It’s completely ruined. The idea of supercars that is. As I write this, 24 hours after driving the McLaren 720S, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the mind-boggling performance that is generated from some clever aerodynamic engineering, a generous application of carbon fibre bits, and of course know-how of all things speed.
It all started in 1958.
Under the mentorship of prominent motorsport name, Jack Brabham, McLaren founder, Bruce McLaren found his professional racing legs when he joined a small UK-based racing team, Cooper Cars. A year later, he was the youngest driver to win a race in Formula One at age 22.
In 1963, Bruce McLaren Motor Racing was born and in 1964 it built its first race car, the M1A. Its successor, the M1B was modified allowing it entry into the North American Can-Am series in which it won 43 races.
In 1965, McLaren as a nameplate made its debut on the Formula One stage with its M2B, but it was only at the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix that it lifted the trophy on the top step of motorsport’s pinnacle competition; with 181 more victories that followed at the time of writing this article.
TAKING TO THE ROAD
During the following decades, several crucial points on McLaren’s double-helix DNA strand – including the pioneering use of carbon fibre on its MP4/1 racing car – would build up to its first-ever road car.
Launched in 1992, with a production run spanning only 106 units, the McLaren F1 saw the light of day and held the record as the fastest road-legal car until 2005 with its 6.1-litre BMW-sourced V12 engine that produced 461 kW and 650 Nm of torque.
On the product front, though, it went eerily quiet. So quiet in fact that in 1994 McLaren Cars was registered as a ‘dormant’ company, with only a collaboration with Mercedes-Benz to create the McLaren SLR keeping the performance professors busy, and it only generated headlines again in 2010 when it was re-launched as McLaren Automotive.
‘Dormant’ it might have been, well as far as the public was concerned, but the relaunched nameplate also had something up its sleeve. It heralded with its genesis, or the MP4-12C if you will, as the first of the modern McLaren.
WAKING THE NUMBERS
It was flawed, according to many a road tester’s accounts, but while Ferrari invoked feeling and emotion with its 458, McLaren tweaked the stiffness of the active suspension to one-thousandth of a decimal. Ferrari created a beautiful exhaust note, while McLaren was looking for ways to shave weight off the brackets holding its exhaust system in place. Craftistry and science.
The same was true for the succeeding 650S, named after the number of Pferdestärke or PS – a power unit closely related to horsepower produced by the car. It used the same formulae for extracting the maximum amount of forward velocity, using as little weight as possible. The carbon fibre chassis, for one, weighs only 75 kg. This meant that the power uprates to 478 kW from the 460 kW that pushes the 12C forwards, and of course with a modest 6 kg weight reduction, the 650 is able to reach 100 km/h in a claimed 3 seconds.
Very McLaren(ish) since it pushed the envelope for the brand’s conventional supercar division – I say the brand since the Ferrari 488 too registered a 3-second sprint – but still, the 650S had its flaws … One of the more frustrating ones being ingress and egress, trying to crawl out of the car much to the amusement of onlookers armed with smartphones. Not an ideal situation…
Enter the 720S, though. While I meant no pun with that sentiment, I’m happy to report that entering and exiting the 720 is not an entirely undignifying affair with a simple step in, a bend and a ‘mind your head’ movement. Exit too is relatively easy since the door sill (that also happens to be part of the monocoque chassis) has been lengthened allowing taller passengers to exit with relative ease.
And while I could go on at length about the orange-accented Alcantara upholstery, or the fact that there is actually stowage space and even a cup holder to be found on the inside of the McLaren, it’s not really built with luxuries in mind. A case in point is the climate control that could use another degree or two in the cool direction, or the infotainment that confused me to the point of just turning it off altogether. Oh, and this is the last of it, the speed limiter that I still don’t quite know how I managed to activate.
Thing is, the 720 is built for performance. It’s evident on the minimalistic steering wheel with no button-controls (functions like the nose- raise and -lowering is located in lever-form around the wheel) and of course that mid-mounted nuclear-like powerplant that is located right behind the two seats.
The engine comes in the form of a 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 that is mated to a 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox. And, before you think it’s cutesy – especially considering that this is a supercar after all – how about some anything-but-cute numbers?
This relatively small engine produces 527 kW and 770 Nm of torque. That is enough to propel it from standstill to the 100 km/h performance marker in the sacred sub-three second time of just 2.9 seconds.
That means the 720S is, in a technical sense, a hypercar. Impressive especially considering that it does this without the help of an engine that has more cylinders than sense and, importantly, without the help of a supplemental hybrid system like its P1 sibling that is just 0.1 seconds quicker to the 100 km/h sprint.
Driving it, though, I couldn’t help but suspect that McLaren has slightly underquoted this figure in order not to step on the toes of its Ultimate Series Senna that, like the P1, is also claimed at 2.8 seconds.
Furthermore, I can’t quite sum up the sensation of this car’s acceleration using print-suitable language, but I can tell you that you’re here, and then you’re there. And everything in between disappears in a bit of G-force-induced blur with only instinctual upshifts on the gearshift paddles when the car is in manual mode. As far as drama goes, Ferraris and Lamborghinis can better deliver on this promise since the 720 carries out its performance in a more clinical manner. The rear gets expectedly twitchy as you press the accelerator pedal into the carpet since all that power is delivered to just the 20” wheels, then it hunks back on its rear haunches, leaps forward and the blur ensues.
720S(ING) IT DAILY
Sure, it lacks in the drama department, which I’m sure is not ideal for many a buyer looking for just that. It does make up for this in the styling department. However, don’t expect to find any styling garnish here since every line, like all the mechanics under the surface, is designed with one purpose in mind: Violent performance. One case is the absence of door-adjacent radiator intakes that have become the styling standard on high-performance mid-engined cars.
Instead, and this undoubtedly influences the downforce of the 720S, it has ‘double-skin’ funnels incorporated into the doors for channelling air to the radiators that cool the mid-mounted engine. A perfect illustration of McLaren’s “form follows function” ethos.
And yet, despite this methodical approach to speed, it’s one of the easiest-to-use super-performance cars I’ve ever driven. When you get accustomed to the nose-lift function, you can take it nearly anywhere you’d take the family hatchback, like a drive-through as I did without any hassle. Moreover, it’s also comfortable on normal road surfaces and with my reasonably far-back driving position, I did not once encounter a problematic blindspot.
Supercars are now completely ruined for me. I’ve grown quite accustomed to the whole zero to 100 km/h tango that takes place in the three-second sphere, and it was safe and reliable in its delivery. Then, along came the McLaren 720S. It positively warped my perspective of speed to the point where I deem it to be downright terrifying, but in a non-theatrical sort of way – if that makes sense… This is a hypercar right here, downplayed and priced as a supercar. But, also, one you can use every day, if you so desire.
Report by DEON VAN DER WALT | Images © MCLAREN AUTOMOTIVE