While working towards besting their rivals comes naturally, the real challenge at McLaren is an internal one. Here, some of the best talent in the industry is given the environment and resources to continually push the envelope, and lateral thinking is encouraged.
Like an arrow that has left the bow there is no hesitation at McLaren who have taken on the role of Top Guns of the sportscar world. A suitable mantra for them could be “we did not come this far just to come this far,” and they are never satisfied with anything that is merely good.
Today, we are at the Arizona Motorsports Park testing the new McLaren 600LT Spider to its limits. AMP is right next to Luke Air Force Base, home of the USAF’s 56th Fighter Wing, so an added bonus is the continuous air display from the F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-35 Lightning II aircraft that train here.
Exiting a slow bend on one lap I glanced in my rear view mirror and saw the side profile of an F-35 about to alight on the nearby runway. Together with the McLaren 600LT Spider I was driving, this was a most impressive display of man’s best engineering and aerodynamic achievements in action.
The McLaren 600LT Spider was a car that had to happen. Given the sales success of the pretty 570S Spider on which it is based, the even greater appeal of an open version of McLaren’s best value Sport Series model is obvious.
Where the 570S Spider is arguably the most downright gorgeous and most futuristic looking machine amongst its highly talented peers, the 600LT Spider takes on a more aggressive masculine visage by adopting the race bred appearance of its Coupe sister.
LT stands for Longtail, and while the 600LT does not have the immediately obvious extra length of the F1 GTR racecars from the ‘90s, it shares the new carbon-fibre bodywork, fixed rear wing, and longer rear underbody diffuser that add the 74mm whose significance shows in the wind tunnel and on track. All this adds up to the same 100kg of positive downforce at 200km/h enjoyed by the Coupe.
This increase in overall downforce starts with the larger front splitter. To balance things out the rear wing on the 600LT is placed an inch higher in the airstream than the 570S. This and the longer rear diffuser make a big difference to downforce over the rear axle at speed, while the more prominent side skirts with fins help to guide airflow along the cars flanks, further improving its aero profile.
Meanwhile the two-section hardtop can be raised or lowered at the touch of a button in 15 seconds at speeds up to 40km/h. The powered vertical glass rear window acts as a wind deflector when the roof is open, and can also be dropped with the roof up to let in more engine and exhaust sound and ventilate the cabin in a draft free manner even at highway speeds.
With the 600LT already 96kg lighter than the 570S at 1,274kg (dry), the Spider tips the scales at 1,297kg, an increase of just 23kg. This is far less than any rival, most of whom see increases of between 50 and 80kg over their fixed head versions.
The lack of comparative structural stiffness in the McLaren’s head-on competitors - the open versions of the Ferrari 488, Lamborghini Huracan and Audi R8 V10 Plus - are noticeable even at normal road speeds.
You feel some scuttle shake over bumps in all the McLaren’s rivals, and when you start to press on you will discern more understeer going into bends, and the earlier onset of oversteer on the way out that result from the body twist under load compromising the suspension’s geometrical accuracy.
Thanks to its carbon-fibre central tub the McLaren Spider makes zero compromise in structural stiffness terms. The torsional twist number is exactly the same as on the Coupe, which gives it an immediate handling and grip advantage over all comers on both road and track.
And this is even more critical given the sticky trackday Pirelli PZero Trofeo R tyres on the 600LT that feed significantly more load into the structure in hard cornering.
Tyres are a fast moving part of the high performance car arena, and the uprated suspension was developed to optimise the grip of the Pirelli P-Zero Trofeo R rubber, which comes in 225/35R19 and 285/35R20 sizes front and rear respectively on 8.5J x 19-inch and 11.0J x 20-inch forged wheels.
The Pirelli PZero Trofeo R tyre is one of the best of its kind, and each manufacturer - Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren and Porsche - has a specific version developed to suit the weight and suspension characteristics of their cars. Because the 600LT Spider has exactly the same torsional stiffness as its Coupe sister the tyre specification is identical.
The new ultra-light multi-spoke forged wheels lower the critical unsprung weight by a whopping 17kg, while the 390/380mm carbon-ceramic brake discs with six/four-pot callipers from the 720S shave off another 4.0kg.
From the first corner at AMP it was clear that the 600LT Spider turns in, grips and goes no differently from the Coupe we tested at the Hungaroring last September.
Discernibly sharper than the 570S and 570S Spider on which it is based, the 600LT and its open sister respond more like a racecar to inputs, which is no surprise given that the goal of the development team was to create a road legal trackday car with performance and feel midway between the 570S and the GT4 racecar.
That means the steering and front axle of the 600LT Spider is both more pointy and grippier than the 570S, the rear axle even more faithful in following the front end into and through a bend, and its overall seat of the pants feel actually a snapshot of the world beating Senna, sans the awesome thrust and downforce of the McLaren flagship.
A modest increase in boost pressure within the ECU remap and lower back-pressure from the new top exit exhaust system sees the output of the 570S M838TE motor rise from 570hp and 600Nm of torque to 600hp at 7,500rpm, with 620Nm of torque from 5,500 to 6,500rpm.
The performance numbers are spectacular with the 0-100km/h sprint over in 2.9 sec, 200km/h passed in 8.4 sec, and top speed pegged at 324km/h with the roof up, and 9km/h less with it down.
The recalibrated springs and dampers produce a stiffer suspension with less roll on turn-in, and like a racecar the 600LT responds very well to trail braking. Meanwhile the 720S rear suspension arm forgings alter the way the rear tyres work, gaining extra stability through a reduction in toe change under heavy braking.
The front anti-roll bar is 50% stiffer than on the 570S, and is matched by a 25% smaller rear bar. By itself this would normally encourage more understeer, but the spring rates have been increased by 13% in front and 34% at the rear to compensate. These uprated springs also drop the ride height by 8.0mm.
That said, the 600LT Spider scores a goal over the Senna simply by offering its driver and lucky passenger the choice of open top motoring. The Spider’s advantage is the closer contact with the environment and the much more visceral inputs directed at your senses when the roof is down.
Having the exhaust pipes blow the spent gases upwards just behind your head brings a quite different and more adrenalin fuelling reaction. Fire up the engine and the bark of the twin rear deck mounted exhaust outlets sends the opening war cry of the flat-plane crank V8 straight to your eardrums.
On the move the rush of air past your head, and the louder and more concentrated engine and exhaust soundtrack change the game from merely loud to louder and more intoxicating. If you are running in the more aggressive powertrain modes at night, changes are you will even witness the tongues of orange flames shooting from the exhausts in your mirror during a downshift. If you are in a tunnel the walls will light up momentarily!
On the road the track focused 600LT Spider is never going to be as comfortable as the 720S Spider whose active suspension offers a broader envelope of comfort and sporty behaviour. It is also not as absorbent as the 570S Spider, whose non-active settings strike a remarkably good overall balance between ride comfort and tautness.
Despite that extra firmness the 600LT Spider is still a reasonably civilised road machine, even if it is ultimately better at blasting down a twisty road than cruising from London to Monaco on the motorway.
One of its best features is the electrically powered vertical rear glass, which can be lowered in stages at the touch of a button. Acting as a wind deflector when the top is down it can be opened with the roof up for ventilation as well as a draft-free ‘window’ to the engine and exhaust soundtrack.
Fast country roads are where the 600LT Spider really shines, the go where you point it accuracy of its steering, lack of roll and incredible grip making short work of corners of all stripes. Then the 600 horses punch you out of corners with real resolve and shrink the straights in between.