You've probably heard about the new 720S, so for now join me in its predecessor, the humble, 641bhp 650S. We’re doing a steady 150mph along a southbound stretch of autobahn and it has just started to rain. The question is, what should be done about it? The information that adds up to an answer has been both two days and six years in the accumulation.
Six years. Is that all it has been since Antony Sheriff delivered the first 21st century McLaren? He didn’t last long at the company, but his vision was for a state-of-the-art, F1-inspired, carbonfibre-tubbed supercar that would be lighter, stiffer, stronger and faster than anything else similar money would buy. And he delivered, in spades: the MP4-12C hit all its pre-designated marks with the certainly of Gielgud treading the boards at the Old Vic.
And yet, so too was something missing. The reality was clearest to see at the 2011 edition of Autocar’s annual quest to find Britain’s Best Driver’s Car. Held that year at Rockingham on a track configuration that absolutely did not play to its strengths, the 12C was still a second a lap quicker than anything else out there, including a brand new Porsche 911 GT3 RS. Yet when the votes were counted, it came home fifth overall, shockingly placed by one judge behind a Vauxhall Corsa VXR. The 12C was capable but aloof, a car so focused on going forward it appeared to have forgotten the bloke behind the wheel. “No rider wants to be outwitted by the horse,” was one tester’s gloomy but pin-sharp assessment. And that’s before you consider the sometimes inexact construction quality, a sat-nav system that didn’t work at first and was then rubbish when it did and exterior looks that were described, more unkindly than unfairly, as being those of a Korean concept car.
The sat-nav remains rubbish: not quite so knuckle-gnawingly awful as a pre-DB11 Aston’s nav, perhaps, but close. But the car the system is trying to direct is something else.
My route from home to the coast, across the water and to Spa was as dull as ever, save a brief detour to Woking to visit the home of McLaren and catch up with an old friend, in the shape of the actual F1 I road tested for this magazine no fewer than 23 years ago. It seems incredible to me that the 650S, McLaren’s staple product, has more power and better acceleration than the totemic F1, the car I’d once pompously and entirely inaccurately predicted would be the fastest car the world would ever know.
Spa is important because the old circuit is where, in 1968, McLaren won its first grand prix and its founder, Bruce McLaren, his last. If you want a reminder of how F1 has changed, and not always for the worse, Bruce’s M7A was one of just six cars to finish a race overshadowed by the death the day before of Ludovico Scarfiotti, who, after Jim Clark and Mike Spence, became the third F1 driver to die that season. A fourth, Jo Schlesser, lost his life two races later.