T’S MID-afternoon just outside Rome and the clouds have long since disappeared.
A three-hour showdown awaits. That’s 37 laps on an empty Autodromo Vallelunga Circuit in McLaren’s new Super Sports hero, the 720S. No speed limit. No instructor. No pace car. No holds barred. It’s safe to say, this should be good.
Painted Aperol metallic, adorned with carbon-fibre accents and fitted with black 19- and 20-inch wheels, the 720S looks a world apart from the original MP4-12C – which was the forebear to the Super Series comprised of the 650S and 675LT. Designed by Rob Melville, the latest Big Mac avoids deja vu and doesn’t have poor rear three-quarter vision, flanks cut open by massive air intakes and door openings accessible by only the best contortionists.
Needless to say our ground-hugging test car is a smart-looking piece of kit. It’s perhaps over styled in places and visually close to the cheaper Sports Series, but it is a functional and competent tool nonetheless.
Although 91 per cent of the content is claimed to be new, the old electronics platform had to be carried over, which happens to be incompatible with a desirable head-up display and a host of advanced safety systems. Instead, the centre stack once more houses the familiar toggle switches which calibrate the handling and performance from Comfort to Sport and Track. Completing the ergonomic confusion are additional buttons labelled Active (manual gear shifts), ESP (can be switched off completely), Aero (triggers DRS at high speed) and launch control.
The most obvious cockpit-related novelty is the revolving instrument panel. In normal driving conditions it acts as a full-size display, but get the bit between your teeth and the panel can swivel into a slim mode, indicating only gear position, revs and velocity. The other major innovation – exciting in particular male customers under the age of 25 – is Variable Drift Control (VDC), McLaren speak for scalable traction control. Sliding an icon on the I touchscreen from left to right increases the maximum drift angle from timid to lurid. Sadly, the reality is that it’s not overtly intuitive to use.
It seems futile talking practicalities in a supercar, yet head and legroom is virtually unchanged and the optional glass roof lets in more light (and heat). The fully glazed carbon fibre upper structure removes all blind spots for an uncluttered, panoramic view which is as clear as gin without tonic. Pleasingly, entering a McLaren has never been this easy – even for my tall frame. It’s a set sequence, but the reward is the snug driver’s seat.
It’s time to fire up the beast. Simply comprehending theory is no more – especially when the subject is here to drive. As if on cue, a sizzling Orange outline enters pit lane with a crackling exhaust, steaming brakes and tyres covered in marbles.
Thanks to the optional sports exhaust, the engine starts with a misbehaving gun salute before lapsing into a flowing, dense and somewhat impatient idle.
The in-dash monitor is already beginning to fill with telemetry and data, including Chris Goodwin’s benchmark lap time. And given he’s McLaren’s test driver and of '90s British touring car ilk, I dare say it won’t be threatened by lesser hacks like me.
The first few laps are hopeless. Reacquainting myself with the track and adapting to the car is one thing – coping with the juddering from the marble-studded tyres is another. Looking through the windscreen while being shaken to bits feels like trying to deciphering a mirage while under the influence.
The only way to remedy this and clean the well-used Pirelli P Zeros is via repeated hard cornering and braking. Frustratingly, just as the grip starts to return we’re out of juice. The on-board computer says the 720S is averaging 96.6L/100km, that’s ninefold the official consumption. Gulp indeed.
Refuelled, the McLaren crew watch its creation rapidly disappear at an infernal 8000rpm. Around the historic Vallelunga track you snatch sixth twice, but always try to maintain at least 5500rpm where the 770Nm torque peak remains broad-shouldered.
With 530kW on tap, the featherweight 1283kg coupe can accelerate from rest to 100km/h in 2.9sec, storm to 200km/h in 7.8sec, reach 300km/h in 21.4sec and max out at 341km/h. Take that, Maranello.
Lap after lap it’s the instant, seamless mid-range punch which makes the mind boggle. Within less than 15 seconds the 720S can beam itself from 200 to 300km/h. Conversely, the ferocity at which it arrests pace is just as remarkable. That’ll be 100-0km/h in just 2.8sec or 29.7 metres – hold onto your hats. The elastic interplay between the power and torque curves, the rhythm-defining gearing and the anticipatory throttle response add up to a grand open-air performance only a handful of street-legal sports cars can ever hope to match or eclipse.
This thing really flies, and it copes like a pro with sudden camber changes, varying grip levels and tightening apexes. Failing to nurse the front tyres and being too eager on turn-in can result in understeer, but stabbing the throttle neutralises it. In many ways, it’s better to take it easy and let the car do its job. The McLaren is more about momentum than raw power.
It doesn’t rely on sky-high revs or mid-corner up-shifts to keep pace. It’s a McLaren that rewards smooth drivers and punishes the indecisive.
The hairpin, which forms part of the tighter, curly section of Vallelunga Circuit, calls for a pragmatic line and a patient feeding in of the ample torque. The remainder of the track, however, compiles the perfect recipe for instant adrenalin release. The Big Mac certainly likes its corners wide and fast while there’s a definite art to swift progress.
Constantly making mental notes is the key. Stay away from the kerbs on the entry to the start-finish straight, set the car straight early, shift flat-out into fourth and then fifth before roaring past the temporary BRAKE sign. Dip down the following depression before being easy on the throttle until the nose finally starts to hug the long apex. With regained grip and composure,
approach the double-apex right-hander and rifle through three down-shifts like a stealth fighter on attack. It seems excessive, but with the approaching scenery fast becoming a distant memory, you have to plan ahead or you’ll be out of sorts quickly.
What really makes the 720S feel so special on a demanding section of the track lined with gravel traps and tyre walls is the interaction with its talents. The tactile electro-hydraulic steering puts the blacktop right into the palm of your hands as the delicate handling balance overwhelms keen drivers like a drug. The riveting roadholding seems to extend the boundaries of adhesion and the energetic drivetrain pairs instant bite and long legs beautifully.
Like its famed predecessor, the new Super Series halo utilises Proactive Chassis Control for a special blend of poise and compliance. The modified suspension features redesigned uprights and double wishbones for improved feel and grip while cutting 16kg of weight. Hydraulically-interlinked dampers make anti-roll bars redundant and there is now a clear-cut difference between the three available drive modes. Variable Drift Control does a fine job of modulating the torque flow to the rear wheels, McLaren Brake Steer replaces the limited-slip differential with an advanced type of torque vectoring and the carbon-ceramic brake discs are bigger and fatter than ever.
Drawbacks? To be honest, we can only really nit-pick. You still can’t dial in a preferred personal dynamic set-up; there is no Ferrari-esque solutions such as the damper-control button accessed via the
The car the 720S must beat WHILE the Tifosi are cheering with renewed vigour in grandstands around the world this year, hapless McLaren fans are comparatively glum. However, reining in the Prancing Horses on-road is a fight the British marque is more than capable of winning.
While the P1 versus LaFerrari dual was somewhat null and void given their exclusivity, pitting a 720S against Maranello's 488 GTB is a comparison MOTOR is keen to have play out.
On paper they are actually closely aligned.
Both use relatively small-capacity, twinturbo V8s (3.9 litres for the 492kW/760Nm Ferrari), are midengined and send all their grunt to the rear wheels via a sevenspeed dual-clutch ’box.
Performance figures reveal the emerging duel, too, with the 488 GTB hitting 100km/h in 3.0sec and 200km/h in 8.3sec (claimed).
In terms of hip-pocket damage, the Ferrari's starting price undercuts the McLaren 720s at $469,998 before those expensive options.
The only clear advantage the Big Mac has is its on-scale number, with the Italian suffering carb overload for a 1475kg on-scale figure compared to the Brit at 1283kg (dry).
It might be the subhypercar class, but the tussle for grid supremacy off-track has never looked so tasty. This is McLaren's return of serve. The comparison awaits – game on.
Manettino DNA switch; the pedal pressure is too high when the brakes are cold and the Corsa tyres are useless as soon as any rain falls. Furthermore, why was the double paddle pull (to select neutral and mimic ‘popping the clutch’) replaced by a nondescript switch buried deep down in the centre console?
Yet, splitting hairs in a car like this seems facetious. What isn’t is the fact there are better locations to test a 530kW supercar than the outskirts of Rome. After leaving the track, bad roads, incompetent drivers and poor signposting pose a constant threat to the $489,900 signposting pose a constant threat to the $489,900 (base price) bahnstormer. In theory, Italian speed limits are about 90km/h on average. But in reality it varies from the text-messaging driver at 50km/h to the speed demon doing 200km/h on the autostrade.
At least now, for the 720S, you can actually see what’s going on around you behind the bulging buttocks.
Surprisingly, given the dynamic ability, with both control units set to Comfort, the McLaren combines commendable compliance with a drivetrain calibration that works on the road. Even the sevenspeed DCT ’box agrees with stop-go traffic and is content to shift autonomously. However, as soon as the blacktop unfolds in front of the McLaren’s LED eyes, paddle shifting is the only form of progress.
At this point the new satnav seems tedious. Yes, it’s superior to the previous device, but it needs to be faster still and more switched on. McLaren may also be waxing lyrical about its latest sound system, but in all honesty, the only music you want to listen to on the open road comes from behind. After all, the heavymetal tunes being played by the eight cylinders, 32 valves, four camshafts and twin turbos surpasses any subwoofer in existence. The evolutionary 4.0-litre powerplant not only gains a significant 52kW and 92Nm over the outgoing engine, it also has become more vocal and aurally satisfying.
Lit bright red for a few seconds when you unlock and open the door, the mid-mounted engine, codenamed M840T, sounds crisper, cleaner and more characterful than before. Thankfully, it also avoids the fake heel and toeing and noticeably artificial lift-off hysterics cultivated elsewhere. Capable of up to 160,000rpm, the two turbos offer a pleasing background whine and whistle. They tie in with the elevated exhaust, which adds a high-rev drumroll to the busy working noises, and the full-throttle intake snarl seems to sing a duet with the tailpipe baritone. It’s that intoxicating, but the experience isn’t over just yet, so one must somehow sleep.
At 9am the next day, we’re back on track. With fresh stamina, new boots and extra advice from the McLaren experts, playschool is over. It’s time to get serious. The fresh rubber makes a huge difference and the bar is raised in terms of stability, balance, response, confidence and admiration. Through the aforementioned high-speed, fifth-gear test of courage, the 720S suddenly begs for a harder spanking. The Pirellis are fresh and eager while there’s also 30 per cent more downforce than the 650S to play with.
The occasional waywardness experienced during the first outing has given way to enhanced grip and poise. As soon as you drop the anchors, the air brake deploys with an almighty whoosh, sticking the broad rear end to the ground. On the long straight it retracts and automatically assumes its lowest-drag position, adding a new emotional nuance to the already colourful character. A cheeky flick of the drift control beckons as the final toy to play with and truly manifests the devil inside.
The new McLaren 720S is a marvellous creation that can send you to dizzying heights. It’s the perfect car for transporting you into a state of delirium, while also synchronising your racing line and steering angle, testing g-forces and extending your braking points just that little further. Some may see this as a negative, but when rivals seem to want the last word in dialogue and aggression, the 720S remains somewhat benign, even with a clumsy hack in charge. Would I want one?
Does a shark eat red meat?
Once again the red lights flicker, signifying the final cooldown lap. A quick glance in the rear-view mirror shows a lobster-faced man with thumping temples and a dishevelled mop. Even though the excitement and experience is now safely stored away in my memory bank, I’m already game for round two.
Perhaps late next year... in the 720S Spyder.
Turbo V8 animal
BODY 2 doors, 2-seat coupe DRIVE rear-wheel ENGINE 3994cc V8, DOHC, 32v, twin turbo BORE/STROKE 93.0 x 73.5mm COMPRESSION N/A POWER 530kW @ 7500rpm TORQUE 770Nm @ 5500rpm POWER/WEIGHT 413kW/tonne TRANSMISSION 7-speed dual-clutch WEIGHT 1283kg (dry) SUSPENSION Independent adaptive dampers, dual wishbones, Proactive Chassis Control II (f/r) L/W/H 4543/1930/1196mm WHEELBASE 2670mm TRACKS 1674/1629mm (f/r) STEERING Electronically-assisted rack-and-pinion BRAKES (F) 390mm carbon-ceramic discs BRAKES (R) 380mm carbon-ceramic discs WHEELS 19.0 x 9.0-inch (f); 20.0 x 11.0-inch (r) TYRE SIZES 245/35 R19 93Y (f); 305/30 R20 (r) TYRE Pirelli P Zero Corsa PRICE $489,900 PROS Crazy performance; limitless handling ability CONS No dynamic personalisation; pedal pressure STAR RATING 11111