McLaren MP4-12C vs Ferrari F40

McLaren's turbocharged supercar, the MP4-12C, meets a forced induction icon - the Ferrari F40

Has the Ferrari F40 really been with us for twenty-five years? That seems like an impossibly long time for a car that still grips us so completely, yet any suspicion that time has played tricks evaporates when Andy Wallace parks alongside me, grinning widely from the driver’s seat of Ferrari’s unmistakeable red wedge. I gawp, just as I did as a sixteen-year-old when I saw the world’s fastest, fiercest road car for the first time.

Moments later another mid-engined supercar arrives and parks behind it. Also powered by a twin-turbo V8 and blessed with the halo of a Formula 1 pedigree, the technology-packed McLaren MP4-12C may well be regarded as the cold-hearted antithesis of the fire-and-brimstone F40, but it’s these differences – and essential similarities – that make it a worthy guest of honour at the F40’s landmark birthday. That both are owned by the same person – the ever-generous Albert Vella – serves only to bring an added dimension of context and perspective to one of the most written-about cars of all time. 

You approach the F40 with a tingly mix of reverence, apprehension and childish excitement. It’s such an icon that you think you know all there is to know about the outrageous shape, but if you get up close and let your eyes rove from nose to tail you rediscover the details and sheer drama that had been lost to familiarity. As with a great work of art, you always seem to find something new to delight or intrigue.

So much of this car screams racer, from the airy panel fits and aggressive aerodynamics to the centrelock wheels complete with split-pins to retain the wheel nut. The door opens with a clack and feels so light and brittle you fear it might break off its hinges. The sill is wide and tall, quite unlike any road car you’ve ever experienced before, with a step in the angular structure of the carbon-composite tub that you have to lift your feet over to climb in.

The red cloth-upholstered racing seat is snugly supportive, the driving position offset and actually pretty awkward. I’m not exactly Goliath, yet still my head is brushing the roof and disconcertingly close to the windscreen header rail. You need to pull yourself up close to the inclined steering wheel, in part to ensure you have full reach once pulled down by the shoulder harnesses, but mainly to give your left leg sufficient leverage to depress the hefty clutch pedal. Slide and turn the small, unassuming key into the dashboard-mounted ignition barrel, pause for a moment to laugh at how strange, yet supremely cool the blue cloth-upholstered dash looks and feels, and listen as the fuel pumps sing their busy song behind your head. Grasp the chrome ball-topped gearlever and give it a wiggle to confirm it’s in neutral, then prod the unmarked and slightly squidgy rubber-wrapped ignition switch. After a slight churn of the starter motor the twin-turbo V8 fires with a hollow, cammy blare before settling into an exuberant, boisterous idle.

The throttle pedal is almost as firm as the clutch and requires a confident squeeze to blip. All that remains is to give your palms one last wipe on your jeans, heft down on the clutch, pull the gearlever towards you and back to slot the dogleg first gear, then s-l-o-w-l-y feed the clutch in as you do your best to be smooth with the power as you get underway.

There’s a lot to concentrate on in the F40. The steering – heavy at parking speeds – is quick-witted and very busy once you get moving, wriggling and tugging over bumps and cambers you’d be oblivious to in a normal car. It feels like you’re sat right over the front wheels, a sensation that amplifies the impression of a wilful, hyperactive front-end. When you take your right hand from the wheel to change gear, your left instinctively grips a little tighter. This car is alive with nervous energy.

As you can imagine, it takes quite a while to interpret what the F40’s telling you and relax your grip enough to let it squirm in your hands without allowing it to bump-steer itself into a hedge. Consequently it’s not until you’ve been in the car a good while that you feel sufficiently confident to point the F40’s shovel-nose down a straight piece of road and push that heavy throttle to the floor.

For a moment very little happens, save a lazy and slightly sulky off-boost, off-cam phase as the 2.9-litre V8 slowly warms to the task. Then the twin IHI turbos begin to spool and the F40 fairly explodes into life, rear tyres just managing to maintain a purchase on the tarmac, front end going a little light on its springs. This is the moment the F40 experience crystallises into a giddy, heart-pounding rush of forced- induction madness, engine note hard and malevolent, tacho needle punching round the last 2000rpm of its arc with manic urgency. In an instant you’re wide-eyed and moist with a fine layer of perspiration, and as your senses begin to catch up with the action, your right foot eases out of the throttle and your face splits into a crazed, adrenalin-fuelled smile. You’re probably laughing and almost certainly swearing, while behind you the F40 utters expletives of its own with a fusillade of pops, bangs and stabs of flame. So far, so crazy.

The biggest challenge, and the greatest thrill, is in attempting to string this performance together into something more than a disjointed, but admittedly enjoyable, series of hypersonic lunges through the scenery. When I mention this to Vella he wears a knowing smile. ‘There’s something so special about feeling that rush of boost, isn’t there? You get to savour it so much more with a manual gearbox too. I love the buzz you get from each upshift when the boost hits home again. It just keeps on pulling. Trouble is there aren’t many roads where you can feel that buzz in fourth, let alone fifth!’

He’s right of course. By the time the F40 has shot its bolt in third, not only are you fixing a steely gaze on the fast-approaching corner, but you’re also throwing an anxious gaze in the rear-view mirror, haunted by the spectre of blue lights and a confiscated driving licence. Yet no sooner has the boost subsided than you crave another hit, and so when the opportunity presents itself you immediately yield to your addiction, squeezing down on that heavyweight throttle like a junkie on a syringe. When it comes to raw, stomach-knotting accelerative force, nothing comes close to an F40 fully-lit.

So you never get inured to the boost. This much we know. What’s gratifying to discover is that if you can bring yourself to avoid the last inch or so of throttle travel, the F40 has a placid side to its character that comes as a pleasant surprise. Alright, so we’re talking mellow in the context of a road-racer with no air-conditioning and physical control weights, but still you can stroke it along at a decent pace without that uneasy sense you’re two steps behind it and clinging on for dear life. Indeed it feels like a car you could cover big miles in, an impression confirmed by Vella’s road trips to Monte Carlo, Rome and even Malaga during his six years and 17,000km with the car.

What’s the rest of it like? The brakes need a shove, but respond progressively. They don’t feel like they’d have a lot in reserve if you were to use them really hard, at least compared with 2012-spec supercar stoppers, but they certainly don’t inhibit your driving on the road. The five-speed manual transmission has that long-lost shift quality that only Ferraris of a certain age can deliver: a deliberate, weighty feel that’s initially tight as you take the lever out of one gear, then frees up as you cross the gate before tightening once more as the next gear slots home.

Despite the fury of the on-boost performance, you find yourself adopting a measured, studious driving style. Upshifts need to be precise and punchy to mitigate the loss of revs – and therefore boost – as you find the next gear, while braking and downshifting is your chance to exercise old-school skills, modulating your brake pressure and positioning your right foot just-so to allow well-timed blips of throttle. It’s an all-consuming challenge that requires you to get dialled in to the car’s needs and responses. In this respect – and perhaps matched only by the McLaren F1 – driving the F40 fast is a lesson in effort and reward. The more you give, the more you get. 

There’s less reverence and a different set of pre-flight rituals in the 12C. It too commands your attention – that searing orange paint certainly helps add some drama – but it’s a more polished, less combative-looking machine. Having run your fingers along the deeply sculptured alcove in the door to find the touch-release ‘handle’, the door pops up and forwards in characteristic McLaren dihedral style. The sill is higher than the low-slung F40’s, a result of the one-piece moulded carbon tub, but it’s easier to step into the footwell and drop into the driver’s seat.

After the shockingly basic interior of the F40, the 12C is much more conventional and far more comprehensively appointed. The ergonomics are properly thought-out. It’s very obviously a road car, not a racer with grudging concessions to road use. And where the F40 feels like they actually forgot to package the interior with a human occupant in mind, the 12C was very definitely designed around the driver. You sit square behind the steering wheel, left and right feet perfectly aligned with left and right pedals, which, as Wallace points out, suggests McLaren expects you to left-foot brake.

As with most of today’s supercars, you spend your first few minutes trying to familiarise yourself with where the starter button sits, how to find a gear and what the various dynamic modes do. In this respect it’s more like getting to know your new mobile phone than a 600bhp, 200mph supercar.

The motor starts smoothly and with a minimum of fuss, but there’s a nice undercurrent of spooling turbos if you give it a bit of a stoke. Driving away is a cinch, for you simply pull back on the right-hand rocker paddle (or push on the left if you’re feeling like Lewis Hamilton) and push gently on the smooth-acting throttle. After the overwhelming flood of feedback in the F40, the 12C is serenity itself. The steering is clean and finely filtered, not alive exactly but far from a dead weight in your hands, and the ride is incredibly pliant so you feel isolated from the unwanted white noise of road imperfections but completely tuned-in to the interface between tyres and tarmac.

In the mildest of its aero and drivetrain modes the 12C is super-civilised, with soft-edged responses and the driveability of a BMW 5-series. However, if you ramp things up a bit with the satisfyingly ‘clicky’ rotary switches, it will eventually bare its teeth. There’s a palpable sense of everything tensing ready for action. The steering becomes more acutely responsive, the suspension tightens its control of the 12C’s mass, the engine punches harder and sooner, and the gearbox snaps home the up- and down-shifts like gunshots.

At first it’s fun – mesmerising in fact – to tuck into the F40’s wake and watch it skitter and lunge up the road, tyres hunting for traction under full boost, then brake lights burning even when the road is straight as Wallace cries enough and takes a breath. The McLaren needs to work hard to match the Ferrari’s full-boost kick, but over a sustained cross-country drive the accessibility, immediacy and relentlessness of the 12C’s performance makes the F40 little more than a glorious hindrance.

Is it a thrill? When you find a clear stretch of road and steal yourself to fully unleash its performance, ab-so-bloody-lutely! The difference is that where the F40 gives you a big boost-laden bear-hug, then lets you go between gears, the 12C has the breath-crushing insistence of a boa constrictor. You simply can’t believe the speed it can gain between – and, more than likely, through – corners. It’s like driving with slicks and wings on the road. Trouble is, to tap in to this otherworldly zone you have to dig deep. Not into your driving ability, for the 12C is incredibly easy to drive at awesome speeds, but into your willingness to drive at throw-away-the-key velocities for more than a few intense moments. That’s progress, I guess.


In isolation each of these cars has rock-star presence and palm-moistening performance. Together they are simply sensational company to keep. Part of me knows it would have been fabulous to take them to the Alps or somewhere equally expansive and cinematic, but the welcome truth is these cars bestow magic upon any stretch of tarmac, even our well-trodden local A- and B-roads.

What conclusions can we draw from our day with these two mighty machines? First and foremost, there’s no more graphic demonstration of the huge advancements in technology – electronics, powertrain, tyres, brakes and chassis – than driving the McLaren down the same stretch of road as the Ferrari. It’s competence and capabilities are truly jaw-slackening.

If that’s lesson one, lesson two is that if you’re the lucky one driving the F40 then you really couldn’t care less. McLaren’s quest for perfection may have created a car that disdainfully steamrollers even the trickiest cross-country route into submission – and feels pretty remarkable in the process – but the thrill it delivers is largely reliant upon your willingness to drive at outrageous speeds. Simply being in it or experiencing full-boost in a single gear isn’t enough: its manners are too homogeneous, its driving environment too conventional to create an event of their own.

Nevertheless the McLaren MP4-12C – brimming as it is with intelligently applied technology and burning ambition – makes a very strong case for being acknowledged as the definitive supercar of our time. Ironic, then, that it takes the F40 – feral, unapologetic and rough around the edges – to remind us what that capability and competence denies us.

We’ll leave the last word on what it is that separates these two remarkable machines to the man who owns both. ‘I love the McLaren and the Ferrari,’ says Albert, ‘but I know I’ll never part with the F40, whereas I bought the 12C knowing it would be a car I’d sell when something better came along. That probably sounds like I’m not that keen on it, but I am. It just doesn’t have the same personal significance to me.

‘McLaren have looked after me very well as a customer, and the way they are applying the updates is smart. I “get” what they are trying to do as a company and know about some of what’s in the pipeline. It’s incredible stuff. You have to remind yourself the 12C is just the start.

‘The F40 is something else, though. I still get the same thrill driving it – even just looking at it – as I did when I bought it in 2006. I’ll take it out on a Sunday morning and when I come back I’m sweating and tingling and swearing and absolutely buzzing. It’s such an intense rush. Then I park it, look across at the other cars and think, “Well, none of you are going to do that to me!” To be honest I can’t think of anything that would.’

That makes two of us.

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