1992 MCLaren F1
‘The original target had been for around 550bhp, but in its final form the astonishing BMW V12 made 627bhp
It wasn’t meant to be all about the top speed. The McLaren F1 was conceived not to be the fastest sports car in the world, but simply the best sports car in the world. That it turned out to be the fastest car of its decade – and went on to win Le Mans outright – were perhaps inevitable by-products of the purity of its original design.
By the late 1980s, McLaren had established itself as the most successful Grand Prix team of its era. However, McLaren’s technical director, Gordon Murray, was said to be increasingly disenchanted with the Formula One circus and had for some decades been nurturing the idea of creating a pure, roadgoing sports car. “I’d had the idea for this car in the back of an exercise book since the ’60s,” Murray told Autocar & Motor. McLaren chief Ron Dennis initially took quite a lot of convincing to take on such a project, but in 1989 Murray stepped back from designing Formula One machines and McLaren Cars Ltd was created with the intention of bringing Murray’s road car dream to life. By May 1990 he’d assembled the right team. “I sat down everyone we’d hired, and gave them every thought I’d had on this car in one marathon briefing,” he said. “It took 10 hours.”
Major landmarks in sports car engineering quickly followed. McLaren initially approached Honda, the race team’s engine supplier at the time, to provide the powerplant, but although the Japanese manufacturer was at the top of Murray’s wish-list, in the end McLaren went with BMW, which set about creating a bespoke, naturally aspirated 6.1-litre V12.
McLaren’s in-house team was more familiar with composites, and a three-seater carbonfibre tub was key to Murray’s aim of bringing the F1 to the road at less than 1000kg. It placed the driver centrally between two passengers, with the powertrain mounted behind.
In the end, McLaren couldn’t get carbon brakes to work properly at road speeds, so with iron discs the car arrived weighing more than originally had been hoped: Autocar & Motor weighed the F1 at 1138kg for the car’s 1994 road test, including half a tank of fuel.
But that engine made up for it. The original target had been for around 550bhp, yet in its final form the astonishing BMW engine made 627bhp at 7400rpm, resulting in a power-to-weight ratio of 551bhp per tonne, and 479lb ft of torque from 4000-7000rpm.
The car would hit 60mph from rest in 3.2 secs and 100mph in just 6.3 secs. While its top speed was still estimated to be ‘in excess of 230mph’, a prototype with only 580bhp had already hit 231mph around the banked test track at Nardò proving ground in Italy.
In broader terms, the F1 weighed less than a contemporary Volkswagen Golf hatchback but had more power than a Honda NSX and a Ferrari 348GTB combined. It used a six-speed manual gearbox, there was no power steering and the brakes were unassisted, too. “The F1,” Ron Dennis said of the car in 1993, “is all about the pleasure of knowing that what’s doing it right is you.”
That same pleasure is what makes an F1 so exciting today. We didn’t drive the car in these pictures, a GTR racer converted for road use and finished in evocative Papaya Orange: McLaren built just 106 F1s and their rarity, along with the elevated status that goes with it, means values have swollen by more than 30 times from the original list price – and figures such as those aren’t received well by insurers.
But two years ago I drove one at a proving ground for long enough to melt the rear numberplate, and the experience will stay etched in my mind for as long as I retain my faculties. The V12 starts without the histrionics that accompany so many of today’s supercars, but its smoothness is uncanny, and as revs rise it takes on as much drama as any of the world’s great engines. Its response is pure and linear, and matched by the other controls: the gearshift is positive, the steering picks up weight as cornering forces build, and it’s engaging and involving like precious little else, with the stiff composite shell meaning that it retains a sense of responsiveness and modernity. In its immediacy and compactness the F1 feels, in a way, not unlike a Lotus Elise – only with a frankly preposterous amount of shove behind it. This car has a higher power-to-weight ratio than a Bugatti Chiron.
McLaren’s laid-back approach to the subject of top speed is illustrated by the fact that the firm took until 1998 to head to Volkswagen’s Ehra- Lessien test track, with an F1 modified only by having a slightly raised rev limit. Until then, the record books through the 1990s had read ‘217mph’ and ‘Jaguar XJ220’. Andy Wallace, who had finished on the podium at Le Mans in an F1, was at the car’s wheel as the McLaren hit 240.1mph. At the time, some publications speculated that there might never be another road car that would go so fast. As it turned out, they were wrong…
Thanks to Thomas Reinhold, McLaren Special Operations (cars.mclaren.com)
LAND SPEED RECORD IN A CAR
Wing Commander Andy Green has told the tale of ‘a bit of oppo’ at just below the sound barrier many times, but on 15 October 1997 it didn’t stop him achieving a top speed of 763mph in the twin Rolls-Royce Spey-engined Thrust SSC at Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. That record still stands: perhaps the only person who will break it will be Green himself
TECHNICAL DATA FILE 1992 MCLaren F1
- Sold/number built 1992-’97/64 (road cars only; 106 in total)
- Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 6064cc 60º V12, with electronic fuel injection
- Max power 627bhp @ 7000rpm
- Max torque 479lb ft @ 4-7000rpm
- Transmission six-speed manual transaxle, RWD
- Suspension independent, by double wishbones, telescopic dampers, coil springs; front anti-roll bar
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes ventilated discs
- Weight 2509lb (1138kg)
- 0-60mph 3.2 secs
- Top speed 240.1mph
- Price new £634,500
- Price now £15-20m
Clockwise: drives in F1s are few and far between; driver sits centrally; GTR badging reveals this car’s racer origins; V12 is smooth but ludicrously powerful