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McLaren MP4-12C vs Ferrari 458 Italia

  1. One hundred and fifty- three miles an hour on the clock, on a bumpy little public back road in the British Isles, driving a Ferrari 458 Italia so yellow it’ll make your eyes flinch. There’s a matt-black superbike bucking away in front, something exoskeletal and racily mutated, wearing what appears to be a slick rear tyre and making a noise like a jet engine playing a kazoo. We are, currently, having a bit of a race. There’s a rosy tint descending, and I’m urging the Ferrari on via a grip on the steering wheel that’ll need my fingerprints polishing out of the carbon fibre. The throttle pedal is welded to the floor so hard my right calf is knotting like a spun rubber band. In a perverse trick of biology, my palms are getting slick while my eyes are drying up. I don’t think I’ve blinked for the past three miles.

    Words: Tom Ford
    Photography: Paul Barshon

  2. There was a white McLaren MP4-12C occupying my rearview mirrors not so long ago, stooping at apexes with the commitment and authority of an F-15 on a strafing run, but even though the driver has more skill, he also possesses a greater sense of self-preservation. As well he might; there are walls and lamp posts and cliff-type carnage awaiting those who allow ego to overwhelm ability. The change-up lights on the upper rim of the steering wheel click into place one by one, swelling the former but not - unfortunately - enhancing the latter, and the Ferrari’s naturally aspirated V8 starts making a noise that’ll curl your toes and straighten your hair. Sixth gear, lots of rpm.

    I don’t dare glance at the speedo.

  3. The biker risks a quick look (still at what I assume to be 130+mph), then tucks back up, winds on, and starts to elasticate his lead into the next corner, just as a policeman standing at the side of the road raises his arm and makes the universal pointy forearm roundhouse whip that signals ‘go for it’ in international motorsport Makaton. Seeing as we have just overtaken a motorway maintenance truck on the wrong side of the road, halfway around a blind corner, at speeds likely to usually see an extended stay at Hotel HMP, you may think this somewhat surprising.

  4. I back off in Pavlovian surprise, a fountain of sickly dread already rising from somewhere sternum south, just as a heaving, buzzing, snarling herd of motorcycles comes streaming past like a giant muster of cow-sized wasps. All are doing more than 120mph. And then I remember. Legal. This is entirely legal.

    We’re on the Isle of Man during TT week practice, and the top part of the TT course is a one-way, speed-limit-free slice of life-in-own-hands heaven. TopGear has made the pilgrimage in two of the most exciting supercars of the past decade - the Ferrari 458 Italia and the McLaren MP4-12C - to test them on real roads, at proper speeds. The ultimate contemporary head-to-head. The fact that I’m legally allowed to harass bikers just seems like a very big cherry on a gasoline-based cake.

  5. So there’s the why. The fact is that two cars like this don’t come along very often, and almost never with enough synchronicity to set themselves up for a proper ding-dong. The Ferrari 458 Italia has been lauded since its launch a few short months ago as a game-changer in the baby-supercar market, a swirly, exciting blend of pseudo-F1 technology and Italian-speaking stomach-butterflies. It is the car that the new and apex-tech McLaren MP4-12C has been designed and engineered to eclipse.

  6. Before we go chasing any more bikers, cars first. Peas in a very speedy pod, when you check bald facts. Both V8s, both mid-engined two-seaters, both rear-wheel drive with electronic traction conjuration, both seven-speed double-clutch gearboxes with near-identical weight distribution. Rumour has it that McLaren benchmarked the 458 in terms of performance, and tasked itself with making the MP4-12C better in every direction. So the McLaren produces 592bhp and 443lb ft of torque from a 3.8-litre bi-turbo; the Ferrari, 562bhp and 398lb ft from a naturally aspirated 4.5-litre. It’s pretty much the same with the performance figures too: the Ferrari manages 0-62mph in 3.4 seconds and 202mph, the McLaren strips the sprint in just 3.3 and tops out at 205mph.

  7. The McLaren is incrementally faster, then, possibly thanks to also being some 51kg lighter. But on the road, such fine on-paper delineations are much harder to call. Both will leave your flabber-well-and-truly-gasted the first time you really allow them some room, the Ferrari almost ridiculously vocal in ‘Race’ mode, howling and screaming, gurgling and spitting on the overrun. It devours revs, a constant goad. It feels light at the fingertips, communicative, visceral, passionate. Like a proper bloody Ferrari, in other words. The paddles are huge carbon-fibre sickles mounted to the column, the view a little restricted, but by no means bad by supercar standards. When it really winds up, it’s hard to imagine much faster this side of a Veyron.

  8. But the McLaren manages it. You can disseminate, argue and wander around the houses all you like, but the MP4-12C immediately feels faster down a real road. The mid-range avalanche from the turbos simply means that the little Mac can pull out car lengths on the 458, its block-like stability under braking and mid-corner meaning that once you get used to it, you can carry more speed, more of the time. The vision - necessary for going properly quickly - is exemplary, the seating position perfect, the small, wheel-mounted paddles needing a firm yank to get them moving. And the suspension. You may think the Ferrari manages a stunning compromise between glide and go, but drive the MP4-12C properly quickly down a bumpy road, and it gets better and more composed, to the point where there appears to be no compromise.

  9. Game over, then? Well, no. Because a ‘supercar’ isn’t just about statistical masturbation, or a couple of tenths to 62mph, in the same way that losing well can be more of a victory than winning without grace. But more of that later. For the minute, I’m quite interested in whether or not a modern supercar can keep up with a superbike. And judging by the leathery bloom of biker bacteria buttered across the front of the infamous Creg-Ny-Baa pub, we’re in the right place.

  10. There is, however, a problem. The trouble with racing random bikers on the TT course is that you have precisely no way of knowing who’s good and who’s not. Which bike is comparable and which just has a trumpet for an exhaust. Both the Fezza and the Mac seem to have the number of a lot of these biker types - especially on the brakes and through the meat of a corner. But it means nothing, not knowing who’s committed and who’s having a genial tootle. I need some help…

  11. Which is why we end up at the Isle of Man’s Jurby airfield mini-circuit staring at one of those very bikers as he does a high-rpm, screaming burnout against the front bumper of the McLaren MP4-12C, laughing his head off inside his helmet. His road-going Honda Fireblade - a standard ABS model with 178bhp - is representative of the kind of stuff currently pounding around the TT course. The man inside the helmet isn’t. The man in the helmet is 15-times TT-winner John McGuinness, known as the ‘King of the Mountain’. It’s a scant couple of hours before practice, and John has come to prove a point to TopGear. Not an everyday situation, I’ll grant you. It’d never happen in Formula One.

  12. A couple of hours of horsing about later, and three things are clear: one, John McGuinness is one of the most genuine, warm and bloody funny men you’ll ever meet at the top echelon of any motorsport; two, he’s pretty effing good on a motorbike; and three, he seems impressed with both cars, especially the McLaren.

  13. “I accelerated hard and then looked round, and it was, like, there. Right beside me. That’s not usual for something with four wheels… and watching that thing go around a corner fast - there’s no way you could get a bike around that corner at that speed. On long-radius corners and straights, the power-to-weight means the bike catches up, but I’ve not seen a road car that has grip like that.” This from the first man to run a lap of the TT course at an average of over 130mph. But funnily enough, McGuinness seems genuinely interested. And a bit confused by the line the car takes around Jurby.

    “Bike lines and car lines are totally different. If I turned in where these two cars have been, I’d never get round: a bike trailbrakes into the apex and carries more speed through the corner. A car can do all its braking in a straight line and apex, then get hard on the power earlier.”

  14. But which is faster, then? There’s only one way to find out: let the man himself have a go. Which is why I end up sat next to John McGuinness just before the 2011 TT as he removes his helmet and boots - he’ll drive in his socks - and hunches himself in the driver’s seat. Hunches, because he still has his leathers on, complete with some sort of aerodynamic torpedo along his spine. And John McGuinness, as it turns out - is pretty quick in a car. Most people would require a lap or three to get used to cars like these. McGuinness needs 20 yards.

  15. “The Ferrari isn’t far away from the McLaren and makes a wonderful noise, but the front starts to hop a bit when you go really quick,” says John, eyes alight. “But that McLaren… that thing is something else. I seriously think you’d struggle to keep up with it on a road bike, on road tyres meant to last 10,000 miles. I think my race bike would still have it, but it would be a lot closer than you think. I had a proper sweat on in that. What a thing. What. A. Thing.”

  16. So there you go. From the mouth of a man who really should know: there are cars out there that can keep up with bikes. There’s just one small issue, which is that to beat an off-the-peg £11.5k sportsbike like the Firebade John was using, you’d have to spend the thick end of £170k on a McLaren MP4-12C. Whichever way you cut it, that’s still a hell of a victory for biker punch-per-pound. Dammit.

    But that doesn’t satisfy. It’s all very well deciding that a bike is faster than a car on a smooth race circuit, but the real world is a haphazard place, and I’m yet to fall off a car. And there’s still the question of which is better: Ferrari or McLaren. Back out on the Mountain TT course to decide between our pair of bike-worrying supercars, and canvass local opinion on which is better.

  17. The styling seems to polarise neatly. Some prefer the lean, clean lines of the McLaren, sensing purpose and resolve in the low sweep of the nose and slash-vented haunches. The Ferrari is more sensuous, more organic, more insectile evolution than graphic design. Immediately, we’re into the realms of taste rather than objectivity, though it would be wise to point out that the 458 Italia costs £173,132 as standard, and a whopping £211,623 as presented here (£13k nuclear Giallo Tristrata yellow paint, £5k racing seats), while the MP4-12C costs £168,500, and an only-slightly boggling £224,760 in the form of this white car. That’ll be £10k carbon-ceramic brakes, a £4k sports exhaust, £4.5k for carbon bits in the engine bay and on the mirrors, five-and-a-bit for a carbon diffuser and splitter, 3k for wheels, about another £12k for interior upgrades… I could go on, but you’d probably keel over with option-overload shock.

  18. The back-and-forth continues throughout the couple of days we spend on the island. The McLaren has the more ergonomically comfortable, well-designed and slick interior, but the Ferrari has a sense of occasion missing from the MP4-12C. The car from Woking may have the more impressive roll-on acceleration, but the Ferrari makes such a bonkers noise - worth at least 10 imaginary mph - and has such delicious, natural throttle response, that the fact that the McLaren is actually faster doesn’t count for much. Then again, I wouldn’t expect to pay £170,000+ to get beaten, even if the odds of running into each other are microscopic.

  19. But a decision is necessary. I’d like to cop out and say that both cars offer different things, and that if you’re rich enough for one, you’re probably flush enough for both, but for me it’s all about delivery. I want the McLaren to have all the engine responsiveness of the 458. I don’t want to be a ‘Ferrari owner’, and the McLaren’s obvious attention to detail and slightly mystical provenance would really count.

  20. But the turbo-tastic nature of the MP4-12C just doesn’t cut it. It feels faintly - and this’ll cause a few shakes of the head - faintly £70k Nissan GT-R-ish in terms of delivery. Astonishing, but faintly industrial. It doesn’t sing. Or involve like the Ferrari. Or like a McLaren, for that matter. If the MP4-12C were a naturally aspirated, operatic sliver of pure inspiration, then this would be a different story. But it never seems to be enjoying itself, so the Ferrari feels more thrilling for more of the time. To get the sense of wonder from the MP4-12C, you have to be totally engaged; the Ferrari is a huge grin-inducer under 60mph.

    So we’re going to ignore the empirically ‘better’ car, and choose to take home the car that delivers a sucker punch to the soul - the Ferrari 458 Italia. Because sometimes winning isn’t just about being faster.

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