Autocar's exclusive McLaren F1 road test: 25 years on

Autocar's exclusive McLaren F1 road test: 25 years on

XP5 has recorded over 96,000 hard testing kilometres in its life, yet the engine has been rebuilt just once, many years ago. It is as strong as ever

We never believed we’d get to drive the game-changing XP5 again. Happily, we were wrong

The McLaren F1 sits in the sun just as it did all those years ago. Twenty-five to be precise, almost to the day since we carried out its one and only proper road test. But today it has a new generation of fans to pore over its carbonfibre bodywork, find the most dignified way into its driving seat and experience what we did two and a half decades ago. You’ll be hearing from them shortly. 

This is no small thing we are doing and I’ll tell you why. McLaren F1s are vanishingly rare. Of just 64 standard production road cars built, McLaren estimates that fewer than 10% are in regular use. So that’s six cars, possibly five. Globally. And this isn’t one of them. This is McLaren’s F1 prototype. The first, XP1, got rolled into a ball while testing in the Namibian desert. XP2 was the crash test car and got crushed. XPs 3 and 4 are locked away in private collections, and this is XP5. There is no XP6. 

From our point of view, XP5 is the car. Although our road test actually involved three F1s (XP4, XP5 and production car 003), XP5 was the car we drove for hundreds of miles and on which our entire evaluation was based. It’s not quite the world’s most valuable F1, for that honour belongs to the 1995 Le Mans-winning F1 GTR, but its insurable value is quoted as £25 million. What’s more, it has been woken from a three-year sleep for this story. I am excited beyond words that I might drive it again but, curiously because I’m not as nice as this sounds, I’m even more excited for my colleagues who have yet to drive one. But then F1s do make you think in curious ways. 

There is no rush. The weather is perfect and we have all day. So I sit in that central seat and, just for a moment, hit the rewind button. It was a test that had taken not weeks or months to arrange, but years. McLaren had made it clear from the start that it would allow just one set of performance figures to be extracted from the F1, and those figures would stand for all time. 

For us, the editorial staff of Autocar, we had to be the ones to tell that story. And we did. Which is why when people in the pub quote F1 acceleration statistics today, they’re quoting stats recorded by us at Bruntingthorpe on Monday, 2 May 1994, and Millbrook on 3 May. Why two tracks? Because Millbrook had the surface and Bruntingthorpe had the space. So we did the 0-160mph times at the former and 160-200mph times at the latter, and said so in the road test. 

As Autocar’s then road test editor, the bloke who did the evaluation, spent the most time behind its wheel and wrote the test, I’d like to say it was all down to me. But it wasn’t. It was built on relationships forged over years between on one side McLaren and the F1’s designer Gordon Murray, on the other by the magazine and people like then European editor Peter Robinson, editor-in-chief then and now Steve Cropley and, above all, then editor Michael Harvey. His pitch was simple: Autocar invented the road test and ours remained the most comprehensive of all. It had to be us. I just tied up the loose ends, had most of the fun and took all of the credit. 

And then, just hours before we were due to meet, came a blow as shattering as it was unexpected. On Sunday afternoon at the San Marino Grand Prix, Ayrton Senna was killed. Harvey idolised Senna, as did I scarcely less so, but could hardly let that affect our plans. But for McLaren in general and Murray – leader of the teams that designed Senna’s championship-winning F1 cars – in particular, it was a tragedy of an altogether different proportion. We didn’t even know if they’d turn up. 

But the trucks were there at 8.00am the following morning, as were Gordon and Jonathan Palmer, who’d not only led the development work on the F1 but, in his role as McLaren Formula 1 test driver, had been Senna’s team-mate, too. Both must have been devastated, but the show went on. It was professionalism of a kind I’d not seen before. They not only came, but stayed with us for two days while we did the figures and travelled to the North Yorkshire moors to take the photographs. 

What do I remember of those days? One car redefining the limits of road car capability like no other before or since. It wasn’t the next step in the 959, F40, XJ220, EB110 progression; it was another level, unimagined by the likes of me until that very moment it exploded forward in a haze of tyre smoke, howling V12 powertrain and snatched gearshifts. I remember reaching 211mph in the driver’s seat with Gavin Conway speaking the speeds into a tape recording I still have; and I remember doing it all over again as a passenger when Palmer volunteered to drive blind with a camera bolted in front of his face, so we could get a 211mph speedo reading for the opening shot. Our photographer refused point blank to take the shot, so I sat next to Jonathan with a cable release in my hand, ready to say ‘left a bit, right a bit’ while covering a mile every 17 seconds. 

More than all of that, I remember the drive up to Yorkshire. It’s where I learned that more than anything else, driving a McLaren F1 in public was a matter of saintly restraint. However fast it felt in the wide open spaces of Bruntingthorpe, it felt four times quicker on narrow public roads. Any weakness in your right foot’s resolve would instantly result in unimaginable numbers appearing on the dial.

But it’s my feeling when I handed back the key for the last time I remember most. It wasn’t euphoria that we’d done the job, nor misery at the thought I’d never drive another. It was relief: relief that I’d spent so much time in a car for which no other could prepare you, a car that had challenged me like none I’d driven before, yet I was neither in prison nor hospital. And relief that despite extracting every mote of performance, sliding it and even jumping it, the Autocar road test team left XP5 with not one mark on those sculpted flanks. 

A tap on that curvaceous screen jerks me back to the present. It’s time to go. Just a small part of me was dreading this. I’d brought ‘my’ 720S long-termer along because the comparison would be as delicious as it would be instructive and, as it does every time I go anywhere in it, I’d been blown away all over again by the insouciant ease with which it had devoured 120 miles of English countryside. What if, by contrast, the F1 turned out to be, well, a bit rubbish? It would be understandable: times change and we change with them, but save Michelin rather than Goodyear rubber and a speedo that now reads in kilometres rather than miles per hour, the F1 has not changed at all. 

To start an F1 you turn the key, then lift a small flap and press a red button. In anything else, this fighter plane approach would seem pretentious. Here it just seems right. The view forward from that central seat is spectacular – in fact, the visibility all round is superb and this car is the reason it remains so in all McLarens made today. The confidence imparted by simply being able to see and judge the extremities is hard to overstate. 

The V12 starts and settles down to a quiet, cultured and astonishingly smooth idle. There’s music already but it is piano, at least for now. The lever slides into first, the clutch is heavy but gentle and there you have it: you’re driving a McLaren F1. 

Instantly it all comes back to me. Turns out I’ve filed it all away in some dark recess, clearly more in hope than expectation that it would be needed again one day. But the gentle writhing of that Nardi steering wheel is utterly familiar, as are all the other control weights… and that noise. 

Third gear now and the F1 is accelerating, its voice hardening with every additional revolution of engine created by BMW’s late, very great Paul Rosche. The titanium pedal is on the floor and the McLaren is gathering speed impressively as we pass through 3000rpm. 

For an instant I’m slightly disappointed that it’s not trying to tear my face off, but remember we live in an era of twin-turbo instant gratification. It could never be the same. It’s been 25 years, for goodness sake. And then, with a howl never made by another car, the F1 takes off. Peak torque arrives at 4000rpm and from there to wherever you’re brave enough to go, a maniac goes with you. To be clear, it was not until around five years ago when people started to use the word ‘hypercar’ to describe the likes of the Porsche 918, LaFerrari and McLaren P1 that road car performance returned to this level. The F1 was near enough 20 years ahead of the curve. 

Now I remember why this car was so dangerously addictive: it’s not just the inexorable shove, but the sound that goes with it. If it doesn’t make you laugh, it’ll make you gasp instead. 

It’s the same in the corners, too. There’s no downforce, of course, but only minimal weight and though its body allows far more movement than would a modern supercar, it grips. And steers. The feel through that wheel as the loads build in the suspension may just be the best thing about this car, better even than its knee-trembling performance. It’s certainly not the brakes. It’s the only part that feels its age. You have to make a big effort for not much reward. 

How, then, does a record-breaking, gravity-defying McLaren of 25 years ago compare to a standard mid-range model today? So much has changed with the advent of downsized turbo engines and paddle-shift boxes, but it’s what these cars share that stands out far more to me, and I’m not just talking carbonfibre tubs. There’s the same airiness in the cabin that’s so important, yet so underrated. There’s the ride quality, too: both, emphatically, are road cars and are gorgeous long-distance machines. And the steering feel: unlike the F1 the 720S has power assistance, but unlike others, it is hydraulic not electric and both flood your fingers with information. 

In deference to the F1’s age, value and the infamous Bruntingthorpe stone chips, we didn’t do a side-by-side drag race, but nor did we need to because, thanks to that day in 1994 and another in 2017, we already have full figures for both cars. They make interesting reading. 

The 720S is a little more powerful and has a lot more torque but weighs 281kg more. It is the F1 that has the better power-to-weight ratio and torque-to-weight ratio, too. 

Remember, however, that the 720S has a much flatter torque curve and when you accelerate, that is what you feel. Crucially, the F1’s figures were recorded on tyres that might as well have been made out of cardboard compared to modern rubber, with no traction control or launch control and a manual shift too. Given all that, to think it cedes just 1.5sec to the 720S in the sprint all the way from rest to 170mph, involving no fewer than four power-off gearchanges, is pretty remarkable. In fifth (which happily carries very similar gearing in both cars), you can even see how the F1 keeps pulling where the 720S runs out of breath – covering 140-160mph in 3.2sec compared to 3.4sec. 

Of course, the modern car is flatter and faster through each turn – it’s a technically far more capable car – but the F1 is the better communicator. Matt Prior said it felt like a 600bhp Lotus Elise, a massive and entirely accurate compliment. Only those brakes seem inadequate by modern standards and the stats reveal why: from the motorway speed limit to rest, the 720S requires almost 10 metres less road to stop. That’s over 30 feet. Put another way, as the 720S ceases forward movement, the F1 is still doing 30mph… 

But what neither the 720S nor any other modern super or hypercar will provide is that packaging, first because with crash structures, airbags, powertrain ancillaries, infotainment and other feature content, it is simply impossible to do so. But how Gordon managed to squeeze three people, a 6.1-litre V12 and decent luggage space into a car smaller in every significant dimension (save, interestingly, wheelbase) than the two-seat 720S with its 4.0-litre V8 still boggles the brain. It is a masterpiece. 

And then it is gone. Twenty-five years ago, I thought I’d never drive an F1 again and I turned out to be wrong. I actually drove the same F1 again. And now I know I’ve driven my last, my feeling is not relief as it was then, nor even sorrow. It is one of joy in discovering that the F1 is as remarkable today as a relic of a time long past, a historical artefact no less, as it ever was as the game-changing supercar from all those years ago.

I was there…

Peter Robinson: Those early May days in 1994 should be fondly remembered; a highpoint. I was part of Autocar’s crew testing the F1. Except, it was soon after Ayrton Senna’s death. We celebrated the McLaren’s achievement, but the death of Senna cast a shroud over the proceedings. Still, three-up, with a gun tester in the central driving position, we hit 215mph and rising as a corner loomed before Mel Nichols’ “Okay mate, I think that’s fast enough” suggested we slow. So what if the non-assisted brakes were heavy and the manual steering loaded up, the so-pure F1 was very special. Like Senna. 

Steve Cropley: I vividly remember my excitement when we gathered in the Yorkshire Dales to drive the F1. Remember sliding awkwardly into the central seat – then realising that symmetrical seating was indeed the best set-up for a really quick car, just as Gordon had said. Remember how massively fast and effortless the car felt; how light and easy to propel. I also remember being somewhat alarmed by the unassisted brake pedal’s lack of ‘attack’. But what I can’t recall is the F1’s ride quality, something that can make or break a car for me. Luckily, it’s in the surrounding main story…

Mel Nichols: A casual (and prescient) remark by Gordon Murray the night before we drove the F1 hinted at its performance. “You know,” he said, “this car wouldn’t make a bad little racer. But I’d have to detune it by 100 horsepower and add a lot of weight.” When I drove, I thought: ‘Okay, I’ll go hard through the lower gears then ease off.’ But the time in those gears was so gobsmackingly short that in 20-and-a-bit seconds, as I took sixth and glanced at the speedo, I was amazed to see 180mph. I’d thought it might have been 150mph. But then everything the F1 did obliterated everyone’s usual reference points.

First impressions for today’s team

Mark Tisshaw, editor: ‘Wow’ is the word I found myself muttering under my breath pretty much constantly with every interaction of the F1. The whole integrity of the car is just so darn impressive. You know this is a car created utterly without compromise, but you think that simply applies to the performance. 

Not a chance: every single nut, bolt, switch, opening, mechanism, surface, font, dial, edge, corner – just everything, really – is so beautifully conceived and engineered and a joy to behold. ‘That’ll do’ simply never entered the lexicon of those who made it. 

There’s even some clever integrated storage in the door bins and under the seat, as well as some luggage holds either side of the engine. It’s these little details of the F1 I wasn’t prepared for, nor expected to be so impressed by. 

Although, for the record, flooring the throttle in third and then fourth gear at 3000rpm all the way to the redline does indeed do strange things to your mouth and vocal chords. 

An unforgettable car in so many ways, and surely never again will something so extravagant be created with not a single eye on what it costs to make or with any regard for economies of scale.

Matt Saunders, road test editor: Thirty. Million. Quid. It was all I could think about having levered myself into the F1’s central driver’s seat (comfy, roomy, not-so-tricky to access, actually); having pressed that deliciously understated covered starter button (on a modern hypercar it’d be backlit, branded and about the size of a dinner plate); and having begun engaging with the car’s weighty, precise controls to usher it carefully into motion. Lordy – it’s not so noisy, is it? Not by modern standards. Not until you get about halfway down that long accelerator pedal travel: and then – holy moly, it’s noisy, isn’t it? Richly, gloriously so. 

Now get used to the effort levels you need. Unassisted steering and brakes require muscle of the kind that more modern cars of the same performance simply don’t. But it’s a consistent amount of muscle – and it’s not the slightest barrier to enjoyment once you’re attuned. 

I’m brave enough to see the far side of ‘250’ on the kph-demarked speedo a couple of times, above which the F1’s relative lack of downforce makes it feel a deal squirmier than I’m used to. But still pin-sharp and secure. 

It rolls more than you expect when cornering and pitches a fair bit under braking, but stays stable and communicates its grip levels so beautifully. You know exactly where you are with it, absolutely all the time. And where you are is in absolute, utterly precise control. 

Given a couple of hours in the seat rather than 20 minutes, I reckon you could get right up to its adhesive limits and beyond without scaring yourself. The McLaren F1 acquaints you with the physics acting on its body and wheels as clearly as a Lotus Elise does. Imagine that in a modern 250mph car, bristling with mechanical grip and downforce and drowning in assistance. There’ll never be another car like it

Read more

McLaren F1 1992-1998 review​

90 years special: McLaren Senna vs Austin Seven road test​

McLaren at 20,000 cars: a picture history of its road cars​

Source: Autocar

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