FIRST MAN, the film adaptation of James Hansen’s book First Man: The life of Neil A. Armstrong, is a ferocious emotional rollercoaster, one that artfully waterboards you with the full spectrum, from grief and sadness through panic and hope to wide-eyed awe. The panic’s there most obviously in the moments of lost control, when pioneering spacecraft tumble out of control in the pitiless vacuum of space.
However, for me it also crept in during quieter moments. Like when the astronauts, in full kit and carrying their little white life-support suitcases, walk the length of the gantry to board through Saturn V’s access hatch: an invitation to climb into a cramped and almost windowless cockpit at the top of a 110-metre-high pile of fuel and ’60s wiring. Brave doesn’t begin to cover it.
The new Speedtail, McLaren’s first hybrid since the P1/P1 GTR, feels a little like a fourwheeled Saturn V. It’s dazzlingly ambitious, pragmatically evolutionary in a couple of technical respects, but innovative in many more, and brave. Both are shaped to battle the treacly drag of our atmosphere, both are powerful beyond comprehension, and both are designed to transport human beings at terrific speed, inevitably shifting their crews’ perspective on the universe a little as they go.
But there are one or two key differences. Next to Saturn V the Speedtail looks almost affordable at $3.16m (106 will be built, just as 106 examples of the similarly three-seat F1 were also produced). The Speedtail also promises to be a good deal more comfortable than the NASA rocket.
“The mission was to create the first three-seat hyper-GT and the fastest McLaren yet – a car in which to effortlessly cross continents, at speed and in lightweight luxury,” says design director Rob Melville. The word ‘lightweight’ is worth noting, as the world races to make Bugatti Chiron comparisons. (The Speedtail weighs 1430kg dry, the Chiron 1995kg wet.) And unlike Saturn V, I won’t hesitate should I ever be presented with an open door to the Speedtail’s driver’s seat.
The McLaren’s promises to be some driver’s seat. It is, of course, in the middle of the car, with a passenger seat at each shoulder and upholstered in the finest leather, with a reptilian scaling to the bolsters for lateral support. It’s accessed via powered dihedral doors that take most of the glass roof with them as they rise, so close are their hinges to the car’s centreline. You then climb in, your route to the hot seat easier than you might think thanks to a dropped outer sill and the absence of the centre sills that made getting into the F1 such a contortion.
“We just didn’t need the inner sills, thanks to the advances we’ve made in carbon fibre and the way in which we engineer our Monocage structures,” explains Ultimate Series line director Andy Palmer.
This tub, while 720S-based in its earliest guises, is now so different as to be considered a discrete design, with entirely different bulkheads (at the front to take the pedalbox and driver’s feet; at the rear to package the passengers, battery pack and fuel cell).
Make yourself comfortable and, even if you’ve never seen First Man or dreamed of flying, you can’t help but think of such things as you take it all in. In your hands, a steering wheel devoid of controls and clutter. Behind it, the three screens of McLaren’s new MMI (driver’s display in the middle, flanked by twin touchscreens). Ahead of you, the unbroken panorama of the Group C-style bubble windscreen. And above and behind, yet more glass thanks to a cockpit glazed like a Heinkel’s. (On bright days photo-chromatic glazing will tint opaque to save your eyes, so the McLaren doesn’t need sun visors.)
Glance from side to side and your eyes come to rest not on anything so prosaic as wing mirrors, but instead on screens taking their feed from rear-view cameras – McLaren claims the set-up’s lighter, less draggy and safer than mirrors. Look up and there, on the roof liner, you’ll find the primary controls: drive, reverse, neutral and the drive-mode selectors, one each for Powertrain and Chassis, offering two settings each: Comfort and Sport.
And under your right foot? 772kW and the petrol/electric hybrid shove to go from zero to 300km/h in 12.8sec. The P1, not a slow car itself, took 16.5sec to do the same. Just imagine sitting there, prodding the thing into life and, with a low burble – Palmer’s promising a far more discreet exhaust note than is normally the case on McLaren’s cars – rolling off the inductive charging pad in your garage floor (the Speedtail will wirelessly charge its battery) and heading out in a road car with the power of a Le Mans LMP1 hybrid. Out of this world? It won’t be far off.
Time for some context. Such is McLaren’s fecundity (and, to an extent, its wily platform commonality) that the last thing you might be ready for is another one. The Speedtail, all of which are long since spoken for, is not P1’s successor. That car, confirmed as not being called P2, will arrive before the end of Woking’s 2025 mid-term plan. But both cars are Ultimate Series machines, as is the Senna (and Senna GTR).
The P1, the first Ultimate Series McLaren, had a mixed road/ track remit, putting it in the middle of the series’ bandwidth. Senna and Senna GTR are track focused. By contrast, and despite its billing as the most powerful McLaren yet, the Speedtail is road focused.
Which explains a few things, like the 50mm wheelbase increase over Senna/720S, dulling the Speedtail’s agility, the lack of a rear wing, the fact that there’s no Track drive modes and the big (by McLaren standards) wheels – 20 inches at the front, 21 inches at the rear. “Bigger wheels just add weight, which isn’t very McLaren, but the car’s proportions needed them, it’s a balance,” says Melville.
The shape Melville’s team has delicately hung upon those four wheels is, to these eyes at least, astonishing. It is to all intents and purposes a 5137mm-long and lovingly wrought carbon-fibre teardrop just big enough to hold its occupants and the powertrain that moves them. McLaren isn’t claiming a drag figure just yet, but the Speedtail surely sets new standards – you intuit that from the form alone. You can’t help but notice the low, hammerhead nose, the pebble-smooth (‘wind-worn’, as Melville puts it) contours around the cockpit and the outlandish tail that tapers to a filament-thin trailing edge for efficient airflow separation.
“We drew inspiration from all sorts of sources. Formula 1 cars, particularly the aero-optimised surfacing over their engine covers, land-speed-record cars, salt flats belly-tankers, aerospace and the natural world; anything that flies or swims,” explains Melville, who refutes any accusation that his job was simply to embellish a shape engineered for low drag. The creative process at McLaren is, he insists, far more collaborative, and that shaping the car was as much about gut feel as wind-tunnel hours.
“If you’ve even a basic understanding of aerodynamics it’s amazing how close intuition will get you,” he says. “Take the length of the tail. We arrived at it quite naturally. I wanted this wasp-like curve to the car’s upper surface in profile. Where that line met the natural ramp angle of the diffuser coming up, that determined the length of the tail. We played with it, taking it out further and shortening it, but the length those lines suggested turned out to be right.” When talking about the Speedtail, Melville has the look of a man who can’t quite believe his good fortune. Car designer briefs surely come no dreamier than this one. “Art and science meeting in a concept car for the road – that’s how we think of it,” he grins broadly, entirely aware of how verbose that sounds and yet comfortable saying it because, well, it’s so obviously true.
As with the 720S before it, Melville sees the challenges McLaren’s high-performance engineering sets his design team as a stimulating positive rather than barriers to its creativity. That’s borne out in this car and its integration of form and function, the body massaging air around and through itself like some highly evolved organism. An organism with optional 18-carat white-gold badges, no less.
If the face bears a passing resemblance to a 720S in the lights (with Porsche Mission E-style vertical DRLs), from there the Speedtail goes surreally fluid. Vents at the front feed the low-pressure radiators and channel airflow through to the car’s flanks, helping keep it attached and reducing drag. The carbon front wheel covers, mounted statically just clear of the speed-blurred 10-spoke wheels, further boost aero-efficiency and, aesthetically, back Melville’s concept-car assertion.
Further aft, shoulder intakes feed the high-temperature radiators. And then there’s the small matter of the tail. This, truly, is where the magic is. From the cascading engine cover that is punctuated by a sci-fi slit of a high-level brake light, to the sunken snorkel for the powertrain’s airbox (and filler caps for water and fuel; the tank’s good for at least 60 litres) and the yawning diffuser tunnels, from which the two vast elliptical exhausts spew their gases. Those diffusers dominate the rear aspect, their sculpted emptiness stretching from the rear suspension right to the car’s trailing edge. In fact, production-spec Speedtails will have aero elements mounted to the wishbones.
Back here you’ll also find one of the car’s two luggage compartments. Stick your suitcase in the nose, while the smaller rear bay is good for the bespoke, McLaren-supplied flight and accessories bags. And finally, at the body’s trailing edge, there are the NASA-inspired ailerons: hydraulic control surfaces integral with the carbon-fibre skin of the car.
“The goal was ultra-low drag at all speeds, but we also needed to be able to trim the car,” explains Palmer. “We’ve submitted patents on these ailerons. There’s a 1.5mm split line on each side but, where you’d expect a hinge, the bodywork is continuous with the control surface – the carbon fibre bending is the hinge, powered by hydraulic actuators. They’ll work in harmony to trim the car’s attitude [not asymmetrically, as the Huracan Performante’s active aero does, among others]. We didn’t want a huge wing: it didn’t fit with the ethos of the car, either aerodynamically or aesthetically.”
As for the powertrain, Palmer’s not saying much. The petrol engine is likely a version of McLaren’s proven and versatile twin-turbo V8. But Palmer’s adamant that the e-motor and battery technology are innovative, and that the P1 isn’t a helpful point of reference. “We offered some [EV-only] range on P1 – we won’t on Speedtail. The way in which we deploy the electric power will be quite different. And the inductive charging will only ever top the battery up, like a trickle charger, rather than charge it from empty, as you do with a pure EV.”
With a glint in his eye, Palmer signs off with mention of Velocity mode. Required to hit the Speedtail’s 403km/h V-max, Velocity will raise the petrol engine’s idle speed, priming the battery, retract the rear-view cameras and drop the car 35mm on its suspension. Palmer confirms the Speedtail runs McLaren’s hydraulically interlinked active chassis control, with calibrations broadly comparable to the 720S. In other words the Speedtail, outside of Velocity mode at least, should be every bit as comfortable and cosseting as its GT remit implies. And in Velocity mode? A rocketship no doubt.