25 years on, McLaren launches radical, wind-sculpted hybrid F1 successor
The new top of the line "Hyper-GT" car from McLaren is here, ready to split opinions as efficiently as it splits the air. With an odd three-seat arrangement and a 1,036-hp (773-kW) hybrid powertrain, the Speedtail is an ultra-slippery, 250-mph (402-km/h) grand tourer with some extraordinary tricks up its sleeve.
Back in 1998, McLaren released its stunning F1. Conceived as an extreme GT car for the road, it smashed the top speed record for production cars with a two-way average of 240.1 mph (376 km/h), and peaks around 243 mph (391 km/h). Some thought it would never be beaten – although Christian Koenigsegg had other ideas seven years later, and Bugatti's momentous Veyron went even further in 2006. Still, the naturally-aspirated V12 McLaren F1 remains to many motorheads the most significant supercar of the modern era, with an unassailable seat in the pantheon of the greatest cars of all time.
No pressure, then, for its successor. And the Speedtail is most certainly a spiritual successor to the F1. It uses the same odd three-seat layout, with the driver front and center, getting a very clean and unobstructed view of the road ahead. Two passengers sit back and to the sides of the driver, in seats that are literally part of the frame, and that leave absolutely no questions about who's the boss.
This gives the interior a sense of extreme and compelling symmetry – the impression is that of a spaceship cockpit, touch screens either side of the digital dash and further screens out toward the sides as the Speedtail uses external video cameras instead of wing mirrors. Since there's no room for a center console, the gearshift buttons and mode selection switches are moved to the ceiling, as are the power window and door opening buttons. There may be no car in this world that makes you feel more like an X-Wing pilot – not even Lamborgini's ridiculous Egoista.
There are no sun visors. Indeed, the cabin is designed to let in as much natural light as possible, until you darken its partly electrochromic glass at the touch of a button.
McLaren has chosen not to release many details about the engine setup, instead just teasing us with a few figures. It'll be a gasoline/electric hybrid powertrain, making 1,050 metric horsepower (PS), or 1,036 hp in the old money. How many cylinders? No idea. Displacement? Nope. Turbo? Twin, we'd assume, but there's no info. Neither do we know how the power's split between the gasoline and electric motors, how big the battery is or whether it's able to operate as a plug-in hybrid with a short-range electric-only mode.
Still, we know some key performance data. Total weight: 3,153 lb (1,430 kg), 0-186 mph (300 km/h) in 12.8 seconds (that's a whopping four seconds faster than the McLaren P1), and a claimed top speed of 250 mph (403 km/h).
These are not world-beating figures like the F1 boasted on its debut. Indeed the thousand-horsepower mark is pretty much the minimum price of entry if you want admission to a hypercar class that now includes the ridiculous 1,500-hp Bugatti Chiron, the absurd 1,360-hp Koenigsegg Agera and the entirely fictional, 5,221-hp Bulgarian Alieno Arcanum.
So despite its monstrous performance compared to anything from the real world, the Speedtail isn't taking a swing at the speed or performance champs. What's it all about, then? What niche does it aim to fill?
Low-drag, elegant grand tourer would appear to be the answer. The Speedtail seems to want to offer comfort, perhaps even a hint of luxury, over long distances at high speeds – and its exterior aerodynamics seem tailored towards slip instead of grip; cornering downforce seems far less of an emphasis than reducing drag and making this thing slice through the air.
As such, its 5.2-meter-long (17-ft) body, based on an all-new carbon tub frame, is very, very smooth. The headlights are barely recessed into its shark-nosed hood, the elongated tail section is tapered almost to a point and the cabin itself, viewed from above, takes the shape of a teardrop. The teardrop, indeed, is the main inspiration behind the overall shape. McLaren calls it "the fastest shape in nature."
The front wheels are concealed behind aero covers, which is the sort of thing you'd normally only see on hypermiling cars and electric distance racers. They're designed to stay fixed in place even as the wheels rotate, which should look nice and weird, while preventing the spinning wheels from pushing air outwards as they normally do.
There's no giant rear wing squashing the rear tires down onto the road. Instead, the Speedtail gets a pair of incredibly subtle active ailerons that gently peel themselves up from the smooth tail section when required, and fold back down to blend in when they're not, with a tolerance of just 1 mm. Watching them move is a little bizarre; we can't remember seeing flexible carbon fiber components before that quietly, hydraulically bend themselves into different shapes.
There are almost no shutlines at the top of the windows – we're not even sure how the window comes down within the confines of those giant, upward-opening dihedral doors. Perhaps it's just that tiny section at the bottom that's able to open at all, letting you poke a hand out to pay a toll. The entire rear section of the car lifts off as a single panel, further reducing shut lines. The high-temp radiators get their airflow from two tiny intakes at the back edge of the doors, while the low-temp ones are fed from just beneath the headlights and the motor is aspirated with a pair of downward sloping channels just behind the cabin, split by a vertical line of brake light LEDs.
And if you activate "Velocity" mode, the car sinks down by 35 mm (1.4 in) and the digital mirrors retract back into the sides of the doors, presuming that you're about to go so fast that anything behind you is irrelevant anyway.
Naturally, the entire body is carbon fiber, although that too is special. The bits that look like carbon – the splitter and diffusers and side skirts and whatnot – use a proprietary Jacquard weave and a micron-thin layer of titanium fixed over it using a deposition process, giving it a unique chrome-like sheen. This titanium can then be anodized any color you like, with names and logos also able to be printed onto it.
It doesn't end there. Look closely at the steering wheel and you'll see the results of another odd use of carbon, this time emanating from the watchmaking trade. In a process called "thin-ply technology carbon fiber," or TPT, sheets of carbon are laid in a weave, layer upon infinitely thin layer, each at a 45-degree angle to the one below, until a block is made. That block is then milled into shape, exposing a fine pattern that catches the light from all sorts of angles at once, and that shimmers like the surface of water as the light dances off it. TPT touches are dotted around the cabin.
Naturally, as with McLaren's other Ultimate series cars, just about everything is bespoke, meaning the options, colors and materials lists are as long as you care to make them. Prices start at UK£1.75 million (US$2.25 million), but that's a meaningless number now, as all 106 that McLaren plans to build are already sold. Sorry, you missed out. If it makes you feel any better, I missed out, too. We can all keep an eye on the second-hand market to see if this thing's going to go up or down in value. Either way, this is but the first of 18 new models or model derivatives that McLaren has in the works between now and 2025.
While there are familiar touches – the front lines, the headlights, the dihedral doors, the start and gearshift buttons – it's fair to say the Speedtail is a pretty radical departure from the typical McLaren look. In fact, looking at the back of it, and those flexible carbon ailerons, not to mention the symmetrical three-seat layout, it's hard to think of anything to compare it to.
Some will see the Speedtail as an awkward and tail-heavy shape. It may well be called the Suzuki Hayabusa of the automobile world, and not in a nice way. Others will find beauty in the extremes of its slipperiness; form in its function, if you will, or simply appreciate the elegant, gentle curves of the thing.
For my part, I'm a bit of a fan. It's unique and alien and otherworldly. I like how different it is to everything else – and what's more, I suspect these photo angles might not present it in its best light. I expect the Speedtail to be an absolute stunner in the flesh, one that gets better the closer you look. And I'm looking forward to hearing more about the drivetrain and chassis.