Track test: The supercar McLaren takes racing in 2019

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Track test: The supercar McLaren takes racing in 2019
Charles Bradley
By: Charles Bradley
Oct 14, 2018, 5:01 PM

McLaren is developing a new GT3 racer based on its latest 720S sportscar in-house for 2019. Charles Bradley tried the road-going supercar for size at a Californian test track as part of its Pure McLaren academy.

Supercars: Living on Miami’s South Beach, I see plenty of them. I enjoy a proper giggle when they’re faced with an uncompromising speedbump, wince as they bounce and hop over a crappy road surface, and smirk as another millionaire shoehorns his or her way into a low-slung cockpit, to pull away and reach breakneck speeds of up to 55mph.

The only way you really get to feel what a supercar can do (apart from the cheap thrill of an acceleration/deceleration buzz) is to drive it around a race track. So when McLaren reached out with an offer to drive one of its cars at the Thermal Club track near Palm Springs in California, I jumped at the chance. The choice was this: Track Level 2, with its great-looking 570S model or Track Level 3, with the equally great-looking (but more powerful) 720S. I hadn’t driven on track for eight years so, of course, I took the only decision my tiny brain would allow: “Yes, I’ll take 720hp and 0-60 in 2.8s please!”

Pure McLaren Performance Academy

Pure McLaren Performance Academy

Photo by: Christopher McNeil

Pure McLaren Performance Academy

Pure McLaren Performance Academy

Photo by: Christopher McNeil

Pure McLaren Performance Academy

Pure McLaren Performance Academy

Photo by: Christopher McNeil

What I sampled is an experience called ‘Pure McLaren’, the official track driving program of the British manufacturer. It’s been run in Europe for years, expanding to North America for the first time in 2018, and is primarily aimed at McLaren owners who want to raise their personal abilities to that of their car. Or prospective new owners, or perhaps those trading up in terms of models.

Also new for this year is a customer 570S GT4 race series, giving the owners the chance to actually race McLarens in a controlled, high-end environment.

Pure McLaren Performance Academy

Pure McLaren Performance Academy

Photo by: Christopher McNeil

Pure McLaren Performance Academy

Pure McLaren Performance Academy

Photo by: Christopher McNeil

“It’s all about driver development, driver betterment if you will,” outlines Danny Buxton, who runs the driving side of the program. “It’s been tremendous to see the enjoyment the customers get out of this – they get a real kick from seeing themselves making gains as a driver. 

“And it’s been awesome to see our customers get their race licenses with us, having first met them a number of years before, and actually race at our events. Exciting times!”

Pure McLaren Performance Academy

Pure McLaren Performance Academy

Photo by: Christopher McNeil

Getting out on track

As you’d expect, the McLaren looks fast when it’s not even moving. The dihedral doors are also mega (when you’ve found the well-hidden latch), as is any car with a rear wing that moves up and down to help with rear stability.

I’ll confess, I’ve not really driven many road-going supercars. On track, however, I’ve tested the Mercedes SLR 722 and Lamborghini Gallardo – but both were GT4-ish racing derivatives, with full rollcages and major aerodynamic enhancements. So I was intrigued to see the capabilities of a true road-going supercar on a proper circuit.

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Photo by: Christopher McNeil / McLaren

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Photo by: Christopher McNeil / McLaren

McLaren 720S, Pure McLaren Performance Academy

McLaren 720S, Pure McLaren Performance Academy

Photo by: Jeff Perez

The first impression one gets of the 720S from the cockpit is that it’s a super-smart car. Rotary dials select the driving modes available, from ‘comfort’ through ‘sport’ to ‘track’, and an iPad-like control panel allows you to dive deeper into the parameters of vehicle dynamics, such as degrees of slip angle and percentage of traction control. They call it ‘Proactive Chassis Control II’, and it’s the result of a five-year PhD course at the University of Cambridge – so it’s a regular brainiac.

We’re in full track mode for this experience, as the mission is to explore the car’s abilities. And it’s clear from the first run that this car sets a very high bar in performance terms. We don’t do a standing start, but a sub-3s 0-60mph is clearly attainable, and perhaps the most impressive aspect of the power is the mid-range, which just pushes on and on with rocket-like force from McLaren’s own four-liter, twin-turbo V8. Once you’re at the top of the rev range, the paddle-shift gearchanges are crisp and happen on demand without delay. Same on the downchange; it’s a seamless-shift gearbox, and there’s no disruption at all.

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Photo by: Christopher McNeil / McLaren

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Photo by: Christopher McNeil / McLaren

I’m much more used to running on slicks on the track, which offer a world more grip than a road tire, but I have to say the Pirelli P Zeroes we were running offered decent road-holding with progressive slip angle, especially given Thermal’s low-abrasion blacktop and the sand that often gets whipped on to the surface (more about that later!).

This is absolutely a car that enjoys being turned in while carrying some braking force, and it was nice to hear the pro drivers encouraging us to develop their driving style with trailbraking to find laptime. “But I’ve always been told to brake in a straight line, take the corner, then apply the throttle when you’re straight again?” protests one. He’s soon set straight that this is no basic course.

Charles Bradley, with Josh Cook, at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Charles Bradley, with Josh Cook, at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Photo by: Christopher McNeil / McLaren

Which brings me to the second part of the experience – and I think the key element: the pros are ‘proper’ race drivers with a wealth of know-how that they’re all too willing to share. My pro is Josh Cook, who travelled to California straight from a breathtaking side-by-side finish in the British Touring Car Championship finale at Brands Hatch.

To start with, it feels as if he’s like my rally co-driver, telling me the basics of what’s coming next and what the best line is through Thermal’s sinuous corners. It’s a lot to take in, but the constant flow of information from the passenger seat is fast-tracking my learning in leaps and bounds. Soon, this turns from general information to more specifics, which curbs we can use, which to avoid, how far wide to run, how to balance the car on the throttle in the faster corners.

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Photo by: Christopher McNeil / McLaren

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Photo by: Christopher McNeil / McLaren

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Photo by: Christopher McNeil / McLaren

Give me a brake

After each track session, we take a break to look over the telemetry and video. The car is fitted with a couple of cameras and VBox software, and when overlaid with a pro’s run, you can see straight away where you’re losing time. And it’s clear from the get-go that it’s mostly under braking – which begins with the initial phase. 

The 720S comes with carbon ceramic brakes as standard, so when you need to stamp on the anchors, you need to do just that. The pro is unleashing 145bar of pressure on the left pedal, and even with my best stamp I can only manage the high 60s. I need to get into the gym, clearly!

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Photo by: Christopher McNeil / McLaren

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Photo by: Christopher McNeil / McLaren

From there, you get into the really important part of the braking phase, how you ease off the pedal and enter the corner. This is where having a pro next to you comes into its own, and by following his “bleed” instructions, over the course of the day I make my brake trace look much closer to the overlaid pro’s – apart from his initial massive spike, of course. The way you bleed off the brake pedal defines your minimum corner speed, and coupled with taking the correct line, it’s vital to what comes next as you begin to feed in the throttle.

As I find a rhythm, my laptimes tumble, and I lop over 20s off my initial ponderous effort. Had I been on my own, that might have taken a week!

The pros aren’t afraid to let you push, as long as you’re being sensible in doing so, and are positive about you raising your personal limits – which, apart from driving the car, is the best part of the program.

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Photo by: Christopher McNeil / McLaren

My only proper ‘moment’ of the day comes when I ask way too much of the car into a left-right chicane by turning in having not eased off the brake enough, and with no throttle on I feel the rear step out violently. Suddenly, I’m travelling well over 45-degrees away from the direction I need to be for the second element, and just as my heart jumps out of my chest that I might be about to bin a $285k car, I manage to gather it up and stay on the track via an inelegant ‘tankslapper’. Getting back on to the throttle was the key to the escape, bringing the rear back under control, however counter-intuitive that feels. Josh immediately downloads me with what I did wrong, so I don’t do it again!

Beyond that, there are a couple of more slides, which I would think was me finding the limit – if I was alone in the car – but Josh is able to explain straight away that I was provoking the slide myself by not being smooth enough with the brake/steering/throttle inputs, and upsetting the car’s balance. I simply wouldn’t have worked that out by myself, and it would have turned into a bad driving habit.

But that’s part and parcel of a track day learning process – improving your laptimes, and confidence levels, to the point where you scare yourself, so you can then run comfortably just under your personal limit. In my final sessions of five track runs – which is a lot, I was genuinely feeling physically fatigued by the end – my quest for a sub-2m lap time is thwarted by, of all things, a sizeable dust devil that coats the final corners of the track with sand! New entry in track day excuses, #7,349, but the data proves I had been 10kph up in the previous corner on my best time… Honest!

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Photo by: Christopher McNeil / McLaren

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Photo by: Christopher McNeil / McLaren

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Charles Bradley at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Photo by: Christopher McNeil / McLaren

Conclusion

Until you’ve driven a supercar towards the higher end of its capabilities, I’ll go back to my original point of questioning why you’d want to own one in the first place. I’m not saying you’d need to drive like a rockstar every day, but you’d certainly want to tell your friends that you’d driven one hard at least once, and this is certainly the perfect environment to do that.

Although I didn’t drive this car on the road, my gentle sighting laps to learn the track allowed me to learn that the 720S felt perfectly poised with a ride quality that belied the stiffness that comes with a carbon chassis. It wasn’t too quiet or too noisy, either, and if you’d like to read a full road test, check out our Motor1 review – which is also very glowing.

McLaren 720S, Pure McLaren Performance Academy

McLaren 720S, Pure McLaren Performance Academy

Photo by: Jeff Perez

Pure McLaren Performance Academy

Pure McLaren Performance Academy

Photo by: Christopher McNeil

To underline that, Cook regales a story about an event at Vallelunga, where the pro drivers had bounced across the rough Italian roads in their minivan to the track each day. When it was over, they drove the McLarens back across the same roads with dread – but found the car simply ate up the bumps without drama. All hail the black magic of adaptive dampers!

So it’s as slinky on the road as it is fast on the track, which seems like a good combination to me. And I can’t wait to see what it can do as a full-blown GT3 race car in 2019…

For more information on Pure McLaren, click on the link: cars.mclaren.com/experiences/pure-mclaren

Charles Bradley, with Josh Cook, at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Charles Bradley, with Josh Cook, at the Thermal Club Pure McLaren event

Photo by: Christopher McNeil / McLaren

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Correction: Guy Edwards

Correction: Guy Edwards
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