This year marks the 25th anniversary of what is quite possibly the single greatest performance car ever made — the McLaren F1. To be honest, we don’t need to wait for milestone anniversaries to celebrate the F1, as it can be and should be celebrated all the time. Forever. Until the end of time. It’s a masterpiece. Though, we’re at a milestone anniversary, so we should celebrate even further.
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But first, a bit of a history lesson. After designing winning F1 cars for Brabham and McLaren, the latter of which won with the legendary Ayrton Senna behind the wheel, Gordon Murray was given a blank check to develop the British brand’s first ever road car. So he designed a car with three seats, with the driver sitting in the center of the car and flanked by two passengers, and a curb weight that would embarrass a go-kart. The body, chassis and technology put into the F1 was unparalleled at the time and is still a wonder today. But the best part of the McLaren F1 was its engine.
Sitting behind the passenger cell was quite possibly the finest internal combustion engine ever made. It was developed by BMW’s Motorsport Division and designed by legendary engine builder Paul Rosche. The result was the BMW S70/2 engine, which was a 6.1 liter naturally-aspirated V12 with 627 hp and a redline of 7,500 rpm. It’s not the power, though, that makes it so special. The noise, the throttle response and the sheer engineering genius behind it made it so absolutely wonderful then and it’s no less wonderful now.
That magnificent V12 was mated to a proper six-speed manual, no fancy sequential manual or dual-clutch. These were simpler times. If you want to talk about simple, the F1 lacked ABS, power brakes, power steering and traction control. If you want to drive a McLaren F1, you’ve got to really drive it. It’s not going to help you at all. But all of that adds to the experience of the car. It’s visceral, mechanical and violent yet wonderfully delicate and precise.
It was also fast. Very fast. When it came out, it was the fastest car in the world. In 1998, McLaren broke the production car top speed record by nailing 240.1 mph, a record it held until the Bugatti Veyron came out in 2005. But the Veyron needed 16 cylinders, four turbochargers, eight radiators, a dual-clutch gearbox all-wheel drive and enough electronic nannies to shame a space shuttle to do the job. The McLaren had 12 cylinders, no turbochargers, an old-school manual, was rear-wheel drive, and had none of the electronic nannies the Veyron had. It literally took the entire might of the VW Group to just barely eclipse what Gordon Murray and his small team designed over a decade earlier.
There’s a small group of McLaren engineers that still work round the clock and travel all over the world to service and repair McLaren F1s. Those engineers, plus a handful of drivers and owners, such as Jay Leno, recently spoke with Road and Track about the F1 on its 25th anniversary. It’s a fascinating article and one that will prove the F1 to be the greatest performance car of all time. Hell, it might even be the greatest car ever made.