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2020 McLaren GT Road Trip: Bruce Was Here

Is it a real GT? We drive from Spa to Reims to find out

© Motor Trend Staff

From Motor Trend

Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium. It's cold up here on the Radillon, a biting wind whipping along the Kemmel Straight. The views back down the fearsome Eau Rouge, the most famous corner in modern Formula 1, are frosted with snow. My gaze drifts across to the 2020 McLaren GT—a long, low, luscious bullet designed to crush continents at warp speeds—and wonder what Bruce would have thought of it.

© Motor Trend Staff

Bruce was right here 52 years ago, though he would have been too busy to be staring at cars, no matter how gorgeous. You see, on the afternoon of June 9, 1968, New Zealand-born Bruce Leslie McLaren was dancing his neat little orange McLaren M7A around the Spa-Francorchamps circuit en route to victory in the Belgian Grand Prix. Spa would be Bruce's fourth grand prix win and 21st podium in 79 starts. But it would also be the first victory for a Formula 1 car carrying the McLaren name.

More than a half-century on, McLaren is one of the most storied names in F1 history, having notched up 182 wins, 12 Drivers' Championships, and eight Constructors' Championships. The McLaren GT is the product of a company spun off that success: McLaren Automotive will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year.

© Motor Trend Staff

Bruce would have understood this transformation because when he was killed testing the McLaren M8D Can-Am racer at Goodwood two years later, he also was working on a GT road car of his own—the McLaren M6GT.

The M6GT was little more than a race car made street legal, a coupe body mounted on an M6B Can-Am chassis, with a thundering mid-mounted Chevy small block providing the motive power. Bruce planned to build 250 units. That plan died with him at Goodwood that day.

Unlike the M6GT, the 2020 McLaren GT was designed as a road car from the wheels up. Bruce would appreciate the racecar engineering in it. The GT's carbon fiber structure was pioneered by the McLaren M4/1 F1 car in 1981 and helps contribute to its impressively low mass. At just under 3,400 pounds, the GT weighs 150 pounds less than a Porsche 911 Turbo S, 700 pounds less than a Ferrari GTC4Lusso T, 800 pounds less than an Aston Martin DBS Superleggera, and three-quarters of a ton less than a Bentley Continental GT Coupe.


How Fast Is The McLaren GT?

Less weight, as Bruce well understood, helps performance. Although the GT's 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 is in a softer state of tune than in the 720S—developing 612 hp and 465 lb-ft of torque instead of 710 hp and 568 lb-ft—McLaren claims it's still able to slingshot the car from 0 to 60 mph in 3.1 seconds.

© Motor Trend Staff

That's similar acceleration to the 715-hp Aston. And right on that of the 602-hp Ferrari and 626-hp Bentley, too, both of which have the benefit of all-wheel drive traction off the line. Of the above, only the 580-hp Porsche—all-wheel drive, and with 61 percent of its weight on the rear wheels - is quicker.

Top speed? McLaren claims 203 mph, within a mile an hour or so of claims for both the Porsche and the Bentley. The GTC4Lusso T is said to hit 208 mph, while Aston says its mighty twin-turbo V-12 has the power to push the big DBS all the way to 211mph. Outside Germany, however—and perhaps a few quiet, empty roads in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa—these numbers are meaningless. Suffice it to say the McLaren GT is a suitably fast gran turismo; faster, even, than Bruce imagined his M6GT (said at the time to be good for 165 mph) could be.

© Motor Trend Staff

With challenging corners, dramatic elevation changes and breathtaking high-speed sections, Spa-Francorchamps is, along with the Nürburgring Nordschleife and Australia's Mt. Panorama at Bathurst, a favorite among top race drivers. At 4.3 miles, it's the longest track of the modern F1 era, and one of the fastest, with Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc averaging almost 153 mph on his pole-winning lap for last year's Belgian Grand Prix.

But it's a shadow of the 8.7-mile monster it was when Bruce raced here, a track so fast that 1968 pole sitter Chris Amon's average speed was about the same as Leclerc's … in a Ferrari with 40 percent the power, a manual transmission, steel brakes, and a fraction of the mechanical and aerodynamic grip.

In Bruce's day, the track continued straight past Les Combes, where the modern circuit dives precipitously downhill, and on to the town of Stavelot. It was—as it is today—a public road that swept off the ridge and down through the forest and into open farmland: flat-out, top gear territory in a late-60s grand prix car. I'm struck, as the GT loafs along at 60 mph, by the total lack of run-off room; ditches and fences and telegraph poles and trees—even houses—lurk everywhere, right at the edge of the tarmac.

© Motor Trend Staff

The Masta Kink is, at these speeds, a gentle left-right sweep punctuating two 1.5-mile straights. But three-time world champion Jackie Stewart, who crashed here in 1966, ending up upside down in the cellar of a farmhouse in his BRM, soaked in fuel, called it the most difficult corner in the world.

In 1968, Bruce would have arrived at the Kink at somewhere north of 180 mph and merely lifted, feathering the gas to steady the M7A through the left hander before getting back on it for the right, and threading the needle between houses on either side of the track to stay flat all the way to the sweeping right-hander at Stavelot.

I amble through in the leather-lined comfort of the GT and try to comprehend the skill, the talent—hell, the brass-balled bravery—that it required. Ernest Hemingway once said there are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games. At the Masta Kink, you get it.

© Motor Trend Staff

I stop for a photo at Stavelot corner, next to the old stone bridge Bruce raced past as he swept back towards La Source hairpin and another lap. Then I turn the GT southwest, toward the brooding dampness of the Ardennes Forest. Other than staying off the freeways, there's no fixed agenda: I look at the map on my iPhone, spot an interesting road, and then program the name of the village nearest to it into the McLaren's sat-nav—basically working my way towards France and Reims. The result is a 250-mile mix of fast, flowing two lanes, twisting mountain routes, lumpy old farm roads, and the occasional cobbled street.

Softer spring and damper rates mean the GT feels noticeably more compliant than the 720S; the more relaxed cadence of the pitch motions make it feel like it's riding on a longer wheelbase. On smooth roads I set the handling and powertrain settings to Sport, enjoying the crisper throttle and transmission response, and the more concise body control. On rougher roads I leave powertrain in Sport, but switch handling to Comfort to allow the car to breathe over the bumps.

The GT has more ground clearance than the 720S at 4.3 inches, and the redesigned bodywork gives it a 10-degree approach angle, more like a performance sedan than a supercar. So even when I'm caught out by the occasional hidden heaves and hollows, the McLaren's expensive underpinnings stay clear of the tarmac.

© Motor Trend Staff

Never the most charismatic of engines, the 4.0-liter McLaren V-8 suffers from an industrial drone between 1,500 rpm and 2,000 rpm on light throttle. It's all too audible in the GT, especially when cruising on smooth roads at 60 to 70 mph. The good news is it wakes up at 3,000 rpm and revs to 8,200, giving you plenty to work with when you want to have some fun. Between 4,000 rpm and 6,000 rpm is its happy place: crisp response and smooth thrust propelling the GT down the road with rapid efficiency.

The seven-speed dual-clutch transmission can feel a little sleepy if left to its own devices. Switching to manual mode, and working the paddles yourself, fixes all that: Shifts are not only quick, but slick, even in Track mode, where McLaren's Inertia Push technology converts built-up flywheel energy into a momentary burst of torque on upshifts.

Grand prix ghosts whisper through the old concrete pits and grandstands that line the road from Thillois to Geux, just outside Reims. Legends raced here —Nuvolari, Carraciola, Fangio, Moss, Clark, Gurney. Bruce McLaren, too. He finished fifth in the 1959 French Grand Prix on the blindingly fast 5.1-mile triangular road course, finishing in the points in only his third-ever appearance behind the wheel of an F1 car. Back then, Bruce was driving a Cooper, the car that pioneered the shift from front to mid-engine in Formula 1. The moss-green GT looks like a spaceship has landed in the old pit lane. But it shares elemental fragments of DNA with the car Bruce McLaren raced here 61 years ago.


How Much Does the McLaren GT Cost?

Priced from $213,195, the McLaren GT is more expensive than the soon-to-be-superseded Porsche 911 Turbo S (which starts at just over $191,000), but costs less than the $220,000 Bentley Continental GT, the $260,000 Ferrari GTC4Lusso T, and the $308,000 Aston Martin DBS Superleggera. And it looks the most exotic of the lot. But what's most remarkable about the GT is that despite the leather-lined cabin, the 20.1 cubic feet of combined front and rear luggage space, and the 19-gallon fuel tank that gives it a 420-mile cruising range, it still feels like a mid-engine supercar—just as effortless through the air and as light on its feet as the 720S.

© Motor Trend Staff

Yes, compared to the 720S, there's a little more understeer when really you start pushing hard, and the powertrain lacks its electrifying top-end bite. But this McLaren makes its rivals feel less balanced, less composed, as if they're having to work much harder to cover ground as quickly. There's also, in those cars, a subtle distance between you and the machinery that's notably absent in the McLaren. No, you're not hard-wired to the tarmac like you are in the 720S. But there's an immediacy to the GT, a constant dialogue between you and the car, that you simply don't get in the others.

That's its strength. And, for some, its weakness.

On anything but the smoothest roads, for example, the GT's steering wheel squirms busily in your hands the whole time. Enthusiast drivers will love knowing exactly what's going on where the tires meet the tarmac, but the relentless chatter might be a little wearing for those who expect their gran turismos to take care of business without highlighting every single detail of the task at hand.

Despite extra sound deadening, that engine drone is annoyingly intrusive. And there's still plenty of tire noise, especially on coarse tarmac or concrete. The GT comes with a fancy Bowers & Wilkins audio system, but unless you're stuck in traffic, you're never going to appreciate its fidelity.

Alhough its construction, technology, and layout are state-of-the-moment, the McLaren GT is at heart an old-school gran turismo: a car whose raw driver appeal is overlaid with a veneer of creature comfort. Come to think of it, that's exactly what the M6GT would have been. Bruce would approve.


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Automotive Magazine: 2020 McLaren GT Road Trip: Bruce Was Here
2020 McLaren GT Road Trip: Bruce Was Here
Is it a real GT? We drive from Spa to Reims to find out
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