AUG 21st 2014

Spa‑trekking in the stellar McLaren 650S Spider – GRR goes to warp factor 11

A good night’s sleep definitely improves a 24-hour race. The schedule usually works out nicely, with a 4pm start offering a couple of hours of close-fought track action before the cars get too strung out. Then there’s the 6pm drift to a convivial dinner or barbecue and, around 10pm, the late evening session at one or two of your favourite corners. (Extending into the early hours if the weather is warm, and the refreshments are not.)

Then off to bed, ear-plugs in, with no rush to rise on Sunday as (aside from the ebb and flow of various heroic sporting challenges) nothing much happens until the chequered flag is unfurled. Only the most ardent 24hr fan would complain about having to witness the finish from a sofa in front of the TV highlights, a few days after the race.

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‘Our’ car, parked between 650S and 12C racers at Spa

I offer the above mainly as explanation for our absence from McLaren GT’s hospitality unit on Sunday at the Spa 24 Hours, having thoroughly indulged ourselves there on Friday and Saturday.

Not that we needed much of an excuse, although our McLaren hosts gamely stayed the course to cheer in a single 12C GT3 finisher from the six that started. Shocking luck, and the sort of performance that guarantees one of those weary ‘that’s racing’ shrugs from team principals… at least in public. The language may have been a little richer behind closed doors.

We can’t say, because we didn’t stay to ear-wig. Because instead of diving headlong again into the McLaren GT ‘all day buffet’ we headed off for a look at the infamous old Masta Kink, and a little exploration of those parts of the Ardennes Forest that are local to the legendary circuit. Our ride? The four-wheeled phenomenon that’s also known as the 650S Spider, and a close relation of the 12C GT3 racing cars that McLaren GT (McLaren Automotive’s motorsport arm) goes out of its way to support.

Come into my parlour, said the Spider…

Our weekend road-trip was never going to offer the chance than to do more than scratch the surface of the 650S’s absolute performance and anyway, GRR has trumpeted the dynamic attributes of the marvellous McLaren several times already. But it was a genuine opportunity to experience the more practical benefits of 650S ownership, which we discovered are manifold and delivered as an almost casual aside to its flabbergasting propensity to break the laws of physics. (And, er… of nations.)

The supercar has come a long way since the term was first coined, and it’s a jolly good thing too. When you’ve a four-hour run over Belgium’s horridly noisy motorway surfaces to contemplate, the last thing you really need is a raucous exhaust or induction system roaring in your earhole, or indeed having your fillings rattled out. Owners know this, of course, although road-testers sometimes seem a little divorced from that reality.

So that’s what a warp drive looks like

In the 650S at cruising speed the engine hardly intrudes, and the ride has a marvellously damped quality that suggests the pot-holes of Woking are at least as useful to road car developments as any corner of the Nürburgring. It’s fair to say the McLaren Automotive engineering team have fairly nailed the 650S as a daily driver. The steering is smooth and positive, the automated gear changes seamless, and even the brake pedal has pleasant ‘road car’ type of progressiveness. With its clever suspension, and incredibly rigid construction that’s every bit as stiff as the 650S coupé, you can forget scuttle-shake, flexing or any other form of structural compromise in the Spider, too.

On the limit – watch the McLaren 650S in our exclusive Hillclimb Roadtest!

We naturally tested the Spider’s suitability for grand touring to the limit by completing the journey open-topped, so were able to be equally impressed by the lack of turbulence at speed. You can settle into an 85mph-ish cruise and still just about exchange sweet nothings with your passenger, whose hair-piece should remain pleasingly unruffled. We also noted the position of the Spider’s electric glass rear window appears to have little effect on either noise or turbulence, as the car slips so efficiently through the air. Conversation becomes difficult at higher speeds quite quickly.

McLaren design detailing is never mere ‘jewellery’

Then again, prodding the 650S Spider’s throttle in any gear does focus the attention for both driver and passenger, and stunned silence is usually the result. Below 80mph, occupants shouldn’t need to raise their voices with the roof down or up – unless it’s to shout at the sat-nav. (We got on quite well with the unusual ‘portrait’ screen orientation, but couldn’t find the motor circuit for love nor money until we remembered it’s actually in Stavelot, not Spa…)

It must be said that the 650S’s lack of aural drama – the twin turbo effect for you – is occasionally marked down by McLaren’s reviewers. Fair enough, but I like to imagine the McLaren brand attracts owners who intend putting mileage on their motorcars, ahead of those who desire only to test the patience of Knightsbridge residents.

And being successful ‘alpha’ types (our example was spec’ed up to a hefty £275k including various carbon dress-up bits), typical 650S buyers presumably also have glamorous partners who will appreciate the capacious luggage well in the nose of the car. (Photographer Jason who rode shot-gun to Spa is rarely described as glamorous, but would he shut up about the various outfits and spare pairs of shoes he left behind ‘unnecessarily’ on the basis of my dire fore-warnings about the likely available space? Perhaps there is something to be said for a noisier exhaust pipe after all…)

Amazingly – bags of room under the bonnet

Between us we spent some considerable time searching for flaws in the 650S package (of course making allowances for it being one of the world’s most thrilling driving experiences), and the best I could come up with is the potential for discomfort caused to unreasonably tall drivers like myself (6’4”) by the carbon ‘sports’ seat option, which pushed my shoulders a little too far forward, and left my lumbar region unsupported. GRR colleague Andy (6’3”) recognises the problem too, but it’s one of those 97th percentile things we usually suffer in silence. (An Autocar road test recently decried the lack of hip room; we think they should turn down a few more of those lavish industry lunches…)

Elegant simplicity – and it even comes with cup-holders

We also quite admire McLaren’s philosophical determination to keep the grippy little wheel reserved solely for steering, but I did occasionally wish the go-faster controls in the central console were a little closer to ‘straight-ahead’ eyeline. The McLaren’s Normal, Sport and Track controls are on the central console and could hardly be described as hidden or complicated, but there’s a separate push-button to activate them which requires a driver to take at least one eye off the road for a second or so, and in six seconds the 650S can hit the ton from rest…

On an even more subjective level, while it may be true that the 650S’s shape has been honed by the wind, close-up some of those lightweight SMC panels look and feel a teensy-bit ‘blow-moulded’. Then again, maybe it’s a bit old-school to hanker after a crisply worked aluminium body from a brand that revolutionised use of carbon fibre all the way back in the 1980s.

Anyway, who in their right mind could deny the 650S’s looks are as marvellous as its performance is mighty? Not the gaggle of kids and dads who appeared at every service station, coffee stop and friterie between Woking and Spa, eager to pore over a car dripping with wow-factor from nose to tail, that’s for sure.

Which is why – if relaxing road trips are really your thing – you probably own a Range Rover…

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