NOV 06th 2015

Thank Frankel It's Friday – Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Power?

McLaren F1 Rowan Atkinson

Twenty-one years ago, it was my extremely good fortune to conduct the first and, so far as I am aware, to date only comprehensive road test of a McLaren F1. And once we had recorded all the data from rest to over 210mph, I sat down and wrote: ‘What you are looking at here is very possibly the fastest production road car the world will ever see…’.

Honda NSX promo

Which just goes to show what a mug’s game trying to peer into the future really is. No matter how you measure it, there are many cars, McLaren’s own P1 among them, that would blitz the F1 both in a straight line and around the track. I still happen to think it represents the single greatest advance in the supercar art but now know better than to suggest that will always remain the case.

The reason I made that facile prediction all those years ago is that, having spent several days in one, I simply could not conceive anyone being able to use a car with greater performance than it offered. I was also convinced it represented such a seven league leap in performance that, long before anyone else got close to catching up, some legislative killjoy or other would have outlawed cars of such immense, unfathomable performance. Wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

Truth is that while any McLaren F1 is now worth many millions of pounds, McLaren F1 performance is now achievable for far less money. Forget the P1, McLaren’s staple 650S has more power than did the F1, more torque and will get you from zero to points on your licence quicker than an F1 too. And if you don’t fancy spending that much you don’t have to, because there are Caterhams, Ariels and others a lot less that £50,000 will buy you that will both out accelerate an F1 from rest and post a faster lap time, and that’s before you start trawling the classifieds to see what kind of overboosted second hand Nissan GT-R is available for even less money than this.

McLaren 650S Spider

So performance that beggared belief 20 years ago is now almost routine. It’s not just that more accessible cars have become far more powerful in this time, it’s that they have the grip, the instant gearshifts, the traction control and the brakes to go with it.

Conventional wisdom suggests this will continue and that in 20 years time, it’s not just out and out sports cars that will possess this level of performance, but family cars too. Take that fast hatch archetype, the hot Golf, as your yardstick. Twenty years ago, those for whom a simple GTi was not enough could buy a VR6 Golf with 174bhp from its 2.8-litre, six cylinder engine. And jolly fast it was, or so it seemed at the time. It’s claimed 0-62mph time was, after all, just 7.6sec. Today that same conceptual space is occupied by the Golf R (a car GRR will drive very soon, ed), which offers 300bhp from its 2-litre, four-cylinder engine, enough to throw it to the same speed in just 4.9sec. And yes, I know that’s partly because it had four-wheel drive, but that’s precisely my point: it’s not just that cars are getting more powerful, it’s that we’re being provided with the means to deploy that power too.

‘There’s probably a lot of evidence to show that people won’t stop wanting power just because there’s nowhere to use it: they just like to know it’s there (and they like their friends to know it’s there even more).’

But not the geography. The one thing that hasn’t got better is the environment in which these cars will be driven. Roads have become more crowded, not just with cars but bicycles too and there are, of course, many more cameras, speed limits and other road users for whom driving quickly even in quiet, safe, open space is no longer a socially acceptable activity.

So one question is will a hot, but still entirely mainstream, Golf of 2035 really have well over 400bhp and, presumably, a 0-62mph time of better than 4sec? I think it will because, rightly or wrongly, that’s still seen to be a usable amount of power.

Golf GTi

To me the far more interesting question is what happens to the likes of McLaren and Ferrari. Back when I was road testing the F1, the staple mid-engined, two seat, V8 Ferrari was the 348GTB and it had 320bhp. Today that car’s direct descendant, the 488GTB has 660bhp. More than double. Are we really saying that in the same period again, standard production Ferraris will have 1,300bhp? Or more? Even now, driving a 488GTB fast is not an exercise of care-free abandon but, if you have any interest in your liberty and licence, saintly restraint.

I should have learned my lesson by now and stopped making predictions, but I really can’t see it happening. I’ve been anticipating an end to the power struggle for decades but I really can’t see it going on for too many more years. I hope instead companies like Ferrari and McLaren focus instead on making their cars lighter and better to drive – and there is some evidence to suggest that is happening.

Then again, there’s probably just as much evidence to show that people won’t stop wanting power just because there’s nowhere to use it: they just like to know it’s there (and they like their friends to know it’s there even more). Sooner or later, and my guess is sooner, a company like Bugatti is going to sign off for use on the public road a properly developed and homologated road car with a top speed of greater than 300mph. As someone who finds driving at just half that speed on public roads in Germany requires nothing less than total concentration, I find the prospect bewildering. Which, now I think about it, is probably all part of the appeal.

McLaren photography by James Lipman

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