Ahead of the curves

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 June, 2011, 12:00am


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About 50 of McLaren's recently unveiled MP4-12Cs are being sold to sports car enthusiasts in Hong Kong, out of the 1,000 cars the company will produce in the first year. The city's first allocation of the supercar, with a price tag of about HK$3.9 million, has already been snapped up and buyers are hungrily eating into next year's quota. The warm reception received by the 12C - which is fitted with a 3.8-litre, twin-turbo V8 engine capable of reaching 330km/h - will be welcome to McLaren as it aims to become more than a one-model producer.

Ian Gorsuch, McLaren Automotive's director for the Middle East, Africa and Asia-Pacific, says the 12C will be the core around which a range of cars will be rolled out over the next four years. The company expects to boost its annual output to 4,200 cars within a few years.

As the carmaker looks to spread its wings, an 'Innovation' team has been set up under former Formula One technician Dick Glover that is tasked with 'looking over the horizon' beyond prevailing trends.

'We want to be at the cutting edge of the cutting edge,' Gorsuch says. 'If you don't keep looking over the horizon, the others will catch up quickly. Ferrari, Lamborghini, they're aggressive, they're clever and they're snapping at our heels.'

His comment suggests McLaren believes the 12C will be as dominant on the road as the F1, its legendary predecessor. The F1 toppled the record for the world's fastest road car in 1998, its last production year, when it hit a top speed of 386km/h.

Anticipation ahead of the 12C's launch stoked debate over whether it could dethrone the 458 Italia - produced by Formula One circuit competitor Ferrari and launched in 2009 - as the current king of the road. Gorsuch is confident the 12C can reign. 'We're almost exactly the same price, but for that we've got a more powerful car, a faster car, a more environmentally friendly car, a more spacious car, a more usable car - and it's rarer.'

The 12C has a more curvaceous body than the F1, but the same doors that open upwards. Gaping rear-side cooling vents emphasise its powerful appearance. McLaren spent four years developing the 12C, with co-operation from the group's Formula One unit, such as use of its simulator. 'We do a lot of the initial test drives in the simulator, so when we built the prototypes, they were 99 per cent there,' Gorsuch says.

An important technology crossover from circuit to road car is the carbon mono-cell chassis, which is hailed as a revolution in the world of sports cars and has greatly raised expectations for the 12C. It is the first road car to be built with a one-piece, carbon-fibre chassis, making it stronger and lighter than comparable cars. The two-seater 12C weighs just 1,300kg, while the 458 Italia - which has an aluminium chassis - weighs about 80kg more. 'Brake steer', which applies the brake to the inner rear wheel around corners to prevent understeer, was developed for the track but banned by Formula One's governing body because it gave McLaren an unfair advantage. The concept of brake steer was resurrected for the 12C.

Technological advances off the track include steel brake rotors that weigh less than the carbon ceramic brakes favoured by sports car fans, which take time to warm up when driving in gridlocked traffic and can make a car tricky to handle.

Dynamic suspension is another feature Gorsuch says makes the 12C better than its competitors. 'You've got all the engagement, hardness and handling you want,' with the suspension system, he says, 'but as you hit the traffic jams in Causeway Bay, it resets itself. Each wheel has total articulation, so it's as smooth as an executive saloon.'

Producers of sports cars will always have bigger waiting lists than they have cars available, and this is where Ferrari still leads. The Italian maker sold its 999th car in China earlier this year, 300 last year alone. McLaren has no plans to market the 12C on the mainland.

'We have too few cars, and China is such a big hungry monster,' Gorsuch says. 'If we're going to operate in China, we have to have a critical mass of cars to do it.'

How they stack up

McLaren MP4-12C

A 3.8-litre twin-turbo V8 engine pumps out 592bhp and 600Nm of torque. Rockets from zero to 100km/h in 3.3 seconds and has a top speed of 330km/h. Fuel consumption of 11.7 litres per 100km; emits 279g/km of carbon dioxide.

Ferrari 458 Italia

A 4.5-litre V8 kicks out 570hp and 540Nm of torque. Shoots from zero to 100km/h in 3.4 seconds with a top speed of 325km/h. Has a fuel economy of 13.3 litres per 100km and produces 307g/km of carbon dioxide.

Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera

A 5.2-litre V10 engine produces 562hp and 540Nm of torque. Hits 100km/h in 3.4 seconds and has a top speed of 325km/h. Has a combined fuel consumption of 12 to 20 litres per 100 kilometres and spews 351g/km of CO2.