Only a few weeks before I drove the rather gorgeous McLaren F1 GTR you see in these pictures, a Swedish journalist borrowed it, and crashed it. What happened, apparently, is that Mr. Scandalous-behavior turned up at Beaulieu, where the GTR was on display, and after a short briefing about the car and its controls he climbed in and drove away.
He turned left out of the gates of the old motor museum and then thought, “Right, let's see what this thing can do.” Whereupon the GTR lit up its rear tires and spun. And then spun some more. Until it came to rest in the middle of a field, with a red-faced Swedish gentleman sitting at the centrally mounted wheel wondering what on earth had gone wrong.
There was then quite a bit of a to-do, by all accounts, because the car's keeper (not its owner, Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, but the poor guy tasked with looking after the car for Mason's company, Ten Tenths, who shall remain nameless) was sitting in the passenger seat at the time. It was, he now admits, one of those accidents that “you knew was going to happen a long time before it started to happen.”
Bearing in mind that Mason's F1 GTR is the very first of its kind to have been made road legal (it's GTR chassis number 10, and was used in 1995 and 1996 as a development prototype for the factory team, competing in anger just once in the pre-season test weekend in 1996), it's not surprising that its owner – and its keepers – feel rather attached to it. It is worth, after all, somewhere in the region of $4m.
And yet, having now driven this very expensive, very exclusive monster of a car, I can empathize with my Swedish colleague. I can understand how he got so completely carried away and did something he now regrets, and I suspect there are several reasons why he came unstuck.
One, no mere mortal could ever possibly understand how much raw energy the F1 GTR has at its disposal, or how easily it will generate wheelspin; even in third gear on a bone dry road you can turn it around at anything less than 60mph.
Two, there's something uniquely and peculiarly beguiling about the whole process of climbing into and then firing up this extraordinary car. And I suspect it's rather easy indeed to lose your grasp on reality, and your self-control as a result.
It's relatively easy, in fact, to imagine yourself behaving like a complete and utter maniac in this car. Because it is a complete and utter maniac of a car.
But before you make the natural assumption that a GTR is little more than a McLaren F1 with racing decals on its flanks and a license plate on its nose, there are one or two key things to bear in mind. This particular GTR weighs just 2,072lbs, compared with over 2,425lbs for the road car. It's also geared to max out at just 180mph, which means the intermediate gearing is miles shorter than that of the road car.
So although the 6.1-liter BMW V12 engine develops marginally less than it does in road trim – around 620hp compared with 627hp – it is massively and monumentally faster than a normal road-going McLaren F1. Or at least it is up to 180mph, when the V12 motor will thump against its rev limiter at 8300rpm while the road car sails on majestically to its 241mph top speed.
“It's the gearing that'll catch you out,” says Mr. Ten Tenths as I clamber across into the middle of the GTR and snuggle down into its big, central bucket seat. “That's why you need to be a bit careful to begin with,” he says. “It's what did for our friend from Sweden. Make sure you're in fourth, and pointing in a straight line, before you get on the throttle properly.”
The view out from behind the wheel of a McLaren F1, be that a regular version or a GTR, is nothing if not unique. You sit perfectly in the middle of the two front wings, and the car feels instantly and amazingly agile as a result. It feels compact and entirely natural to look forwards out of.
But the cabin of this particular F1 is a tad more serious in feel than the only other F1 I've driven, which was a road car. To the right of the wheel is an enormous bank of bewildering-looking switches, and on top of the steering wheel is a great big semi-circular Stack rev counter.
In a GTR, it's all about the revs; the speed takes care of itself if you have the revs. And besides, the numbers amass so quickly on the tiny speedo that you don't actually have time to decipher them.
When I thumb the starter button and the V12 catches, there's a gravelly, industrial series of noises from behind, a combination of chatter from the V12's internals, whine from the straight-cut gears and a piercing wap-wap from the exhaust at the merest hint of any throttle. This car feels alive and sounds downright scary long before you've moved so much as an inch in it.
To do that you need to click the right-hand gear lever up and left into first – and it does go in with a mechanical, definitive click – and then ease out the He-Man clutch as gradually as you can. No revs are required to begin with. And when the car starts to move you let the clutch out smartish and almost immediately select second gear, just in case; an attack of the heebie-jeebies at this specific point in time could result in you doing a Swedish.
The moment it moves, the F1 GTR feels primed and ready. At no point does it seem remotely relaxed, not even in fourth gear at 30mph. Every inch of extra movement on the throttle incites a new, stronger reaction from the engine. And although the steering is heavy, almost cumbersome to begin with, it quickly becomes ultra-alert in its response as 50mph becomes 60mph and beyond.
And there are no pauses to be had before the mayhem begins. Even when you're trundling along at 50mph, waiting for that flat, straight piece of road to appear, it still feels like it's straining hard on the leash, waiting to go berserk. The ride is hard, noisy and totally uncompromising; the brakes need a big, firm shove even at relatively low speeds. The car's whole demeanor just suggests to you, “Come on, let's get on with it, I'm not built to bumble around at these silly speeds.”
Even so, there is nothing on this earth that can prepare you for the eruption of acceleration – or the violent outburst of noise – that occurs when you finally slap the accelerator open for the very first time in an F1 GTR. Maybe I was stupid to do so but, against instructions, I was actually in third gear when I hit the pedal, and there was indeed a squirm from the tail. And just for a moment I did think, “Oh God, oh no, not me as well.”
But at that precise point the wheelspin stopped and the GTR fired itself at the horizon, and the sense of acceleration was just about all I could take. Coupled with the huge and beautiful noise from the BMW engine and the howl from the exhaust, it really was almost too much.
You just get this huge surge of adrenalin and a spine-fizzing sense of excitement when you open the accelerator and hold it there for a few seconds, and after you've done it once, all you want to do is repeat the process until the sun goes down. Or the gas runs out, which happens quite quickly because an F1 GTR does approximately 8mpg if you use proper revs.
The most amazing thing is that the acceleration never stops. Even at a steady 120mph the GTR rockets forward when you floor the throttle in much the same way that a Porsche 911 kicks in second gear from 30mph. It's that strong, even in sixth gear and well into three figures.
Which means you need to be very careful indeed about how early you get on the power on the way out of corners, not just at 65mph in third but even at 120mph in sixth. There's so much torque that it feels like you could easily spin it in top gear if you did the wrong thing with the throttle at the wrong moment in a corner.
Once you've learned to respect its monumental performance, though, the GTR can be made to attack a corner with a fair bit of zeal and, of course, a huge amount of speed. But having said that, it's never a particularly fluid-handling car because the tail end never feels especially rooted to the floor, despite the big rear wing. And the steering, while precise, never ripples with anything you'd describe as true feel.
It's a little bit too lively at the rear full stop, to be honest, and Nick Mason knows this, which is why it was due to go back to McLaren for a minor rethink shortly after we had a go.
But whatever they do to the suspension of Mason's GTR, McLaren will never be able to change the fundamental character of this car – because its character always was, and always will be, defined by its extraordinary engine. Only when you take the weight away and much of the sound-deadening materials do you get the full and magnificent GTR-spec picture. And it's one that must have been quite incredible to be in the presence of at Le Mans for hours and hours on end.
If the new McLaren that was unveiled this week contains so much as a micron of this F1 GTR's raw and outrageous appeal, it will be some car. And I hope it does, truly I do.
It's not difficult, however, to believe that the F1 and its various brethren represent one of those moments in history that will never be repeated.
Words: Steve Sutcliffe/Autocar
Photos: Stan Papior/Autocar