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It’s not quite the elephant in the room, but it’s definitely a Lamborghini in the pit lane. And it’s been sitting there a while. The fact is, any Top Gear Speed Week that descends on a proper racing venue will have its share of winners and losers. Cars that feel supple and compliant on the road generally struggle on the track, and barely legal circuit warriors usually feel like renegades on the road. Sometimes a car can handle both, which is partly why we do this thing. The McLaren 12C - smaller, vastly less in-yer-face than its Italian rival, more yellow - might be one of those. But could that duality also be its undoing?

The Lambo intimidates. That’s a core part of its character. Honestly, I’m unsure what to expect from the Aventador Roadster round the Circuit de Charade. We all are. In fact, a charade is one of the possible outcomes. Having driven the Lamborghini around Miami - including a so-so stint on the city’s Speedway - and with Sam Philip out of Italy and over the Alps, I know this car about as well as the lucky muddy funsters who have 300 big ones to shell out on the thing for real.

Nothing short of a Pagani Huayra can touch it for sheer visual wallop. With its clever carbon roof panels stowed, the Aventador really is the gift that keeps on giving, a masterpiece of contemporary car design undaunted by its Miura and Countach predecessors (surely the Sgt Pepper and Dark Side of the Moon of the automotive world). But we’re not exactly rushing to drive it.

Silly? Not really. We’re only human - well, apart from The Stig - and even the most experienced among us needs to limber up before taking on the challenge this thing represents. That’s part of its appeal, especially in our download world: if it’s instant gratification you want, you’re better off elsewhere. Yet, when you do finally grow some, the Lamborghini will comprehensively blow your mind. Forget about the fact that there’s a 691bhp, 6.5-litre V12 behind your head, and that the Roadster can hit 62mph in three seconds (0.1sec less than the coupe) and 100mph in under seven. Ignore its colossal value, and expensively exotic carbon construction. Remember that there are 21in alloys at the back, wrapped in 355/25 super-sticky Pirelli Corsas, fairly chunky 255/35s at the front, and all-wheel drive. Engage brain and select launch control - Thrust mode, in vaguely pervy Lambo speak - and hold on. It’s epic.

Size doesn’t matter out here. We’re not trying to park it, after all. The out lap is more exploratory than usual, a gathering of visual reference points for optimum braking and entry and exit, as well as general familiarisation. The hot French sun on your head is a reminder that this thing - with its noisy diff and power-station levels of combustion - has no roof. It’s next-level stuff.

Start pushing, and the Lambo immediately scrambles your synapses, to the point where you have to deliberately and carefully recalibrate. Your senses - four out of the available five, and maybe even the faint taste of fear, too, for the full complement - go to DEFCON 1. But one of the weird and most wonderful things about the Aventador Roadster is how quickly you get used to it, and how magnificent it turns out to be once you realise that, actually, it isn’t interested in killing you.

Unsurprisingly, much of the joy lies in the engine. It’s carved on a tablet of stone somewhere that there’s no substitute for cubic inches, but even primitive man must have thought - shortly after inventing the wheel - that 12 cylinders would really rock. They might go the way of the woolly mammoth eventually, but Lambo is wholly committed to the cause. Initially, the Aventador’s surfeit of power is bewildering, and you’ll get nowhere near its potential. On the road, you have to find a seriously long stretch - and have something of a death wish or a prison-food fetish - to scale the heights of second, third or fourth. But even just a paddle in the torque’s shallows is fun. Rumble away in sixth gear from 1,000rpm, and the build is as euphorically ‘please never stop’ as the best banging old-skool rave anthem you can think of.

A few laps in, though, and sixth doesn’t get a look in. It all goes a bit more heavy metal. Charade is a fantastic circuit, and its first corner is one of the best, a fast left-hander that demands chunky commitment from the driver and chassis excellence from the car. The Lambo sails round in fourth on part-throttle, confidence-inspiring but also surprisingly adjustable. In fact, it’s so good here that it really does set you up mentally and physically for the rest of the lap. Into the tight right that comes next, second gear, and that sharky nose understeers no matter what you do, but, after that, it’s gravy virtually all the way. Ride the kerbs through the next corner, hook third and power uphill for the quick left and right… It’s not exactly agile, and you’re second-guessing just how pendulous it might all get, but it’s totally, awesomely connected, and everything is tingling in your hands like there’s an electric charge passing through the controls. All the while, that V12 bellows outrageously. The sun is still hot.

Charade’s downhill section is pretty senior, with a tight, second-gear turn waiting at the bottom if you get it right, and a gravel trap if you don’t. The Lambo’s brakes aren’t the last word in feel, but you can throw it into the corner with shocking impunity. It’s amazingly good here, and blisteringly fast on the up- and downhill section that follows. Clip the apex and take fifth. This is a mighty machine.

If only the gearbox could keep pace: an Aventador Achilles’ heel since day one, the Roadster’s software tweaks help, but only marginally. At least in Corsa mode you can chalk up the violence of the shifts to the overwhelming sense of drama. Also, and it might seem like a technical point, but left-foot braking is a no-no: even with the traction control disabled, the car’s systems shut the power off abruptly, destroying your lap. Brake conventionally, and this big Miami poser’s car is actually marginally faster than the AMG SLS Black and the McLaren 12C. I predicted as much; no one believed me…

The McLaren feels wildly different. It also disappears almost immediately from the pit lane - there’s no pre-flight familiarisation necessary. Unlike the Aventador. It’s relatively compact, easy to get into and see out of, and comes with such a reputation for usability that its sky-scraping performance is almost overshadowed. The Lambo is an event car; the Mac, an everyday one. Mind you, in Spider form, McLaren has also been forced to debug the 12C - those glitching doors and frozen satnav - as well as turning up the heat on the strangely anodyne Ricardo-designed 3.8-litre, flat-plane crank, twin-turbo V8. It now delivers 616bhp at 7,500rpm, but, perhaps just as importantly, the 12C also has sharper throttle response (to get round the ever-so-slightly deadening hand of the twin turbos) and more satisfying shifts from the dual-clutch ‘box.

This is an odd sort of car. That might seem like a strange thing to write about the 12C, but this Speed Week, more than any other gathering we’ve held that’s brought the McLaren together with various others, crystallises the debate about ‘soul’ (the Porsche Cayman is another contender that prompts this slippery discussion.) Objectively speaking, the 12C is the best supercar in the world. It just is. Optimise its various settings - Track mode for the suspension, full aero - then launch it off the line (no Thrusting onanism here), and it attacks the circuit in a way that literally will suck the air out of your lungs. It’s mind-warp fast, and feels faster than the SLS Black and the Aventador because it’s smaller, better-packaged, and there’s no sense of being slung out back, as on the AMG, or pushed to the front with a monster on your ass, as in the Lamborghini. In the McLaren, you are part of that carbon tub, and the rest of it springs, tendril-like, from there. It’s even a bit sci-fi, a Minority Report-style supercar that cancels your driving crimes before you’ve committed them. This car feels as though it’s hijacked your central nervous system (one day, this’ll happen for real).

Some areas of the 12C benefit hugely from McLaren’s emphasis on efficiency. There’s no doubt that its aero is off the scale, that its braking is impossibly good - though a few of us could have used more feel at the top of the pedal - and that it’s amazingly rigid. In fact, it’s worth pointingout that the Spider is more solid than the Ferrari 458 Spider. The 12C also steers beautifully.

But there’s a problem. After a day swapping between cars - all of them, not just the pricey stuff - the sense that the McLaren is missing something is inescapable. It might be as simple as a straightforward off button for the traction and stability-control software. The 12C is almost certainly faster with some degree of control still on - McLaren is all about optimisation, after all - and this isn’t just about being able to indulge in tail-out antics. It’s more philosophical than that.

Fact is, the 12C is the Orwellian supercar, and while it’s potent, it’s all done on its terms. Objectively speaking, and we’re sure telemetry would back this up, the 12C carves the optimum line around our circuit. It’s so good it doesn’t actually need any adjustability. But on a track, when you’re pushing your own limits as well as the machine’s, that sense of altering the car’s line with your right foot is priceless. The 12C just needs to loosen up a bit. And besides, no one likes being told what to do.

So while the 12C’s lap time matches the Lamborghini’s and AMG’s almost to the tenth, if there was a coefficient of fun to go with it, it might tell a different story. We’re human, after all.

Photography: Rowan Horncastle

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