The arrival of the Senna might have shuffled the hierarchy at McLaren, but the 720S is our reigning evo Car of the Year for good reason. It’s utterly brilliant.
Every road tester worth his or her salt will have a corner, a camber, a ripple of tarmac, a compression or some other specific piece of topography. Sometimes this one feature will combine with others to form a key stretch of road on which to test. And then, inconveniently, this crucial landmark in the tarmac will be a standalone but its importance will be such that one will make the special trip to seek it out.
These road warts form a critical part of the road-testing process and become closely guarded secrets within the industry. I still recall being let into the inner sanctum when I worked at a mainstream motoring publication. It was after months on the team and after a decade in the game, but ‘the loop’ was almost as important to this title as the very masthead under which it published road tests – it could only be entrusted to the most-senior members of the testing team. Beyond its location, I was shown how to test on the sacred and broken tarmac. Years later, I recall the distress in the office when smooth hotmix smothered the ripples and ructions that tied in knots the suspensions of everything from people movers to sports sedans. Thankfully, though not surprisingly, the council did an imperfect job and ‘the loop’ was soon restored to its former savage glory.
How a car performs over these dynamic land mines is stored away by road testers in a vast database within their overstretched grey matter. The cars and their behaviour are categorised into genres and carefully curated into an order that shifts like sand with every new challenger that is fired down the road.
Over the last twenty years, I’ve catalogued several stretches of tarmac that I return to with regularity. Many are genre-specific, so don’t provide an all-in assessment for whatever’s in the garage that week. But of all my regular roads, there are two corners that I ensure are included in the dynamic assessment of the most important cars that are booked into the evo Australia diary. Though these corners are a solid three hours from our Sydney base, they are within 30 minutes of each other and connected by lightly trafficked roads of charm and challenge.
Both corners are well sighted and uphill, but beyond that, they have their unique characteristics that make them ideally suited to order the dynamic behaviour of everything from a hot hatch to a mid-engine rocket such as the McLaren 720S. The first corner is a left hander, approached on a slight downhill run before you dive into the heart of it. It’s heavily cambered, helping you stay low and left as you build speed and climb the hill, unwinding the steering lock but carrying proper pace. Once the corner has released you from its camber and radius, you’ve a second or so to settle the car for a big brake application and a much slower, poorly sighted right hander. Just how short the settlement period and how big that brake application depends very much on the car and its performance through the corner.
Having fired through this corner in every serious Porsche, Ferrari, AMG, Audi and McLaren of the last five years, I’ve a comprehensive database of speed, steering response and lateral grip to call upon as the McLaren 720S begins its approach.
The 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8 might not be the most musical of engines that power mid-engined supercars, but there’s no denying its effectiveness at propelling the McLaren towards the horizon. The engine makes big numbers – 529kW and 770Nm – but the revs at which the power and torque peaks are produced suggest a narrow operating window. The 770Nm comes in quite late at 5500rpm (the 540C and 570S also require many thousands of revs on board to deliver their latent potency) and the 529kW power peak arrives relatively early at 7250rpm. Once the tacho is showing 3500-4000rpm, the engine is providing very serious thrust but there’s a vivid step-up in motivation in that 5500-7250 window.
With a claimed kerb weight of 1419kg, the engine really does motivate the 720S to serious numbers in very short order. Blink and you’ll miss the first 100km/h coming up in 2.9 seconds, but the claimed 7.8-second sprint to 200km/h is even more impressive. Top speed is 341km/h. Unfortunately, due to insurance reasons, we were not permitted to conduct our own performance testing of the 720S, but our in-built, seat-of-the-pants Vbox doesn’t think it’s quite the match for the Porsche 911 GT2 RS that we tested in issue 60.
The unhinged 911 recorded 0-100km/h in 2.81 seconds and 0-200km/h in 8.1sec, the latter figure is three-tenths slower than McLaren’s claim. But the Porsche stormed across the quarter mile in just 9.72 seconds, almost 0.8 seconds quicker than McLaren’s claim for the 720S. We certainly think that it’d be a close fight up until about the 250km/h mark, but beyond that, the crazy energy of the GT2 RS doesn’t let up.
Either way, the first of our corners is rapidly dominating the panoramic view through the McLaren’s windscreen. McLaren has refused to abandon hydraulic steering and the 720S is imbued with the kind of natural response rate and detailed, grainy feedback that makes every journey a delight. The rack is fast, but not Ferrari-reactive, and the 720S scythes into the corner with calm speed. The nose locks on line early while the throttle pedal gets closer and closer to the bulkhead. Despite the obvious levels of turbocharging, the throttle response, like the steering, is linear and natural, allowing you to meter out how much more sting you wish to put into the McLaren’s tail.
By the meat of the corner, the tyres are at their limits and the McLaren begins the most delicate of four-wheeled drifts. There’s no alarm from the stability control system and I open the steering the tiniest amount to relieve some of the dynamic pressure but there’s never a concern that the 720S is about to bite – hell, it doesn’t even threaten to leave its side of the road. And all the while, my foot has not lifted, instead it’s continued to stoke the fires of the V8 and we crest and straighten under full throttle very near the top of third gear. The digital speedo is displaying an unprintably large number and the memory bank confirms that it’s the largest ever observed through this corner.
Once the 720S is 100 per cent straight, my left foot clamps down on the brake pedal and the combination of carbon-ceramic rotors squeezed by enormous calipers, along with the airbrake popping up in my rearward vision has the McLaren slowing straight and true for the tight right hander. It’s worth noting that not all McLaren’s we’ve tested recently exhibited such stability under braking – the rears of the 540C and 570S coupe were alarmingly mobile during heavy brake applications.
If anything, the second corner is a bigger challenge. Firstly, it’s approached after a stretch of more demanding road, so tyre and brake performance has already been stretched. Secondly, and crucially, this uphill right hander features a compression that runs like a jagged fault line across the entire width of the road. To compound the complexity of this corner, the compression also signifies the rapid transition from positive to negative camber. Depending on the car, this compression and change in camber can provoke a puckering spike of oversteer or can even cause the entire vehicle to skip towards the scenery in an ugly hop. The speed and iron-fisted body control of a Nismo GT-R gave me a few more grey hairs as it stepped sideways across the compression.
On the run through the twists and turns to the second corner, there’s time to marvel at the speed and precision of the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. Our premier league table of such gearboxes has always featured Porsche and Ferrari battling out for supremacy but, with the 720S at least, McLaren is now staking a claim for best in class. Around town, the gearbox can’t quite muster the same level of unobtrusive smoothness exhibited by both the Porsche and Ferrari units, but perhaps this has more to do with the engine’s torque delivery than with any fault of shift programming. Ramp up the pace, however, and the gearbox delivers fast, smooth and incisive responses to any request from the rocker-type paddles behind the steering wheel.
As the second corner draws closely, I’ve been delving deeper into the throttle travel, holding gears longer and leaving the braking until later. When I round the left hander prior, the 720S and I are both primed in maximum attack mode. Draped on the side of a decent hill, the corner presents its full length from entry to exit in one gloriously clear line of sight that stretches for hundreds of metres beyond the exit.
The throttle meets the bulkhead again and the McLaren lunges forward on a wave of industrial anger. The first part of the corner is positively cambered and the g-loadings build quickly. It’s important to remember that the 720S isn’t shod with sticky Cup or Trofeo rubber, nor are the Pirelli P Zero tyres particularly broad – 245/35 R19 up front and 305/30 R20 under the business end.
Despite the building speed and lateral forces, the steering remains full of granular details and without a hint of the tell-tale glassiness that indicates the onset of understeer. Instead, it’s the rears that relinquish their hold on the coarse-chip tarmac.
Stability control remains engaged but both my passenger and I hear the hiss of tyres over-rotating relative to road speed. I open the steering just a fraction in preparation for any spike of oversteer, and for the mid-corner compression that also heralds the negatively cambered exit phase of the corner. The McLaren makes the transition through the compression under full throttle and with building wheelspin – a glance in the protruding wing mirrors notes the wisps of tyre smoke build and billow from the arches. Even as the camber changes and threatens to suck the 720S away from its intended line and towards an enormous insurance excess, the McLaren remains true and friendly. As the steering finally opens to neutral and the tyre and road speeds happily marry up once again, I’m left with a profound observation – I really don’t think I’d do that in any other mid-engined supercar.
It might seem strange that three days with a car as exciting and engaging as a 720S can by boiled down to its behaviour in just two corners, but everything about the amazing McLaren coalesced during those few hundred metres of tarmac. Time to go find some more corners. Jesse Taylor