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Gallery: Europe in a 207mph McLaren 12C

  1. You’ll
    have heard about the 70-odd miles between Digne-les-Bains and Grasse, towards
    the southeast corner of France. It’s a fantasy of a road, a near-ceaseless
    battery of corners and snakiness, the tarmac wide and blissfully empty, rising
    and plunging through giant folds of mountainous vista that make your eyes widen
    and your heart sing. It’s part of what’s called the Route Napoléon, because he
    came back that way from Elba.

    Words: Paul Horrell

    Pictures: Lee Brimble

    This
    article first appeared in the March 2013 edition of Top Gear magazine 

  2. Never mind him, history fans, enjoy 8,500rpm and
    625bhp in the McLaren V8. A couple of seconds ago, coming through a second-gear
    90-degree left doing only about 4,000rpm, the turbos were already spooled up
    and tipping me back in the seat with the torque. The road is sun- dried but
    February-cold, wearing a thin coat of slightly greasy salt against the
    impending snow flurries, and the rear tyres soon break through its
    possibilities of traction in the bend. Sure, the surprisingly supple suspension
    ekes out the very most of it, but a little stabilising intervention from the
    electronics chips in. Then the road goes straight, the tyres get purchase and
    the big, red needle swings past the vertical, the point at 6,000-odd where it
    becomes a new kind of engine – far faster and louder, grasping greedily towards
    8,500 and wired with a narcotic jolt of hysterical, caffeinated edginess.

  3. An
    edginess it lacked when the MP4-12C was first released, but this new version,
    the result of McLaren’s Formula One attitude to continuous improvement, is
    blessed with an extra 25bhp that you hardly feel because there were so many
    horses before, and a better noise and cleaner responses that you absolutely do
     feel.

    The
    landscape, emptied by the winter’s chill of colour and free from humanity, is
    rent asunder by this blazing streak of orangeness and roaring noise, a sudden
    firework that’s gone almost before it came. But there are long-term resonances,
    because this road (and others like it all across the continent) is one of the
    reasons why, in an issue of Top Gear devoted to the seven continents, only Europe
    could be the continent of the supercar. Manufacturers here defined the genre.

  4. Of
    course, Europe isn’t the only continent with twisting hill roads, but Europe’s
    mountains form natural barriers to commerce between great countries and ancient
    population centres, so Europeans have been maintaining those roads since well
    before the era of motor travel. When the supercar came along, it had to be able
    to make sense of the corners.

    That
    chimed with European motorsport venues too. Nowhere else had the road races, or
    had built so many circuits to simulate roads with corners. What we simply call
    circuits, Americans call street circuits so as to distinguish them from the
    ovals or drag strips that make up so much of their motorsport. So if supercars
    have to pay homage to motorsport, then for Europe that means an ability to
    negotiate corners at a pace.

  5. Not
    just the pace, but the feel. It means handling, not just grip, and braking, not
    just acceleration. Most of all, it’s about conveying the subtleties of motion
    to the driver, through precision and connection in the steering, brakes and
    transmission. These are things that, even though paradoxically you can’t
    actually measure them, truly are the measure of a great car for driving. A
    supercar has to oblige.

    Pouring the McLaren into another of these bends, one that throws a
    challenge by tightening part-way round, shows how it does. The suspension is
    quite soft – that’s how it rides so well at low speeds, and how when you floor
    the throttle you get a rather exciting confirmation of the thrust by feeling
    the nose breathe upwards a little. But softness doesn’t mean roll, because
    there’s active chassis trickery to quell that. So you get proportionate answers
    to any motions of your hands on the wheel. And if there’s a little understeer
    at the point the bend tightens, well, you’re told of it through the wheel, but
    you need lift the throttle only a fraction because at the same time the car
    drags a brake on the inside rear tyre to cancel out the pushing outer-front
    tyre, and it’s pivoted round again on the huge steady-state lateral grip, and
    then engages the turbos for another catapulting departure.

  6. It’s
    not perfect, by the way: the steering could be sharper in its very smallest
    motions, as the Ferrari 458’s is. And sometimes the dampers get out of phase
    with this road and set up a repeated, vertical hop. But the Ferrari has a
    different way of getting upset by similar bumps, and I still suspect the
    McLaren is the faster and more secure through this sort of territory.

    But after mile upon mile of this progress, bodily muscles humming from the
    lateral and longitudinal forces, ears singing, synapses tingling, the McLaren
    swings onto the autoroute, and starts to do something supercars have always
    been surprisingly adept at. Just sitting there, rock-solid, spitting out in
    steady rhythm the lane-marking blips for hundreds of miles at a time. Actually,
    the McLaren is better than any other, because its driving position and ride and
    refinement are so good.

  7. Yes,
    fast European motorways were part of the supercar story too. The autobahn,
    obviously – facilitator of unlimited speed since 1932 – but the French and
    Italian systems also predate the US Interstate network, and all have always
    been home to faster-moving cars than the Interstates. The idea of a rapid
    transcontinental trip has always been most significant in Europe, as
    exemplified by the band of tally-ho automobilists racing the Blue Train from
    Calais to the Riviera, back in the Twenties and Thirties. The romance of that
    sort of ground-covering is one of the reasons Europeans love fast cars at full
    throttle. The great American road trip is a far more leisurely thing
    altogether. And, actually, most Americans have long favoured aeroplanes over
     cars.

  8. So
    when the modern supercar appeared in the late Sixties, the infrastructural
    enabler was already in place. Those long, fast, unencumbered continental
    motorways lay before the Miura and Daytona like a glistening blade into the
    future. They, in turn, were the perfect cars for the job. They might have had
    crap visibility and been reluctant to start in the morning, but there was
    nothing they liked more than arrowing towards the far horizon, their 12 pistons
    panting for joy.

    Mountain
    roads, motorways, race tracks: to an engineer’s mind, these are the reasons the
    supercar took root and flowered in Europe. But they’re not the whole story.
    It’s been shaped by social and cultural matters too. A supercar isn’t
    necessarily the fastest mode from A to B along an autostrada or over the
    mountains, nor yet from A to A to A again round a race track. The Chevy
    Corvette and the Nissan GT-R and the Subaru Impreza are more than fine by those
     measures.

  9. No,
    supercars live or die by other factors. A cultural flamboyance, for a start –
    it’s no coincidence that they come from the countries of Verdi and Wagner and
    Led Zeppelin. Beyond that, a set of social ideals you might not actually like
    very much: elitism, snobbishness, a sense of entitlement that rather resembles
    some remnant of old Europe’s class system.

    An
    example. When the Audi R8 came along, I figured it was a valid entry into the
    lower stratum of the supercars. It has the looks, the performance, the
    handling, the engine, the drama. But I found myself in heated argument with a
    friend, who posited that it’s not a valid supercar at all. Now, intellectually,
    he’s a man of impeccably egalitarian views, but, temperamentally, he can’t
    quite shake off the notion that if you’re born with a certain something – blue
    blood, looks, charm – then you’re entitled to be carried through life on the
    shoulders of others. With cars as with people, in his world view. Because Audi
    isn’t a member of the supercar aristocracy, then the R8 somehow has no right to
    be called one. (Obviously he’d forgotten about Auto Union, but that’s beside he
    point.) As far as he’s concerned, there is no automotive social mobility – nor
    need there be.

  10. His
    view, which is quite widespread, means even if Ferrari or Aston Martin or
    Lamborghini churn out a clunker – and, oh my, have they, in the shape of the
    Virage-era Vantage, the Testarossa and the early Diablo – those cars are
    nevertheless welcomed into the world like they’re the first in line to an
    earldom. On the other hand, manufacturers new to the supercar game find their
    perfectly excellent machinery sneered at as somehow arriviste. Ferrari
    especially, but Lamborghini and the other European grandees too, protect their
    territory these days not just by building their most wonderful cars to date,
    but by deploying some of the most calculatedly ferocious brand-building in any
    field of commerce in any part of the world.

    I’m
    convinced this had something to do with the MP4-12C’s slightly muted reception.
    There were other reasons, too: the car’s engine wasn’t quite as viscerally edgy
    as expected, although, gosh – it is now, as today’s magical drive proves. And
    also the design isn’t as theatrical as the Latins’. But, beyond that, the world
    didn’t quite go wild for the McLaren because of the old snob-factor. McLaren
    didn’t have the unbroken supercar history of Ferrari, and even its race success
    was seen as somehow drab and calculating compared with the image of passion and
    drama that’s integral to the way the red squad carefully position themselves.

  11. Anyway,
    this remains mostly a European freehold. America’s deep-seated pragmatism means
    it isn’t really interested in making supercars. The way they see it, if the new
    Corvette Stingray can deliver so much for £40k-odd, why pay more? It’s no
    coincidence the phrase ‘bang for your buck’ is denominated in US currency. This
    is a country built on migration, where social mobility is a touchstone, and
    that’s reflected in their attitude to carmakers: the first Viper came from a
    manufacturer with no relevant genes, but still it was welcomed as a superhero.
    And if its engine hadn’t been large and mounted in the front, then it would
    have been castigated as subversively un-American.

    And Japan? It has an ancient imperial past, but, from the post-war years
    to the Eighties, it was a nation of extraordinary cohesion. That put haughty
    and exclusive supercars off the common agenda. As the country developed its
    technological leadership in the Eighties, though, eventually a few companies
    figured they’d bring the might of their boffinry to bear on a candidacy for the
    supercar club. So were born the NSX and the GT-R and now the LFA. But they came
    up against the usual snobbery. People said they were too digital, not soulful
    enough. It was actually just a way of saying they were merely a Honda and a
    Nissan and a Lexus, so they had no right to be there.

  12. Strangely,
    the Honda NSX and today’s McLaren got hit with the same insults: engine too
    small, steering too benign, a general sense that being so accessible and usable
    precluded sufficient drama. It’s surely no coincidence that when it built the
    NSX, Honda was McLaren’s F1 engine partner. Porsche was deemed admissible to
    the club, though: no one ever called the 959 soulless, even though it was the
    most po-faced technofest ever to issue from the loins of supercardom.

    A
    supercar isn’t about speed, lap times, power or efficiency or anything else
    that technicians with computers and gauges can catalogue. And heritage is
    necessary, yet insufficient. A supercar is about being an event.

    Why did Bugatti choose 16 cylinders? Why did Gandini put that strange rear
    wheelarch cut-out onto the Countach? Why did a Ferrari 360 Modena have the most
    neck-prickling throttle-sensitive exhaust noises ever? Why all those portholes
    in a Zonda’s cabin? All those slats on a Testarossa? The casual craziness of a
    Diablo’s proportions, and the calculated craziness of an Aventador’s surfaces?
    The makers of those cars did those things because they knew they could. None
    added much to the cars’ actual abilities, but they were a profound augmentation
    of the drama. The parameters that say that entertainment by shock is absolutely
    intrinsic to supercars.

  13. McLaren
    gives you drama too. Look, I just stomped on the brakes. If dustbin-lid discs
    weren’t enough, I glance in the mirror, and it’s gone orange. An airbrake! How
    very overblown: I was only doing… well, never mind what speed I was doing,
    but, you know, it’s single-carriageway speed. Sure the air-flap helps a bit by
    raising drag and moving downforce onto the rear tyres, but until you’re at
    autobahn speeds, its principal contribution is theatrical, and, like the orange
    paint and the exhaust noise and the scissor doors and the carbon-fibre bonnet
    badge, it’s about taking some small functional advantage and leveraging a whole
    lot of extra drama out of it.

    Even
    when barely moving, supercars are like a Batcape that makes their drivers feel
    a hero and bystanders grateful. Their aura illuminates the roads they travel.
    Men of great wealth and feeble self-confidence (for they are mostly men) tend
    to believe that driving a supercar will make them the star of the show. It
    won’t, because everyone looks at the car and no one at the driver.

    We
    take the McLaren to Monte Carlo too, because it’s dense with supercars. Is it
    the race circuit that attracts them? Of course not: have you seen the traffic
    jams? This place has a pretty high concentration of the feeble-egoed wealthy.
    I’ve never been anywhere where you are more openly and mercilessly judged by
    the price of your possessions. Among the tinselly opulence of high-end luxury-goods
    shops clustering around the Casino, the McLaren manages to fit in well enough,
    but it does manage to stop short of vulgarity. The best supercars do. They
    might be outlandish, but they aren’t flashy or trashy.

  14. European
    toffs recognise it: in a Monte Carlo square, an old- money Italian gent sidles
    up to say, “Bella macchina!” Actually, rich or poor, old Italian gents are
    always up for a chat if you’re in a supercar. “Better looking than a Ferrari,”
    he opines. “Normally, you only see cars like that on Top Gear.” Well, he won’t
    be seeing this particular one for long. Life offers nothing finer than what we
    have ahead of us: the emptier parts of Europe’s road network, a supercar and a
    full tank of petrol.

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