RACER editorial staff members are writers by profession and bench racers by hobby. When we were offered the chance to drive the folding hardtop version of the mighty McLaren 12C on track, we felt it best to throw the keys to someone with real driving talent. This was Justin Wilson's report…
Justin, David Donohue and Terry Borcheller with their dream cars (Images by Dirk Abinakad and David Malsher)
When RACER called me to see if I wanted to try out a McLaren 12C Spider on track, I got back to them within 20 minutes to say, “OK, I've booked a flight.” It was that simple a decision. As supercars go, the 12C had ticked the boxes for me from the moment I saw it in on websites and read about it in magazines. It's good looking, it comes from one of the classic racecar companies…oh, and it's fast.
Interestingly, I do have a vague and distant connection with the brand: my former manager, ex-F1 racer Dr. Jonathan Palmer, was McLaren test driver after he quit racing, and one of his jobs was development of the McLaren F1, which was the McLaren Group's first road car. But that was a limited-run machine, with just over 100 made, whereas the 12C is McLaren's weapon against supercars made by traditional road car makers from Germany and Italy. But take my word for it, this car is a long way from being mainstream.
McLaren is fairly new as a road car producer and its road cars are very new to this country (not many F1s made it across the Atlantic from the Woking, UK, base), but the McLaren brand itself has fantastic heritage here in America. I'd heard about the famous “Bruce and Denny Show”, when the marque's founder Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme dominated Can-Am races, and I knew that Peter Revson picked up the baton after Bruce was killed. But still, when I checked on the internet, I was amazed to find that between 1966 and '72, McLarens scored 43 Can-Am wins. That's just incredible in such a short space of time and with such short seasons. And then there's the Indy car heritage too: Mark Donohue won the Indy 500 in '72 in a McLaren run by Penske, and our present-day IndyCar pace car driver, Johnny Rutherford, won the “500” in '74 and '76 driving for the works McLaren team.
Those stats, combined with worldwide success in Formula 1 (182 wins!) and that brilliant victory for the F1 at Le Mans in 1995, is what should make McLaren have major appeal for RACER readers…and racecar drivers. This isn't some start-up kit-car company with a name that sounds like a child's toy or a remote area of Iceland. This is McLaren – the real deal.
The 12C has a 3.8-liter twin-turbo V8 engine developed in conjunction with Ricardo in the UK, and it makes 616hp at 7,500rpm and 443lb-ft of torque. Great figures, obviously, but the best part is that, being small turbos, they come in early so up to 80 percent of that torque is available from 2,000rpm. As I discovered, this is very noticeable – especially in a car that weighs not much more than 3,000lbs…
When I arrived at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana for this McLaren Automotive track day, the first surprise was meeting two of my rivals from when I'm moonlighting in the Grand-Am Rolex Series – Terry Borcheller and David Donohue. They were there as experts to guide the media, owners and potential owners of McLarens, and they're ideal: very good guys, very good drivers, very good at representing McLaren. But would they be very good passengers? Well, I was about to find out as my first instructor for the day was Mr. Donohue. How cool is that? Instructed by the son of a guy who used to race against McLaren in Can-Am but with a McLaren in Indy car racing. And just to add the cherry on the cake, “our” 12C was in that distinctive McLaren orange. Pretty sweet.
David showed me around the course which was a modified version of the Fontana road course I tested a Champ Car on a couple of times. He started the lap with a demonstration of a full launch. Despite the track being dusty so the Pirellis were hunting for grip, it still felt quick and we were doing about 90 to 100mph before the traction control light stopped flashing, but it was then that it felt truly extraordinary. You see, it just didn't seem to want to stop accelerating.