PART TWO of my hair-shirted supercar odyssey took me to the charming island of Anglesey. It’s home to restaurants that shut at 8pm, sheep and arguably the finest race circuit in the country. Perched on the southwest coastline, it’s a montage of every conceivable corner and it’s utterly brilliant.
The drive there isn’t too shabby either, especially if your chariot of choice is a McLaren 650S Spider. Launched in 2014, the 650S was an evolution of McLaren Automotive’s first car, the MP4-12C. It tried to put right everything that the 12C got wrong, starting with the silly name.
The 650S looked more exotic, sounded angrier and hit harder. It marked a subtle shift in philosophy – engineering excellence was now accompanied by a frission of naughtiness. Chief test driver Chris Goodwin has admitted to me that McLaren took time to understand the need for theatrics, to recognise that how the car feels at 30mph is just as important as its downforce.
Sadly, as I rolled out of London in search of Wales, I suffered some stage fright. Attempted a Google-inspired shortcut, I arrived at a width restrictor. It was 2.1m wide and another quick Google revealed that the 650S measures 2.093m. Thus, with the roof down, I reversed 300 yards up a congested street, while the occupant of a Transit accused me of being a man who indulges in masturbation.
In the best supercar tradition, the 650S is properly compromised. Every time you reach a speed bump, you have to flick a switch and raise the nose, which gets a bit tiresome. Then there’s the luggage capacity, or lack thereof. A helmet and two racesuits filled the nose, which meant my pants and socks had to ride shotgun in the passenger seat. If you want a week away in a 650S, you’ll need to hire a ‘chap’ to bring the luggage.
“The drive down through Snowdonia was utterly blissful. . . a reminder of why supercars retain a relevant place in the world”
It’s also, dare I say it, too fast. Unleash all of the 641 ponies and by the time you’ve reached third gear, you’ll be staring down at the speedo and thinking, “Bloody hell, I might go to jail.” This car will do 0-100mph in 5.8sec. There’s even a computer readout at the journey’s end to tell you how fast you just went – as if you want evidence. Away from a circuit, you spend so much time trying not to go fast that it can compromise the fun.
It also threw a bit of a hissy fit. The driver’s door refused to open in the middle of the paddock, which meant clambering in through the passenger seat and pulling the emergency release. Then the alarm started going off when no-one was near. McLaren is still a new, small volume manufacturer, but anyone spending £218,250 (or a mighty £270,190 as tested) on a motorcar is unlikely to tolerate problems.
You might be thinking by now that I’ve fallen out of love with the 650S, but you’d be wrong. For all its impracticalities, it remains a truly thrilling companion on so many different levels. The steering is delicious, delivering exquisite feedback without ever feeling nervous. The ride is exceptional for such a focussed car and yet it delivers such poise and agility that it feels both smaller and lighter than it actually is.
The drive down through Snowdonia as the sun set was utterly blissful. It was a reminder of why supercars retain a relevant place in the world and why anyone who buys a McLaren to drive in Knightsbridge is a numpty.
The 650S is a magnificent feat of engineering, but I wouldn’t buy one. The problem McLaren faces is that it’s already built two other cars that perform its role with greater aplomb. The limited edition 675LT (based on the 650S) is more extreme and more super without being less practical. The fact that they’re all sold is irrelevant – if you bought a 650S, you’d always feel like you’d bought the semi-skimmed version.
By contrast, the new 570GT is more practical, prettier and cheaper, but scarcely any slower or less thrilling on the road. It represents everything McLaren’s learnt since its inception and undeniably the best car they make right now. Given the choice, it’s the 570GT I’d be taking to a circuit next time and not just because there’s room for a fresh pair of pants.
The race. . .
Thirty-seven identical cars entered the Caterham Supersport round in Anglesey, all doing battle with themselves and the Welsh weather. I qualified eighth on a damp but drying track. Then it rained again, prompting a choice of intermediate tyres for the start.
Race one was a classic example of why motor sport is 90% a mental game. On a now all-but dry track, the tyres overheated and instead of tempering my style, I started trying too hard. An off-track excursion left me 12th and indulging in some self-flagellation.
A night’s sleep and a mental reset saw me progress to fifth in race two, before a gearbox problem dropped me to eighth. Not the weekend I’d dreamed of, but some points in the bag. Watch the highlights above.
Race photos: Jon Bryant, snappyracers.com