Looking at the McLaren P1 concept up close, you get the impression that, were it not for aerodynamics, there'd be no dynamics at all. The P1, in all seriousness, is a car designed by the wind.
More than any aspect of the P1 — the engine we can still only speculate on, the height-adjustable suspension we can't yet see — it's the management of airflow that gives the McLaren its looks, its personality, and presumably, its performance. It's clear now why the company used a wind-tunnel map as a teaser image.
To a greater degree than any other supercar ever built before, the story here is airflow.
Forget about the photos you've seen. Two dimensions can't deliver the complexities surrounding the P1's carbon-fiber skin. Peering into its inlet ducts; lingering on the folds of its diffuser; imagining the wind racing in, over and through the channels carved into its two, single-molded "clamshell" body-panel sections, across its side-jutting barge-boards and over its active rear wing, forcing the car toward the ground and tending to its massive cooling needs, it's obvious this is air's world; we just get to breathe in it.
(Full disclosure: McLaren flew me to the Paris Motor Show, picked up the room at a clean, corporate hotel that just happened to be on the Seine, and provided access to product-development experts. I paid for my own Nescafé, which was provided free, so I guess I didn't pay after all.)
While McLaren chief designer Frank Stephenson is credited with the P1's design, the head designer is the wind, harnessed and analyzed via wind tunnel and computational fluid dynamics modeling. Stephenson and his design team did use natural shapes — and liberal dashes of the company's boomerang logo, which echoes throughout the bodywork — to guide the aero into a recognizable, but still avant garde, automotive shape.
Since getting a sneak preview of the P1 last night, hosted by McLaren, at the Paris Auto Show, I've been thinking about this car non-stop. And I've been trying to figure out which part of my brain loves the design, thinks it's one of the most beautiful cars it's ever seen, and which part wants to fight it.
Anyone who's grown up around cars during the past two decades knows the antecedent to the P1 is McLaren's F1, which debuted twenty years ago. The F1, according to both lore and study, is the finest road car ever built. Naturally, the P1 — McLaren Automotive's soon-to-be flagship — is not a production-ready car. Still, the first customer model will ship inside of 12 months, McLaren reps say, and no more than 500 will be built in its entire run. A seven-figure price tag is a good guess. This is indeed a very special car for McLaren, and, hopefully for them as well, the world.
Make no mistake; this is a car created by a company for whom aerodynamics is a core competency. Aerodynamics led the design brief, with engineering and design departments merely steering the P1's ultimate packaging toward a goal of building a sports racing car stable enough to be usable by drivers of typical road cars.
Drawing from McLaren's F1 heritage, the P1 has a drag-reduction system (DRS), using a dual-stage, active rear wing that extends up to nearly 12 inches (on a racetrack) and nearly five inches on the road, pitching to a maximum angle of 29 degrees. McLaren says the function was developed using methods and software lifted from its F1 squad. But whereas an F1 car's DRS system uses a movable flap in the rear wing, the P1's just an overall change in pitch.
Active aero continues. A pair of flaps mounted under the body, forward of the front wheels, change angle — from zero to 60 degrees — to boost downforce. Otherwise, the underbody is generally smooth, creating stick-to-pavement suction through ground effects.
Ultimately, the P1 is a downforce car, producing 1,323 pounds of the stuff — or five times as much as the McLaren MP4-12C. Combined with the rear wing, which also acts as an air brake, the front flaps improve handling, braking and straight-line stability. Despite the massive downforce, the P1's drag coefficient is a typically sports-car-like 0.34.
So what is the mission statement of the P1? The company position is that the P1's raison d'être is to become the "quickest and most rewarding series production car on a circuit." Top speed be damned, they say. That leaves it off the hook among those who might insist the P1 match the Bugatti Veyron note for note.
What's the engine? McLaren's not talking. Neither are they talking about the suspension. What they are saying is that the P1 will have a power-to-weight ratio of 600 metric horsepower per tonne — or around four pounds for every horsepower. (Picture a thoroughbred dragging a carpenter's hammer).
And yet, the overall effect is — strictly in terms of sex appeal — a bit neutral. Naturally, if the fact that some of the world's most beautiful cars are aerodynamically flawed is an indication, sex isn't always the most efficient way to design a car that can do amazing things. The P1 is shaped by the laws of thermodynamics more than eros-dymamics. It's the wind telling us how a car should look, not our own lizard psyches.
But I like it. A lot. It's a beautiful car. I'm just not sure which part of my brain is aroused by it.