First drive: the new McLaren 12C GT3
Jason Barlow takes the awesome race-ready McLaren for a spin...
As a road car based Formula, GT3 kind of lulls you into a false sense of security. These cars look familiar, which gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling. Yes, the road car in question here is the McLaren 12C, which is so fast and so blazingly hi-tech that the racing rules and requirement for what's known as ‘balance of performance' mean that the race car version is actually 126bhp less powerful than the one Joe Schmo can buy. Crazy but true.
The other thing to note is the rise of customer racing. Ferrari's Corse Clienti has been on the go for 20 years now, but McLaren's 12C race programme has ramped up in just two years, no mean feat irrespective of the company's pedigree. Previously limited to Europe, 12C GT3s are now racing in Malaysia, Taiwan, Abu Dhabi, and Azerbaijan (round the streets of Baku, no less). Forty cars have been delivered, and just last weekend the car scored three pole positions, three podium finishes, and three outright victories in three different championships. Some bloke called Sebastien Loeb won a race in Spain, in his sideline as 12C GT3 driver and team owner. Well, he likes to keep busy.
Thing is, the idea is you don't have to be Loeb to have a fighting chance in one of these (or indeed the equivalent Ferrari 458, AMG SLS or Porsche). Just well-heeled and available on weekends. But having just had a go in a 12C GT3 around the perennially windswept Snetterton circuit in Norfolk, trust me when I say that big aero and fat slicks means big respect. This is another way of saying that things didn't quite go according to plan.
The 2013-spec 12C GT3 has had some alterations. The bonnet has new scoops and ducting to expel heat more efficiently and improve cooling. The ECU has been revised, and the electrical architecture tweaked. And the car's aerodynamics package has evolved to deliver better overall balance and superior tyre wear. McLaren concedes that there were a few teething problems with the car at the outset, but the results are starting to pile up now.
I love the brutal simplicity and functionality of racing cars, have raced a fair few myself over the years, and driven three different generations of Formula One car and a DTM Audi. The 12C GT3, as Commercial Director of McLaren GT Daryl Cozens says, ‘is designed to be accessible to the latest generation of gentleman drivers'. True that. But it's still a very serious race car, and thanks to that frankly awesome aero package and the huge rubber, the 12C GT3's operating window is both way beyond and much narrower than even very tidy saloon racing cars. It's intimidating.
It's also fantastically comfortable, as it ought to be given its endurance remit. The wheel is that odd, squashed circle shape, and though it's not the riot of buttons and dials the F1 guys have to deal with, it's still busy enough. There's a bank of touch sensitive push buttons in a binnacle to your right, including an ignition one, and surprisingly small paddles to change gear. The ‘box itself is six-speed rather than the regular 12C's seven-speed, its ratios altered accordingly.
Here we go, then. Ignition on. Push a button to put the 'box in neutral, then clutch down and hook first gear. We won't need the clutch after this. It's like pulling away in second, but we don't stall. Thank God. There's no coughing or throat clearing, though; the 12C pulls cleanly immediately, and also feels instantly fantastic. It ripples and pulses with energy. Rob Bell, McLaren GT3 racer and development driver, is clear about what's needed to make it work: massive braking inputs. ‘It will feel strange at first, and some guys take half a season to really get to grips with it. But you've got to use all of the braking potential to get the weight shifted onto the nose, and really work the car into the corner.' Jeez, OK.
Braking is tricky in all racing cars. It's arguably the toughest bit to get right. Watch the really fast guys - Lewis and Fernando, for example - and they will be sooooo late on the anchors it's untrue. It's about carrying the right amount of speed into and out of the corners. It's also important to ‘switch on' your tyres. This means not pussy-footing around, and bloody well getting on with it.
Snetterton has been reworked since I last raced here, and it's more technical. Having had a few sighting laps in a 12C road car, I know where it goes. But I'm also not bloody well getting on with it. So while the first couple of laps prove that the 12C GT3 really is relatively accessible - it's not as savagely quick as the road car, for example - I'm just not going hard enough, quickly enough.
It still feels absolutely epic, of course, and just monsters its way through the corners. But it would be more epic still and the aero more effective if I was picking up the pace, and working those brakes a lot harder. My lap delta in the display is beaming the unpalatable truth at me like a bat signal. I need to be quicker everywhere, especially on the brakes.
A couple of the corners here - Montreal and Palmer - are first gear jobs, and the back end gets alarmingly mobile. But it's also surprisingly easy to correct, although this is not the point: it shouldn't be sliding at all, just gripping like an industrial vice. Agostini is a tricky little number, Hamilton faster than it looks, and the Bomb-hole as ballsy as ever. Coram used to be a great challenge; it's not so much fun now. But we start stitching a few laps together, and it begins to flow. For a while, anyway.
Then it's up Senna straight, through Riches - just brilliant - and down through the 'box into first for Montreal. There are some warning signs. Biiiig slide. Into Palmer now... oh dear. Round we go. Hold on tight. Tyres not up to temperature? Too much power? When it goes, boy does it go. There's no transition. It's like an on/off switch. My brain aches.
An utterly awesome car, the 12C GT3 is undoubtedly a weapon in the right hands. Or indeed the wrong ones...