It’s not every day that you get the chance to drive a supercar on a racing circuit so when the invitation to experience an exclusive McLaren racing day at Goodwood came in, I jumped at the chance. They decided to organise their first ever Ladies Day to show how easy and fun their cars are to drive.
McLaren Automotive is certainly an iconic car brand, renowned for its performance and sleek good looks. I’ve always been a car fan, collecting scale models when I was a child and watching Formula One avidly. McLaren has had great success in racing under the leadership of Ron Dennis. Whilst McLaren Automotive is a separate division of the company, they’ve undoubtedly benefited from the technology advancements of the racing team. All the cars are hand crafted in Woking, Surrey.
Our McLaren racing day started at the stylish showroom in One Hyde Park. I climbed into one of the cars via their signature dihedral or butterfly doors, first pioneered on the McLaren F1. Their single hinge design makes it a lot easier to get into the cabin. Sitting inside, I got a taste of what was to come later. From the panoramic view to the race-crafted steering wheel and Formula One inspired gear shift, everything spells luxury and innovation.
We soon arrived in leafy Sussex and met the McLaren team in the Jackie Stewart Pavilion. I’ve had the opportunity to visit Goodwood before and it’s a unique venue. There’s a contemporary art gallery and a hotel on the estate, an airfield and of course the racing circuit. Goodwood Revival and the Festival of Speed are its most famous events. Little did I know that it’s considered to be one of the most difficult in the UK and hence it’s generally only used for classic car racing.
Fittingly for a ladies day, we got to meet many of the talented women who work at McLaren. From Brand Ambassador Amanda McLaren to Donna Falconer, Senior Manager of Global Product Strategy and Planning and Joanna Lewis, Colour & Materials Designer, it was inspiring to hear them talk about their passion. I also admired the huge range of trims available for the supercars, from leather trims to metallic and pearlescent paint finishes. Even the AkzoNobel paint is high tech, chosen for its ability to keep weight to a minimum and mixed and applied by hand.
Soon it was time for our safety briefing. The emphasis of our day was firmly on enjoyment rather than attempting to attain a record lap-speed – just as well as I’m no Nigel Mansell ;-). We were instructed to allow others to overtake and to listen to our copilot at all times. Then we got kitted out with a lightweight balaclava and a helmet, before heading to the tracks. I felt a rush of adrenaline as I took my seat next to Ash, my instructor. Well, the saying goes that you should do something that scares you every day! I needn’t have worried as I was in great hands.
I would be driving a 650S Coupe, a superb model that can reach 60mph in under three seconds, with a 207 mph top speed. The chassis of the car is made from carbon fibre MonoCell, making it extremely light and strong. Ash took the wheel for the first circuit, explaining what he was doing and how to tackle each section of the course. For example, it’s important to accelerate into the bends. I was surprised at how comfortable the car is – I had expected the suspension to be rather firm, given that it’s such a sporty vehicle but it’s more comfortable than our current car.
And now the moment I had been waiting for – I got to drive! The first thing I noticed is how responsive the 650s is. As soon as you place your foot on the accelerator, the engine roars into action but in a manner that leaves you in complete control. I pulled out slowly and gradually increased my pace until I felt comfortable. There are 3 driving modes – Normal, Sport and Track and I tried it first in Normal mode. Perfect for everyday use, it still entails a good degree of driver involvement.
The track itself proved quite challenging as there were so many twists and turns, though this added to the fun. No sooner than I had got some speed up, I was negotiating a bend or a chicane ;-). Thankfully McLaren have come up with an innovative Brake Steer system that uses the rear brakes to control oversteer and minimise mid-corner understeer, giving you the best cornering trajectory. Still, the organisers had sensibly placed cones on the fastest sections of the course, to stop us reaching dangerous speeds. Of course, racing drivers do the whole course without any cones. Even with the cones, I managed a top speed of 77 miles per hour on my second go.
I also tried out the other two driving modes, Sport and Track – Sport feels even more responsive, with the 650s instantly responding to the slightest pressure on the accelerator. As for Track
Mode, it takes some getting used to, as the engine roars when you brake. The sound gave me the impression at first that I was accelerating rather than braking but once you’ve got past this, it’s really good fun!
In between, I was shown a video of my performance and given tips on where I could improve my technique and time. At the start of each circuit, a USB stick had been placed into the cockpit in order to analyse my every move. Formula 1 drivers benefit from this technology and it was a real highlight to be able to experience it.
Another great moment was taking a McLaren 570s out around the Goodwood estate in between laps on the course itself. The estate is set in the most stunning Sussex countryside, although I was mainly concentrating on driving it correctly and avoiding any potholes! It’s an expensive car so I was keen to avoid any damage. Having said that, the prices are more accessible than years ago, with the 540C model available from £126,000. Perhaps that’s why there’s a lengthy waiting list to get your hands on their cars. Road handling was absolutely superb and driving over Autumn leaves being no problem whatsoever. The locals are probably used to seeing these superb cars regularly but we did still draw some admiring glances from passers-by.
After the exhilaration of driving a McLaren on the open road, there was one final thrill to come…a hot lap! Ash took the wheel again with me as a passenger, to show me exactly how a racing driver would negotiate the circuit at brake-neck pace. I warned him that I might turn the air blue and sure enough, I did come out with a few expletives as he put the 650s through her paces. You get the sensation that you’re going to come off the track, particularly on the bends but after a while I started to relax as I knew that I was in safe hands.
Our very special day ended with a champagne debrief and medal ceremony, with us all being awarded one for finishing the course. It was a great end to a real bucket-list experience and a fascinating in-depth look at a British brand that I’ve long admired. They set out to show with this McLaren Racing Day that their cars are extremely user friendly and they’ve definitely convinced me!
Have you ever driven a sports car on track?