Centre Stage – McLaren F1

Words by Anonymous | Images courtesy of DK Engineering

The McLaren F1 is always spoken of in such revered tones. Can it really be that good? Can it justify the massive incremental price difference to the latest ‘whole new thing’? Much of the history of the F1 will be familiar to readers, you will know it was designed by Gordon Murray. You will likely know he was given, pretty much, a blank sheet of paper and left alone to create, devoid of compromise. You will know it has a central driving position, and you will also know that despite being developed purely as a road car it went on to win at Le Mans in 1995. For me it was the one car I grew up really adoring. I remember the stunning posters of F40s and Testarossas, but back in the day they were just deemed too angular and aggressive whereas Peter Stevens’ more understated design appealed a great deal more. I have some history here too. The first sports car I took for a test drive was Steven’s wonderful interpretation of the Lotus Esprit before going on to purchase an Elan M100 a few years later. Like most I’m intrigued by the sheer awe that the press holds for the F1.

McLaren F1 Investment Car-4I remember the very first time I saw a physical car – it was only around three years ago. The first thing that struck me was how relatively small it was by modern standards (its dimensions are almost identical to a Ferrari 250 GTO – not a bad place to start). Despite being sleek and slim, it’s a very restrained looking car with no ugly fixed wings or aero to upset the clean lines of the car. Take a walk around and there’s no doubt it has aged really well. Maybe the wheels look a bit dated now but it’s not like you can spec a replacement in forged magnesium even if you wanted to. Then you notice the tyres – big fat sidewalls – something that’s really rare these days and actually looks rather lovely. There’s that much mentioned central driving position – it looks just plain strange, so used are we to seeing the steering wheel on either left or right, somehow it appears like a child has designed where the wheel should sit. If you’re ever lucky enough to get really close to one of these cars I’m sure you’ll appreciate the quality of the parts used and the attention to detail – it all comes together so well to form an incredible package. Despite being twenty years old the build quality is second to none. A well maintained car feels like it rolled out of the McLaren factory yesterday.

Over time and with my intrigue piqued, a little elaborate ‘man maths’ allowed me to consider that I could probably afford one – this is a very dangerous statement – I now had to own one. The only decision to make now was to look for either a standard road car or a GTR. McLaren built 64 road and 28 race cars, 8 LMs and long tails and 6 prototypes. For me it was always going to be a road car. The GTRs do tend to be a little cheaper and are easier to source (unless it is a car with serious racing provenance). However the lack of odometer, low ground clearance, lack of air conditioning, straight-cut gears, need to wear ear defenders to avoid being deafened and racing steering rack (read as three point turns necessary to pull out of your drive) make them much more relevant as the worlds most expensive track day toy, rather than a serious road car proposition.

Sadly, arranging to test drive a McLaren F1 is not really possible

McLaren F1 Investment Car-11but I did manage to see a few cars up close to gain a better understanding of the various considerations with the car. Also trying to buy one of these cars is not quite as simple as you’d imagine either – having the readies is not necessarily enough. When enquiring about cars in this price range all sorts of third parties appear interested in getting involved. Rather unhelpfully I also saw a couple of cars that ‘might be for sale’. Unfortunately the likely outcome will see the potential buyer frustrated, and the effect of his enquiry now pushing the perception of prices higher. Then there is the issue of tax. Non-EU registered cars will cost the buyer a further whopping twenty percent in VAT on top of the asking price to import the car into the UK.

After looking for a car for around seven months, and feeling somewhat frustrated, my dealer managed to source a car for me in the US. It was being part-exchanged (I kid you not, I’ll let you imagine what for) and was coming to market. He flew to LA and inspected the car on my behalf, a price was agreed and the deal sewn up within a week. And no I still had not driven a McLaren F1!

It was a further couple of months before I was able to get myself behind the wheel of my McLaren F1, as the car was to be flown to the UK and then kept in storage by customs until the paperwork and duty was paid. Finally the car was ready. So with a mixture of excitement and no little fear – it was my turn. Much has been written about getting into the F1 due to its three-seater layout. First thing to remember is to get in via the left hand side door as entering via the right is a non-option due to the risk of causing yourself a mischief on the rather upright gear lever which is to the right of the central position. So here goes, and I’m still not sure that I’ve mastered it. Place bum in left hand side passenger seat, swivel legs across to the pedal box and then slide bum into centre seat – job done.

McLaren F1 Investment Car-7Right you’re in, lean over and pull down the dihedral door, harness yourself in and find neutral. The gear lever fits perfectly into the palm of your hand, has a very metallic sound and that famous rifle-bolt action. The ignition key goes into the chassis plate to the right in front of the gear lever. The little red starter button is hidden underneath a flip top guard. There is no sport button or damper settings – it’s almost as if the car is like one of those uber expensive valve amplifiers without tone controls – delivered set-up as Gordon Murray decided, any variation of that would compromise the quality. Derived in a time when long flamboyant dashboards where the norm, all the controls are built around the driver. The car’s steering wheel is tiny by modern standards and has it’s own little flappy paddles one to flash the headlights and one for the horn. Beautiful black on forged aluminium dials highlight the large central tacho, with the small speedo to the right that tops out at 260mph giving only a hint of the lunacy of the package – both are bathed in a warm green glow when the headlights are on.

Turn the key 90 degrees clockwise, there’s a busy buzz of solenoids and pumps, whilst a few warning messages flash across the miniature ‘90s LCD display. Flip up the fighter pilot flap that covers the tiny red starter button. Ok it’s time – fire her up…. A brief click whirr from the starter motor and the V12 opens up its throat. A few sharp revs are followed by a low rumbling turnover.

The clutch is very heavy and finding first is challenging until the fluids are warm (second and third gear are non existent until operating temperature is reached). Now the first thing you remind yourself of when you’re about to set off in an F1 is that it is devoid of nannying electronics. No power steering, no traction control, no ABS and not even a brake servo – all deemed surplus to requirements for the weight obsessed Murray. So with much trepidation and very light on the power, carefully lift that heavy clutch (applying too much power will of course light up the rear wheels with the added effect of destroying that eye-wateringly expensive triple plate clutch in no time).

Driving the F1 around town is really easy, the car is comfortable and relaxing to drive at slows speeds – those high side-walled tyres provide a very compliant ride. The front has a good amount of clearance and although parking is not the easiest – rear visibility is poor, at least there’s very little overhang.

Now open up the throttle and all hell breaks loose.

McLaren F1 Investment Car-8It positively barks a guttural growl making other engines seem underpowered by comparison – the ferocity of the immediate throttle and the powertrain is amazing. I can see why Gordon Murray would go on to suggest it is the ‘best V12 ever’. The urgency with which it can propel the vehicle forward is on one level comical whilst on another simply frightening.

The most noticeable difference to any other car I have driven is the throttle response, with virtually no flywheel effect means it is the most instantaneous of any car on the road – equally it has massive torque throughout the rev range, at 1500rpm it is already pulling at 400lb ft torque. The V12 will absolutely yelp at any application of throttle but revs equally fall away quicker than any other car the moment the throttle is lifted. This means that anything other than a lightening gear change will see revs fall to tickover. Thankfully when warm and despite having a pretty big throw the gearbox is excellent – it does need to be guided home with a swift, confident motion. Steering becomes responsive and tactile at speed urging the driver to push on. The brakes have often been described as the Achilles heel of the F1 and no doubt they are very much ‘of their day’ – that said they have good feel up to less insane speeds – my belief is that the car has such incredible performance that you’re really asking a lot out of the brakes to keep up. Oh and all F1 brakes – like those of that other amazing supercar, the F40, squeal like a pig.

My car has spent a good amount of its first year of my ownership back at McLaren Special Operations. It was serviced, bag tank replaced, clutch replaced and had a new titanium sports exhaust fitted. McLaren do an amazing job on the cars – the guys at MSO have a massive fondness for them and that comes across in the quality of their work and their attention to detail. The cars should be serviced at least annually or at a certain mileage intervals although the latter is largely irrelevant given most of the cars do such few miles. The truth is many are used so infrequently that they are only ever serviced every three to four years.

So after a year of ownership I’ve put just under 1,000 miles on her. So can it live up to it’s extremely exalted status? The answer, for me, is an absolute resounding yes, in fact it’s just that little bit better. It’s interesting, now that he’s widely reported as selling his, that one of the quotes I read that urged me to purchase one was attributed to Rowan Atkinson. He said something along the lines of, if you really can afford to own one and you love cars, that you really should. I couldn’t agree more – it is simply the most intoxicating car ever.