NEW YORK—Late last month, National Geographic Channel and Uber teamed up to promote a new series on scientific breakthroughs—called, appropriately enough, Breakthrough—and they chose to do it with a fleet of alternative energy vehicles on the streets of Manhattan. Obviously we've got a healthy interest in forward-looking cars here at Ars, so it seemed like a good idea to hop on a train to check out what all the fuss was about. The fleet of cars included some running on biodiesel, E85 ethanol, and even a fuel cell-powered Hyundai, but one car more than any other was top of our list for a passenger ride: the McLaren P1 hypercar.
I know what you're probably thinking at this point. "Manhattan's streets sound like a terrible place to try out the mighty McLaren," and we certainly didn't blame its owner for being apprehensive about threading his 903hp (673kW) machine through dense city traffic. But a couple of hours in the passenger seat proved the Big Mac more than up for the job, even if it was designed for the race track rather than commuting.
You would be forgiven for thinking of the P1 as a successor to the legendary McLaren F1 of the mid-1990s, but the car was actually designed with a quite different purpose in mind. The F1 was designer Gordon Murray's idea of the world's best car, capable of carrying a driver and two passengers across continents in comfort and at high speed. True, it did go racing and win Le Mans in 1995—but it was adapted to the track, not designed for it. By contrast, the P1 was created to be "the best driver's car in the world on road and track," according to McLaren, and it uses a lot of lessons the company has learned from its racing in Formula 1 to do so.
The sport moved to hybrid powertrains in 2009, and so the P1 is also a hybrid, coupling a 727hp (542kW) turbocharged 3.8L V8 with a single electric motor, good for 176hp (131kW). However, unlike the first hybrid Formula 1 cars or other hybrid sports cars like the Porsche 918 Spyder or BMW i8, the P1 doesn't recapture kinetic energy under deceleration. Instead, the 4.7kWh battery is charged by excess power from the internal combustion engine (ICE) whenever you lift off the gas (you can plug it into the wall as well).
The P1 heads toward 1WTC, Ars' NYC home.
The McLaren P1 drew more than a little attention on its outing to NYC.
We happened upon another one of the promotional cars in Manhattan, a Lexus RXh Hybrid Electric Crossover SUV.
A schematic of the P1's powertrain.
A McLaren P1 outside the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking.
The McLaren Technology Centre was designed to be 80 percent NASA, 20 percent Disneyland. It succeeded.
Clever onboard electronics decide how to juggle the application of all that power, although the P1 can also run as a pure EV for a few miles. There's also the option to give the driver control of the electric motor via a button on the steering wheel to use as a boost, similar to the first iterations of hybrid Formula 1 cars. Still, the prevailing wisdom is that it's more sensible to trust all that to the car's ECUs.
The P1's V8 actually shares quite a bit with McLaren's other road cars. The engine is a derivative of the one that first appeared in the MP4-12C (now found in the 650S, 675LT, and forthcoming 570S), albeit with a fair amount more power. The carbon fiber chassis (called a MonoCage) is also closely related to the MonoCell used by the 12C, 650S, and 675LT, although in the P1 it also includes an integral roof structure. Unlike the earlier F1 road car—which was the first production car to have a carbon fiber chassis—the MonoCage was made by resin transfer molding. This process, also used by the BMW i8, is much more rapid than the laborious pre-preg method used in the F1, although McLaren used this method for the body panels as well as the stunning interior.
All 375 P1s were built in the McLaren Technology Centre, the organization's extremely high-tech HQ in Woking, just outside London. We were fortunate enough to visit the MTC last week on a trip to the UK, and even though production of the P1 has now finished, there were several people hard at work in one of the glass-walled workshops putting the finishing touches to replacement body panels (that looked like carbon fiber sculptures) just a few feet away from a similar workshop where the Formula 1 race cars are constructed.
Like McLaren's other road cars, the P1 was assembled in the McLaren Production Centre, a car factory like no other. For one thing, it's spotless with white floor tiles, walls, and lots of natural light, much like the workshops in the main MTC building where the race cars come from. And almost everything is done by hand, with cars being passed off from one worker to another as they move through the 371,355-square-foot (34,500m2) building.
The P1 also benefits from a lot of tech that's too cutting edge for F1, including active aerodynamics and brake-steer instead of a conventional limited slip differential. That last one uses the rear brakes to slow the inside wheel during cornering, developed by McLaren for its 1998 Formula 1 car until the system was banned by the sport's organizers. The car's carbon ceramic brakes (made by Akebono) are coated in silicon carbide, and they are more than up to the task of slowing what is one of the very fastest cars on the planet.
Unlike previous generations of super- or hypercar, modern-control electronics allow cars that would previously have been extremely specialized to now change behavior at the twist of a knob. The P1's suspension setup, which McLaren calls RaceActive Chassis Control, uses hydropneumatics to control the ride. Each wheel has actuators with two nitrogen-filled pistons, one to control roll and one for heave, handling each separately. McLaren doesn't believe in antiroll bars but instead constantly reads the car's attitude on the road, tweaking the dampers to keep the car as level as possible. It even compensates for having a passenger in the car.
What that means is with the suspension set to Normal, the P1 actually copes extremely well with the rough and broken roads of lower Manhattan. Coupled with the car's extremely good forward visibility, the owner's apprehension about driving the car in New York's artificial canyons didn't materialize. He was also able to give us a very small glimpse into the car's performance while keeping things appropriate for the conditions. On track, the P1 is capable of hitting 62mph (100km/h) in 2.8 seconds, 124mph (200km/h) in 6.8 seconds, and 186mph (300km/h) in just 16.5 seconds.
Sadly the P1 is out of reach for most of us. The cars—which are all sold out—started at $1,350,000, a price that's as extreme as its performance. For the 375 owners fortunate enough to own one, they have a very special car. Thankfully, a lot of the P1's DNA is also present in the "cheaper" cars in McLaren's range. In the coming weeks, you'll be able to read our review of the 650S supercar, and the company is just starting production on the entry-level 570S, which we also hope to bring you in the new year.
Listing image by Jennifer Hahn