McLaren engineers have made further progress with the already brilliant dynamics of their MP4-12C supercar
Majulah McLaren Photo: Press Releases

Behold the first Singaporean supercar!... Okay, that’s stretching things a bit, although homegrown billionaire investor Peter Lim does indeed own a significant part of McLaren (albeit a minority stake as far as we know). When a world-famous F1 outfit part-owned by your fellow countryman builds a groundbreaking new supercar, we’ll take any excuse to wave the crescent moon-and-stars.

Never mind the Singaporean connection, the MP4-12C (or 12C for short) feels pretty alien as you swing its dramatic swan door upwards and clamber into that low-slung cabin. It’s typically McLaren inside – elegantly, almost obsessively minimalist, and totally devoid of flourish. The cabin materials of leather, Alcantara, carbon fibre and alloy are all top-notch, tasteful and beautifully finished, but none of them draw your attention and invite your fingers to explore. Nor are they meant to. In the 12C, style plays second fiddle to substance, and the cockpit is a serious workplace, just like in an F1 racecar.

 To this end, everything centres around the driver. Cast a glance at the instrument cluster and a big “Cyclops eye” stares back at you – it’s the rev counter, marked to 9000rpm and a statement of the car’s performance-focused intent. The speedo is a digital readout at the lower right-hand portion of the tacho. Mirroring the single, central instrument is a single, central circular air vent (presumably the passenger does without).

The driving position is near-perfect – low, purposeful, with steering wheel and pedals directly ahead and with excellent visibility forwards and sideways. The view backwards is more restrictive, but for reversing purposes, you’ve got a camera assisting. The only gripe is that the front of the seat squab doesn’t tilt upwards to cup your thighs enough.

McLaren pioneered carbon fibre chassis technology in F1, and with the 12C, the marque is at the forefront of it again, but for road use. Most cars are built around a steel monocoque chassis, a rare few like the Lotus Elise and Ferrari 458 boast an aluminium tub, but the McLaren trumps them all with a carbon fibre monocell (essentially a one-piece, tub-like structure comprising the cabin floor and sides, and front and rear bulkheads). It is this central structure to which everything else, from the suspension components to the engine to the body panels, is directly bolted. Building a tub from carbon fibre is far more expensive and tedious than doing it with aluminium, but it makes for a stiffer and lighter chassis. It’s why F1 teams use them, so the 12C does, too.

The suspension arrangement is also ingenious. To quell body roll (as well as pitch and dive under acceleration and braking), the 12C relies not on the traditional anti-roll bars, but on hydraulic connections that link the dampers left-to-right and front-to-rear. When the car is travelling straight, these hydraulics have no effect on the suspension whatsoever, giving the springs free rein to compress and soak up bumps without inhibition.

But once the car is into a bend, the compression forces acting on the outside dampers and the rebound forces on the inside dampers counteract each other via their hydraulic interconnection, effectively cancelling each other out and thereby keeping the car on an even keel.

The 12C has a remarkable powerplant. Built by specialist engine-builder Ricardo exclusively for McLaren, the V8 unit is extremely light and compact at 199kg, and its flat-plane crank and dry-sump layout allow it to be mounted really low to optimise the car’s centre of gravity. The engine is a modest 3.8 litres in capacity, but twin-turbocharged to incredible effect. Redlined at 8500rpm, it pumps out 592bhp at 7000rpm and 600Nm of torque from 3000rpm to 7000rpm.

With just over 1.4 tonnes to propel, this gives the 12C some astonishing straight-line performance figures – zero to 100km/h in 3.3 seconds (3.1 seconds with the optional, grippier Pirelli Corsa tyres), zero to 200km/h in 9.1 seconds (8.9 seconds with said tyres) and a maximum speed of 330km/h where permitted.

If the on-paper performance is impressive, in reality it is mind-blowing, as we discover on Dunsfold Aerodrome (aka the TG test track, home to the antics of The Stig and all manner of celebrities in reasonably priced cars). The damp conditions on that day don’t help in our exploration of the 12C’s limits, but its acceleration is still mighty – instant and linear, and incredibly, relentlessly ferocious.

The sheer slickness and responsiveness of the 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox are a big factor, too, allowing standstill to max-speed acceleration to happen in one massive, seamless blast. There’s no gear lever – everything’s done via the steering-mounted paddle-shifters. Their resistance has been tweaked so that it now takes a less deliberate effort to activate, after universal criticism of the paddle-shift weighting when the 12C was first unveiled in early 2011.

There’s a knob on the centre console marked “P” (for Powertrain). It’s got three settings – Normal, Sport and Track, denoting different levels of gearchange promptness and throttle response. In Normal mode, things are already very quick, but in Sport and Track modes, the gearchange gets progressively more instantaneous and also more aggressive, with more perceptible shift shock filtering through the further you turn that magic dial the “right” way.

Even on a wet surface, the 12C absolutely dances about the Dunsfold circuit. Its ability to flick into a bend almost the instant you turn the wheel is amazing, and its balance through corners even when past the limits of adhesion is perfect, the car feeling neither understeery nor tail-led.

There is a second knob, marked “H” for Handling, again with Normal, Sport and Track modes. This dial varies the damper stiffness, steering weight, as well as the levels of stability and traction control. Even in Normal mode, the 12C is already super-agile, and the two other modes simply increase that agility and the immediacy of its handling response yet further. They also allow more oversteer to change your angle of attack into bends – if you’ve got the guts and skill to exploit this.

And even then, with the dial in Track mode, the 12C is no wild child. It remains very controllable, its feelsome steering keeping you clued-in on the available grip, and the rear edging out very progressively once the limit has been breached, giving you enough time to gather things up with steering and throttle (or to hold the slide, if you’re so inclined).

On very tight turns, the 12C’s refusal to understeer almost defies physics. There is further McLaren wizardry at work here, in the form of Brake Steer – the system gently brakes the inside rear wheel when it senses the onset of understeer, thereby tightening the car’s line and tucking its nose back into the bend.

We also take the 12C onto the English lanes around the Dunsfold Aerodrome, and discover that the car’s stratospheric performance is almost impossible to fully tap on public roads. What you can exploit, though, is its remarkable user-friendliness. The V8’s linear, shunt-free delivery and effortless low-end torque allow you to creep through town and blast past rows of traffic with equal ease. There is never a moment when you need to wait for urge to build, never a second when you’re caught off-boost.

What the road session also demonstrates is how utterly effective the radical suspension setup is. With the Handling dialled to Normal mode, this supercar’s ride is extraordinarily good, its compliance a match for many family saloons, yet without the slight amount of float that inevitably accompanies even the best-resolved conventional chassis. The 12C’s body control over undulations, even taken at massive speeds, is iron-fisted.

So is its resistance to roll. Even at the limit on tight bends in Normal mode, there is only the slightest hint of lean. Switch it to Track and even that minimal roll is eliminated, albeit at the expense of some suspension compliance. The ride is still good, but does feel noticeably firmer, enough to unsettle the car over really bad roads. Track mode? Don’t bother unless the road really is billiard-table smooth. Save it for the circuit, as the name suggests.

Now for the burning question – how does the 12C stack up against its fierce rival, the Ferrari 458 Italia? The ultimate dynamic limits of both cars are probably beyond the grasp of anyone without Vettel-esque levels of driving ability, but the 458 certainly holds all the emotive trump cards with its lissome looks and wider, more thrilling vocal range. It’s also got the more tactile, perceptibly hand-crafted cabin.

Yet while the Italia appeals to the heart, the MP4-12C is probably the most impressive supercar that currently exists. It employs deeply intelligent engineering solutions, eschews frivolity, is built in a laboratory-like, zero-tolerance setting, and punches above its weight, delivering its crushing performance with almost clinical efficiency.

Come to think of it, the McLaren is actually quite Singaporean. 

 

 

This article first appeared in Torque.

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