First Drive: McLaren 12C GT Sprint

22 July, 2013 | by Ollie Marriage

It’s called the 12C Sprint, and it’s a track day car. Yep, R3m-or-thereabouts car that can’t actually race, and can’t be homologated for road use. Sound an oddity? Well, it’s a strategy Ferrari adopted a few years back with its FXX and 599XX cars and it hasn’t done them any harm. And besides, at least with the Sprint you get to keep the car yourself and park it at home.

The Sprint – pictured above (it’s the orange one), next to the P1 – fits into the McLarenhierarchy between the standard 12C road car and the full house GT3 racer, the idea being to give owners a taste of the latter mixed with most of the driveability of the former. As to its provenance, this is a tuned road car, rather than a detuned track car, even if it has been developed and will be looked after by McLaren GT, the people responsible for the racing program.

Things have clearly happened here. There are slats, ducts and louvres in the bodywork, a dirty great rear wing, new front grille and bumper design, but no more power. The Sprint retains the 12C’s 459kW 3.8-litre twin turbo V8, and performance figures are expected to be broadly the same. This is because despite the stripped out cabin, the Sprint weighs near enough the same as the 1434kg road car. Thanks, rollcage.

It’s so much more purposeful inside though. The intention has clearly been to make drivers feel like they really are at Le Mans. Toggle switches have replaced the usual infotainment set-up, there are serious seats, a black band across the top of the windscreen that reduces visibility to a few inches and lots of square footage of real estate that used to be filled by sound deadening and trim. If you didn’t know better you’d swear you were occupying the seat of something very serious indeed.

Yet underneath, the mechanical set-up is broadly the same, although there’s a new cooling system that includes the radiator from the GT3 car, while the suspension has been dropped 40mm and electronically retuned, and it’s running on slick tyres. Not lightly-cut track day rubber, note, proper smooth and polished Pirelli slicks. McLaren uses our Dunsfold track for testing and claims the Sprint is five seconds faster per lap (although it won’t tell us what the lap time actually is).

To the Goodwood Hill then, for a preliminary see-what-its-all-about. Its definitely more raucous than the standard car and has the short, sharp bounce to its body movements at low speed that characterises a tightly controlled racing car. Proper harness obviously and some more aggressively cambered wheels, just to set things off. It should be intimidating, but getting down to the start line it’s really only the poor turning circle that’s problematic. No gear whine, reverse engages as easily as in the road car, and when I fire it off the line, there’s no savage bad behaviour, just the familiar linear forcefulness, overlaid with a dirtier soundtrack.

It’s deeply rapid, mind you. Quicker than the Porsche GT3 Supercup racer I’d driven the day before and although it doesn’t feel any more weightless than the road car, I’d swear the gearing had been shortened given the eagerness with which the twin turbo V8 consumed each ratio that was handed to it so politely by the twin clutch gearbox.

Cold slicks never generate that much feedback and Goodwood is not the place to investigate the limits of a car you’ve only ever driven 300yds before launching it off the line, but you feel the car’s eagerness to turn, and, when you do, the preciseness of the line as the cambered outside wheel sits flatter on the tarmac. You only need small steering inputs and once back on the power through a corner, traction is immense, genuinely startling. And as you marvel at the speed with which you’re throwing yourself towards the flint wall, it’s good to know that McLaren has fitted even beefier carbon ceramic brakes to help slow those 19-inch centre lock OZ wheels effectively.

I can’t think of another car I’ve driven quicker, or been happier driving quickly with so little familiarity, up the Goodwood Hillclimb, than the Sprint. This is no quick gap-filler, but a car that McLaren has teased and honed into a drivable racer. Maybe only 20 will be sold this year, and I still don’t know who will buy one, but I’m pretty sure they’ll love the experience.

Because what we have here is a 12C with every ounce of road car slop taken out, but the trustworthiness left in. An angrier McLaren, but one that’s on your side. It has ABS and ESP and if that isn’t enough to put your mind at rest, as well as the FIA-approved rollcage, there’s an integrated fire extinguisher system. But for me, it offered two things that made it a) better than any road car I’ve driven, and b) better than any track car I’ve driven. In case you’re wondering, the answer to a) was air jacks, and b) was air conditioning.

     

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