Final Cut : McLaren MP4-12C [Driven]

Car Specifications
3799cc, twin turbo
Cylinder Layout: 
V8, 32 valves
Top Speed: 
330 km/h
7-Speed SSG (DCT)
3.3 seconds
600 PS at 7000 rpm
600 Nm at 3000-7000 rpm
  • Carbon fibre chassis and body
  • Active aerodynamics

McLaren would like to make it clear that they were the first to use a full carbonfibre monocoque tub in their race cars, the 1981 MP4/1. Actually it was Prof. Gordon Murray who first saw the advantage of this lightweight, high strength material in 1979 but then he was with a competing team, Brabham and he designed an aluminium/carbonfibre composite tub.

Later in 1987 Murray moved to McLaren and led the team with the Honda powered MP4/4 carbonfibre monocoque chassis to win 15 out of 16 F1 races in 1988. And on to four consecutive F1 championships 1988-1991 proving once and for all the absolute superiority of carbonfibre technology.

Gordon Murray moved from McLaren Racing to the Automotive side to head up the design team that produced the famous 1992 McLaren F1 road car and the 2003 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren. However Murray resigned the year after the SLR project was unveiled. It was not until much later that anyone knew if McLaren would create another car and in 2009 McLaren Automotive announced that they would become the world's newest “volume” car manufacturer, moving away from very limited edition production runs and going into “mass” production.

The result of this is the MP4-12C. Just in case you are wondering, MP4 now means McLaren Project Four but in 1979 it originally meant Marlboro Project Four, Ron Dennis' original F2 team that in 1981 took over a floundering McLaren Racing Team, hence the new project name of MP4. Bruce McLaren who founded the company in 1963 had died tragically in a racing accident at Goodwood in 1970 but the McLaren racing team continued with his name and latterly with the stewardship of Ron Dennis became one of the most successful in F1 history.

The MP4-12C is really Ron's baby as he quit managing McLaren Racing and took on the role of executive chairman at McLaren Automotive in 2009. This MP4-12C is McLaren's answer to the controversial Mercedes-Benz SLR project which was the antithesis McLaren's lightweight mantra.

At 1399 kg (take away about 100 kg for the equivalent dry weight, devoid of fluids to compare with Ferrari's spec) it is far lighter than the 1768 kg SLR but some way from the 1140 kg of the brilliant McLaren F1.

There is a “luxury” version which weighs in at 1434 kg but we imagine most buyers would tick all the lightweight options like carbonfibre buckets, lightweight forged wheels, carbon-ceramic brakes and the sports exhaust. Its understated performance theme is obvious throughout the design of the MP4-12C.

Although the styling of the MP4-12C is largely credited to Frank Stephenson who joined McLaren Automotive in mid 2008, the design of the MP4-12C had already been committed to production and he oversaw the final steps into production but he only claims to have only made detail changes to things like the lamps which stands to reason as it does not have Stephenson's usual aggressive signature as seen in the Ferrari F430 and Maserati MC12. In mitigation he does promise a forthcoming super car entirely of his design with not just wow-factor but “shock” factor. Look out for what he calls “Bio-mimickery”.

The body and chassis design might truly be the magical trick bits of putting together a proper supercar but for the prestige and image it really about making your own engine. The odd man out might Pagani but Lotus and other brilliant but smallish car manufacturers realise that not having their own engine is a handicap preventing them from receiving full recognition that they deserve and are not merely riding the coattails of another manufacturer.

With this in mind, obviously from their own history with the F1 and SLR, McLaren recognised that they had to have an engine they could call their own. It might cost a whole more to produce and obtain worldwide emissions certification but it is the one thing that had to be done if they are to go head to head with pedigree brands like Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche. Mind you McLaren only has their Formula One competitor in their cross-hairs.

McLaren designed the engine called M838T, a V8 engine displacing 3.8-litres and twin-turbos together with their production/technical partner- Ricardo PLC, a long standing UK engineering company in Sussex. Like most thoroughbred supercars it has dry-sump lubrication but turbocharging is not a common feature in this rarefied market.

To their credit turbo-lag is just noticeable at low revs. However McLaren has given its twin-turbo engine the ability to rev like a naturally-aspirated engine reaching an amazing 8400 rpm while being turbocharged. With the current trend of downsizing and turbocharging, McLaren might have pulled a lead on their competition who have resolutely stuck with normal aspiration for their current cars.

The McLaren V8 produces 600 PS at 7000 rpm and has 600 Nm of torque between 3000 and 7000 rpm. This is impressive for an engine that weighs just 199 kg and just 3.8-litres. McLaren has chosen to use the flat-plane crankshaft design like most high revving V8s including Ferrari's but McLaren has tuned theirs for a more mellow exhaust note.

Early pre-production test cars last year had a muted exhaust sound but McLaren has responded to early criticisms and made the real production cars that we are testing now, louder in Track mode and even more thanks to the optional Iconel-alloy Sports exhaust system.

For the gearbox, McLaren turned to the Italian gearbox specialist Graziano who also makes transmissions for the competition like Ferrari, Lamborghini and Aston Martin. It is dubbed SSG or Seamless Shift Gearbox and is a double clutch type transmission with 7-speeds.

As the DCT type gearboxes are really sequential in operation, they perform quick shifts as long as it has prepared the correct incoming gear in sequence like 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 or 7-6-5-4-3-2-1 but if you make a downshift in the upshift sequence or vice versa, it would be caught off guard for a moment and makes an obvious pause before carrying out the command.

To solve this McLaren has designed a Pre-Cog (nice pun on precognitive) where the driver just half pulls the appropriate paddle shifter to inform the SSG that he wants to downshift or upshift so the transmission can prepare the right gear for the situation. One other complaint was the high degree of effort required by the driver to actually activate the paddle shift switchgear. McLaren will be reducing this paddle effort in final production.

In full auto mode it behaves almost like a traditional automatic producing smooth shifts. But using the car in auto mode is hardly the reason why one would buy one of these MP4-12Cs. It is for the full effect of Track mode.

Pleasantly the head thumping shifts experienced in early robotised paddle shift transmissions is gone. This SSG really lives up to its name producing smooth efficient shifts even when doing so at the 8400 rpm redline. Choosing Sport mode does not seem to alter the rate of shifting much but it does not allow slightly more drifting of the rear tyres before stepping in.

This is done through a vehicle dynamics program that not only adjusts the mapping of the shifts but the engine response, suspension and handling stability controls as well. By selecting Track mode, the computer sets everything at “wild” meaning ultra sharp throttle response, rapid gear changes, firmest damping, loosest traction and stability control.

This is a pulse quickening mode topped off by the loudest allowable exhaust note, reverberating in the middle of your head making it genuinely hard to concentrate on anything else. Conversely it is a frenzied, rather tiring mode for those who do not want this sort of experience. But if you find Sport too muted, by all means go ahead and set it to Track mode, its there for a reason, to entertain and thrill.

The preferred mode is Sport mode where it is not quite so loud, not quite so knife-edged and bouncy. It seems easier to remain calm and collected through a flying lap allowing you to feel in control without losing too much time.

Normal mode is best used for casual road use and Sport is suitable for fast road driving. Track is really meant for track use being too harsh and hyperactive for smooth drives on the open roads. The magic is the yaw adjustment program running all the time in the background.

This program uses the brakes on the inside of the corner to generate asymmetrical braking across the axle so that the car yaws into the corner producing neutrality rather than depending on the lowering of grip on the rear axle to neutralize the understeer, which is also the onset of loss of traction at the rears.

Using early braking induces neutrality a safer manner and one can get on the gas earlier. On the right road, the handling is something to savour as it has just the right amount of steering heft and feel as the chassis resolutely follows your every command.

McLaren's set up of the suspension is rather unusual to say the least. Outwardly it looks normal as one finds double wishbones at each corner, suspended by what appears to be coil-overs. Closer inspection reveals something strange though. The front pair of dampers are linked by hydraulic lines and the rears are also linked in a similar way.

Then we see more lines running from front left to rear left(and on the right side as well) meaning the front and rears are also connected. Just one more twist to this bizarre set-up- the links are actually a pair (two tubes) of lines with the damper's compression and rebound chambers cross linked with the other side's chambers. This simply means the left side compression squeezes hydraulic fluid into the right side rebound as well as the rear left rebound and conversely the right side compression sends fluid into the left side rebound and right rear rebound.

With this sort of set-up the car has lots of roll and pitch resistance without resorting to thick anti-roll bars or stiff springing. However, hydraulic fluid is incompressible and could result in locked damper movement but McLaren engineers have added high pressure gas chambers in the hydraulic fluid accumulators which behave like the chambers in gas pressurized dampers. This gives the system significant compliance and thus comfort, moreover the fluid flow can be centrally controlled to change damper rate just like active dampers.

We also spot another odd item, the Z-bar at the rear which is essentially the opposite of an anti-roll bar. Now why would McLaren fit something that might induce roll? Well it is not so stiff as to induce roll but it does develop enough load on the inside rear tyre so that there is no wheelspin with full throttle exits to corners. This simple device helps eliminate the weight and complexity of a rear e-differential. With just the brakes and throttle McLaren engineers could even vector torque as effectively.

Why not use the anti-roll bar just like everybody else? While they do work to counter body roll it also makes the independent suspension behave as if semi-independent and the stiffer the anti-roll bar the more it reduces the total grip of that paired axle as it tries to lift the inside wheel from contact.

For this reason suspension designs should not use an anti-roll bar that is too stiff (thick) on the driven axle or better yet by not using one at all like what McLaren is trying to do here but still keep all the anti-roll properties by using other strategies.

For the MP4-12C, body roll is primarily countered by a wide track and a very low center of gravity and not resorting to heavy springs or anti-roll bars. In this way McLaren has still the total grip of all four tyres all the time unlike a conventionally sprung car which compromises grip by anti-roll bars to achieve the neutral handling in corners.

The one underlying theme of the MP4-12C is lightweight design and smart engineering. While the unique and advanced suspension design saves weight, the most obvious weight reduction comes from their use of the carbonfibre MonoCell, a rigid carbonfibre tub made by RTM technology which allows improved production rates at their technology partner in Austria, CarboTech of up to five in one day instead of one in five days.

Instead of everything being made of expensive carbonfibre, the designers resort to a blend of aluminium and even steel used in conjunction with the exotic carbonfibre material. For example the front and rear structures are made from aluminium for better crash dissipation and heat resistance and the front windscreen frame is of super high strength steel, saving on cost and complexity at the same time.

This includes the highly effective airbrake/spoiler which is made of carbonfibre and ramps upward at speed to give the car active aerodynamics as well as a braking function at high speed. By rapidly rising vertically during braking it not just creates a lot of air drag it also draws the aerodynamic drag center backwards for stability. If it is not braking, it is raked appropriately for downforce or lowering drag.

The MP4-12C is perhaps the most ruthlessly efficient supercar design to date. Radical thinking in engine design, active aerodynamics, suspension to maximise the performance of every single component to gain the highest level of grip, acceleration and handling while using the least fuel or effort as possible. Their competition also goes as fast but they ignore the efficiency side of the equation.

Naturally at this price level one might question the additional bother trying to save the extra few litres of petrol. And so efficient is the MP4-12C it forgets that flamboyancy is equally important at this price level. They have now addressed the issues of being too quiet by a louder exhaust system and reduced the paddle shifter effort so it is still stiff but not so soft one barely feels it. (see conclusion below)

TYPE V8, 32-valves, DOHC, twin-turbocharged
BORE X STROKE 93mm x 69.9mm
MAX POWER 600 PS at 7000rpm
MAX TORQUE 600 Nm at 3000-7000rpm
GEARBOX 7-speed SSG (Double clutch type)
0-100KM/H 3.3 seconds
TOP SPEED 330 km/h
CONSUMPTION 11.7 km/L (combined)
FRONT Double wishbones, coil springs, cross linked dampers
REAR Double wishbones, coil springs, cross linked dampers, Z-bar
FRONT / REAR f: 370mm Vented discs, r; 350 Vented Discs

TYPE Pirelli P-Zero
SIZE f:235/35 R19, r: 305/30 R 20
LENGTH 4507mm
WIDTH 1909mm
HEIGHT 1199mm
KERB WEIGHT 1301kg(lightweight version)
WARRANTY 3 years/100,000km

Yes, it is the divergence of philosophy that differentiates this McLaren from its Italian competition. Are they wrong? After a full day at the Dunsfold track(Top Gear Track) learning the way of the MP4-12C and the philosophy of McLaren, we have come to understand and respect the extreme capabilities this car offers. McLaren's own test driver is not just faster but fastest around this track in the same car than the “Stig”. That's impressive enough. - mp
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