Driving the McLaren P1, the world's best supercar — Porsches included

They’re all sold. If you sometimes get angry over tests of cars with sheiks and cigar-chomping industrialists for owners, all I can say to get me out of your doghouse is that they’re all sold anyway. The whole limited run of 375 McLaren P1 hypercars gone, with last deliveries due by July 2015. So put down the torches and pitch forks, and read along while McLaren sets me loose for some fast times in their P1 hybrid plug-in exotica.

Not too loose, though. This test is all on track at the Dunsfold airfield circuit south of London, the circuit set up frequently for filmings of Top Gear episodes. I’ve been here beforeand it was always raining. Not today, Clarkson be praised.

Dry tarmac is needed for what I’m about to do, or for what’s about to be done to me. The $1.15-million 2015 McLaren P1 is sort of the dark and mysterious one of the three new hypercars of the green apocalypse. The other two are the more marquee-hogging $845,000 Porsche 918 Spyder and the $1.4-million Ferrari LaFerrari. The P1’s so-called IPAS hybrid powertrain (i.e. Instant Power Assist System which is McLaren-talk for the hybrid setup used on Formula One cars), can boom out 903 hp. It slings you from 0 to 60 miles per hour in just 2.6 seconds. At maximum.

The design of the McLaren P1 reminds me of a fancy pro cycling helmet. The trick for any over-performing car is to let it go as fast as the engineers can dream while making sure that it does not lift off the ground at highest speeds, sending clients into orbit. The P1 can reach 217 mph, so keeping it on the ground is fundamental here. Acceleration to 186 mph can happen in just 16.5 seconds, way more than quick enough to launch a Cessna at the county airstrip.

It is so tempting to dive deep into the tech dreck here, but I shall mostly refrain because the best part really about the P1 is how it sets your neck hairs on fire while taking a hot corner at speeds generally thought stupid. The specially formulated Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires — 19 inches in front and 20 inches in back — work overtime with the P1’s intricate adaptive suspension to keep the action grippy and comfy at all times. It is in this portion of how the P1 compares to the Porsche 918 Spyder I tested where the P1 wins. Not just in pure straight acceleration, where the P1 dusts the 918 once speeds reach beyond 60 mph, but in the fast curves and weight shifts where the P1 absolutely glows.

If a supercar’s lateral acceleration number – i.e. the amount of sideways g-force that builds up until the car’s tires no longer hold the pavement as speed builds in a constant curve – reaches 1.2 gs, that’s considered pretty great. The McLaren P1 and its $6,000 set of specially designed Pirellis can bear up to peaks of 2.4 gs on good, dry asphalt before trouble is your middle name. It can hold 2.0 gs in a steady state until the lithium-ion battery array and fuel tank are both dry. This has never before been possible in any road car ever made.

Getting into the high-sided competition Recaro seats bathed in clinging Alcantara is actually not so hard to learn. Hoist the lightweight skyward door of carbon composite, thrust your right leg in deep to the foot well, bend at the waist, and – plop – you’re in. Press the Start button at top dead center of the middle dash and the McLaren 3.8-liter biturbo V8 engine snarls hard to life, even snarlier if you start it after arriving in Race mode. I was in my P1 with McLaren 12C GT3 race driver Duncan Tappy in the passenger seat to help translate all the functions and laugh at me whenever I screwed something up. I have been lucky enough to drive the McLaren MP4-12C quite a bit over these last couple of years, and the layout of the P1 cabin is pretty similar. I was able to pick up speed in this new $1.15-million environment pretty quickly.

And the P1 is so freaking quick. It’s like a playful pitbull on a sugar high once you settle in. Master Tappy to my right walked me through lap after lap, ramping up the drama from Normal to Sport to Track over six laps. The differences were tangible from mood to mood, but nothing really glaring and especially gut-wrenching compared to the other whizzbang exotics out there. Just pretty much as one would expect from a 903-bhp car built by a Formula One company and weighing only 3,075 pounds.

I take that back a little. The steering is insanely smooth and quick, just 2.2 turns lock-to-lock versus the 12C on the same aluminum-carbon architecture with 2.6 turns. I also noticed the positive dynamic effects of scooching the two passenger seats closer together in the middle of the car. How the P1 moves during quick direction changes and controlled oversteer out of curves is made all the better by this reorientation of the human flesh right over the center point of the car. And the brakes brought in from the Japanese supplier that makes whole braking systems for the Formula One circus are unbelievable in reeling in this momentum monster.

But then came Race.

Oh, man, oh, man. Park the P1 and turn off the engine. Foot on brake, turn on the ignition so the dash lights up, and keep your button-pressing finger on the Race button at low-center of the middle dash. And wait patiently. Wait thirty seconds, in fact, for the hydraulic dampers to take your ground clearance from 4.7 inches down to 2.8 inches as on McLaren’s GT3 racing machines. Exactly what is happening outside the car is shown to you on the instrument cluster as the P1 lowers dramatically and that massive buffet table of an air-brake out back rises up to its highest point and angles down a little to capture more air. The downward forces created in the Race setup are the highest ever recorded for a series road car. Top speed is brought down from 217 mph to 205 mph simply because that’s the effect all of this has naturally.

Mister Tappy shouted at me over the bellowing big exhaust note, “Press the red IPAS button at the next straight when you floor it!” I did so, and the effect was sensational. It is such a cool trick to feel all of the e-motor urging come into play as I enter the longest straight. My arms stretch out as my body is pushed into the seat. On the next pass at the same straight, I press both the IPAS button at the right and the DRS blue button with my left thumb. This combo gives me the thrust and lower downforce inback, so that the straight is over in an instantand I have overtaken the entire field of F1 drivers trying to keep me from my podium finish. I really wished that I could have done this in the 918 Spyder.

The McLaren P1 is, at this rarefied level, the best thing going. If Porsche comes out with a hot little Cayman GTS model for real, then only that can challenge the P1's balance and dynamic perfection, although the Ferrari 458 Italia, Spider and Speciale are all pretty close. The aiming and shooting for everything on the Dunsfold circuit in the McLaren P1 got me the closest yet to Stig-like wonders in this life. The V-8 with and the 176-bhp electric motor are bodacious dance partners when working together in full boost, pedal to the floor.

My final lap was in full E-mode where only the e-motor is making forward progress possible. This mode from full e-load, without recharging or recuperating much energy through coasting or braking, can last up to 7.5 miles. Today it lasted about one lap and then the V-8 ignited to keep the show rolling. This was where it became clear that Porsche had the environmental edge with the 918 Spyder. You can get to about 28 miles per gallon average with the McLaren, so it’s not too shabby, and pressing the Charge button can fully reload the batteries in just ten minutes, but the electrics here are almost exclusively for boost (as on this year's F1 cars) and driving in European cities where pure gas guzzlers face much higher taxes.

After my turn was done, I asked Tappy to let me ride along for a few laps. The guy races McLarens for a living and did much of the track testing mileage in the P1 prototypes, and managed to effectively double my performance. The dynamics of the P1 are simply from a parallel universe. Yes, this driver is a hardcore pro, but this car, the P1, is meeting him excellent move for excellent move, and the effect is downright intoxicating when they come together. I so want one of these cars with my riches earned as an auto journalist.

But, aw shoot, they’re all sold.

Full disclosure: The manufacturer provided meals, air transportation and lodging for this review