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Lewis Hamilton in the MP4-12C

  1. As Lewis Hamilton prepares to put on his McLaren fireproofs for the last time this weekend in Brazil, relive our drive with him in an MP4-12C last year…

    Lewis Hamilton fits the McLaren MP4-12C like a glove. He ought to: important bits of it were moulded around him. This is a little worrying for those of us who don’t share his terrifyingly athletic physique, but, in practice, one of the 12C’s most powerful USPs is the brilliance of its cabin design. It’s not a millimetre bigger than it needs to be, it’s beautifully made and is easy to use.

    “The steering wheel originally had a fatter rim,” Lewis says, as we glide along one of the roads in downtown Dubai that leads towards the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. “I said, ‘Why don’t we have something that’s closer to an F1 wheel?’ So they made it slimmer, and the rim is moulded to my hand. Which is pretty cool.”

    Words: Jason Barlow
    Photography: Joe Windsor-Williams

    This article was originally published in the 2011 Awards issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. No doubt about that. A chunky wheel might feel good, but it obscures the messages the front wheels transmit through it. There’s an example of the McLaren form vs function dichotomy right there. Lewis knocks the 12C down a few gears, prompting a guttural but cultured roar from the engine. It’s late afternoon, and though the desert sun is sinking fast, it’s still pretty hot.

    “The engine’s very important to me, the vibrations you get, the sound, particularly when you start it up, when you’re accelerating… The sound is everything,” he says.

  3. There’s another roar. The McLaren’s fat back tyres squirm as the car passes over the slippery cobbled sections that punctuate the otherwise-virgin tarmac. He tells me about a friend who has a Novitec-modified Porsche, and the 430 Scuderia that his dad is looking after for a friend (I wish I had a friend like that).

  4. “What else? There was a soft paddle-shift before, and I prefer an audible click when you change gear. The paddles weren’t moving with the wheel, and there’s nothing worse than having to move your hand up to grab a shift. They were also too big to start with. They’re a better size now.”

  5. As odd as it is to be discussing ergonomics with 2008’s Formula One World Champion, these things clearly matter to the man. “In my life generally, I like things to be simplified,” he continues. “I don’t want things getting too complex. For example, I don’t want 10 different controllers for all the stuff you have in the house. One controller should do everything, you know what I mean? In fact, I share the same sort of values as Ron when it comes to that. I like things to be precise, perfect.”

  6. The ragged edges of Lewis’s 2011 F1 campaign clearly don’t fit with that MO, but we’ll come to that later. Or rather we won’t, at least not directly, because McLaren’s PR machine has decreed that Top Gear  remains focused on the 12C. No Nicole, no Massa, no mea culpa. The word is that Lewis is keen to get this season over with, so he can push the mental reset button and move on. Four days before the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, he certainly seems more relaxed than he has of late. There’s a white iPhone 4S in his hands, which he fiddles with intently. “Once you’ve had one of these, you could never have anything else,” he notes.

  7. Lewis hasn’t taken delivery of his 12C yet, a candy-apple-red car with black wheels, red brake calipers, carbon inserts in the engine bay, and a red-over-black interior. He’ll keep it at his home near Zurich in Switzerland, he says, and, despite the adrenalised day job, insists that he still enjoys driving for the sheer hell of it. He isn’t taking up tiddlywinks or meditation just yet, though the Bob Marley fixation hints at a mellower side (the helmet he wore at the Indian GP honouring the great man was approved by Bob’s widow, Rita).

  8. As we pull up outside the Burj Khalifa, the country’s signature building that extends like a slender steel-and-glass finger into the sky, it occurs to me that both Lewis and the 12C might actually be a little misunderstood. It’s an odd thought, given the marrow-deep quality of their respective operations, but bear with me.

  9. Lewis, still only 26, has just endured the sort of rubbish year that most of us experience at some time in our lives: the collapse of a relationship, difficulties at work, maybe some family turbulence. The fact that he’s an F1 driver, his ex-girlfriend a globally desired pop princess, and that he’s swapped his father for music-biz-turned-sport Svengali Simon Fuller as manager means that the fissures in the previously impregnable Brand Hamilton have been uncomfortably visible. At times, it’s not been pretty.

  10. Mistakes? He’s made a few, but not so many that we should debate them here. Bundling clumsily into Massa at Monaco and those daft comments afterwards suggested a petulance that the anti-Lewis lobby has long accused him of. Niki Lauda, among others who really should have known better, seemed suspiciously swift to criticise. The fact is that Lewis remains a most spectacular F1 driver, a Senna-like racer rather than a silky artist in the Prost mould, and a man who, above all, pours heart and soul into his motor racing. He’ll obviously bounce back, and when he does, the lumpy cadences of his 2011 season will be just part of the process. Even Fernando Alonso agrees. “At the next winter testing, he will be the only one I’ll be watching closely.” (It turns out he doesn’t need to wait that long; Lewis holds him off to win the Abu Dhabi GP in convincing style, and tops it off by dedicating the win to his mum. Lewis’s, not Fernando’s…)

  11. As for the MP4-12C, well, maybe there was an excess of pressure here, too. The day before I drove an early car at Portimão, back in February, Ron Dennis - a man who’s definitely a little misunderstood, but is still the closest the car industry has to a Steve Jobs figure - claimed that McLaren has always been “passionate” about measuring things scientifically. “And we can prove scientifically that ours is the best sports car in history.”

  12. Very Ron and not wrong. Unscientifically, however, it didn’t appear - at first - the most thrilling of mid-engined supercars. Because, pitched as it was against the Ferrari 458 Italia, it’s actually more about sheer speed than vociferous thrills. When we brought them together, the 12C couldn’t quite eclipse the 458, a car in which the myths and legends of Maranello segue perfectly with some truly extraordinary engineering. The Ferrari’s normally aspirated V8 sounds better than the McLaren’s twin-turbo unit, and its bodywork undulates as sinfully as a Fifties Italian screen siren. The 12C looks neat but functional. Plus, Ferrari would never name a car after a tumble-dryer. But the McLaren remembers when to shut up, which the more extrovert Italian isn’t so good at. Call it English reserve. That’s its character.

  13. What if we were looking at the comparison from the wrong angle, though? Top Gear’s editor-in-chief Charlie Turner drove a 12C back to the UK from July’s Alpine performance-car gathering, and wouldn’t stop going on about how insanely good it was until we locked him in a small room and doused him with cold water. In the real world, a place we visit occasionally, the McLaren simply works. Well, it does now that the initial satnav and warning-light gremlins have been evicted.

  14. We also thought more about the context of the 12C’s creation. From a more or less standing start to getting within a hair’s breadth of arguably the greatest-ever Ferrari is a seriously impressive feat. So here it is: our GT Car of the Year.

  15. But not quite yet. Lewis will be driving it along a red carpet at a McLaren dealer opening, not long after our meeting. Then it’s ours, to do with as we please, for about 12 hours. Our allotted time with him is almost up. I ask him what he thought of the Senna documentary, arguably the film of the year. His answer is surprisingly reflective.

  16. “I liked it, but there was maybe too much talk from some other people. It was Ayrton I really wanted to hear from. I liked hearing his views, watching the on-board footage of him. I’m not really interested in what anyone else has to say. Because everyone has an opinion. The number of people I meet who say, ‘I knew Ayrton’ or ‘I was this or that with Ayrton’, and then you ask someone who really knew him and you find out they maybe brushed past him once or something.

    “People are always trying to associate themselves with other people they think are doing something important. Whether it’s just to be associated with them or if it’s for their own glory. I just loved the way he carried himself, the problem situations he went through, the issues he had… some of them are very similar to what I go through.”

    The McLaren PR shoots me a pleading look.

  17. “It’s life,” Lewis continues. “The ups and downs. How you bounce back. You’ve always got to take positives out of the bad things that happen. I hope people are able to benefit from some of my experiences, and the way that I do and don’t handle them. Things happen in life, and you have to learn from them. Definitely.”

    It’s a little odd settling into the seat of a car that’s only just been vacated by Lewis Hamilton. Maybe he’ll have left a sliver of talent behind that I can absorb through my buttocks. Thing is, the McLaren MP4-12C is so good, in so many ways, that you simply don’t need to be Lewis-special to feel like a million dollars driving it. We’re immediately assimilated into the neon Dubai night, a multi-lane freeway free-for-all that just doesn’t let up.

  18. In standard mode, the 12C cycles through its gear ratios and drops happily into seventh gear at a bunch of revs that would have defied belief a few years ago. We’re pulling barely 2,000rpm at 60mph, yet it’ll run all the way to 9,000 and well over 200mph. Its trick suspension and ProActive Chassis Control ditches a mechanical anti-roll bar in favour of hydraulically interconnected dampers, and a pair of liquid-filled chambers that manage compression and rebound. So the car’s ride is superb, without screwing the handling. You could honestly argue that this end of the 12C’s dynamic repertoire is the more impressive; it’s the one that blew Charlie away halfway through a 14-hour drive from Italy, and it’s the one that’s keeping me sane as jet lag and a lack of sleep kicks in. The valets outside the Burj Khalifa (163 habitable floors, plus 46 that aren’t used: what would Ron say?) fall over themselves to get the keys off me. Sorry, chaps. I want them on my bedside table.

  19. Besides, the keys aren’t there for long. By 7.30am, we’re already in the desert. In truth, it’s not the ideal place to push the 12C’s envelope, but there are just enough corners and roundabouts - all deserted, in the truest meaning of the word - to establish that this car is off-the-scale good. I mean, gobsmacking. Its carbon construction and tight packaging means it moves with total precision, allowing zero energy to drip away in roll or squidge. Its turn-in is so sharp and well-calibrated that it almost ‘thinks’ its way into and out of corners. Its brake-steer system works like a torque-vectoring differential and almost completely eliminates understeer. Switch everything to track mode - transmission and chassis - and the slip angles get satisfyingly lairy without turning mid-engined treacherous. I really don’t think there’s anything else right now to touch it in terms of full-spectrum dynamics.

  20. We spool onto a road that simply vanishes into the desert shimmer. As we pass a ‘forest’ containing exactly seven small trees, I switch the McLaren into active mode, giving me manual control over all the car’s important parameters. Through second, third and fourth gear, this most rational of supercars screams towards the horizon, as vigorous and alive as any car I’ve driven.

    Misunderstood? I think we’ve cleared that up, haven’t we?

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