This is what it takes to fit a six-foot-two, 240-pound, wide-shouldered driver, namely moi, into a fully caged version of a car that wasn't all that big to begin with: I start by crouching next to the car while someone else swings the "dihedral" door up and out.
On street McLarens such as the 650S Spider I drove to High Plains Raceway outside Denver to meet the K-PAX team and its pair of World Challenge GT racers, the door opens via pressure switch. Here, it's a wire loop tucked into a sharp-edged crevice.
Next, I need to get both feet into the narrow well without damaging any of the wiring or cracking any carbon fiber. There's a very nice plate bolted onto the doorjamb that identifies this as the real deal, a 12C GT3 directly from McLaren in the United Kingdom. Which means it's the authentic sibling of the McLaren Formula 1 cars.
PHOTO GALLERY: McLaren 650S vs. 12C GT3
I grab a bar of the rollcage, touch my nose to my knees, and back that ass in, as the kids in the rap videos say, toward the deep Recaro "halo" seat from which all padding has been removed. I can then unbend a little bit. Two crew members, one on each side of the car, help me get my helmet on in the inch or so of free space around my head. Then I tuck forward again so they can put my HANS device on.
Now I lean back. Straight back. While keeping my head bent down. Once my back touches the seat, the top vent of my NASCAR-style helmet will fit neatly in the gap of an offset triangulated tube assembly in the rollcage. I'll be spending this entire drive with my head forcibly tilted, as if I'm slightly puzzled by what's going on. A team member fits the rectangular steering "wheel" onto the splined shaft as two others belt me down. Yet another someone somewhere fires up the car for me. The doors close on both sides with a flimsy rattle and I'm alone in a very expensive race car. One that has an appointment to go racing, without me, in just a few days. Any damage I do to the car could prevent that from happening.
The man who normally sits in this seat, the lean and trim Robert Thorne, requires considerably less help to accomplish the same task. But if I want to drive this car, then this is how it will be done. And trust me, dear reader: I want to drive this car.
As preparation for this opportunity, I spent a few days cruising the GT3's latest sibling, the McLaren 650S Spider, around the Denver. It sounds like a dream come true, and in fact I enjoyed myself thoroughly, but it wasn't without a certain amount of frustration. After all, the 650S is one of the fastest production sports cars in human history. It's capable of ripping the quarter-mile in 10.6 seconds at 138 mph (Manufacturer-provided test data. – Ed.), a set of numbers that is delivered in rather inhuman fashion courtesy of a 641-horsepower twin-turbo V8, a seamless-shift double-clutch gearbox, and massive 235/35/R19 tires front and 305/30/R20 rear. It also insouciantly wears an overall chassis and aerodynamic package that seems immune to the laws of physics governing more quotidian transportation choices.
The 650S is remarkably focused. Example: The climate controls are in those dihedral-opening doors and the center stack is very narrow. Why? Well, it moves the two passengers closer to the centerline of the car, which reduces polar moment of inertia. This makes the inevitable thrill rides you'll give to your friends' spouses even more interesting, because even if you start the drive with a little bit of personal space, a few exit ramps taken at over 1g will reduce that space to nothing.
This is a man's car. I don't mean that in the sense that the old-timers meant when they called the 427 Cobra a man's car. The 650S is neither dangerous nor difficult to operate. I mean that it primarily appeals to men. Park it anywhere and a crowd of men will gather around it. While women are not entirely immune to the Macca's charms, particularly when the doors are up, virtually all of them will, when pressed, identify it as a Lamborghini.
They're wrong. This is no Lamborghini. A Lambo is about style. McLaren is about performance, empirically measured. That takes precedence over style. Example: This car's predecessor was named the MP4-12C. The "12" is because it scored a twelve on a McLaren internal performance matrix. This is recondite to an uncomfortable degree—imagine explaining it to an Eastern European runway model in the dark corner of a dance club over the noise of a Tiesto mix—so now it's the 650S, because it has 650 horsepower by the Euro measurement and also the letter S.
Here's another: When the Italians make a droptop variant of a supercar, there's no pretense that said variant is meant for anything besides cruising around the streets of Monaco. Not McLaren. The 650S Spyder is designed to sacrifice no measurable performance to its coupe counterpart. The sacrifice is of style; this thing just doesn't have the mojo of a 458 or even a Gallardo. But the men who surround it at every gas station know it can whip the Italians six ways to Sunday.
There's furious purpose baked into the carbon weave and a capability envelope that for most of motoring history has typically been accompanied by an entry on the Le Mans roster. But it's not the race car. It's the car I'm taking to meet the race car.
A few laps in the company of McLaren employee and Grand-Am racer Gregory Liefooghe drives that point home. High Plains Raceway, our venue du jour, is a unique thing: a racetrack funded entirely by contributions from local clubs like the SCCA and PCA. It has a close-coupled, 1.28-mile "short-track" layout and a few longer options up to the 2.5-mile full course that boasts multiple severe elevation changes and a 2800-foot main straight.
On the short track, the 650S feels decidedly nervous at times. By race-car standards there's too much shove for too little tire and as a result I'm continually digging deep into the McLaren's impressive reserve of braking power. Coming off the main straight, I'm surprised by a combination of the active air brake and the strong crosswinds possible a mile above sea level in Colorado. The resulting aero effect shakes the car as if it were placed in the mouth of a giant Labrador and the first few times it happens I can definitely feel my stomach flip. There's no actual danger, but it's far from reassuring.
Around the rest of the track, the key word is patience. Don't trail-brake the car too much, or you'll rotate it into some level of stability-control intervention. The 3.8-liter V-8 is behind you, of course, and it can bite. At the same time, turning the car off the brakes results in a bit of wash from the front end. I'm in the middle of complaining about how this thing doesn't drive as well as my old Boxster S when I look at the speedometer and realize that I've been kidding myself.
The pace of the 650S is so massive, and the controls are so responsive, that all of this is happening in a zip code no street Porsche short of a 918 Spyder could even dream of visiting. Everything about the McLaren helps you go quickly, from the idiot-proof instantaneity of the gearbox, which will let you tug at the downshift paddle like a monkey at all the wrong times and still deliver a perfect gear for the corner, to the remarkably-good-for-a-supercar sightlines that make finding the edge of a curb trivially easy.
If you don't drive something this quick on-track every day—and who does?—what will get you is the massive gap between straight-line speed and corner speed. It's maybe five or ten miles per hour faster in most turns than an M3 or base 911, but it's arriving at the brake zones with twenty or thirty miles per hour extra. It isn't something you can get used to in a couple of laps. At first, you'll over-slow the car, and then you'll under-slow it, and you'll only do that once, and if you're lucky, it will only be by enough to terrify you, not crunch the "MonoCell" carbon tub.
The McLaren 650S is the closest thing to a race car that you can get while still receiving a usable warranty and preferential treatment from the valet at the InterContinental, but it's not a race car. That distinction is reserved for the pair of two-tone McLarens up on their air jacks in the covered paddock space near pit lane. While I'm stuffing myself into my old OMP suit, the two K-PAX drivers, Alex Figge and Robert Thorne, are busy doing some shakedown runs for their next race.
It's been tough going so far for the team, mostly due to the fact that the 12C GT3 cars are turbocharged in a field of normally aspirated contenders and as such they've been put on a short leash with regard to turbo size and boost. Thorne, the younger of the two drivers, admits that they're occasionally caught out by lag in the close-traffic situations that characterize World Challenge racing, although he'd go on to score a podium a few weeks after this test. K-PAX knows there will be no shortcuts to winning with the McLaren. It's a good car, but it's no overdog.
As a consequence, I feel more than a little guilty about stealing their test time to... oh, who the hell am I kidding? I'd crawl over broken glass to drive Thorne's wicked-looking blue-and-yellow Macca. Still, in the name of reducing risk and wear I'll take about ten laps and return it to the team for further work.
After a couple of tries at getting me into the car that result in the development of the procedure described earlier in this story, it's go time. Thorne goes over the steering rectangle's bewildering arrangement of controls. Fifteen different knobs and buttons. I'll be using just a few. The latching push-to-talk button requires me to flip up to talk and down to listen. "If you leave it up, we won't be able to help you out there." The fuel map and engine control knobs are off-limits. As I watch, Thorne turns the traction-control knob from "4", the setting he'd been using, to "5".
"What's the idiot setting?" I inquire. "Could I have that?"
"This," he laughs, "is it."
While the engine comes up to temperature, I'm pushed backward out of the stall and pointed in the vague direction of the track. To get started, I'll need to accomplish the following things in order: Squeeze the carbon-fiber hand clutch. It is an electronic device that operates a "learning" solenoid, not a real clutch, but I've already seen both drivers stall the car with it during paddock maneuvers. With the clutch in, I have one second to press and hold the "N" button while selecting first gear with the right-side paddle. At that point, I can let the hand clutch out to start rolling.
Amazingly enough, I get started okay but when I catch a pothole in the paddock the McLaren stalls. Time to do it again. This time I make sure I have some momentum as I head for pit exit. The tires are cold, as is the engine. If something goes wrong, it will happen now.
If this were an episode of a TV show, the next ten minutes would be shown in some sort of dreamy, artsy sequence featuring a lot of soft filters and slow-mo and possibly one of those Led Zeppelin songs where it's obvious that Robert Plant had a Tolkien book in his left hand as he was writing the lyrics. I think I'm prepared for anything as I boot the 12C GT3 through the first section of High Plains, but I'm not prepared for just how perfect it is.
Start with the power. It's down on power from the street car, and the relatively open exhaust means that running it even to the 8500-rpm redline we've agreed upon for this test feels bloodily abusive, but it's direct and linear and just as strong as you'd want it to be. By the second lap, I'm no longer surprised by anything about the power delivery. It's just there, the same way it is in a good Mustang or Camaro sedan racer.
Then the brakes. No street car has ever had brakes like this, good hot pads and fluid and a big wing pushing it all down on sticky tires. There's ABS but I only engage it a few times during the session because the threshold is so easy to find. I'm using my left foot, of course, and in just minutes I'm confidently pressing as hard as the car needs. Or so I think; afterward, I'll be told that the time difference between me and the K-PAX drivers was in large part due to cautious braking.
My difficulty fitting into the McLaren has an unfortunate consequence: I find that I cannot keep both hands on the wheel while turning the car. My legs are in the way. There's something distinctly disconcerting about one-handing a million-dollar race car past a concrete wall while the back end is starting to scoot around a bit, but it's just not that frightening to do it. Tireless effort on the part of McLaren back in the UK and the K-PAX team here has made this car remarkably docile in the corner. The team's been put on the back foot a bit by the fact that McLaren developed the GT3 package for road course and the World Challenge schedule has a lot of temporary street tracks on it, but hey! I'm on a road course now and it's no trick to pull serious g-forces with my left hand in the thing.
Before I realize it, I've flipped up the latching talk button and am stream-of-consciousness babbling about just how great the car is. Body pitch and roll is nearly nonexistent, even by race car standards. It takes five or six laps to trust how well it grips, even though I'm used to what good solid DOT-R tires can do. The rear wing works on this car in precisely the way it doesn't on your neighbor's slammed Civic.
It's a full level of competence above even the best street cars. The best way to understand it is to think about the gap in on-track performance between a good sedan like a Camry and a good sporting car like a Boss 302 or a C7 Corvette. Then take that same gap again, and that's how the McLaren feels. It truly conveys the sense of being "on rails" until you start to reach the limits of the tires, and then it's communicative yet playful. I daren't slide it on the big corners for fear of ruining Robert's next race but on the slow ones I let the tail step out a bit and what do you know, it's easier to catch than nearly any street car would be. Emboldened by this, I apply more and more trail-braking...
...until I have a "moment" on Turn 13 after the concrete wall in the back section. The rear snaps out and I can only put in a certain amount of corrective steering with my left hand before I need to switch to my right and crank it the rest of the way, but to my amazement the McLaren just falls down the hill in a flawless drift before snapping straight for the run back up to the flag tower.
Now my confidence is sky-high, which means it's time to come in before I roll the thing. Which I do, reluctantly.
"How'd it go?" I ask.
"Well, you were faster every lap, but still a few seconds off from Robert and Alex. Braking was a big thing. We almost got on the radio and told you to shorten up."
"I'm glad," I reply, after a moment of reflection, "that you did not."
On my way back to the hotel, I give the 650S full throttle for a moment and am shocked again at its time-warp punch. Then I remember: to make this car World Challenge legal, McLaren has to reduce the power. In a straight line, this street car will dust its purpose-built racer sibling. If you buy this, you're getting a faster car than Alex Figge, a former Champ Car driver, drives for a living. The ideal buyer for this very focused supercar is someone who knows this fact and cares more about that than they do about impressing their neighbors.
As a road-going proposition, the McLaren deserves nearly every superlative. It deserves to be the most popular supercar. This business being what it is, that won't happen. So think of it as a secret, a knowing wink, a nod between the cognoscenti: for those of us who care about driving, the 650S is the one to have. It's the closest you can come to folding yourself into that claustrophobic seat and running for victory in the Pirelli World Challenge.
Photos: Jamie Kripke