It's one of a number of ways in which you get the impression that the Ferrari is trying to impress – to encourage you to have a good time. You may be driving to the shops but, damn it man, enjoy yourself. Leave the McLaren's gearbox in auto and it eases around with little fuss, engaging seventh on the dual-clutch transmission at well under 1,000rpm. The 458 can't wait to let you hear its exhaust blare.
What do we learn at Brands Hatch? That a motorbike track day, a very greasy surface and Druids hairpin make for some amusing photos, but it is not a place where two near-600hp supercars find their element. Country roads in Wales, though, might just give more of an opportunity.
And, by gum, this is more like it. The McLaren's ride translates to a lumpen mountain road just as well as it does to a highway. It glides along the worst of surfaces with an ability of which a Lotus would be proud. It's perfectly damped, with a flat body and a hydraulic power steering system that filters out the worst of the noise, while allowing feel to flow through. One exception: that cabin thump over harsh inputs remains here, too, and if you hit a lump while the suspension is already loaded, it kicks the steering. Nonetheless, the 12C is an impeccably composed fast road car. It's reassuring, massively capable.
It is also here, though, where those numbers are at their most pointless. The McLaren is faster; you can feel it. But although 0.2sec to 62mph can look like a lot on a graph (if you zoom in really close), on the road you are certifiable if you get close to finding out the speed differentials between these two. If one of these two cars is leaving the other behind it on the road, then one has a more irresponsible driver. This is not a criticism, just a fact. Better is not quicker; better is more engaging.
The Ferrari's ride is a touch less composed, and its steering too direct just off straight ahead, but it counters with an engine of unbridled brilliance (uninhibited as it is by turbocharging), throttle response that's better than just about any other car on sale, and an exhaust note with the sensuality a 12C can only dream of. The twin-clutch transmission is absolutely first rate, too – every bit the 12C's equal.
Purely subjectively, by which I mean all those tingly unquantifiable bits, the 458 is just as impressive. Objectively, it merely holds its own. By objective, I include steering, handling, road holding, communicativeness; these things are all quantifiable. And the Ferrari is, objectively, still a terrifically well-sorted road car. It can more easily be coaxed into a neutral-steer cornering stance at half-sane speeds, thanks to more adjustable brakes and a sharper throttle response. It's playful and engaging where the 12C is flattering and inert.
The 12C's pedal feel, slight turbo lag and a touch of extra composure mean that the car corners in a less flustered fashion, more quickly but no more satisfyingly. After two days of driving, I'm surprised at how much I prefer the 458 Italia.
It takes until day three, at our handling circuit at MIRA (and the switching off of the stability systems), for the MP4-12C to finally put clear daylight between it and the 458 in a key area. And, please excuse the nerdy minutiae of handling here, but I think it's important.
The 12C, as you may know, doesn't have a limited-slip differential, ostensibly because they're heavier than open diffs. Instead, it gets an extension to the Bosch ESP system called Brake Steer. This brakes an inside rear wheel to resist understeer, allowing you to get back on the power earlier during a corner. But unlike most ESP systems, you don't have to be beyond the realms of grip to get it working. Know this and, on a circuit, the MP4-12C is capable of some astonishing cornering speeds. If, that is, you've been told how to get the best from it.
Drive the 12C as you might drive any other supercar and you'll enjoy a very fast, very unflustered and very enjoyable lap, but the grip will be dominated by the front end. Trail-braking is difficult; then there's some turbo lag, which pushes the front end on some more. The temptation is to lift, upset the balance and get back on the gas. Do that in the 458 and it's brilliant, albeit aggressive between understeer and oversteer. In the 12C, that technique doesn't really work.
Instead, counter-intuitively (unless you're one of the racing drivers who developed this car's track performance), it helps to give the 12C an even bigger bung on the steering, to let the Brake Steer know you'd really quite like its help now. And then give it some throttle. A lot of throttle. This pushes through the turbo lag and no understeer reappears.
Then, and only then, will the 12C fling itself out of a bend at the sort of pace – maintaining the lateral grip only it is capable of – you wouldn't have imagined possible. When it slides doing it, the steering is telepathically communicative and the chassis utterly forgiving. I've never experienced a corner exit quite like it.
That's what I'd been waiting for. Something, somewhere, to set the McLaren miles ahead dynamically. It has clearly been honed by racing drivers – albeit, perhaps, for racing drivers – and nothing else can touch it.
But at the risk of sounding like a victim of the 458's blatant exhibitionism, for all that genius and pace I'd still take the 458 Italia. This isn't a "precision versus blunt instrument" test. Both cars are at the absolute top end of the supercar game and the 458 has deep reserves of ability. It lets you play with it but is not a toy. Any car that goes, stops and corners the way it does is utterly capable, giving only micrometer-measured increments away to the 12C. On a circuit, we're dealing in percentages you can count on one hand. Anyway, these are road cars. Outright circuit speed is not entirely the point.
The MP4-12C is a technical triumph, a car that engages and impresses in equal measure, and is able to travel and corner faster than I thought possible in a supple road car. Truth be told, it is not worse, just different from the 458 Italia. McLaren evidently knows a thing or two about making an unbeatably fast, supremely impressive road and track machine. If it floats your boat, the 12C is undoubtedly your car. But for my money, it's Ferrari that better knows how to make a supercar.