World exclusive: McLaren P1 vs Porsche 918 Spyder vs LaFerrari
The three most wanted hybrid hypercars on the planet, tested together for the first time anywhere in the world. Same roads, same days, same drivers. So which one is the best?
TF: Editor-in-Chief Charlie Turner has just texted me a selfie, and it’s made me more than a little excited. I’ll just point out that it’s because he is standing in front of a McLaren P1 and inviting me to join him. Even better, motoring editor Ollie Marriage has responded with a similar photo clutching the key to a Porsche 918. Neither of them is far away. You’d think that might be enough, but TG mag has already pitted the 918 and P1 against one other, and in the Great Hypercar Showdown there has been a glaring omission. It means that these digital snaps are big news. I compose my response and send it with a location of where to rendezvous on a fabulous, wriggle-strewn road in the Italian hills above a little town called Maranello. I’m smiling, too. The backdrop of my shot is LaFerrari. Time to dance.
CT: That’s it. Tom has the final piece of TopGear’s biggest-ever horsepower puzzle, and I’m still pinching myself that we’ve managed to make this happen. I’ve been working on this for months, and to actually be here with the team about to drive the three most technologically advanced cars on the planet, on sublime roads, is the stuff the dreams are made of. And this is an official test: all the manufacturers know what we’re up to, all three were prepared to offer factory cars, confident in their machines. That they chose to lend them all to TopGear magazine first is a huge privilege. But it’s not a free pass. We at TG are beholden to no one – if there’s a bad car or a winner, we will say so. That said, it’s great to be back in the P1, a car I loved from the first time we tested it. And luckily, there’s 40 miles of road to fund a re-edit of my opinions before we get down to the three-car shenanigans.
OM: Getting these three together is the test we’ve wanted to make happen ever since we learned that Porsche, McLaren and Ferrari were all working on hybrid hypercars. And now, four or five years and roughly a million phone calls, meetings and arm-twistings later, it’s the ping of text messages that reveals it’s finally happening. Sitting in the 918 Spyder, I’m properly optimistic – I know, it’s tempting to see the 918 as an underdog, a poor relation. It’s from a more mainstream firm that doesn’t have F1 roots. They’re building more of them. It’s cheaper, and with the biggest battery and smallest CO2 emissions, the most overtly hybrid. And so on. If nothing else, this morning has already revealed the complete nonsense of that viewpoint. The Porsche is just as hyper, just as ferocious as the others. I’m intrigued to find out how it compares to the LaFerrari, utterly intrigued. And completely overexcited. The only stipulation was no track work (basically no lap times), but I’m not fussed about that right now – I can’t wait to see them all together, to have all three yowling up an Italian hillside. This is an unbelievable privilege.
TF: With the other two cars on the way, it’s time to get this LaFerrari moving. As Ollie said, we’re not allowed to track-test these three, but Ferrari allowed me a few laps of its Fiorano test circuit for reference so that I could fully deploy the LaFerrari’s 950bhp without fear of immediate prison time. What those minutes reveal is that this will be possibly the greatest three-car test in modern history. At full stretch, the LaFerrari is ferociously accelerative, eerily stable and brakes like a shove to the shoulders. In the right mode – in my case, Race – the guidance systems also allow me to feel like a hero without actually needing to be a legend. And this thing howls. A brittle V12 soprano with the kind of throttle response that feels like witchcraft. Which it is, of a modern sort. But this isn’t a circuit test. And with that in mind, I’m kicked off Ferrari’s hallowed ground and drive carefully out of town to meet the others.
I'm still pinching myself that we've managed to make this happen
The LaFerrari turns out to be an easy companion. You almost forget you’re driving the apogee of Ferrari’s road-car programme, as long as you ignore pedestrians walking into lamp posts and small children hauling their mothers to a dead stop in a whiplash of wonder. And when we finally get out of town and onto the long, sweeping Italian A-roads, the LaFerrari accelerates up the road like a thrown punch. That 161bhp of electrical urge? It’s just there to slice open the bottom of the torque curve of the V12 and stuff it with the throttle response of the gods. No wait, no lag, just endless, soul-buffeting acceleration and noise.
It’s a bizarre feeling, this speed of reaction. A simple V12 has never flared to input like this, but the electric KERS-alike power doesn’t feel unnatural. And the steering is ultra-sharp, almost disturbingly so, flicking the car rather than steering it, at least for the first few miles. There is a whiff of body roll, instructive and intended, and the brakes are ridiculous. There is also one of the most spectacular front ends on any road car I’ve driven, apart from, unsurprisingly, a 458 Speciale – on a dry road, LaFerrari will stick where you think it will slip, eke grip where you think it will falter. And you can use the power. Not all of it all of the time, but get it right, and this is a car to end all things. A bare 40 miles later, with the million-pound Ferrari ticking its heat away in a wide Italian lay-by on the bottom of a hairpin-infected back road, I’m convinced LaFerrari is the greatest car in the world. A vehicle that looks like a distillation, a single-malt supercar. And then the 918 and P1 arrive within seconds of each other, and suddenly I’m not so sure.
OM: A couple of miles from our rendezvous point, and I’m at a T-junction. There’s a gush and snarl, and the P1 rips past on the main road. Excellent. I latch the Porsche onto the back, and together we go in search of the final bright-red piece of the jigsaw puzzle. Just from these first few miles, I’d be amazed if the Porsche isn’t the most multidimensional, the everyday hypercar. Its swipe touchscreen is an all-consuming joy, the sound system has real might, it’ll do 0–60mph in six seconds in total silence, you can take the roof off. It’s the best constructed, the most imaginative, the most comprehensively developed, the most otherworldly. And yet I wouldn’t have mine in this spec, with bare carbon footwells and seats more upright and pious than a church pew. I’d have mine with carpets and easy on the harnesses, it would suit the car’s demeanour better and do nothing to upset the fundamentals.
No, the brakes don’t have real feel and finesse, the front driveshafts mean I doubt the 918 has the steering purity of its rivals, and the ride is on the brittle side. On tight hairpins, the 4wd system proves decidedly rear-wheel drive, but it’s still so fast and makes an unbelievable noise. I love putting the Porsche in a high gear at low revs and feeling the instant electric shove, the gradual handover from e-motor to feral race-derived V8. Give the 918 its head, and it charges so hard and is so absorbing and all-consuming. I adore it: it’s wheeled proof that the future of the sports car is in good hands.
CT: My first experience of the P1 was being chauffeured at speed by McLaren development boss Chris Goodwin around a Noah’s-Ark spec Spa-Francorchamps. An experience that will remain permanently etched in an area labelled ‘moments of extreme peril’. That day, despite the rain-soaked track, in Goodwin’s hands the P1 felt hardcore, devastating and violent – a new assault on the senses. And it was – let’s not forget the P1 was the first of these cars revealed and driven – the new benchmark.
Mastering the P1 would be occasionally alarming, but hugely rewarding
But benchmarks are there to be challenged. To my mind, it’s the least attractive of the three in all but Track mode, with a sinister aesthetic that I find awkward and disturbing – but that might just be a flashback to Spa. Less so on the inside: the interior of the P1 feels brilliantly resolved, the carbon-fibre MonoCage wrapping around the driver, with the transparent roof panels generating useful airiness. But it’s time to get on with it. Northern Italy in late November is cold, and the roads are damp and lined with patches of autumn colour freshly detached from the trees. Conscious today really isn’t the day to make an apologetic phone call, it’s time to focus.
The route to the meeting point showcases the P1’s talents, and the initial thing that strikes is its tractability. Driving through towns is as easy and effortless as it would be in a 650S. Then out of town, the P1’s gathering of speed is dramatic – as the turbos spool up, you’re always aware of the huge potential. But you have to show respect: hard shift from second to third, and the P1 will break traction on the damp roads and focus the mind. It’s spiky, but that spikiness is what makes it so attractive. It’s a car you would never tire of: the journey to master it would be long and occasionally alarming but hugely rewarding.
Having managed to keep the P1 in the right province and mostly pointing in the right direction, I pull into the last road before the meeting point, and by glorious coincidence see Ollie in the 918 drop into formation behind me. The last 100 yards, and I can see a LaFerrari, doors arcing skywards, parked in a lay-by. Right now, with all three cars sold out, you literally cannot buy this experience. Better not crash them, then.
TF: As the McLaren and the Porsche sweep into the lay-by, it takes a moment to register exactly what’s going on. This is it. Various smartphones in the vicinity immediately glow white hot, and there’s a spike in the local bandwidth usage. The triumvirate looks spectacular. But we need to drive, and take many pictures, so CT, Ollie and I swap keys, and go for another drive. I take the 918.
First up, and after the LaF, I find the 918’s seats incredibly vertical. In the Ferrari, you sit reclined on pads attached to the carbon tub and move the pedal box and steering wheel, but in the 918 the seats feel rally-car upright. It’s also harder to get into with the roof on – the Ferrari’s side-impact crash structure lifts away with the door, making for surprisingly elegant and easy egress and ingress, but to clamber into the 918 is to post yourself into a smaller hole than you imagine possible.
And yet the 918 is beguiling. It’s less flash than the Ferrari, less ostentatious, more considered. Less aggressive than the McLaren. Inside, it’s more futuristic, inventive and exciting. It feels like it’s pushing into new territory, with a slab of swipeable touchscreen glass, configurable TFT dials and the potential for proper EV-mode usage. You get the impression the Porsche is the only car here that truly embraces the idea of hybridisation – it’s the only one that wears a Hybrid badge and the only one with EV running as a core mission statement, rather than a happy by-product. It feels complex, and deep. The way that the car manages torque between both axles, of which it has a distinct advantage over the other two (943lb ft vs 663lb ft for the Ferrari and 664lb ft for the McLaren), the way that it juggles regen electrical harvesting, the sheer complexity and integration of the drivetrain.
And it’s the one that gives you the most confidence early on. On the same road as the LaFerrari, it didn’t dance quite so happily, but felt grounded and grippy. There’s a less intimate conversation with the front axle, but no less traction, and you can get on the throttle earlier, confident that the electronics will vector torque. But it feels heavier and more controlled than the competition. In fact, this 918 feels like a fighter jet – switch off all the electronic minders, and it’s harder to master, the distance between its natural state and electronic intervention more noticeable.
So I leave everything in Race, and just marvel. I honestly think I’m quicker down an unknown road in the 918 than anything else. It doesn’t ride with particular fluency – it feels a bit stiff – but the confidence, the solidity... they’re the things that make this car great. The fact that you can potter in E-mode and then prod that 4.6-litre V8 into life and revel in sonic assault. There are so many character traits, so much care and attention. It feels like a groundbreaking moment. And it even has a cupholder, a targa top and a healthy margin of price difference. It’s a heady brew.
OM: While Tom was pressing buttons in the 918 and smiling at the cupholder, I snaffled the P1 and went for a blast. The thing with the Porsche is that when you back off and drive slowly, it’s an affable thing – mild-mannered and happy to pootle. The McLaren never manages that. Yes, you can drive it slowly, but, if you do, the P1 practically accuses you of spilling its pint. This is a hypercar that never bothers pretending it isn’t hyper. It’s utterly furious.
This thing answers the accelerator with quick wits and epic force
It’s all to do with the imbalance between the front and rear ends. The front is delicate, light and accurate with super-sensitive steering that actually needs more weight. It grips well enough (although you will get understeer if you pile on lock through slow corners), but it feels almost dainty. The rear end, meanwhile, is a sledgehammer of gusting turbos and overwhelmed tyres. The P1 is rampantly, exponentially explosive. While the Ferrari’s naturally aspirated delivery picks you up and carries you along, the McLaren’s seems to leave you behind, clinging on, fighting for breath in the torque torrent.
You can feel the electricity torque filling the turbo lag, but when the afterburners ignite, they hit so hard you’re not sure what to do. Lifting off might have consequences. On the other hand, staying on the gas definitely will have consequences. So you end up nibbling at the McLaren, getting braver, learning how to treat it. God, it’s exciting. You’ll get out of it with an inexplicable thirst and a desire to call your relatives to reassure them you’re OK. You won’t be able to, because you’ll be trembling. It is a furious car, the McLaren, the most uncompromised of these three. It suffers the most road noise, bombards you with a barrage of noises that don’t so much prickle your nape as threaten to rip your spine out, and has the most confusing e-system controls that include drag reduction and an IPAS boost button. The seats and steering wheel are fabulous, the best here: you’re clenched in place, locked as a part of the car. And as a component, the P1 asks much of the driver, but if you’re on your game it’ll give you greater thrills, richer memories, deeper exhilaration. But you have to man up to the Mac – where the LaFerrari fills you with the joys of being alive, the P1 dares you to look into the abyss.
CT: More people have walked on the Moon than have driven all three of these cars. Today, Tom and Ollie join the club, but I’ve been fortunate enough to be a member since I pulled rank to attend the hyper-exclusive LaFerrari launch event. So as I drop down into TheFerrari’s cockpit and adjust the pedals further down into the footwell by pulling the lever to the right of the driver seat, there’s a happy familiarity to proceedings. While the exterior – for me – wins the hypercar-pin-up battle (its design only recently overshadowed by the frankly rude Ferrari FXXK) the interior is littered with familiar touchpoints. The ignition sequence – insert disappointingly cheap red plastic key, turn, press massive red Engine Start button, smile as the n/a V12 barks into life – is all Ferrari one-o-one. Choose what particular level of heroism you’d like for your journey from the manettino, grab a gear and off you go.
The Ferrari was developed in these hills, and it shows. There’s a suppleness to the ride that soaks up bumps and camber changes on this broken vein of tarmac. Some would say this was an unfair local advantage. In reality, it only goes to highlight how well-developed LaFerrari is: while the McLaren feels frustrated by pitch and surface changes and the 918 feels heavy and bottoms out, LaFerrari rides above it all. These hard-won road manners will translate the world over. But it’s LaFerrari’s ability to let you focus on the job in hand that is its trump card. In the P1 and 918, you choose your mode of attack through a number of different strategies. LaFerrari removes that complexity from proceedings, leaving you to concentrate on enjoying the most responsive V12 engine ever produced, safe in the knowledge that myriad algorithms are working in harmony with your inner driving god.
TF: And so to the P1 for me. Probably the car I’m most familiar with. Also the car I’m most wary of, having had a serious moment of high-gear wheelspin on a frosty Belgian motorway the first time I drove it. As ever, McLaren’s most aggressive road car doesn’t disappoint. I’ve said this before, but the P1 looks small, and shrink-wrapped. Almost dainty. It also looks like a weapon. I have no idea what a photon torpedo actually looks like, but it would probably be something like this. Unfortunately, we can’t activate the full-fat Race mode on the public carriageway (even though it’s closed), as the 50mm ride height drop makes it unusable on a road maintained by the Italian equivalent of the Highways Agency. The P1 would essentially end up as a very fast sledge. And then a ball of recycling. Even so, this thing feels truly feral. The absolute commitment to turbocharging means that even though the e-motor fills in the lag to some degree, the slap of boost that comes from the pair of turbos is shocking, scary and utterly life-affirming.
For the first few miles I over-drive the car, snatching at corners, trying to predict the boost, failing. And then I get into the groove, and the front wheels start to be where I want them and I find the right gears (one higher is better, and ride the wave of boost), the chassis starts to be less intimidating. And the P1 simply… disappears up the road. Of all the things that are holy, the P1 is a monster. Here, in the dry, I swear the P1 is the fastest of all, Race mode or no. But then I follow Ollie in the LaFerrari, and realise that it probably feels faster because I am working so much harder. There’s no respite. It tears chunks out of roads, chunters, whooshes, crackles and spits flame. It’s not hard to drive, but to drive quickly requires you to have your nerves fully extended into the steering wheel and through the rest of the car. You have to be immersed. Where the Ferrari ducks and weaves and jabs, the McLaren plants its feet and delivers haymakers. The 918 is different again, more mixed martial artist than pure boxer. You get out of the P1 feeling like you’ve been through the mill. And it is glorious. And then it rains again. I lose the front end of the P1 – not massively – and all of a sudden I’m back to square one: unsettled and nervous. Which in a car like this, you cannot be. The P1 requires more of you as a driver than either of the other two cars. Which is both its genius and its Achilles’ heel.
The genius of Ferrari's ultimate creation is the simplicity of its operation
OM: It’s weird, isn’t it? Given their respective countries of origin, you’d expect the Ferrari to be the strident one, histrionics a mere ankle twitch away. Instead that’s the McLaren. The P1 may share tub and basic twin-turbo engine with the 650S, but there’s a far bigger gulf in personality between these two than between 458 and LaFerrari. The P1 is spiky. Spiky in an addictive, need-another-hit way. The Ferrari? Well, it’s just perfect.
How they’ve made 950bhp this usable, this playful and predictable, is nothing short of divine inspiration. It keys itself into the tarmac better than either rival, finds traction where the McLaren squirms and the Porsche skitters. It rides with astonishing dexterity, is effortlessly supple and communicative, and weaves and dances up these difficult roads. It’s a joy, a vast, vast pleasure, the steering sharp, quick and feelsome enough that I’m not even bothered about the stupid square steering wheel. The LaFerrari’s cloaked electrics mean it is more natural on the road, and the chassis is sweet as honey. It’s a car almost without dynamic flaw.
But what I can’t help thinking, while having such a marvellous time, is that this is Ferrari operating within its comfort zone. A faster 458 Speciale, fabulously honed, but deliberately masking the benefits the electrics bring, the e-motor no more than backing singer to the V12 vocalist. Quite right too, most would say, and I’m tempted to agree, but just as the BMW i8 feels as if it’s moved the sports-car game on, I’m tempted to think the LaFerrari looks backwards rather than forwards, pines for the old days, is an end rather than a beginning. But you can’t deny it’s near perfection, though. Magnanimous and generous, the LaFerrari is an Italian of the pinch-your-cheeks persuasion. It’s big-hearted, warm and remarkably even-tempered.
CT: The weather has taken a turn for the worse. It’s started to rain as night falls, so I opt for the AWD safe haven that is the 918. The first thing that strikes you as you drop into the 918’s interior is how beautifully finished this car is. Porsche wanted this to be a touchpoint for the breadth of its technological capability, and the interior showcases their latest nav and touchscreen connectivity beautifully packaged in one of the best-finished interiors in the world. It would be hard to argue that an 875bhp hypercar would make a practical everyday choice, but the 918 makes a strong case for just that. It’s different from the more focused P1 and LaFerrari, but no less beguiling for it.
We set off across the rain-slicked back roads, and the 918’s AWD instils confidence at every turn. The only issue I have with the interior being the ridiculously upright positioning of the seat backs, but I guess it’s Porsche’s way of making sure you’re sitting up and paying attention to its ultimate creation. As the pace of the £2.5-million convoy rises, the bark of the 918’s flat plane crank erupts from those periscope exhausts. What a noise. And to complement it, the grip levels are staggering. But it never completely manages to hide its weight and bottoms out on some more extreme cambers, which is jarring and expensive. And although the 918 is stunning, and for my money has the most dramatic rear with the wing raised and the periscope exhausts belching blue, it’s a shame that the front of the car feels like it was made to conform to the more corporate vision of what a Porsche should look like by the marketing bosses.
The McLaren plants its feet and delivers haymakers
TF: It has started raining. Really quite heavily. We’ve been driving for hours, and tracking back to the hotel to tuck our little convoy up for the night, fuelling and washing the cars ready for a pre-dawn start, we’re all trying desperately to find out what each other is thinking. But there’s one picture painted on every one of our faces: astonishment. That three cars can be so utterly different and yet so comparable. We manoeuvre the cars into the tiny underground garage, and sit in amiable silence over pizza. It’s late. But there’s more to come in the morning...
Bright and early the next day – by which I mean up in the middle of the night – and it’s cold and tricky. We’ve got eight more hours of driving, many more pictures to take. So we pile into different cars and disappear off into the hills to see if we can reprise the feelings of yesterday. Today, we have to come to some solid conclusions. Today, we each have to pick a winner.
OM: Which is best? Oh boy, are you asking the wrong question. What’s most clear after two days of pummelling these three around the hills is that different frames of reference encapsulate each car, so different that even that most basic question needs further qualification. So, which car best represents the future? The Porsche. Which car is best at being exciting? The McLaren. Which is the best to drive? The Ferrari.
Which means I have to finish with another question, one that puts me on the spot. Which one would I have? In truth, I’d happily lucky dip for the keys and walk away giddy with delight with any of them, but if I had to choose… TheFerrari. It’s the best to drive, after all.
CT: In reality, every one of these cars is a different flavour of ultimate. And in the rarefied air in which the difficult decision of which to choose exists, the reality is that for many the answer will be based on looks, or brand, and no less valid for that.
The P1 was the first of this new generation, and it still feels like it’s landed from another planet. As the speeds build and the aero goes to work, it transforms and takes you to a whole new level of performance, one that as a driver you would never tire of exploring. The 918, while in the same class as the P1 and LaFerrari, delivers to a broader remit, and it really is the one you could happily consider using all day every day, in any conditions. It’s this breadth of ability that makes it not only a hugely impressive achievement but an incredibly attractive proposition.
Weirdly, LaFerrari feels like the end of an era, the ultimate expression of everything Maranello knows about fast delivered in one staggeringly capable and incredibly beautiful package. And that’s why I’d have it. The genius of Ferrari’s ultimate creation is the simplicity of its operation: this car just wants you to focus on the driving, to savour every moment. After 48 unforgettable hours in the company of these three incredible creations, this is the car I’d take home. This really is The Ferrari.
The Porsche gives you the most confidence early on
TF: As Ollie says, there’s more nuance to this than just stats. But I have a conclusion – nitpicky though it is. The McLaren, I learn more about every single time I step into it. It requires time and effort to do it justice, an antidote to modern performance cars that do ‘it’ all for you. But because you can’t access all of its talents on the road (Race mode being track-only for full aero effect), I can’t in all honesty give it the win. I’m not a track head, so this wonderful, brain-melting car can’t be my number one.
The Porsche, on the other hand, is almost too usable. I know that sounds silly, but the idea of an ‘everyday hypercar’ really doesn’t chime with me. If I wanted an everyday car and had this kind of money, I’d drive a Range Rover or S-Class Merc daily and have something a bit more… wild for the weekend. Yes, the 918 fills the brief Porsche set itself to the brim: it feels like the most rounded car here and is the most technologically exciting and multidimensional. But it’s also not completely bonkers. A wee bit too clever for thick-headed me.
Which leaves me with the LaFerrari. Now I might be being a bit of a Luddite, but the Ferrari is the one that made my spine tingle. A purely personal application of want. To use that KERS technology to do nothing but supplement the transcendent V12 is not forward-thinking, but, by crikey, it’s wonderful. It drives like I imagined a supercar would drive when I was ten years old – leagues above common, laugh-out-loud fun, stupidly fast. I’m not a fan of the Ferrari brand, and I don’t think it’s actually the fastest – but the most hyper of the hypercars is, for me, the red one.
Which means we finish with an unexpected result: a single, unanimous winner. To be honest, there was no particular order to the other two, the arguments about the 918 and P1 settling into a comfortable cyclical argument about ferocity versus technology. And yes, as CT says, they are all so fast that you might as well pick the car that you prefer the look, or the brand image, of – you won’t exactly be left standing in any kind of race. But on these two days, through all these conditions and on these roads, there is one car that TG magazine would most like to take home. LaFerrari wins.