Goliath vs. Goliath
McLaren and Ferrari have been locked in the battle for the best supercar for years. With the 720S, McLaren may have taken the crown – for now. Matt Bubbers takes the 720 for a test drive
Think of Ferrari and McLaren like the Leafs and the Habs, or Barcelona and Real Madrid – age-old rivals with diehard fans, these two Formula One racing teams have been locked in a bitter rivalry since the 1960s.
The Italian team was a dominant, unstoppable force in the 2000s with Michael Schumacher, the master, behind the wheel.
It was the British team, however, that built the best Formula One car of all – the 1988 MP4/4 – and it was a McLaren in which Ayrton Senna performed some of the greatest miracles in motor racing. Ferrari has 227 race victories to McLaren's 182, but Ferrari had a 16-year head start.
"Now, I was with Ferrari, and into the first corner, Senna [in his McLaren] drove into the back of me, and he later admitted he did it on purpose," the four-time F1 champion Alain Prost wrote in Autoweek.
"I always said, Ayrton didn't want to beat me, he wanted to destroy me."
The rivalry between McLaren and Ferrari has recently spilled over from the race track onto the road. Since McLaren returned to the supercar game in 2010, the two firms have been trading blows. Ferrari's 458 was outmuscled by McLaren's 650S, which was humbled by Ferrari's 488, whose supremacy is now being challenged by McLaren's latest, the 720S.
Yes, on paper these supercars are reduced to an ugly jumble of numbers, but make no mistake: Fantasies revolve around these cars. Lifelong obsessions are born, people spend hours reading about them, no matter whether they have the money for even a set of McLaren wiper blades.
I'll never play for Barcelona, but I'll watch just to see such virtuosos in action.
As the 2017 Formula One season gets under way, McLaren's performance thus far is less than virtuosic. Accepted dogma says when Ferrari's racing team is winning, its road cars are disappointing, and when the team is losing, Ferrari's road cars are brilliant. If the same holds true for McLaren, well, its Formula One team is utter garbage at the moment, which bodes well for the 720S.
It is a Tuesday morning in Rome when I am handed the keys to this $312,500 car.
The dihedral door swings up and forward. I brace for impact, naturally, as I expect my head to ping off the roof in the traditional supercar way, but it doesn't.
The doors include a large chunk of the roof, which means you can more or less step in and sit down into the McLaren.
Reckless Roman scooter pilots give no quarter, whizzing within inches of the carbon-fibre wing mirrors, which probably cost more than my first car. Teenagers on tattered Vespas forget to look where they're going and instead crane to take photos of the McLaren as if it were an alien on the autostrada, which, it is.
In three lanes, there are somehow five cars abreast, waiting for a light to turn green.
Thanks to the solarium-like cockpit on the 720S, all of this chaos is clearly visible. Everywhere, there is glass: the roof, and even the C-pillars have a glass insert. Such un-supercar-like outward visibility is made possible because the McLaren is built around a carbon-fibre monocoque, unlike the Ferrari 488 and Lamborghini Huracan, which are mere aluminum.
Unlike its 650S predecessor, the 720's carbon-fibre bathtub, in which passengers sit, extends around the windshield and over the roof, creating a complete carbon passenger pod. It's the reason the pillars can be so skinny. All the better to see the world whiz past.
The Romans built some of the greatest roads and yet, they seem to have only made marginal improvements in the past 2,000 years. The streets are as crowded with Fiat Pandas and scooters as they were with horses and chariots once upon a time, and probably just as rough.
The 720 handles these rutted, potholed streets with uncanny smoothness. Excellent ride quality is the hallmark of all Super Series models – from the 12C, to the 650S and 675LT – which have all had McLaren's clever hydraulically-interconnected damper system. The 720 features a second-generation system that adds a dozen sensors at the wheels linked to a new engine-control unit, which allows for a greater breadth of ability; the car is more compliant over bumps and more precise on a race track than its predecessor.
Complaints? The turbocharged engine note isn't scintillating. Seat controls are hard to reach. The infotainment system, while vastly improved, still lags on occasion.
The drive out of Rome is mercifully incident-free. The 720 can be surprisingly docile. You only need a quarter-throttle to speed around town. Only the carbon-ceramic brakes present difficulty. They require a lot of pressure on the left pedal, and you must press it deep to bring the car to a stop.
At a rural gas station, some locals and a truck driver saunter over. Passing cyclists stop to admire. There's a lot of " bella macchina!" and questions lost in translation. "Pornographico," says one of the Italians, which sums up the look of the 720 better than any word in English.
Everywhere, there is some ingenious detail. The controversial-looking headlights double as air-intakes for the low-temp radiators. The A-pillars are bare carbon-fibre. There's no unsightly air-scoop along the side of the car because it's hidden behind an outer door skin. The sculptural rear-wing deserves a place in the Museum of Modern Art. A red glow comes from the engine bay at night, which is probably the McLaren's only frivolity.
But what's the 720S like to drive? To really drive? Intense, pure and unflattering. It's your brutally honest best friend.
Consider this: It's only 0.1 seconds slower from 0-100-0 km/h than the multimillion-dollar, 1,000-horsepower McLaren P1 from four years ago. The 720 will come to a stop from 200 km/h in 4.6 eye-popping seconds, and rocket back up to 200 in 7.8 – which, by the way, is a half-second faster than Ferrari's 488 and a 10th of a second faster than McLaren's extreme 675LT. Fractions of a second matter with cars this good.
McLaren says 91 per cent of the 720's parts are new compared with the 650S. Engineers enlarged the motor to a 4.0-litre V-8, with two twin-scroll turbochargers. It's rated for 710 horsepower at 7,500 rpm and 568 lb-ft of torque at 5,500 rpm. The transmission is a seven-speed double clutch, which shifts even faster than before. Curb weight is 1,419 kilograms (1,283 dry), or 18 kilograms lighter than its predecessor.
The specs are impressive, but don't tell nearly the full story.
The 720 feels deceptively calm where most mid-engine supercars would feel anything but. At the Vallelunga circuit outside Rome, the 720 takes the first left-hander, a 200 km/h corner, as though it's glued to the road. Braking on a downhill, where a 650S would've gone squirrelly, the 720's new suspension geometry and hydraulic chassis control keeps the car steady, letting you brake harder and later. Once they're warmed up, slamming on the ceramic stoppers feels as though you've suddenly plunged the car into a tar pit. Braking performance is sickening, literally.
The rear suspension is stiffer with better toe control and is less prone to bump-steer. According to Chris Goodwin, McLaren's chief test-driver, developing the new hydraulically-linked suspension setup is "easily the most complex thing I've done at McLaren."
The hydraulic steering is alive with feedback, as you'd need it to be with a car that can do this kind of speed.
Through steady corners, there's a bit of safe understeer that can be immediately erased by a lift off the throttle or – if you're brave – by adding a big wallop of power. The car seems to rotate around your seat. You can trail brake aggressively into corners because there's so much stability from the rear it doesn't feel precarious.
The variable drift control is a bit of a misnomer. It lets the driver dial in how much rear-wheel slip is allowed before the car's traction control attempts to save you. It is not a magic drift button, nor would McLaren dream of making such a thing, Goodwin says. The 720S is not an easy car to drive over the limit. There's still no limited-slip differential. Once hot, the bespoke Pirelli P Zero Corsas have super-glue grip. You have to be assertive with the throttle to get the tail to come around on power, and when it does, it happens fast. The looser 570S is an easier car to play with in this respect. The 720s feels happiest powering out of corners with just a hint of oversteer.
The 720S is best, then, not as a hooligan's toy, but as a serious driving instrument. It is the sort of car that will make you a better driver, and will school you in the dark art of car control. It provides a masterclass in vehicle dynamics, and gives you all the feedback you could want. It doesn't hide its true nature under the veneer of electronic driver aids. It could take a lifetime to master, but it is as pure a supercar as you will find. On top of that, it's probably the most comfortable supercar in this class for day-to-day use. An impressive breadth of ability, then.
Debating whether McLaren or Ferrari is ultimately the better F1 team, or who makes the better supercar is fun, but, as with any great sports rivalry, it is the fans who win in the end. We get the most enjoyment out of the spectacle.
Watching two virtuosos in competition will always be a greater thrill than the final score.
But somebody has to win in competition. So, with the 720S, McLaren has taken the crown from Ferrari to become supercar champion of the world. For now.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.