In the early days of sports car racing, competitors would drive their cars on public roads to the track, do high-speed battle and then (hopefully) the same vehicle would deliver the driver to a celebratory dinner. In retrospect, it was the ultimate test of a man and his machine, as both had to perform in two arenas.
Such a nostalgic escapade is what I planned for the new McLaren 620R, the first car in its class to offer true motorsports credentials in a fully road-legal package. I would drive it on highways from the southern California coast to a racetrack in the desert.
I have a bit of a history with the brand (finishing third at the famous Le Mans 24 Hour in 1995 in the original McLaren FTGTR), so I tend to look at their impressive street machines in terms of ultimate performance, not just as lust-worthy collectibles. Thanks to the automaker’s formidable Formula One program, a torrent of technology gets tested on the world’s most high-profile stage, some of which then finds a secondary home on these road going missiles.
Based on their multiple championship winning GT4 race cars, the McLaren 620R has taken all the best elements and repackaged them into a road-to-race variant that doesn’t have to conform to any competition restrictions. In layman terms, that means it is technically faster than the ones that race at Le Mans.
As I wound my way out of Los Angeles, I giggled at the looks the 620R received from everyone. My devilishly flashy car came in McLaren Orange with white racing stripes and a WTF-size rear wing. At times I wished I could flash a sign saying “on my way to a race track so don’t judge.” But let’s be honest, in today's era of hypercars, supercars, concept cars and virtual cars, the exaggerated functional aerodynamics and overall vibe of the 620R is totally on point.
My destination was Thermal, the extraordinary members-only drivers club just outside Palm Springs. I was fortunate enough to have access to their world-class facility for a few laps, which is a good thing as this rocket ship needs room to take off.
Being fair, the road drive passed swiftly in comfort mode, almost offhand in its absorption of the bumps and the way the steering fed back the road surfaces. It was so easy that I almost forgot I was in one of the fastest production cars in the world. Well, there was one constant reminder: the stripped out interior smacks of a race car with its carbon fiber race seats, lack of carpeting and cup holders and an anticipatory energy that flows though the cabin. The drive was a bit like enduring dinner with a hot date to get to the fun part.
The team at Thermal made the 620R and myself welcome, and with tire pressures prepped for a track session I turned the two central dials to their sporting mode setting (one for handling, the other for powertrain) and let the car effortlessly morph from a road car to a racecar.
A bit of a disclaimer here: the moment that I put on a race helmet in a car on a track I raise my expectations of the experience. And boy oh boy, as I turned into the first left-hander out of the pits, I knew Lassie was home. At every corner, turn-in was acutely sharp and the car took a confidence inspiring set, allowing me to roll into the throttle without hesitation as I tried to tease her into making a mistake. The feedback from the steering wheel was engaging and matched the energy of my inputs and pressure, especially as I exited the tight left-hand hairpin. The mechanical grip and traction control allowed me to mash the gas at exit, and as I flung myself into the particularly tricky high speed esses, the aero performance balance inspired absolute confidence. I really got the feeling that unless I abused the laws of physics, the 620R has a threshold of grip that for most people will outweigh their bravery to go to that limit!
The 7-speed SSG gearbox is indeed seamless as advertised, and as I screamed up through the gears on the straights, all 611 BHP, I wanted to howl myself to match it! It isn’t that the 3.8-litre, twin-turbo V8 is unusually loud. It is more that the effect is amplified by the frequency of the delivery and the fact that the prominent roof scoop is forcing air with a tremendous whistle right behind your head.
It’s all well and good taking off like a scalded cat, but if you can’t stop the car, regain balance and execute a fast corner entry to the next turn, it's just for show. That is what makes the stopping power of the 620R so impressive. With technology shared with the Senna, the carbon-ceramic discs have an aggressively tender feel to them that translates to the ability to modulate entry speed all the way to the perfect place to ease off the brakes and maintain a high mid-corner speed, which is always the goal.
Lap after lap in the afternoon desert sun, with temperatures rising outside, everything on the 620R remained a cool cat. That is thanks to the aggressive aero package that not just aids downforce by cleaning up the air as it passes over the car, but also forces it to where it is needed most in the engine and brake cooling ducts. I’ll admit it, I was the only sweating component to the package, but I loved every second. If I hadn’t promised McLaren I would return the car with relatively decent rubber left, I would still be on that track.
McLaren is selling only 225 examples of the 620R globally, with 70 earmarked for the US. If you can get your hands on one, you can kick things off at $278,445. It’s definitely not for everyone—nor should it be. Instead, it is a statement on technology and performance without compromise that will take you to a very special place indeed. That is, if you are up to it. Then you deserve to drive it home like a champ.
Justin Bell, a former race car driver, won the GT2 class at Le Mans in 1998 and the GT2 World Championship in 1997. Today he is the host of “The Torque Show” and various web and television shows about auto racing.