With hybrid hypercars from Porsche and Ferrari on the horizon, the stakes couldn't be higher - so has the P1 risen to the challenge?

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Fitness for purpose. You’ll have read the words on these pages before and you’ll read them again. The phrase is the underlying criterion by which we judge all cars.

In most cases, a car must fulfil many purposes. The McLaren P1, though, has just one, as defined by its maker itself: the P1, says McLaren, must be the best driver’s car in the world.

The P1's spiritual predecessor, the F1, set a new high for supercars

Not necessarily the fastest, the loudest, the most technically dazzling, the lightest or the most powerful. Just the best – the most rewarding to drive on the road and, probably more frequently, on a circuit.

Given that cars like the Ford GT40, Caterham Seven and McLaren’s own F1 exist – not to mention the recent Porsche 918 Spyder and LaFerrari – that’s no small order, but McLaren is used to setting itself immodest goals and modestly delivering them.

McLaren has been making carbonfibre-chassised racing cars since the MP4/1 of 1981 and has made only composite cars since. Its first road car (M6GT prototype aside) was the F1 of 1993.

The F1 also proved well engineered enough to win the 1995 Le Mans 24 Hours, in the same year that McLaren F1 forged links with Mercedes-Benz. That led to the creation of the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren in 2003, a car that ultimately satisfied the goals of neither company. The 12C, 650S and P1 are pure McLaren, and it shows.

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From a standing start, the Woking-based company is now the world’s most prolific producer of carbonfibre-chassised road cars, a material that also underpinned the McLaren F1.

And just as was the case with the F1, we were the first to produce independent performance figures.


McLaren P1 rear cornering

It is inevitable that we’ll draw comparisons between the P1 and F1, no matter how unfair that seems. But although the new car is leagues more advanced than the car we consider its spiritual predecessor, there are elements common to the two.

Not least of those is the link between design and purpose that pulled the P1 into a wind tunnel weekly, for work not just on the external aerodynamics but also to ensure that sufficient quantities of air could enter and exit the P1’s carbonfibre bodywork.

The McLaren is packed full of beautiful but functional details

That body sits over a pre-preg composite monocoque whose central tub – which weighs just 90kg – owes much to that of the 650S and 12C.

But to suggest that it’s a simple derivation sells it short. It is a bespoke structure that, unlike the 12C’s, incorporates a roof, holds the hybrid’s battery and electronics and houses the snorkel that feeds air into the turbochargers.

Likewise, although the base engine – a twin-turbo 3.8-litre V8 – owes its existence to the 12C’s, the block is unique, strengthened and modified to accommodate a hybrid electric motor. On its own, the flat-plane-crank V8 generates 727bhp.

The electric motor, when asked to contribute, adds another 176bhp, making a faintly staggering total of 903bhp. This means that the P1’s engine is more than 2.0 litres smaller than the one in the nose of a Ferrari F12 yet generates an additional 173bhp.

Maintaining good driveability, given this level of specific output (and this engine, as you’ll read later, is remarkably docile), is one of McLaren’s greatest achievements with this car.

The powertrain – longitudinally mid-mounted within the tub – drives the rear wheels only via a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, through which torque is sometimes limited to less than its 664lb ft maximum, to spare the clutches.

Everywhere, detailing is exquisite and weight saving fanatical; the exhaust weighs just 17kg, the windscreen is 3.5kg lighter than a 12C’s and the 19-inch front wheels weigh less than 8kg apiece. Laden with fluids, the P1 weighs a claimed 1490kg.

Inevitably that’s rather more than the 1138kg at which we weighed an F1 with half a tank of fuel but significantly less than the 1995kg (fuelled) at which a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport tipped our scales.

The P1’s suspension is an extension of the system used by the 12C, a hydropneumatic set-up that controls springing and damping. On the 12C, the system only controls vehicle roll (movements around an axis), but the P1’s system also includes control of ‘heave’ — the vertical movement of the car in relation to the ground.

So whereas the 12C uses larger coil springs to control heave, the P1 has a more complicated system that replaces those springs with additional hydraulic reservoirs to provide the control of the car’s height.

There are still coil springs, but they’re small and relatively soft and only control the static height of the car. Most of the work is done by the hydraulics. McLaren calls the system Race Active Chassis Control (RCC) and because, as on the 12C, it can control roll stiffness, there is no need for anti-roll bars, so each corner can be tuned truly independently.

Uniquely, in this application, it can control ride height, which is why the spring stiffness (via compression of the fluid) goes up so much when the car is lowered into Race mode.


McLaren P1 interior

There is not a great deal to the P1’s interior, and that is entirely deliberate. There are no carpets, there is precious little soundproofing and there are fixed-back carbonfibre seats with as little cushioning as McLaren dared. As a result, each is only 10.5kg.

Yet they proved particularly comfortable for our testers, all of whom could find an excellent driving position. Customers can choose their preferred seat height at the factory, and the steering wheel (only ever fitted to the left of the cabin) is widely adjustable – manually, of course, like the seat runner, to reduce weight.

The wheel and brake pedal are dead centre, so you can push the pedal easily with either foot

Driver and passenger sit a little further inboard than in a 12C but are not cramped for shoulder room. The brake pedal is sited dead ahead of the driver, making braking with either foot easy, and visibility is good forwards because the scuttle is low (the screen is deeper than it is wide), and fine elsewhere for a hypercar.

Fit and finish are exceptional. What little furniture there is in here looks breathtakingly well assembled and the carbonfibre on display (shorn of a top layer of lacquer to reduce reflections and save 1.5kg) is exquisitely contoured, with perfectly aligned weave.

Within the carbonfibre centre console are driving controls and an infotainment system that’ll look familiar to 12C owners. Handling and powertrain delivery are adjustable, and the communications array is easy enough to use, although slow to respond, especially on initialisation.

However, once under way it works well; the nav is intelligent and the functionality is good. There’s no DAB digital radio, unfortunately, and although the audio quality is good when you’re stationary, it’s hard to make it heard over the tyre and engine roar at a cruising speed.

Most of the action on the display panel comes at the bottom half, where, as in the 12C, you have to push ‘active’ to enable the driving modes and manual gearbox mode. That still all seems more complicated than it strictly needs to be.


727bhp McLaren P1 hypercar

Performance benchmarks for the P1 are scattered thinly. Ignore the F12 (LaFerrari is the more sensible comparison) and look instead to an Ariel Atom V8, Bugatti Veyron Super Sport or, indeed, the F1.

That the F1 remains comparable today is testament to its purity; in third gear, it covered each 20mph increment from 20-110mph in less than 2.0sec; from 60-80mph it wanted just 1.6sec. We thought that its numbers would be the fastest we’d ever record. They weren’t.

The P1 breaks the quarter mile tape 1.1sec earlier than the McLaren F1

The P1 is shorter geared in third, but it covers the same 60-80mph sprint in just 1.2sec.

If you want to go from 0-60mph faster than the P1’s 2.8sec, or from 0-100mph faster than its 5.2sec, or cover a standing quarter mile more quickly (10.2sec at 147.5mph and climbing fast), our road test records show that you’ll need a Veyron Super Sport or nothing.

But it’s the nature of the P1’s delivery, rather than its savagery, that is just as impressive. The Veyron introduced us to cars that were as powerful as 10 Volkswagen Golfs but as easy to drive as just one, and despite a much smaller swept capacity, the P1’s hybrid trickery enables it to retain those qualities.

The P1 fires to an extremely loud idle – there are cars that drive at 50mph with less interior volume than a stationary P1 – but apart from the volume, there is no hint of its 238bhp- per-litre specific output or 8250rpm rev limit. It’s a clean, civil engine note and initial response is fine, too.

You can pootle in a P1 without a barrage of wasted revs or pinking and crackles, and you can also accelerate briskly in high gears seemingly without any accompanying turbo lag.

For that, you can thank the electric motor’s 192lb ft of torque, which fills the void left while the turbos spool. As a result, the P1 feels like a car with a much larger capacity and it generates peak torque at just 4000rpm. In fifth gear, it’s as quick from 50-70mph as it is from 120-140mph (2.7sec, since you’re asking).

Flick the powertain switch through Normal to Sport or Track modes and you’ll increase the gearshift ferocity. Engage the ‘boost’ function and at near-full throttle openings you can extract maximum performance by pushing the IPAS button, which releases the electric motor’s potential (which is also on tap via the throttle without ‘boost’ engaged). Race mode we’ll come to in a second.

In the dry, all of this performance is accessible. In the lower gears, it gives the deftly judged traction control a hard time, but dry traction is always impressive. Such is the severity of the initial acceleration allowed by the launch control system that rolling on to MIRA’s mile straight at, say, approaching 70mph (no more is possible) buys only 5mph at the far end compared with a standing start. (This all assumes that conditions are dry, of course. In the damp, the P1’s acceleration troubles the electronics, even in fifth gear.)

What use is performance like this on the road? Well, as one McLaren executive told us, you don’t have to use all of the throttle. It’s not a switch, and nor is it non-linear. It’s perfectly easy to meter out, and the dual-clutch gearbox operates as swiftly as we’ve come to expect. On bigger throttle openings, the electric motor not only boosts torque but can also reverse its rotation and pull revs back down between upshifts, and it helps to blip on downshifts.

And although the P1 never automatically cuts the engine to drive on the motor alone (you’ll never start a 727bhp V8 as cleanly and quietly as you can a 1.5-litre Toyota Prius’s four-pot), you can select an all-electric drive mode, in which the P1 is merely brisk.

McLaren says this is useful if there’s a city in which you cannot drive an internally combusted vehicle, but given that the electric range is only six miles, it’s hard not to think that McLaren really made it just because it could and thought it would be fun. If a million-dollar car can’t be a bit of fun, what can be?

In electric mode, the noises are more space port than race track, but in any mode the P1 sounds unusual; rather than explosions, the sound is dominated by vast quantities of air being inducted or forced through the turbochargers. It’s not traditionally intoxicating, but it’s pleasant enough.

Braking is superb. The discs are made from what McLaren claims is a new form of carbon-ceramic material, and they stop the P1 from 60mph – on part-worn tyres on a just-dried surface – in only 2.26sec. They also only want 40.9m to haul the car up from 70mph, when we consider anything less than 50m to be fine.

But it’s the resistance to fade and their consistency that is most outstanding. Pedal feel is good – medium weighted and easily modulated, because there’s no battery regeneration to upset their feel. They’re at their best after a couple of warm-up stops, but from then on they’re indefatigable.


McLaren P1 drifting

The most remarkable element of the way that the 12C drives is not its handling but the ride comfort allowed by its hydropneumatic suspension. The P1 utilises a similar system, but there’s no question that it feels set up to be firmer and more controlled.

However, the P1 still stops well short of being crashy or harsh, and it adeptly softens the edges to ridges and bumps. The suspension can be raised by 30mm to clear kerbs, too.

McLaren has created a car that is as joyful and as faithful to throw around a circuit as a kart

So there are plenty of cars with lesser performance that would feel less at home on a transcontinental drive.

Only the P1's noise levels become wearing on a long journey. It is reassuringly stable, solid and refined, with steering that, at 2.4 turns lock to lock, is far less nervous than the rack in an F12.

On give-and-take cross-country roads, the P1 has more performance and capability than you can use, given visibility and the laws of most countries. One of the challenges faced by modern performance cars, therefore, is to offer driver rewards at merely sensible speeds, and the P1’s ability to cover ground and engage its driver through linear, responsive controls and with strong feedback does precisely that.

And then you come to what the P1 can do on a circuit – and that is, quite frankly, astonishing, regardless of what you do with the chassis settings.  It’s good in all of them, but moving from Normal to Sport tightens the damping, and going to Track does so again.

Hold down Race mode, however, and the P1 lowers itself by 50mm and raises its rear spoiler to its tallest, highest-downforce setting. Dropping itself increases spring rates by 300 percent, and the P1 behaves like a racing car.

It’s not the urge with which the P1 throws itself down the straights that is most extraordinary, or the fantastic power of its stoppers, or the outright grip, but its blend of all-round capability. That was the aim, says chief test driver Chris Goodwin: not to major on any particular area, but to excel in all.

Around our challenging dry handling circuit, a Veyron Super Sport demolishes every single corner exit and straight, a Caterham Seven 160 is astoundingly agile, a Radical SR3 SL produces race car levels of downforce and so corners with more speed than you thought possible, and a Toyota GT86 is playful beyond compare.

The P1 mixes elements of all of those – not to their extremes, but as a whole it eclipses them all. It scarcely seems possible, but McLaren has created a car that costs £866,000 and produces 903bhp yet is as joyful and faithful to throw around a circuit as a two-stroke kart.

When it came to handing back the keys to the Ferrari F12, it was with mild relief that we stepped away from it in one piece with sweaty palms and a time in the bag. In the more expensive, more powerful, mid-engined McLaren, we were disappointed that we couldn’t have stayed out there all day, chipping a tenth here and there in what is a brilliantly communicative, faithful and adjustable car.

The P1, unlike just about every other car of vast power, has no limited-slip differential. What it does get is ‘brake steer’, effectively an extension of the stability control that brakes an inside rear wheel on corner entry to decrease understeer and increase the turn angle. It is surprisingly effective.

It’s easy to adapt to the lack of a limited-slip diff because of the P1’s roll stiffness and its mammoth power and instant throttle response, which can quickly push the car into oversteer at the exit of almost any corner.

Stability control intervention gets freer as you flick through Normal, Sport, Track and Race modes, to the extent that you’ll hardly know it’s operating in Race. You can turn it off, but it hardly seems worth it, given that it’s so unobtrusive.

The P1 is astoundingly reassuring at its limit. You can brake into a bend to unsettle the rear and get back on the power to ride out a slide with the same abandon as you might in a two-stroke kart. And you’ll want to do it all day. That is the P1’s greatest achievement.


McLaren P1

To suggest that an £866,000 car can be reasonable value is a hard argument to side with, but it’s one that we’re prepared to make.

If you count up the number of P1s that’ll be sold (375), factor in the overall development cost (hundreds of millions of pounds) and the likely production cost of each one, it’s easy enough to see where the money goes.

The P1 emits 345g/km of CO2 less than the Veyron Super Sport. The era of the hybrid hypercar has arrived

And it’s feasible to think that it is money well spent if, as the McLaren is, it provides so much enjoyment that it could effectively replace several other very expensive cars. If you really want to drive the P1 often, in other words, it’s worth the outlay. We would want to drive it often.

What will matter less are the car’s running costs, but an overall return of 19.6mpg in our hands is relevant, given that it provides the P1 with a thoroughly useful 275-mile range.


5 star McLaren P1

There were those – we were not among them – who accused McLaren’s 12C of being clinical and soulless. There will not be those who accuse the P1 of being the same. This is a car whose maker has taken joy in its engineering and greater joy in presenting it to the driver.

The exquisite carbonfibre is not just displayed but featured, the whizzes, fizzes and whistles of the drivetrain are left undamped, and the driver is thoroughly involved with the way that the P1 rides and handles. There’s no bluff with the P1.

McLaren's ethos and perfectionism writ large. A scintillating triumph

Is it the world’s best driver’s car? That’s more difficult to answer, because your favourite driver’s car might differ from ours, because moods change and because we haven’t – yet – had a P1, a Porsche 918 Spyder and a LaFerrari in the same place at the same time.

Bugatti's Veyron Grand Sport Vitesse is still the straight line and top speed benchmark. It's the ultimate in last-decade power.

For now, though, we know that if we had 100 cars, there would be many days when only a P1 would do. You can’t ask for more than that.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes.