The McLaren F1 delivers headlines as you’d expect from any top-line supercar. Double wishbones at each corner, anti-roll bars at each end and fat tyres on each wheel – unidirectional, custom-made Goodyear 235/45 section rubber at the front and 315/45s behind, in this case.
The small print, however, is different to say the least. Each of the front suspension units has its own subframe mounted to the body via compliant bushes that are 25 times stiffer radially than axially, allowing considerable longitudinal wheel compliance to aid ride quality with no loss of stability to adversly affect handling.
At the rear, the lower wishbones are mounted to the gearbox, itself mounted compliantly to the body, and all suspension forces are fed through the engine/gearbox assembly to the central core of the car. There is no traction control, nor is there any assistance for the rack and pinion steering which nevertheless retains a swift 2.8 turns across its acceptably tight lock.
Another crucial facet of the F1’s handling is its central driving position. As we shall see, this forces compromises in other areas but, from a purely dynamic point of view, it makes all symmetric cars appear flawed. The knowledge that, regardless of which way the corner turns, the apex will always be the same relative distance from you, the driver, is hugely reassuring. You find yourself placing the F1 to within inches of the apex without the slightest fear of accidentally banging a wheel rim.
The car’s ultra-compact dimensions (small enough to make an XJ220 seem elephantine) and the splendid forward visibility afforded by the central driving position are the final raw ingredients.
If we tell you that the F1 handles as well as it goes, you’ll have a good idea of the esteem in which we hold this car’s chassis. The first words from the lips of all who drove it spoke of accessibility, how mere mortals could climb into this machine for the very first time and drive it hard despite its power, despite its price.
Although it is firmly sprung, there is body roll through corners but, as you sit in line with the roll-centre, you scarcely feel any of it. The steering, which loads up dramatically and undesirably with lock at urban crawl speeds, comes alive on proper roads.
Grip through slow corners is not limitless, allowing you to spot a safe, open road ahead, turn towards the apex with just a whiff of understeer detectable through the steering and power slide this half-million pound car away from the apex with the abandon you might feel safe to exhibit in a small sports car that’s perhaps 30 times cheaper.
Four factors combine to create this extraordinary state of affairs. First there is the steering: quick, lucid and as successful an example of kick-back elimination while retaining feel as we’ve experienced. Next is the on-limit behaviour. If you wish you can exploit the F1’s traction – a brief look at the acceleration figures from rest will show you how well McLaren has done here – or you can tread a little harder, feel the tail start to move, replicate that movement with the steering for as long as your right foot dictates and watch while it straightens and streaks up the road ahead.
In the dry, there is no trace of malice in this chassis. When it’s wet, the tail, predictably, moves more swiftly, but so long as you are prepared to match that speed, the F1 will remain faithful.
The third and fourth factors are what really splits the F1 from the likes of the Ferrari F40, Bugatti EB110 and, particularly, the XJ220. It is compact, allowing you to exploit its performance on many more roads than the others. But, crucially, it is powered by a large capacity, naturally aspirated engine, not a small, turbo unit.
Hence throttle response is not only immediate, but also reliable. You get what you ask for when you squeeze the accelerator, something which, with the best will in the world, you cannot say about the aforementioned supercars.
In faster bends, the F1 does the only thing a sane person could hope for on the public road. It grips. It goes beyond merely rounding curves accurately at high speed; whatever you throw at it, from an off-camber corner on a crest to a sequence of left-right sweeps creating ever-increasing g-force transference, it simply does what its told, displaying a level of adhesion we never came close to broaching anywhere but on track.
In our experience, only the XJ220 approaches such levels of gilt-edged grip and security in its body control over the most challenging roads this country has to offer.
The F1 is firmly sprung but, thanks in the main to the way it allows longitudinal wheel movements to absorb the shock of country road lumps, its ride quality in such conditions is wonderous. If superb poise and apparent imperviousness to most surface imperfections were the only consideration in this class, we would have awarded the McLaren the full five stars.
We’ve marked it down because it feels less composed on the motorway. It has a slightly jittery attitude to coarse and especially concrete surfaces which, while never much more than an increase in feel through the steering, contrives to be wearing after a couple of hundred miles.