeros from Formula 1 supplier Pirelli, made for extreme downforce and high cornering forces. Sounds like a contradiction, but I like both the simplicity and the complexity of it.
When I sit in the cab, right in front of me are the steering wheel and a couple of gauges. That’s it. I’m not a fan of these steering wheels that are filled with every conceivable kind of button. I like the focus of the car. It’s not meant to be a cruiser. One of the F1’s talking points was its central driving position. Probably the most dramatic thing visually with the P1 is the fighter-jet canopy. You get in and there is a real sense of space and theatre.
There is a commonality to McLaren cars, a distinctive feel, a very distinctive engine note, a distinctive shift to the transmission. The 12C and the P1 use the same tub, and when I first saw the P1 I thought it looked like the 12C, which I liked. There’s not a lot of bling. Just everything you need. It’s a driver’s car. I have spoken to a number of 12C owners and one guy had covered 12,000 miles in his, and another 19,000 in his. I’ve had my Ford GT and Carrera GT since 2005 and my 12C, which is 18 months old, has more miles on it than either of those. It’s a testament to McLaren that so many are high-mileage.
When you’re impressed with a product you want to see more from the company that made it. In America 100 years ago, there were 350 car companies. There are now three. The fact that you could start a new one in the late 20th century, with all the rules and regulations, is very impressive. But in the 21st century there are really only two successful small-car companies: Tesla and McLaren. Fisker and others fall by the wayside, and there are a number of electric start-ups that are no longer there.
We saw with Porsche that it’s hard to make a living just selling sports cars. You don’t see that many on the road. I suppose McLaren will have to go down the road Porsche has taken and do something like the Panamera. The hardest part will probably be building the cheaper McLaren. That’s going to be tough because they don’t have the volume of Volkswagen. But I am hopeful McLaren will be around in another 50 years. Happy birthday.