x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Nimble, precise, accurate

McLaren's new supercar may not be ready for production but Jay Leno finds it is already a focused package.

McLaren's new MP4-12C in action on the Dunsfold track in the UK.
McLaren's new MP4-12C in action on the Dunsfold track in the UK.

You know, a trip to the UK is a pretty rare thing for me. Last time I was in England was ten years ago and that was also for a visit to Woking - when I bought one of the McLaren F1 road cars, a car many regard as the best car of all time. I have to agree. So last summer, when the guys at McLaren asked if I'd like to come and see a prototype of the new road car, at the time called the P11 but now unveiled as the MP4-12C, I accepted. Mind you, the same week I did go on Top Gear, visit Goodwood and launch the new Jaguar XJ. But McLaren was a highlight.

The thing that endears McLaren to me is you can go to the factory and talk to the people who actually build your car. In the same way that if you're into clothes, if you talk to a tailor, you might not know the fabrics and exactly how it's done but you know what you like and you can communicate with them. Antony Sheriff, the managing director at McLaren Automotive, showed me around the McLaren Technical Centre. To see a workshop so clean, so open, where everyone doing his or her job in the most ecologically way possible I thought was a sort of sorbet for my appetite; sort of cleanse the pallet to get ready to see the new car.

Not only do I like the compactness of the MP4-12C, I like the shape of the car, I mean in the sense that because of aerodynamics all cars now tend to have a similar shape because you can't change physics, there are certain shapes that give you better aerodynamics and fuel consumption than other shapes, so, I think it is a better looking car than the Ferrari that it will go against and I think it has a unique pedigree.

I think when a car like this is introduced to the market, what it does is raise the level. You know, everyone realises, "wow, McLaren is coming out with this and we have got to come out with something to compete". It will improve supercars across the board. But for me, the icing on the cake of the day at McLaren was the chance to head down the road from Woking to the Top Gear test track at Dunsfold to have a ride in the new car.

I went out as a passenger with the factory test driver, Chris Goodwin. This was no customer drive day. They halted testing for two hours to let me do this. I was humbled. Chris explained to me that the camouflaged prototype car was right in the middle of its development programme, and that they were developing the ride and handling. Apparently, Dunsfold is good because it has got loads of different corners, it is bumpy, fast, slow, and has lots of changes of direction.

The MP4-12C is a completely focused automobile. It's a car meant to go from Point A to Point B quickly, comfortably, in the most exciting way possible. Too many cars, especially crossover cars, make me lose interest in automobiles because they look like refrigerators on wheels. I find cars to be very romantic and exciting. To me, where I am going is not nearly as exciting as how I get there. I always take the long way home and rather drive than fly.

Being in the McLaren made me feel like, if Colin Chapman [the founder of Lotus] was still alive, that I was in a car he would have made. Only when you go out in it do you sense how light it really is. OK, it has a carbon fibre tub and has the lightest technology out there, but that lightness really translates to the track. It felt extremely nimble, precise and accurate. All the things a Lotus is famous for, but in a package that is uniquely McLaren. I love the fact they have fought tooth and nail to get every ounce of weight out of this car and under 1,300kg. It's a revelation in this day and age.

From the passenger seat, the car felt amazing, it was obviously not a finished car but the acceleration felt extremely strong. The engine revs to nine grand and it shifts very, very quickly, in a millisecond or something ridiculous like that. It's certainly faster than a human could shift. So all that is sensory overload, but not in any sort of scary way. This is the first car with paddle shift that has made me accept that this is future. I much prefer, like a mechanical watch, a manual gear change with clutch. But Goodwin's changes were sublimely smooth and fast and much faster than any human could do with a stick. It's very exciting to witness and I sort of realise that now I have to be in the 21st century and this is the gearbox of the future. And, if, as I say my goal is to get from Point A to Point B, it really is the only gearbox possible.

It's amazing how incredibly stable this car is. I know your supposed to be screaming for your life, but its so stable and slides around so easily within its area you don't feel panicky. It's hard to critique the interior, as this was a preproduction test car crammed with technology, not a finished product. There was a lot of space. As much as I love the three-seat concept of the McLaren F1, there was more than enough space in the new one; visibility was good and the side mirrors are good. It's a modern, practical automobile, not a dream car that you could not live with on the street. It appears to have acceptable ground clearance so you should be able to use it most places. From inside, the sound was snarly but pleasant. Any time you have twin turbos, you get a little bit of a muted sound.

I thought it quite an honour to be given this chance. It was a real thrill. It was kind of what you hope for. You try to be the ultimate enthusiast. If you are a football fan it's like being asked to play with a team like Manchester United.