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Speed Week: McLaren 650S

  1. Ideally, when learning a new track, you’d spend a quiet few laps memorising the various curves, cambers and quirks in something sedate, so you can figure out where it goes before your brain is suffused with information pertinent to not violently landscaping a gravel trap with your face. Dedicated F1 drivers circulate on pushbikes, or monotonously lap in the virtual, cocooned in a tediously precision-mapped simulator. Being neither a racing driver nor blessed with common sense, I chose the new McLaren 650S Spider in which to discover Castellolí. A car with 641bhp of ego-humbling mid-engined rear-wheel drive. “Go big or go home” as the saying goes. “Upside down and on fire, if necessary” being the less- often-quoted Top Gear subtext.

    Photography: Rowan Horncastle

  2. It’s not as daft as it seems, because the basics of the 650S are largely similar to the previous 12C’s: the same 3.8-litre twin-turbo, this time with a modest hike of 35bhp and 57lb ft of torque, the same carbon Monocell, allowing the unique suspension to do its job. In fact, the only thing you’ll notice immediately is the fresh, P1-esque nose and a light refocusing of the details. We know this car.
    Wrong. As the 650S pulls out of the pitlane, 500lb ft of torque snatches it towards the first corner like it’s attached to an aircraft carrier steam pulley. It’s noticeably faster than the 12C, especially in the mid range, and it feels eager. McLaren reckons stationary to 125mph in 8.6 for the Spider. That feels rather conservative: according to TG data, the 650S hit 60mph in just over three seconds and 100 in three after that. Phew.

  3. The first right-hand corner, and the 650S reverses the momentum via - now standard - carbon-ceramics. Hilariously effective, once you’ve peeled your forehead off the windscreen. In fact, over the course of subsequent laps, it’s obvious that the 650S is better than the 12C in every direction. The steering has been reworked and is more sensitive, heavier and more garrulous, even over ridges and cambers that should upset it. The springs are firmer (22 per cent front, 37 at the rear), and the dampers are now modelled on the P1’s, but the compression and rebound are so finely judged that the 650S sticks, even over quite severe bumps, without fuss or jiggle. It sounds better, too - hoarse and obviously turbo, but nicely raw-throated - and driven hard in Track, the electronics allow a surprising amount of sideways slip before stepping in. Be aware, though: if you disable the minders - as with the 12C - it’ll still step hard.

  4. Truth? If McLaren had launched this instead of the 12C, Ferrari engineers would have cried themselves to sleep for the past two years. And yet the most significant thing isn’t the outright velocity or brick-wall braking, but trust. You can rely on the 650S to do exactly what you tell it. It’s a more friendly car than ever, but still offers excitement even if you’re a Stig-alike. Above all, it’s almost distressingly fast: everything you could ever want in a McLaren road car. There’s only one problem. It’s lurking at the other end of the pitlane, sucking light into its purple paintwork like a malevolent singularity. It’s called the McLaren P1. And it will not be denied.

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