crankandpiston.com lurks in the background of a super exclusive McLaren P1 track session, and chats with chief test driver Chris Goodwin about how it handles on-track and why Nürburgring times aren’t that important.
We cannot display this galleryAm I in the right place? There’s a McLaren outside the support pit garage at Yas Marina, but for a team about to thrash a cutting-edge hypercar around a circuit on road tyres, there’s not a lot of frenzied activity going on.
I’ve pitched up in Abu Dhabi to see a rare sight – the new 903bhp McLaren P1 being pushed to its absolute limits by the man that helped create it. Chris Goodwin, McLaren’s chief test driver, is on hand to help the British Formula 1 team-turned-carmaker show off its latest, proudest creation to some super VIPs that have put money down for their own P1s. And while they were there, McLaren figured that it couldn’t hurt to see how fast the most talked about hybrid hypercar of the moment could complete a lap of the full grand prix circuit.
With all this going on, I’d envisaged a small army of mechanics working frantically on the two P1s housed in the garage to ensure they were in tip-top shape. But no. There are two McLaren-shirted mechanics sitting casually at a table next to the first car, a black, purple tinged pre-production car with the onomatopoeic British license plate that reads PI OOV. One is tapping through a laptop and the other munching on an apple. Over on a sofa, Chris Goodwin is flicking through some paperwork. No one is working on either the black car or the second P1, a development car named XP7. Where’s the hive of panic?
As Chris explains, there’s no need for a panic. The whole point of today is that it gives the flavour of the P1 to people that have shelled out $1.4 million on a car they’ve yet to drive. Even for all that money, they won’t get a permanent team of factory experts to keep the car shipshape. It needs to be ready to go at all times. And the team from McLaren is confident that that’s the case already. All that’s needed for the day’s activity is a pile of spare tyres (already mounted on rims and shipped in from a previous, similar activity at Bahrain International Circuit a couple of weeks previously). They’re all road tyres – no slicks here – exactly as you’d find if you were one of the well-heeled 375 customers that had snapped up a P1 before they sold out.
The customers will arrive later. For now, McLaren is using the opportunity to gather information on how well the P1 performs around the track. They do this at every track they visit – not to boast about lap times, but to benchmark the car against its predecessor, the 12C, of which a couple of examples also lurk in a garage nearby. You may have seen recent indignation at McLaren’s decision not to publicise the lap time that the P1 managed around the Nordschleife, even though insiders say it comprehensively beat the 6min 57sec set by the Porsche 918 Spyder. But that, apparently, is McLaren’s way.
“While we’re around the place we like to measure where we are,” Chris explains. “More than the ultimate lap time that this car can do on the track, what’s nice is to benchmark where we are relative to our known quantity, which is the 12C. It’s all adding to our knowledge and database. We’re not selling the car based on lap times, we don’t advertise those times. It’s more for our own information and understanding that we go to places and push the car to the limit, to experience what it does while it’s reaching that peak of performance. We’re tuning the car and the lap time is just a by-product of that.”
The mechanics have washed the car that Chris will be using during the day, and his first task is to learn the track. Although he’s driven Yas Marina before, it was several years previously, and in a very different car to the mighty P1. He tells me he’ll basically break it down to basics, memorising braking points, corner directions and then fine tuning the lap, feeling for different surfaces, different kerbs he can attack and work out how to get the best out of the P1. I ask him how many laps he’ll need to do that.
“Three?” he suggests with a faint, confident grin. A lean man, he’s dressed in a McLaren shirt and trainers, and when he jumps in the car the only change he makes is to put on his orange helmet, to comply with the circuit rules. As soon as the officials give permission he’s off.
Around two minutes later, the dark P1 emerges from beneath the famous blue footbridge and whips past the pits at full pelt. The sound isn’t the ear-splitting roar that some might expect, but a more complex, mature sound. It’s loud, but not deafening, a layered texture of noise that incorporates the electric whirr underneath the blown V8. As Chris slams on the brakes at the end of the straight, there’s a distant psssshh as the turbo dumps its air.
Chris comes back in, not even slightly ruffled after slamming the P1 around an unfamiliar track. He now has to trundle around a few more times for the gathered video cameras posted at different corners, but then it’s time to really see what the P1 can do.
“It was cool,” he says. “I’m pretty happy to go for a qualy lap. We’ll finish the filming, put some new tyres on and go for it.
“Yas Marina is a great circuit for a car like this, you’ve got a bit of everything. I really like the marina section that we’re using for the customers to drive on. It’s very like a street circuit. It’s very appropriate to drive a streetcar on street tyres around an endless series of corners. On the full grand prix circuit you can really stretch the car’s legs. The P1 just rockets out into that stadium section, you’ve got some very high-speed corners and that long straight where you can use the DRS and the KERS and have 900bhp behind you. The grandstand comes up at the end and you really have to be aware. I was braking at about 200 metres, which is pretty late.”
After the filming duties are over, Chris heads out again and takes only a couple of laps to register the best time of the day. At McLaren’s request, we won’t divulge the actual time, but suffice to say, it’s very close to that achieved by Porsche GT3 race cars on slicks, which is an incredible comparison considering the McLaren road car is on regular tyres. When Chris goes for a blast in a 12C Coupe, he’s a full seven seconds per lap slower.
“The whole point of this car is that it’s fast, but does what you want it to do,” he says of the P1 afterward. “As long as I behave myself it’ll be fine. We’ve spent four years making it a car that doesn’t have a quirk that will bite you in the backside. Chassis stiffness, suspension geometry, weight distribution, the way the aero behaves – everything’s all joined up. I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but it’s pretty straightforward when you’re used to it.
“The best comparison is with a Formula 1 car in that it’s been designed with the same aims, objectives and attention to detail. As with our racecars you end up with something you’re connected to, that responds very accurately to your inputs. There’s no big delay in sub-suspension or chassis twisting, no weird change to the toe or cambers of the car, no strange levels of downforce in a straight line with different balance during braking. That’s pretty unusual for a supercar company to pay attention to many or any of those things.”
And with that, Chris strolls off to meet the customers that are beginning to roll up to the circuit for their first experience of the car they’ve shelled out for. You’d think, as the man that’s been responsible for tuning said machine, he’d be worried. But no, he’s as cool as a cucumber – having offered rides since November, every one of the customers has been more than impressed. Small wonder then that the McLaren garage remains as calm and quiet as when I arrived.
|Engine:||V8 / twin turbo / 3799cc|
|Torque:||531lb ft @ 4000rpm|
|Body structure and suspension:||Carbon fibre MonoCage / aluminium front and rear frames / RaceActive chassis control|
|Brakes:||Akebono layered carbon ceramic discs / forged and hardened steel bells / 390mm (front) / 380mm (rear)|
|Wheels:||19 x 9-in J (front) / 20 x 11.5-in J (rear)|
|Tyres:||245/35 ZR19 (front) / 315/30 ZR20 (rear) / Pirelli P Zero Corsa|
|100kph-0:||2.9sec / 99-ft|
|200kph-0:||4.5sec / 380-ft|
|300kph-0:||6.2sec / 806-ft|
|Top speed:||350kph (electronically limited)|