What is it like to drive a $300,000 mid-engine British super car on Canada's famed Mosport Grand Prix road course at the gorgeous, newly-renovated Canadian Tire Motorsport Park? Well, thanks to our friends at McLaren Toronto (part of the Pfaff Automotive Group), I can unequivocally confirm that it is exhilarating and unlike anything many people are likely to experience.
The car is the McLaren MP4, and the automaker and its only Canadian dealer – at the time of this writing (a new store in Vancouver is set to open this winter) – have teamed up to bring a colourful selection of 2013 McLaren MP4 12C Coupes and Spiders for me to sample at speed on the track.
Just to get into this exclusive car will set one back $258,700 and/or $287,200, respectively. But if you can afford one, you can probably afford two. Start adding performance options like the $15,090 carbon ceramic brake package, $13,120 super lightweight forged wheels and Pirelli Corsa tires, not to mention the up to $33,450 in exterior and interior carbon fibre pieces it can take, and you might also consider selling a kidney on the black market to help fund your obvious addiction to amazing super cars.
As it is, the base MP4 12C now tops my 'Most expensive cars driven' list, but not by much. Until now, the ultra-exclusive aluminum-bodied Spyker C8 Spyder I drove in 2006 was selling for around $240,000 USD at the time. The topless McLaren, however, kitted-out with just the aforementioned options blows it out of the water at $348,860. Yet the list of options goes on... and on! Oh, and additional fees may apply.
Is it all worth it? Hell, yes! Some people think the styling is too plain and not befitting of a premium luxury super car with serious track creds. Bah! It has just the right balance of function and form – only my humble opinion, but such is the nature of fine art. Even before the flowing aluminum body curves and high-end finishes are added to it, the 75-kg carbon fibre MonoCell is worthy of being put on a pedestal.
It is lighter, stiffer, safer and more structurally sound, and underpins both the coupe and retractable hardtop versions as well as the imminent P1, which is in the midst of wrapping up its battery of extreme weather and durability tests. Oh, and rumour has it something is brewing at the Nürburgring.
McLaren first introduced the carbon monocoque to F1 in 1981, and hasn't built a car with anything else ever since. The 1992 McLaren F1 road car was the first street car to use a carbon chassis and body. On the 12C and 12C Spider, aluminum extrusions and castings are welded onto front and rear structures and bolted directly to the MonoCell. Along with the carbon MonoCell, they carry the lightweight composite body panels. Apart from the roof and the engine cover, their body panels are identical to one another.
Almost perfectly balanced front to rear (47/53) and paired with McLaren's midship-mounted 3.8-litre twin-turbocharged V8 engine producing 616 horsepower and 443 lb-ft torque from 3,000 to 7,000 rpm, the McLaren MP4 is undoubtedly a machine Leonardo di Vinci could call a masterpiece.
What better way is there to experience fine art such as this is there then to drive it at 250 km/h on CTMP's creepy-fast 1.6 km-long Andretti straightaway? Of course, there are nine more apexes out here – and, thus an equal number of braking zones and corner exits – to enjoy the immense Gs this flight of fancy is capable of.
Climbing into the driver's seat on CTMP's lengthened pitlane is akin to getting into “The Bat” roller coaster at Paramount Canada's Wonderland, yet it's like slipping on your most comfortable pair of shoes. Sitting very close to the ground, the brake and throttle pedals are both placed directly in line with the driver. All primary controls are within reach, the steering wheel just perfect.
Just like the F1 car, the MP4 driver may enjoy the 12C in any number of driving modes, ranging from mildly-amusing to rip-snorting awesome! It can easily be set up to be stable in corners with a touch of body rollm, to stiff on rails with an attitude and, naturally, anywhere in between, simply by pressing a few buttons and turning a couple of dials.
Dials on the centre console allow fine-tuning. The left one changes handling characteristics dynamically, affecting the roll stiffness and ESC settings. Its counterpart on the right alters the throttle and shift maps as well as interior engine noise levels to achieve the level of awesome you are striving for.
The seven-speed, double-clutch SSG transmission boasts racy paddle shifters that can be left alone, or hammered on like would-be Jenson Buttons or Sergio Perezes.
Inspired by F1, McLaren's ingenious ProActive Chassis Control suspension combines double wishbones with coil springs and innovative dampers that are controlled by a network of a pneumatic and hydraulic wizardry that takes care of body roll without having to install heavy metal roll bars. In F1 circles, anything that isn't 100 per cent necessary is extra weight.
Like a bat out of hell, launch control and optional Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires fire the MP4 to 100 km/h in 3.1 seconds, 200 km/h in just nine seconds. It does a quarter-mile in 10.8 seconds at 215 km/h. And I was doing over 250 km/h at the end of the Andretti Straightaway before getting on the brakes hard.
Even in sport mode, the car stays perfectly flat and balanced diving late into the Esses at turn eight; large diameter vented and drilled cast iron brakes and rear airbrake halt the car from 200 and 100 km/h in a chest-bruising 124 and 31 metres, respectively, without much ado.
McLaren also uses those brakes and stability controls in its “brake steer” system, which slows the inside rear wheel to improve turn-in, improve cornering speeds, agility and driving fun factor. This is really noticeable in turn nine where it helps set up for the final turn – White's Corner – as it is important to keep your exit speed up for a strong finish. The system is just as useful in the downhill turn one and two, where line and throttle control are important. After making the apex, progressive throttle takes the McLaren toward the shiny new asphalt runoff zone that now entices drivers to get back on to the throttle early before Quebec Corner.
Turn four is a blind left at the top of a very steep compression. Once through the turn, a quick stab up the other side into 5A and B is enough to make some drivers queasy. Nail 5C and exit perfectly, and the 12C is perfectly happy to charge up the straight through six and seven in track mode at the unholiest velocities. However, this is one area of the circuit where the track setting might be a little too stiff, as it is full of bumps that rattle the car around at some serious speed and angles.
Having an iron gut might be necessary to enjoy the impressive G-forces, because driving the MP4 in default mode is like riding on the back of a vampire bat. Driving it in sport mode is like riding on a vampire bat's back during feeding. Driving the MP4 in track mode would be like riding the back of a vampire bat at feeding time during mating season.
The 2013 McLaren MP4-12C a full-on orgy of race car sights, sounds and body-moving parts, but it's not scary to drive at all. It's as impressive on the track as it is on normal roads – it’s serious fun, and worth the price of admission with a driving experience that is second to none.
My only quip is that McLaren should have named this car the Vampire Bat. It has a sleepish look and docile side to it, but when it wakes up to feed and finds it itself on a race track as fast and technical as this one, what a treat it is!
2013 McLaren MP4 12C / 12C Spider
Base Price: $258,700 / $287,200
Engine: 3.8L twin-turbocharged V8
Horsepower / Torque: 616 hp / 443 lb-ft
Configuration: Mid-engine, rear-wheel (MR)
Transmission: 7-speed SSG automatic
Fuel Economy Ratings: 11.7 L/100 km (comb.)