Welcome to Top Gear's lap of Ireland
Join us as we lap the Emerald Isle, from the coast of Antrim to the Ring of Kerry
Posted: 23 May 2014
DERRY - WESTPORT
SNOW. THE WILD ATLANTIC WAY. I WANT TO BE IRISH
We awake to find the 12C Spider covered in ice and bound tight by freezing temperatures, so obviously drop the roof for fun and showing-off purposes. A process immediately and embarrassingly reversed some two miles later as we are battered by hailstones the size of marbles, which turn the road white in seconds and remove any vestige of traction offered even by our winter tyres. OK, Ireland, so that's how it's going to be. We hook the N13 down to Letterkenny, and the N56 up to Dunfanaghy, sweeping down through Gweedore, Dungloe and Ardara. We get lost again somewhere around a village called Glencolumbkille, and marvel at the beginnings of the Wild Atlantic Way, a tourist route that hugs the western side of the island. This is raw coastline, untamed and angry. But far from being uninhabited, everywhere you go, there are bungalows. Pebbledashed little prefabs that stand in front of the hollowed-out shells of beautiful old stone houses. Strange. It's like having access to a Georgian mansion, and choosing to live in a caravan in the front garden. The roads are incredibly technical, tight and largely deserted. Full of dips and crests and bumps. So far, there has been rain, sunshine, snow, hail and sleet. And it's only just after lunch. Somewhere near Sligo, we are ambushed by a pair of suicidal horses, who veer off at the sight of a bright yellow McLaren into someone's front garden. No one seems to think this is odd. We head out to the Ballycroy National Park just as night falls, and the light traffic simply evaporates. So we let the 12C have its head, the lights picking out the road like beacons. And the whole supercar on a B-road lie becomes crystal. The McLaren has one of the noisiest suspension systems I've ever encountered, but when you really start to force it to react by giving it something to do, it finds sinew and spring where you might expect wood and splinters.
Now, some supercars suit race tracks, growing in stature when allowed to work with a regulation airflow and smooth surface, translating a track's subtle conversation into a multi-layered debate filled with texture and information. They put up with roads, cope, but never really feel at home with all the inevitable mess of the real. If you chuck in a few irregular bumps or standing water, they skip and shimmy, and react like a tantrum-bound 14-year-old: from zero to apocalypse in the blink of an eye. The McLaren 12C doesn't do that.
Going really quite quickly sometime after 9pm, in the dark, with rain gushing like the sky has severed an artery, the Spider comes alive.
The big trick is the suspension and steering. The 12C does not bounce, and goes where - exactly where - you point it. In some cars, the suspension can feel stiff and well-damped, but it's like the front suspension engineers only had a nodding relationship with those responsible for the back.
In the McLaren, the suspension is resolved front-to-back and side-to-side, so that when you hit a bump on the left-hand side of the car, that happens to be on top of a small crest when you're about to turn into a sharp right - all perfectly feasible in Ireland - the 12C just kind of flumps down and remains calm. It's essentially like dropping a beanbag on the floor. It doesn't pop back up, or buck or lose composure if you hit several bumps in a row, because you can never quite knock the wind out of the suspension and damping, no matter how hard you try. It always, somehow, manages to breathe. Which obviously makes it fast. Contact breeds grip, grip begets familiarity, and familiarity - in my case, at least - is the father of confidence, who, as it turns out, is the brother-in-law of speed.
So I'd like to say that it's all about that feel through the steering, and knowing where the limit of grip really is that makes this car so fast. Something clever, that makes it sound like I'm somehow coaxing a secret from this machine that nobody else can really access. But you can get that sort of thing from, say, a Toyota GT86 for a tenth of the price and with less than a third of the horsepower. Where the supercar really makes its point is the reality that the grip and poise is merely the cherry on the cake made of a 616bhp twin-turbo V8. And anyone can access that. You just plant your foot, and watch the world fall over. Hot hatch beat a supercar? My arse. We arrive in the lovely little village of Westport with me bouncing around like a loon and Justin the photographer staring straight ahead and refusing to speak. I must stop doing this to him.