Supercars for the purist
It was barely 9 in the morning when we arrived at Kuala Lumpur's famed Sepang International Circuit. At the pit stop, a parade of McLarens sat poised with their dihedral doors swung up, each one eagerly awaiting the magic hour to unleash their raw power churning beneath those carbon fibre shells. At the lounge above, drivers like myself gazed eagerly at our rides to be. We were here to explore the concept of purity in motoring. What does it mean to be pure? To have the whole track to ourselves so we can push each car to its limit? To have the gleaming machines of McLaren bring us one step closer to the Formula 1 experience, the pinnacle of motor sporting excellence?
The lesson in purity began with the McLaren driving instructors, each boasting a wealth of track experience under their belts. There was also the mandatory briefing that gave us an overview of the track we would be dealing with. We needed to know when and where we could pull off a Rosberg and overtake. More importantly, we needed to understand the cars we were about to commandeer.
The McLaren fleet
It's easy to be fooled by the fleet's flamboyant display of colours-ranging from orange to pure white-although the McLaren fleet does boast very good-looking models in the Sport Series (540C and 570S) and Super Series (650S and 675LT). But beyond that, the McLaren Technology Center in Woking have invested no little effort to produce what Mia Flewitt, professional racer and wife of McLaren CEO Mike Flewitt, described as supercars from a "specialist brand". One that is versatile enough for day-to-day functionality, no less.
In the new 570S and limited production 675LT, it's all about the aerodynamics. The front bumper has been specially designed to slice the airflow 50-50 to either sides, and the sculpted lines enable the air to fluidly flow over the body panel. In true 'Black Swan' fashion, limits might have been pushed in the aerodynamics department, but McLaren also takes its weight issue (or lack thereof) seriously. The British marquee supercar brand is one of the very few in the world to fully utilise carbon fibre, resulting in significantly reduced weight. That is not enough; they have also swapped out the windshield mirrors for thinner screens, just so they can shave off another 1.5kg. Every gram not optimised is a millisecond lost to a rival supercar. Indeed, no stones have been left unturned.
The track experience
My rival? Just myself. What I really needed to fight was the niggling instincts to play it safe. I had to bite down and throttle the cars into overdrive - the only way they are supposed to go. With a total of 15 turns and more than one hairpin turn, the Sepang circuit can get quite technical and it took some getting used to. I squeezed the racing helmet over my head, climbed into the cockpit of a bright yellow McLaren 650S, and quickly realised I was starting out on the proverbial steep curve.
An entrant in McLaren's Super Series line-up, the 650S is a supercar that requires the driver to work and push it to its limit break. It doesn't quite take care of the driver, especially so under the 'Sport' toggle setting. You have to take care of it. Unless you wrest it under your control, it is going to come up rather subdued, like how my first couple of laps was. Yet, it didn't diminish the kind of high-octane thriller delivered all around at Sepang. Thirty minutes after I clocked my third and final lap, I went on the opposite end of the spectrum and settled into my next ride: the 540C.
While 650S is the entrant in the Super Series, the 540C is the entry-level McLaren in the entire brand. But I'd ditch the 'entry-level' label with respect to its addictive fun factor and easy drivability. Between the two models, the difference in overall performance was keenly felt. The 540C is relatively light on the power and torque and loses out some 0.5 seconds on the 0-100km/h dash. But it is heady. It is flirtatious enough to tease drivers into wanting more, and tackling the track felt a lot less like work. I began smoothing around bends and smashing down straights with budding confidence.
570S, The Crown Prince of McLaren
What if you're hankering for more? The 675LT, an extreme track-slaying beast based on the 1997 F1 GT1 'Longtail', is not exactly the one you'd cruise out in on a languid road trip. Your ride of choice would be the all-new 570S in the Sport Series. It hits all the right notes. If released onto city streets, the 570S easily has bragging rights as the most powerful road car, thanks to the 3.8L twin turbo V8 drivetrain. And that is the same exact reason why the city streets don't do it justice. Flick the toggle to 'Sport' or 'Track' mode and just like that, it is ready to throw down with the best of them in a race. After all, the 570S is bred with Formula 1 technology. Take for instance the Brake Steer system -a technology deemed so wicked it got banned from races back in 1997-which explained the pure brilliance in the manner I dived into corners (despite applying the brakes later than I should) and powered out of them.
When I did, Turn 15 was already in the rearview mirror and the long stretch of straight to the checkpoint put a smirk on my face. I squeezed the accelerator to the floor and let the 570S do the rest. The seven-speed transmission shot up seamlessly and the digital speedometer on the racing dashboard flew to 255km/h. The outrageous power made me feel like I was traveling forward in time.
The 570S could have continued all the way to its speed ceiling of 328km/h, but I had to slow for Turn 1. I breezed through it yet again, along with the remaining 14. Nothing really fazed me by then. I knew I was in very good hands.
How did McLaren get to where they are today? The 675LT was all but pre-ordered and snapped up when the launch was announced. The 570S is one of the lightest and most powerful performance sports cars in its market segment. Both existing and aspiring McLaren owners would, in a heartbeat, concur with Mia Flewitt on the specialist element of the cars. I may not be a professional racer, but the McLaren fleet did bring out a driving exhilaration that is hard to replicate. I'm sure Mia would have a lot more to say about that, as someone who spends most of her time on race tracks. And she did. At the end of it, though, she simply boiled everything down to one other P-word: Passion.
"Bruce McLaren started the brand out of passion back then. It is still the same now. Everyone in the McLaren family is involved and everyone is passionate about cars," she explained. "I just love racing. But this is not my career and I'm not trying to make it into one. I'm doing it because it's fun. My hobby just happens to be driving. Not golf, sailing or horse riding. But driving."
Evidently, her passion for racing runs deep, as do the McLaren team for their supercars. And it sure does run pure too.
About Nicholas Tse
Wordsmith by day, wannabe vigilante by night. Occasional speedster, 24/7 snazzy dresser. Aspiring best-selling novelist on weekends. The only things Nicholas loves more than the written word are fast cars, Nespresso machines and denim. Follow his adventures on Facebook and Instagram.