I first met Rowan Atkinson in 1997 at the unveiling of the then latest version of the McLaren F1 race car. I remember talking to him about Richard Noble’s and Andy Green’s extraordinary quest to break the sound barrier on earth and not much else. But we happened to leave at the same time and walked across the car park to where his brand new McLaren F1 awaited. By then I knew F1s quite well, but I still couldn’t take my eyes off it. Its dark burgundy red paint was so subtle, yet so far from an obvious choice for such car (indeed no other F1 road car shared its colour), but for some weird reason I was more fascinated by its instruments. Unlike every other F1 (of which there were just 63 in standard specification), his were white on black rather than the other way around. And they were utterly gorgeous.
Spool forward to the present day and there’s Rowan Atkinson welcoming me to his home and his F1 and what do I most want to do? Look at those clocks again. Seventeen years, 41,000 miles and two quite big accidents later, they are as captivating as ever.
I know Rowan a little better now, having shared a small amount of both Revival and Festival track space with him at Goodwood over the years. He is not just a properly quick driver, but also an enthusiast in the truest sense, with passion and knowledge that makes me realise how many people I know in this industry who merely effect a love of cars for the sake of expedience or credibility.
I’m here on assignment. Atkinson has decided the time has come to sell the F1 and recognises that words such as these in a place such as this may possibly lead to a buyer being found. And no, before you ask, I have no idea what he’s asking for it though my very strong suspicion is that it will begin with a ‘1’ and be followed by not six, but seven, digits. And that’s not because it’s owned by a famous man, for that factor may or may not be offset in full or part by its well documented unscheduled interactions with the scenery, but because if you think McLaren F1s are rare in general, even they are rather common relative to single owner F1s like this.
Why is he selling it? If you want an insight into the mind of the man, his answer provides it. ‘I bought it for the quality of the thinking behind it. Now it has become a thing of value, it is time for someone else to enjoy it.’
That thinking belongs to Gordon Murray and Atkinson is evangelical on the subject: ‘Look at a modern supercar of comparable performance and it will be vast, heavy and offer little or no space for your luggage. By comparison the F1 is tiny yet will seat three, store enough for you all to go on holiday and still find space for a proper, normally aspirated 6.1-litre V12 engine. And it weighs the same as a shopping car. Nothing has ever been designed before or since with such imagination and clarity of thought.’
The lanes of rural Oxfordshire are cold and wet, similar to those conditions that contributed to an accident sufficiently big for the F1’s carbon fibre construction to be almost certainly the only reason Atkinson was able to avoid serious injury. It has of course been returned to at least as good as new condition by McLaren itself but there’s no need to tempt fate.
Still, Atkinson drives swiftly but smoothly, extolling the virtues of its rifle-bolt gearshift and unassisted steering and brakes. ‘Unlike modern supercars, the F1 is a completely analogue machine. It doesn’t invite you to sit back and watch the show, you have no choice but to take part yourself. I like that in a car.’
I ask him to tell me about his favourite drive in the car and the answer is once more illuminating. ‘You can take the car to the race track (and he has, pulling over 200mph in it) or over mountain passes but what make it so different to other supercars is that you don’t have to. You don’t need to plan a long distance journey with military precision before it’s worth getting out of the garage. You just get in and because it’s so small, comfortable and practical, go and do the school run. Or the shopping. Really, the vast majority of the miles have been accrued doing outwardly very mundane trips.’ But on every one he knew he’d need just the shortest straight for the F1 to deliver a thrill of such intensity you could drive most other supercars for the rest of your life and not experience anything similar.
Just once he squeezes the titanium throttle pedal just a little harder than necessary to make the point. We’d been ambling and chatting for so long were it not for the arrowhead three position cabin layout I might have forgotten what I was in. The sharp bark from its 627bhp, 6.1-litre V12 BMW engine would soon have reminded me. Unlike the modern generation of turbocharged supercars, there’s no pause for thought: it just flings you. And seemingly in that very instant you are already somewhere else.
But back to his story. ‘Probably my best moment in the car was just a few months after I took delivery. I remember driving down to Cornwall for a holiday with my two then very young children. We packed all our bags without problem, I put their child seats in the car, strapped them in and set off on the five-hour journey. I can remember looking at them a few minutes later and both were already fast asleep. And I thought to myself what kind of car was it that could seat three in such comfort, carry enough for a week away yet also do 240mph? There was no other then, and there is no other now.’
Photography: James Lipman
Rowan Atkinson’s McLaren F1 is being sold by Taylor & Crawley