Learning High-HP Car Control in a McLaren 600LT at Team O’Neil Rally School

Brian Silvestro
·5 min read
Photo credit: Adam Costa / @noscurvymedia
Photo credit: Adam Costa / @noscurvymedia

From Road & Track

Big power used to be hard to come by. Four-hundred-plus horsepower under the hood meant spending six figures, or making significant modifications to your car. But these days, power is abundant. Innovative engine tech and the public’s lust for performance means you can get a 460-horsepower Mustang for less than $30,000, or choose from five different Hellcat-engined FCA models, all priced under a hundred grand.

Learning how to manage that kind of power isn’t easy. With many new supercars, you can't use a fraction of their performance on the road. You have to go to a closed course to safely find the limits. One option is a race track. At most high-performance driver education (HPDE) events, you’ll have access to professional instruction, and plenty of opportunities to explore. But if you exceed those high limits, you’re likely to be going very quick, and if something goes wrong, you could be faced with a big repair bill. Or worse.

We thought there might be a better way. One that doesn’t involve ultra-high speeds, but that could still put a smile on our faces. Then it hit us: Why not dirt? Countless racers get their start on low-grip surfaces. Muddy circle tracks, gravel rally stages, and frozen lakes are ideal places to learn car control. We had to test the theory.

And what better place than the Team O’Neil Rally School? Located in Dalton, New Hampshire, the school was founded by rally champion Tim O’Neil in the late Nineties with the sole purpose of teaching drivers how to improve their skills on dirt. Spanning nearly 600 acres, the property hosts rally stages, skid pads, off-road courses, and anything else you may run into driving through a forest. It’s the perfect venue for testing something like a modern supercar, since there’s professional instruction on site, and not much to hit in case something goes wrong. All we needed was a car.

Enter the McLaren 600LT Spider. A limited production, hardcore version of the company’s already quick 570S Spider, it’s as super as supercars get. Underneath the svelte bodywork is a carbon fiber monocoque, and a 592-hp 3.8-liter twin-turbo V-8. Power is sent to the rear wheels via an ultra-quick seven-speed dual-clutch and, interestingly, an open differential. It was the ideal weapon for the job.

The drive up to Team O’Neil from New York City reinforced my thoughts on the stratospheric limits of today’s supercars. A trip down a twisty backroad is too easy for the 600LT. You can triple the speed limit with just a few seconds of full-throttle acceleration and corners are dealt with ruthlessly, thanks to the car’s impeccable brakes and fantastic steering. It’s so quick, you end up spending more time worrying about getting pulled over than enjoying your time behind the wheel.

So what’s it like sliding a McLaren on dirt? In a word, simple. I was expecting the car to be snappy and difficult at the limit, considering its mid-engine layout and open differential, but it’s the opposite. Slides come predictably, and they’re easy to hold as you power through a turn. The steering’s ultra-quick ratio means you can’t really hold big angles, but it’s still totally approachable. After a few slow-speed practice runs, I was transitioning between bends with the tail out, almost like I knew what I was doing. It was pretty ridiculous, as you can see:

This was mostly the 600LT’s doing, of course. I’m no dirt expert, but the car’s well-tuned inputs made sideways action super easy. And though the traction and stability control systems were turned off, McLaren’s brake-based torque-vectoring system—which fills the role of a traditional locking differential—was hard at work chomping at the rear discs to ensure power from the V-8 was getting to the right place at the right time. It was seamless.

The V-8’s peaky nature demands revs to get the turbos spooled. That means a big burst of power halfway through the rev range on pavement, and bootfuls of throttle on dirt to keep the rear tires spinning. It was a bit strange how much grip the produced on the wet, muddy course with its Pirelli P-Zero summer tires. Near redline in first gear is where it seemed happiest throughout the day. I can only imagine how much more speed the car could carry on a more appropriate set of winter tires.

There was never a moment I felt like I was going to lose control and sail into the forest, since all of these slides happened around 15 mph. Importantly, I was able to explore the limits of the car. I got to discover how it behaved beyond its boundaries, without having to risk anything on a public road or a race track. The theory checked out.

It’s important to understand this exercise isn’t based in reality. No McLaren owner in their right mind would bring their car to a rally school just to see where the limits lie. They’d shell out for a track day or driver’s school instead, and save their car from the potential rock chips. Nonetheless, this test highlights the value of using a low-friction surface to learn basic car control skills. I was able to get the 600LT—an intimidating exotic with astronomical limits on the road—sliding almost immediately, the loose surface providing me with access to its limits at a much more reasonable pace. As much as I’d like to think I’m a good driver, I can’t say I’d pull off these kinds of moves on pavement in this car.

This stuff applies for all vehicles—not just exotics. It’s why so many folks—including professional drivers and government agencies—flock to schools like Team O’Neil for training. Learning these fundamentals forms a solid base for any driver to develop, whether they’re looking to forward their motorsport career or just trying to get home safely during a blizzard. So whether you’re driving a new Shelby GT500 or an old Golf, we recommend getting some low-grip seat time under your belt. You’ll be surprised just how much of a difference it makes.

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