As with any profession, the job of an auto journalist has its highs and lows. When British supercar maker McLaren asks if you’d like to drive one of their vehicles to the 2020 Geneva International Motor Show and experience the unveiling of its latest supercar as their guest, that undoubtedly qualifies as a high point. When you are on your press drive to Geneva and learn that the auto show has been cancelled, things can get interesting.
During our press trip intended for Geneva as our final destination, we drove two of the latest models from McLaren — the extreme 720S Spider and the luxurious McLaren GT.
Introduced a few years ago, and the McLaren 720S Spider has a base retail price of $315,00. Equipped with a retractable carbon fiber roof that can raise or lower in 11 seconds, the 720S Spider boasts a 4.0-liter turbocharged V8 engine producing 710 horsepower and 568 lb-ft of torque. Performance figures are on a par with the hardtop coupe — the sprint to 60 mph takes 2.8 seconds, and 124 mph comes up in a hair under 8 seconds. With standout styling, excellent handling and a wonderful V8 sound, the 720S Spider checks all the boxes — and more.
Introduced last year, the $210,000 GT represents a new series of McLaren vehicles, taking place alongside the Sports (570S), Super (720S) and Ultimate (Senna, Speedtail) model series. Like all McLarens, the new GT features a carbon fiber structure of exceptional strength and rigidity, while achieving excellent driving dynamics and remaining the lightest in its class. Also sporting a version of McLaren’s 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 engine, the GT produces 612 horsepower and 465 lb-ft of torque. Slightly slower to 60 mph than the 720S (3.1 vs. 2.8 seconds), the GT is a wonderful mix of grand tourer and extreme sports car.
Our journey began at the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, England, headquarters for the automaker. The building itself is an architectural destination and quite beautiful, set among green hills with a lake view. But for automotive enthusiasts, what’s inside is even more exciting.
If a visitor happened upon the McLaren headquarters without knowledge of the company’s history, it would only take a few seconds to realize the depth of the automaker’s racing and sports car heritage. The building entrance welcomes visitors with a long line of the most significant McLarens in the brand’s storied past, including the 1969 F1 car piloted by company founder Bruce McLaren, to the 2019 car that F1 driver Carlos Sainz piloted to a podium finish at the 2019 British Grand Prix. A few other cars on display also caught our attention.
Bruce McLaren made his racing debut in this car, earning his first victory at the age of 15.
This 1974 McLaren F1 crossed the yard of bricks in first place at the 1974 Indianapolis 500, driven by the legendary Johnny Rutherford.
Driving this car, Emerson Fittipaldi won both the Formula One Drivers and Constructors championships in 1974.
The F1 was the first road car produced by McLaren. Powered by a BMW V12 engine producing more than 620 horsepower, the F1 broke the world speed record for a production car in 1998, achieving 240.1 mph. This record would remain untouched until 2005, and it remains the fastest normally aspirated production car ever.
In 1988 this car, driven by the incomparable Ayrton Senna, won both the Formula One Drivers and Constructors championships by winning 15 of the 16 races that year.
Fernando Alonso drove this F1 car to victory in Monaco, achieving the 150th grand prix win for the McLaren F1 team.
The McLaren racing program has experienced monumental success, reflected by the long hallway lined on both sides with cases packed full of trophies.
Although photos weren’t allowed, we were able to glimpse McLaren’s production facilities in Woking. Unlike a typically loud and frenzied automotive assembly line, McLaren vehicles are constructed in a large room with white tile floor. A special section is used for limited-run vehicles such as the Speedtail, while all other models move through the production facilities on the same line. Vehicles sit on dollies that are physically moved from station to station. Completed vehicles undergo thorough testing, with time spent in a “monsoon room” as well as detailed paint scans and runs on road and track before delivery can take place.
At this point in our fledgling journey we learned that the Geneva Motor Show had been cancelled due to the Coronavirus outbreak. The agile team of professionals at McLaren determined we would drive to our first night’s destination of Namur, Belgium, anyway. We loaded our luggage into the McLaren GT — yes, there is room for luggage — and headed to Folkstone to catch the train that runs through the Eurotunnel under the English Channel to France. As guests of McLaren, we were up for anything, knowing full well that when you’re driving a McLaren, the change in destination is of little concern — it’s all about the drive.
Space for luggage in front and in back.
Eventually we loaded “our” McLarens onto the Chunnel shuttle between two tour buses. Once parked, the buses emptied and a crowd quickly formed around the GT and 720S. The cars possessed a celebrity status that continued throughout our supercar road trip — passersby were excited to check out the beautiful machinery, always wanting to know how much horsepower they have and — naturally — how much they cost.
Once on the French side of the Channel, we continued our drive to Belgium. The weather turned ugly with driving rain and wind. We fully expected the 620-horsepower rear-wheel-drive GT to be downright scary to drive in such conditions, but the car remained incredibly stable. Driving between 70 and 80 mph through standing water on the motorway proved to be no issue for this very capable machine. We had no noticeable wheelslip or hydroplaning, and felt in complete control the entire time — a tribute to how well this car could work as a daily driver.
We spent the night at a little place called the Chateau de Namur in Belgium, with plans to head to the legendary Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps the next day. The three McLarens in our group looked perfectly at home outside these elegant lodgings. The next morning, the rain had stopped and the weather was clear and cold. We swapped vehicles to drive the 720S Spider, and immediately put the top down for full effect.
Since we were in Belgium with amazing cars from a company long-synonymous with Formula One racing, a logical destination was the historic F1 circuit in Belgium: Spa-Francorchamps. The day remained sunny and cold, but with the top down and windows up the 720S was perfectly comfortable, even at high speeds. And with the top down and windows up we had the pleasure of listening to the V8 engine’s wonderful roar while staying out of the wind and cold.
Home of the Belgium Grand Prix, Spa-Francorchamps has plenty of ties with McLaren — Bruce McLaren’s last grand prix win took place on this track in 1968. Although we had hopes for hot laps in our fast cars around this legendary circuit, it was quickly apparent this wasn’t going to happen — the track was covered in light snow.
Although our impromptu side trip meant that we did not get a chance to do the track justice even though the McLarens would have been more than capable, the cars did have winter tires so we were at least able to take runs up Eau Rouge / Raidillon for some photos.
Since we were not continuing south to Geneva and the auto show, our destination changed and we headed back to France. We set the navigation system to our hotel for the evening in Reims, but chose every wiggly line through the countryside on the GPS for our route back. This portion of the drive proved why the 720S is one of the most impressive sports cars on the road.
With 710 horsepower on tap, the McLaren 720S seems to contain limitless power. Passing slower cars on two-lane roads happens in an instant with quick downshifts in a car that can sprint to 60 mph in less than 3 seconds. But the 720S is much more than simply a straight-line drag racer.
The steering in the McLaren 720 S Spider is ultra-precise with excellent feedback, and the driving position provides a wide view of the road ahead. Cornering is flat at seemingly any speed, and this lightweight, powerful sports car simply eats up corners. A fun feature: even with the top up, the rear window of the 720S Spider can be lowered to admit the full song of the turbocharged V8 into the cabin.
The McLaren 720S possesses multiple personalities; one moment it can tear up a twisty mountain road with aplomb, and in the next moment this high-performance machine can be motoring through a small town at 30 mph. With its suspension adjustable on the fly, the 720S can handle rough roads so the ride is still comfortable, but things can be firmed up instantly when driving becomes more enthusiastic. The nose can also be raised quickly to deal with speed bumps or steep driveways.
Back behind the wheel of the McLaren GT for our final drive day back to the UK, we made an early stop at the site of the famed Circuit de Reims-Gueux. First used in 1926 for the Grand Prix de la Marne, the course was basically a triangular shape using public roads through the countryside. Two long straight stretches — 2.2 km each — made this one of the fastest circuits of the time. Bruce McLaren won the 1962 Reims Grand Prix in his Cooper-Climax T60. The Reims circuit was used for Formula One races until 1966, with the last official race taking place on the circuit in 1972.
The 720S looks like it belongs on this legendary circuit.
Today a portion of the grandstands and the pit boxes remain in place on either side of the D27 motorway. Les Amis du Circuit de Gueux is a non-profit organization that works to preserve the structures that are still standing. After taking a quick run around the circuit and pausing for some photos, we headed north.
Navigating more than 300 miles on winding backroads, long motorways and through small towns, the GT really showed itself to be an everyday supercar. Make no mistake, the GT is a proper McLaren sports car with powerful acceleration, excellent handling and proper sports car styling, but it also possesses comfortable heated leather seats, adjustable suspension, room for luggage and it isn’t so low to the ground that it scrapes every speed bump.
After spending almost seven hours behind the wheel there was no soreness or fatigue — the GT functions fantastically for long road trips.
With McLaren unable to hold its press conference at the cancelled Geneva Motor Show, our one-way jaunt to Switzerland turned into a roundtrip drive, returning us to the automaker’s headquarters in Woking, UK, with the press conference held the same day and hour it was to have taken place in Geneva. On March 3 we drove the amazing GT from our hotel back to the McLaren Technology Centre to witness the worldwide debut of the all-new 765LT, which we cover separately. It was a fitting finish to our extended supercar road trip, circling back to our starting point, although it did end on a sad note — they insisted we give back the keys.