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From the archives: John McGuinness vs the McLaren MP4-12C

A throwback to when TT legend McGuinness challenged TG to a car vs bike shootout

  • So, in the best tradition of Top Gear-type competition, it turns out everyone cheated, strict attention being paid to the letter if not the spirit. But immediately it's the biker who scores some sort of moral victory by dint of modest corporate presence. In fact, nothing sums up this battle better than the amount of kit that each team brings. John McGuinness: two bikes, one van, one ‘Phil' - a mechanic - plus a table to sit at and some rickety-looking chairs.

    McLaren? Two MP4-12Cs (one road, one race), one enormous articulated lorry - which wouldn't look out of place in an F1 paddock - full catering services, 10 team personnel, PR support, air-conditioned changing facilities, two spare sets of tyres for both wet and dry conditions. Plus The Stig, on loan for the day, squatting in some sort of cryogenic coffin in the back of the lorry.

    Photography: Joe Windsor-Williams 

    This feature first appeared in the September 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine

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  • The human-warm, laughing brickie from Morecambe versus the unfeeling, uncaring Top Gear driving automaton. Easygoing Honda TT bikery versus the MegaCorp technical ruthlessness of a McLaren race team. Sounds a bit one-sided to us.

  • First, it would be wise to point out that the bike is not exactly lacking in the firepower department, and probably the reason why McGuinness's smile remains wry. It might look like a street bike, but the Honda sat burbling by the plastic table is a TT Legends Honda CBR1000RR Fireblade with 210bhp and 88lb ft. It weighs in at 165kg, and is capable of 200mph from the relatively tiny n/a 1.0-litre four-pot. Power-to-weight is an astonishing 1,273bhp per tonne. That, in case you were under any illusion, is a lot.

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  • The Stig's machine, on the other white-gloved claw, is McLaren's MP4-12C GT, which is competing in this year's FIA GT1 championship. It uses the same carbon-fibre tub as the road car, and the same 3.8-litre twin-turbo V8, but everything else is bespoke. This race-prepped monster is actually slightly less powerful than the road car because of restrictor plates necessary for competitive racing, so it pushes out 513bhp and 442lb ft, and weighs 1,235kg. Power to weight? A paltry 415bhp per tonne. A third of the bike's.

  • The car has a significant ace, though: a full aero package, developed with a helping hand from the F1 team. Downforce makes cars very quick through corners, and, judging by the wing package, the McLaren looks like it has a lot of downforce. The stage is definitely set. Despite McLaren's industrial-strength pit-lane showboating, John doesn't look worried.

    Mind you, this man is the most successful living TT rider, with 19 wins to his credit around the fearsome road course. Nineteen. A quick spin around Dunsfold isn't going to faze him. Apart from anything else, the nearest thing he could hit is at least 100 yards away - vastly different to the proximity of brick walls and lamp posts he's used to dealing with on the Isle of Man.

  • McGuinness heads out for a few sighting laps, allowed on the basis that this is both McLaren's and Stig's home turf. Soon enough he's back, and it's immediately obvious how differently bikers and drivers view the world. McGuinness is talking about big potholes at Gambon, right where he wants to put his bike.

    The Stig twitches, and my laptop fires off a stream of slightly bitmapped text that simply reads ‘irrelevant input'. The Stig has noticed this pothole, but only as a cursory thing - he doesn't care, because the McLaren's tyres straddle either side of it.

  • "But what about all the painted lines at the crossover point? My bike gets well out of shape over those," says a resolutely northern-accented John to a completely impassive helmet. Again, a nonplussed Stig. Turns out, the two disciplines simply register different issues.

    For instance, John has noticed all the points where two sections of tarmac overlap. Water has gathered, causing him grip issues. But, for a car - with well over twice as much contact patch (plus the inevitability of that aero) - it simply doesn't matter. They might as well be racing on different circuits. Soon enough, though, it's time to put up or shut up. The stopwatch comes out, and several people make sneaky side bets.

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  • A slightly circumspect McGuinness lines up for the start, but the actual launch is perfection. The visor is slapped down, the revs build maniacally, and then the Honda 'Blade just grips and goes. There's hardly any wheelspin, and not much of a wheelie either - the whole bike is poised, balanced, in harmony with the guy giving the orders. He leaves his feet dangling down by the side of the bike for a surprisingly long time, until eventually he changes up. Bang, second gear. Feet find pegs and the front wheel touches back down a good 200 metres after the start, and even though that wheel was only four inches in the air, it still sends up a puff of tyre smoke. Like when a Jumbo comes in to land.

  • Immediately, the bike looks fast, but from our vantage point at the start line, you can hear McGuinness hesitating into a couple of the corners. Straights are not a problem - the bike howls wide open. But through the Follow-Through, McGuinness leads in with a trailing throttle, not sure how much grip he's got. Don't for a minute mistake this for a lack of bravery: McGuinness is being sensible, but can still summon up levels of courage that would make every single one of us look feeble. His exit from Gambon is an example.

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  • As soon as the bike is squared upright and the fat part of the tyre is screwing itself into the track, he's on the throttle. Hard. But there's a patch of water ahead, no bigger than a sheet of A4. And it's right on his line, so John has to ride over it. The bike squirms, and you can hear the revs spike as the bike struggles for grip. You can see McGuinness fighting as the back wheel shimmies. Does he lift? What do you think?

  • The Stig straps into the car. The McLaren is fired up and... we wait. And wait. For tyre warm-up, for multiple checks by myriad people. The bike seems insanely simple compared to the faff of the GT. It takes an age, but, at last, we're ready. For a whimper rather than a bang, as it turns out, because The Stig's start is nowhere near as impressive as you might expect. GT racing uses rolling starts, so our standing-start directive has really scuppered the McLaren. It chugs away from the line no quicker than walking pace. It's looking like a leather romper-suit walkover...

  • But as soon as it's rolling, things get interesting. The GT's sequential gearbox sounds like a rifle shot - McGuinness's changes were fast, but The Stig is banging through the 'box so quickly that it's a wonder his hands can move the paddles that fast. The racing car starts to build speed. It turns out it has a lot of speed to build. The V8 wail dies as the orange blur darts around the furthest edges of the track, and then suddenly the car appears at the fast Tyre Wall left-hander.

    It's still slightly hesitant - I wonder whether there's enough heat in the tyres yet - but the revs don't flicker as much as John's. And as it comes towards us, we hear the noise. Where the Honda howls and screams, the McLaren's turbo is actually louder than the engine, whistling like an atomic kettle. Neat and tidy through the last two corners, and across the line.

  • The Stig takes no prisoners, as usual. Breath is firmly bated for the results. McGuinness went round in 1min, 17.4secs; The Stig managed 1min, 13.2secs. A comprehensive win for the McLaren.

    Totally different? It would seem so. But talking to John and downloading The Stig afterwards, I realise how many similarities there are between car and bike. Both are braking into the apex of the corner, rather than in a traditional straight line. Both roll onto the throttle, rather than jab at it, and both use higher gears than you'd think to maintain stability. And both super-high-performance machines are surprisingly softly suspended. Anything too stiff, and they become far too twitchy: "We run a non-pressurised front fork on the bike, because it's so lumpy on the TT course. Absorbing the bumps is key." The Stig is blank at this point, so we'll take the data-feed silence as agreement that the same is true in the McLaren, coupled with a wings-and-splitters package that isn't too peaky.

  • McLaren has spent a fortune developing the aerodynamics on the GT, getting the F1 boys to set the car up so that it doesn't flip between mechanical and aero grip too suddenly, feeding gradually between the two states instead. Surprisingly, aero is also key on the bike, except that it's John who is the wing. When he approaches a corner, he sits up to act as an air brake - pushing the centre of gravity to the rear, so that when he gets on the brakes and pushes his C-of-G forwards, the bike remains solid. Again, stability is the key.

  • And here's the thing. The McLaren is developed to the point where the driver is weirdly passive - he can't influence the car with his weight. But with the bike, John is the set-up. He makes up such a large proportion of the total weight that he's in charge. He's much more actively involved.

    Which is one of the reasons why, on this outing, we find ourselves admiring the bike more than the car. Sure, the McLaren wins, comprehensively. But there's a caveat. The Stig and the McLaren are faster in absolute terms, but in TG's eyes, John is still the proper hero of the piece. It pains us to say this, but in a test of car versus bike and man versus machine, you empathise with the biker more. Top Gear beats McGuinness. But McGuinness wins.

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