When in mortal peril, how quickly does your life flash by? I can quantify the answer: 203 miles per hour.
That is the speed I reached on a racetrack in France in a car so startlingly quick that I wasn’t even pushing it to the extremes. My soul may have been quaking, but the McLaren P1 GTR was rock solid. (Its top speed is closer to 220 mph.)
This track-only vehicle from UK-based manufacturer McLaren Automotive is so rare that only the luckiest of oligarchs or sheiks will ever get a chance to pilot it. Only 40 will be sold globally, and to be on the list you already have to own the $1-million-plus P1 road car on which it is based.
So even at 200 mph, I was less concerned for my own protection — the car’s carbon-fiber safety cell makes it extremely safe, actually — than I was about damaging the thing. The P1 GTR costs $2.4 million.
The McLaren is priced in sterling, with a base of 1.55 million pounds. Buyers can also opt for a package plan, which includes shipping the car around the world for exclusive racetrack events, mechanical support and consumables like tires. For that you’d have to ante up 1.98 million pounds, or around $3 million.
How do you put a car like the P1 in perspective? Let’s back up for a moment. There are regular cars like, say, the Honda Civic, and sports car like the Porsche 911, which average around $100,000. And then there are supercars like the Ferrari F12, which start at $320,000.
And then there are hypercars. These ultra-rare specimens are vastly more expensive, exclusive and high powered than regular old supercars. Examples include the $1.5 million Ferrari LaFerrari and the McLaren P1, both of which have long since sold out.
While the P1 GTR is based on the street-legal P1, its mandate is to be king of the racetrack rather than the road. For those reasons, the body was reworked to make it even more aerodynamic — as if you could miss the massive fixed rear wing — and it has a five-point safety harness rather than a normal seat belt or airbags.
Open the door, which exotically flips upward and forward, and you’ll find an interior that looks less like a luxe cocoon and more like a spaceship. The tiny steering wheel has two handles on either side and some dozen buttons on the front. How complicated is it? Well, you’ll need a McLaren representative to walk you through the process of even getting it started.
The P1 GTR is also a hybrid. A twin-turbo V-8 is mounted in the center of the car behind the driver, working in conjunction with an electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack. The electric motor gives extra power from the moment you step on the accelerator. When the systems are working in tandem, the car produces 986 horsepower and 738 pound-feet of torque. (For those keeping count, a normal Honda Civic has 143 hp and a Porsche 911 Carrera produces 350 hp.)
That’s a ludicrous amount of power, and I had to wonder: Could even P1 owners actually handle this thing? Could I?
At the invitation of McLaren, I arrived at a testing track in the south of France called Paul Ricard. Almost nobody outside of the company had driven the P1 GTR, and I was only the second journalist in the world to do so. Various engineers and test drivers were still tweaking the suspension setup.
I’ve driven all manner of cars, including a few more powerful than the McLaren. But rarely have I seen or experienced a piece of engineering so singularly focused on speed and handling. The P1 GTR is gorgeous in the same way a big jungle cat is beautiful. Everything is functional, pared down—and dangerous.
Many genuine racecars have neither ABS brakes nor traction or stability control. The P1 GTR has these aids, and even a very powerful air conditioner. In a sense it straddles the world of sports cars and race cars, embracing the best elements of each.
When I was finally given the thumbs up to head out on the track, the car glided smoothly out of the pits, loud, but not piercingly so. I was belted in, tight, as if glued to the seat. I was also wearing a full fire-resistant driving suit and full-face helmet. The McLaren is not something to take lightly.
On my first lap around Paul Ricard I took it easy, trying to get a sense of the power and handling and…wait, I had just gone more than 180 mph on the uphill back straightaway. The initial acceleration was savage, garnering energy from both the V-8 and the electrical motor, but then the car seemed to quiet, slipstreaming through the air, hurtling along easily. Deceptively easily.
Because, man, it is a weapon. I picked up the pace in the corners, stabbing the incredible carbon ceramic brakes and then getting off them quickly, trying to maintain a fast rate of speed even in the slower parts of the track. The P1 is designed for this. I messed up in a right-hand corner, coming in too fast and at the wrong angle, and the traction control interceded, braking an individual tire and guiding me out of trouble.
And so I hammered up that long back straightaway, lap after lap, finally hurtling to more than 200 mph every time. The track rises over a crest at the straight’s terminus, and makes a right hand turn. I was hesitant — I could go far faster than this — but I stood on the brakes for only a few seconds, downshifted twice and then was able to get back on the gas in the turn.
When I came back into the pits, I turned off the car and unbuckled. I was soaked in sweat. The engineers asked me what I thought. “Incredible,” I replied. Was there anything I didn’t like about the car? they asked.
“Nothing,” I say. “When I screwed up, the car was very benign, working to keep me safe. But when I got it right, the car responded like a real race car.” My only complaint? I wanted more laps.
But for that, I’d have to be a very lucky oligarch.