Carlo Della Casa replaced Dick Glover as Engineering Director of McLaren Automotive in 2011, just as the 12C was signed off for production. Talk about needing to make a mark. The 12C may have come in for criticism in some areas, but overall it was an astounding achievement to create such a highly technical and accomplished machine in such a short period of time. To go from nothing to worrying Ferrari is no small thing.
But Carlo knows a thing or two about Ferrari. He came to McLaren following an 18-year stint in Italy and was more than a little involved with the sublime 430 Scuderia and the current 458 Italia. And it’s the latest, even more focused, version of the 458 that McLaren’s new 650S model is ostensibly aimed at.
Not that Carlo mentions the Speciale by name, but he refers to the 650S’s “main rival” and boldly claims that it can’t touch the McLaren. Admittedly, both cars record a three-second 0-62mph time and the 650S’s top speed is only about 5mph faster than the Ferrari, but it’s the mouth-watering technical recipe of the 650S that demands scrutiny.
The ‘650’ part of the name comes from the 650PS output of the twin-turbocharged V8 mounted mid-ships; that’s 641bhp in old money. And while that is only 25bhp more than the McLaren 12C’s output, it puts some more clear air between the 650S and the 597bhp Speciale. Indeed, the 3.8-litre unit in the McLaren also produces more torque, up from 600- to 678Nm, making the 458 Speciale’s 540Nm seem relatively tame, although the Ferrari has a lower dry weight figure in its favour.
Carlo is quick to point out that a lot more has been done to the 12C’s engine than simply upping the boost. His speciality these days is system integration and control, and for the 650S that meant enhancing the whole driving experience by making each of the sub-systems work together in harmony. When Della Casa joined in 2011 there were three people in the Control Group; by the end of 2014 the team will have 42 full-time members.
One of the most fascinating applications of this theory comes in the control of the seven-speed ‘SSG’ dual-clutch transmission. First up, the clutch control software has been rewritten, in a bid to improve low-speed driveability and smoothness. McLaren also claims that the update has made gear changes quicker. Carlo is very proud of the fact that his team writes all of the control code internally before sending it to Bosch for embedding in the control modules.
But of most interest here is the new-found integration of the engine and transmission. Two new features stand out. The first, under full-throttle acceleration, is called ‘inertia push’. It effectively raises the engine speed at a faster rate for each gear ratio, which, McLaren claims, results in no drop in hard acceleration as a driver changes gear. The second, under part throttle conditions, appears to be an attempt to address criticism from some quarters of the McLaren’s engine note at normal speeds. During part-throttle upshifts, there’s a rapid ‘cylinder cut’, which is said to create a distinctive sound, so drivers can theoretically enjoy it without losing their licence.
Carlo hinted that there’s a lot more to come on using the V8’s engine sound to the fullest. Intake and exhaust tuning will always play a large part in this, but a relatively unexplored avenue is the vibration of the engine through the car’s chassis and Carlo reckons McLaren is “way ahead of everyone else” in that regard.
Speaking of which, the 650S shares the 12C’s carbon fibre ‘MonoCell’ structure with aluminium sub-frames front and rear, but there’s been a lot of work done around this intrinsically stiff and strong foundation. The ‘ProActive Chassis Control’ (PCC) system is retained, with Winter, Normal, Sport and Track modes, but the programming is different, and so are some of the mechanicals.
Somewhat confusingly, McLaren says that ride comfort is enhanced because of new damper mounts, yet Carlo tells us that the 650S’s focus is on a more engaging driving, so Track mode, for instance, is much more extreme than before. Firmer springs and dampers are also fitted, though the result is claimed to be less ‘float’, making the 650S more comfortable overall.
Helping reduce any floating sensation further is a new aerodynamic package. This is where the sold-out P1 influence came in. The 650S clearly mimics the P1 at the front, and though there’s now a family look to follow, the changes are as much about functionality as they are form. The new splitter and other tweaks result in 40 per cent more downforce at a speed of 150mph, while making the car more stable overall.
As if that’s not enough, the ‘Airbrake’ spoiler at the rear is now more active than before, coming into play not only under heavy braking, but whenever the army of sensors and computers reckon a little more downforce would do no harm – McLaren gives the example of cresting a hill at speed. In a neat nod to Formula One’s DRS system the rear wing also now flattens when the 650S is driven fast in a straight line.
And while McLaren has built the 650S for those who like to drive hard, it also wants to make it clear that it’s not a highly-strung, stripped-out track special. The interior is relatively luxurious, with Alcantara trim as standard and even satnav and DAB radio, plus plenty of soft leather options. There’ll be an open-topped Spider version of the 650S available from launch.
One option that Carlo himself highly recommends “to feel at one” with the car is the new carbon-fibre racing bucket seat. His body language when describing how this feels will be all too familiar to driving enthusiasts. McLaren’s technical future is in good hands.