McLaren’s new convertible is the exception to racing’s oldest rule

Hannah Elliott | Updated on: Feb 21, 2019

Against all odds, the McLaren 600LT Spider acts like a coupe on the track

Since the glory days of Ayrton Senna, racing’s gospel has held that coupes are for the track while convertibles, on the other hand, are what you take to town.

Part of this is because of basic engineering: A car with a roof is more aerodynamic than one without. A roof is also stronger and more rigid. From a physics perspective, taking a roof out of the equation turns a car heavy and wobbly.

The 2019 McLaren 600LT Spider, however, has evolved past such ancient axioms. It comes with a 592 bhp, 3.8-litre, twin-turbocharged V-8 engine and a zero-to-100 kmph sprint time of 2.8 seconds — both identical to the coupe version of the car. Top speed is around 323 kmph.

More crucial for those interested in dissecting power-to-weight ratios, the 600LT Spider weighs just 1,297 kg. It’s almost 80 kg lighter, by my estimate, than any direct competitors from Ferrari or Lamborghini.

The men and women at the brand’s factory in Woking, England, seem obsessive about saving weight. They made the glass on the 600LT Spider thinner than in previous models. They took out the carpeting in the footwells altogether. And they used netting, rather than door pockets, for storage and eliminated the glove box.

McLaren is also offering the skeletal seats from its Senna — which weigh a little over three kg each, a third lighter than typical racing seats — in the 600LT Spider. Buyers have the option to delete such outré nods to decadence as the radio and air conditioning. All of which bodes well for McLaren’s topless proposition. Before I drive the new Spider on the Arizona Motorsports Park track — and after a good two hours in it beforehand, passing through empty desert landscapes — I ask the car-maker’s lead pro driver, Danny Buxton, how a convertible could possibly be considered track-suitable by any serious driver.

“I forgot it was a convertible by the second turn,” he says.

Maybe he’s just biased, I think, as we alight from the command RV parked near the pit lane. It’s directly next door to the constant, deafening blast of F-18s doing daily rotations at the US Air Force base. The only thing louder is the row of Skittle-green, lantana-purple, and Fanta-orange 600LT Spiders awaiting review. But as I search for the correct line around those 16 turns in Arizona behind the wheel, I realize Buxton is right. McLarens are built using technology refined over decades spent in the Formula One world. (Brazilian champ Senna raced for McLaren, don’t forget.) For the 600LT Spider, that means it has the same MonoCell II chassis as the coupe. This is basically a carbon fibre tub, but one that doesn’t need any additional strengthening or reinforcement on a convertible — a compromise often required with a conventional steel or aluminum body.

Furthermore, the 600LT Spider has the same forged-aluminum, double-wishbone suspension as other, more expensive and barely road-legal McLaren cars. It has stiffer anti-roll bars than its predecessors, and the aerodynamic carbon fibre front splitter, side sills, diffuser, and rear wing glue it to the road with downright oppressive downforce.

It all makes for a visceral driving experience. The dual-clutch gearbox takes the car through its seven gears in a seamless orchestra of acceleration and aural thrill. Although the 600LT Spider doesn’t bark and growl like a Lamborghini Huracán (some would call that an asset), the exhaust pipes mounted high on the rear of the car and the small rectangular retractable rear window amplify every wheeze, even with the top up.

The brake-boosting system gives the pedals a pinpoint-precise feeling with every tap of the brakes. I particularly enjoyed the sharpness of the throttle response and the immediacy of the steering through each corner. If you leave this review knowing one thing about the drive personality of a McLaren, know that it gives unparalleled feedback to your hands and feet and hips and shoulder blades as you steer and brake. In the 600LT Spider, the scrim between car and driver is very thin.

What’s not to like? Well, visibility is compromised as you look back over each shoulder, even with the top down, thanks to the tall triangle headrests. The footwells in the cabin narrow down unexpectedly toward the front, which can feel tight if you drive for any extended length of time. And when the top’s down, stored under the tonneau cover, it takes up the already tiny 1.8-cubic-foot storage compartment in the back (though the full front trunk retains an adequate amount of space for a bag).

Still, compared with the increased power, reduced weight, improved technology, and — at a base price of $256,500 — the relative value of the car, those points are moot. Get past your knee-jerk reaction that a convertible doesn’t belong on the track. After all, you can always drive with the top up.

Bloomberg

Published on February 21, 2019
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