MC hammered

For a brief moment, I feel absurdly peaceful in this car. It’s absurd because we’re hurtling along at 150mph, bearing down on a cone chicane demanding that I shed more than half that speed. Imminently. But before I get there I look up and notice a distant range of snow-crusted Alps. They look like jagged chunks of meringue against the brilliant blue sky, and just for a second they provide a hint of the kind of intensely atmospheric moments you might experience were you lucky enough to own a Maserati MC12. And at £501,365 a throw, you probably have the right to expect some. But this reverie can’t last. The cones arrive as fast as the thought is formed and I’m shoving on the brake pedal, urgently pulling on a paddle for the lower gears. I realise too late that I have been fooled by this car’s refinement, not to mention a surfeit of enthusiasm over ability. Mine, that is. I press harder on the pedal and the Maserati slows obediently - so much, in fact, that it’s clear that I could have attacked the chicane faster. The MC12 darts between cones so effortlessly that it’s only later that I realise how accomplished a mover it is. You have to remind yourself of the things this car doesn’t do when changing direction to understand this. Turn the wheel – whose resistance is surprisingly light – and the Maser reacts as immediately as a slow-moving push-bike. Unless you’re a racer, you’ll consider that it is almost startlingly free of understeer. There’s barely any perceptible roll as it turns, or dive while you brake, or squat when it thrusts. It simply stays flat. And it can put the power down, too. Tyre supplier Pirelli reckons it has developed a tread pattern delivering 20 per cent more traction than is usual for a 335/35 slug of rubber, and on this fast, dry track you don’t hear a chirp from the rear tyres, even when Ferrari F1 development driver and MC12 racer Andrea Bertolini is working the wheel. All of which makes the MC12 almost ludicrously easy to drive. We are at Alfa Romeo’s test complex near Turin, and our introduction to this 623bhp Maserati is a two-lap sprint around a long, fast and part-banked track that has been chicaned with cones to contain speeds. Which is wise. An MC12 runs to more than 205mph, and even with cones to slow you it’s still possible to wring 180mph out of it, and that’s more than fast enough for you to become irredeemably acquainted with oblivion. But, as I say, it is actually very easy to drive. Pull the right-hand paddle for first – a read-out in the rev counter confirms your choice – tentatively squeeze the accelerator and you’re away, the clutch slipping slightly to ease the launch. And then you’re oozing onto a wide, open track and there’s nothing to stop you sinking the pedal. So I do. You can just about hear the light ‘chink’ of the throttle hitting its stop above the velvet swell of the V12, and there’s just time to tug at the paddle as the tachometer needle dances over the red before we’re off again, assaulting the horizon with a force fit to cleave one of those Alps. By the time the first set of cones arrives we’re in fourth and I’m pressing, with increasing zeal, on the brake pedal. It feels solid, and it’s certainly slowing the car, though you may be surprised at the force you must apply. But that also makes the rate of your slowing all the more adjustable. Or it might with practice. I’ve slowed too much, which is an excuse to romp through the gears all over again. What you notice, after several of these childishly compelling bursts of searing acceleration, is that this car is unexpectedly refined. Of course you can hear the engine – you’d feel seriously short-changed if you couldn’t – but the sound is all bubbling honey rather than chainsaw shriek. At a cruise (a 150mph cruise, that is) there is surprisingly little wind noise, and the engine is as muted as a dozing grizzly bear. You really can imagine touring from London to Nice in this thing and not feeling frazzled. You’d have to send your luggage ahead, however – storage is literally toothbrush-minimal. The MC12 rides quite well, too, although some of the track’s undulations, admittedly taken at high speed, have the car jerking like the stiff-sprung racer that it is. Although the MC12 looks like a refugee from Le Mans, it has been confected as a grand tourer. The Ferrari Enzo with which it shares so much, on the other hand, is intended to convey something of what Michael Schumacher experiences on a Sunday afternoon. It’s a surprise to find that the differences between the pair are marked: the Enzo is more vocal, and swaps gears with more violence on a flat-out charge. The Maserati’s sequential gearchange handles the power interruptions with greater aplomb, although you’d hardly call them unnoticeable. You can also feather the throttle for seamless shifts. Which is very necessary on a tighter course intended to demonstrate the MC12’s agility. Before that, however, take a moment to savour the cabin. It’s a little more luxurious than the Enzo’s because there’s more soft trim, much of it material called BrighTex which covers the dash and doors. But if the Maser’s cabin feels marginally less stark than the Enzo’s it’s hardly cluttered – there’s no stereo, for instance – and you’ll find crudeness if you look hard: the exposed roll-over bar, the black-painted bulkhead behind you, the slightly messy mastic that bonds windscreen to frame. But the fundamentals are right. It’s easy to get properly positioned in the supportive seat, the controls are quick to find and the relatively vertical, slightly bowed A-pillars make it easy to see into corners. And what you see, when you’re aiming at an apex, is magnificent. It’s the curvy hillock of a front wheelhousing, whose shape is so redolent of a Group C racer’s that you can almost imagine you’re a runner at Le Mans. The impression is only heightened by the MC12’s corner-spearing zeal. This is a phenomenal point-and-go machine. You swivel and it steers – instantly, and with a precision alien to most cars on the road. But it’s a surprise to find very light steering in a car so big and beefy, even if you get used to it. More disappointing is the wheel’s total lack of feel, and if weren’t for the steering’s fabulous precision, maintained even under high cornering loads, you really would feel that you were playing an arcade game. What also disconcerts – though this is sometimes a staggering positive – is the speed at which you can join a journey’s dots. By the third corner of this lap I find myself trying to change direction while the Maserati’s anti-lock is chattering underfoot. The corner’s edge looms, and I wonder how much of the MC12’s nose will be chamfered off as I plough across it. But though we are braking hard the car turns, and with barely diminished reluctance, surprising me so much that I slice through the corner in a series of messy, tentative jerks. I can feel the cornering forces, but there’s no suggestion of diminished grip or that I have got near the limit. It’s soon obvious that you would have to fling this car into a corner with a racer’s abandon to feel the wheels beginning to dislodge. But you must battle with yourself to do this. Not so much because the car’s limits are so high, but because parts of it feel numb to its driver. It’s not just that the steering has been purged of feel, but the lack of roll and the suspension’s firmness mean will deny you a proper understanding of where the grip limits are. Until you’re truly familiar with it, or foolishly brave, you’ll end up thinking that you could have gone faster, but without really knowing by how much. This car doesn’t talk enough, to an ordinary driver at least. The Ferrari F430, a car costing a quarter the price, is decidedly more communicative. It might not demolish time and space like the Maser does beyond 125mph, but the steering feel is hugely superior, the suspension more supple, the ease with which it can be wielded more reassuring. On the track, however, the MC12 certainly seems to satisfy Bertolini. He throws the Maser around with the confidence you’d expect of someone who has helped develop the race version, but even through the tighter sections of this course the car stays glued as gum to pavement. The only thing flung around is me, when he brakes from 185mph for the chicane, my chest slamming into the four-point harness that I haven’t pulled taut enough. They might not be carbon, like an Enzo’s, but these brakes certainly work. Bertolini seems utterly relaxed at the wheel, flicking languidly at the paddle shift, pointing out that we are touching 185mph on the longest stretch between cones. It’s obvious that he finds the MC12 an easy drive, even at its limits. Limits that for the ordinary driver will always represent a challenge, especially on the road. But the Maser’s easy nature allows you to concentrate on its towering potency and astonishing cornering power and little else – and that is exactly how a supercar should be.

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