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World exclusive first drive: McLaren P1
Typical. I get to drive a McLaren P1 and the rain is biblical. It’s also just been Belgium’s first heavy frost of the year, and so the pounding rain is bouncing off a slithery-looking tarmac that couldn’t be any less inviting for an £866,000, 903bhp hypercar than if you’d oiled up some ice and lined the road with puppies.
The caution is definitely a good thing though. As I will find out later. Meanwhile, gingerly tip-toeing away from the Spa Francorchamps circuit at 5am in the P1 proves distressingly easy. In fact, not even waking the other guests in our hotel by the simple expedient of creeping out in EV mode, the only noise the crunch of tyres on frosty ground and a faint sci-fi whine.
I can see out of it to reverse it from the garage thanks to useable rear-view mirrors, and the view ahead is wide-screen and useful. It feels small. And unthreatening. And easy. Wasn’t expecting that. The twin-turbo V8 derived from the 12C grumbles into life after a bit, and we head toward the UK. Which is when it all gets a bit scary.
Pulling onto the motorway, the P1 decides to give me a little warning shimmy as the turbos come on boost at about 4,000rpm in third gear. Sounds high, but you’re already being generously towed along by the electric motor before that, the lag hole neatly filled by a KERS-like pickup. We can deal with a wiggle, though. It’s still wet and cold, and the tyres are new and freezing.
A few miles later and it’s still wet, but I gently roll onto the throttle in fifth. The P1 eases forwards like it’s greased, smooth and insistent. And then it hits boost, and spins the wheels. A lot. There is much swearing, with little punctuation.
Lesson one. You do not take the McLaren P1 for granted. And the most effective traction control is apparently your right foot and sense of fear. After that, I basically drive it back some 350 miles to the UK like a diesel estate, and try to figure out whether the P1 any good at just being a car.
It is. It feels a bit like a beautifully made Lotus, light and agile and clear. The tech all works: press the EV-mode button and the motor dies and you can drive around on just electric (we managed 7 miles on the motorway at 130kph in Europe, and more in town).
Press the ‘charge’ button and the car uses the motor to drive the e-motor and replenish the batteries, like a range extender. So you get modest performance, but a full electric charge when you hit traffic. All you do is completely lift off the throttle, press the appropriate button, and resume.
On the inside it’s a little boomy, but the cabin of our test car has no carpet (it’s a no-cost option) and is made of carbon, so you expect a bit of hiss. I even swapped the driving with Ed-in-Chief Turner on a regular basis and nodded off in the passenger seat quite happily.
The P1 makes all this complicated, integrated tech extremely simple to use. Which is a triumph in itself. But it’s all very well making a hypercar that your mother could drive to the shops, so once we get back to the UK, we close a local airport and order up some sun. As you do.
Driving the P1 on the road is an exercise in restraint. If we’re honest, you can’t really push the thing and remain safe, let alone legal, because it produces the kind of acceleration and cornering G to surpass a sports bike. The rest of the world just isn’t geared up to cope.
But even on an airfield, I was shocked. Set the car into ‘Race mode’ - a process that takes about 30 seconds, static - and the wing rises, the suspension dropping 50mm. Press ‘Boost Mode’ and left foot brake. Flatten the throttle and wait for the boost to build, then just let go of the brake and hold on to your spleen.
No wheelspin. Just… goodbye. And 195mph with room to spare, the brakes slamming the 1395kg car to a stop again and again without a tremble. Robbie, the chap who holds the video camera, let out a series of squeaks no adult male should reasonably be able to produce while not under torture.
Repeat 12 times, just to see if it was a fluke. It wasn’t. And I have never felt - really felt - downforce like this in a roadcar. Case in point: the airfield we ran on had a large bump on the runway. Hit it at 90mph at throttle and the car would spin its wheels, hard. Hit the same bump at 150, and the P1 simply suckered over it. You felt the bump, but rode it hard, rather than lifting over it, like a giant hand pressing the car into the floor.
All the time, the P1 is feeding information at you, hands, wheel, bottom, ears, eyes. It’s flat, no body roll, but - weird word to use, this, but appropriate - sensual. It feeds like nothing else. Talks, chatters, garrulous in the connection. You have to re-calibrate, and learn.
And that’s before you even get to play with the DRS button on the wheel that flattens off the rear wing, or the IPAS button on the other side, that scavenges the electric motor to give you full engine and e-power in one hit as long as you’re over 80 per cent throttle. It’s like a 150bhp shot of nitrous. In a car that’s already travelling like an angry missile.
The truth? The P1 is a very easy car to drive, but a very hard car to drive to the limit. You have to learn it, figure it out. It is not point and pray, more delicate than that. And that’s genuinely exciting. It’s not the fastest car I’ve ever driven, but it is the most potent in terms of experience. It’s got all the power, and crucially, all of the poise to exploit it.
The P1 is a great car to pootle and show off in, but it has an edge that scared the bejeezus out of me a couple of times. I came away fascinated, exhilarated, and wanting another go, as well as just a little bit glad I handed it back in one piece.
I bloody loved it. The ‘best driver’s car on road and track’ as McLaren boldly states? Right now, there isn’t a car to surpass it. P1 indeed.
For Jeremy Clarkson’s world exclusive take on the McLaren P1, you need this month’s Top Gear magazine, OUT NOW or available to download on iPad right here