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2018 McLaren 720S review: Car vs Road

By Andy Enright, 11 Aug 2018 Features

Dusk ’til dawn on the Great Ocean Road in McLaren’s savage 720S

2018 McLaren 720S review: Car vs Road

THERE’S something of the night about the McLaren 720S. While most supercars are a primary coloured fizz of fluting operatics and sunny feel-good, the 720S dons the visage of a deep-sea ambush predator.

On first acquaintance it’s almost sinister, with its vast, indented eye sockets looking like something grotesque and monochrome dredged from the abyssal plain. Designer Robert Melville has forged a singular design language for McLaren; one that’s innovative, technically intriguing but, on some instinctive level, fundamentally unsettling.

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So, when offered a few days with the car, we knew we wanted to drive it at night, all night; to scuttle and skulk beneath public scrutiny.

For the committed driver, the Great Ocean Road isn’t that great. In fact, it’s absolutely terrible, choked with diesel-belching tourist coaches and punctuated with lollygagging day trippers braking to a standstill without apparent reason. Mobile speed camera cars lurk in the messmate waiting for that life-affirming moment when frustrated drivers throw off all shackles of reason and accelerate to 83km/h.

In short, it’s a joyless gongshow, best avoided on summer weekends. Or during daylight hours at all.

Then the last tourist bus pulls from the lot at the Twelve Apostles, tired waitresses flip the closed sign on the door of The Bottle of Milk cafe in Lorne, and the baleful eye of the Split Point Lighthouse blinks out across the dark shoals and reefs of the Bass Strait. Traffic thins and then vanishes, the sun slides behind the weathered folds of the Otways, and the road changes.

The guard rail pings in contraction as the mercury drops ten degrees, the wind swings to the north and the ocean finds it voice, salt spray slithering across the bitumen in the glare of the McLaren’s main beam. Time to go.

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There’s no music to the 720S, no whimsy to its acoustic signature whatsoever. Depress the starter button and the 4.0-litre V8 behind you flares and then settles into a fractious idle. Set the car into its softest mode and it rides beautifully on the leprous macadam, but at low revs the engine is a gritty, functional accompaniment, as grey as a flat Woking nimbostratus.

Our route stretches from the last house in Anglesea westward to the first lights of Apollo Bay and then back again, 140km of deserted hairpins, compressions and soaring crests where your next material point of reference is the Southern Cross peering through the cleft of the eucalypt canopy. Think of the route as six or seven consecutive Nordschleifes, but more corner-dense; an unrelenting, rhythmless riot of apexes.

We run the first section as the light fades, snapper Dewar keen to get some shots of the car moving in the bag before blackout. We arrow through Fairhaven and out towards Big Hill where the road dives inland and plunges into a rapid-fire sequence of gum-choked twisties, before climbing onto the bluffs. It’s a short section where you can soon tune into the heavy cambers and sharp ramps, where you can feather braking in advance of the fading sightlines across the forested creek basins.

The 720S is terrifying in its ferocity. Having driven a Ferrari 488 recently, I thought I had some vaguely relevant frame of reference, but the McLaren is by some appreciable margin a harder-hitting proposition. Getting confident with full boost requires a period of mental adjustment. For this stretch, the suspension is best left in Comfort for grip and compliance, the powertrain control dialled to Sport and the stability control eased back to Sport Dynamic.

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Peak power of 527kW arrives at 7250rpm, but the torque peak of 770Nm hits you at 5500rpm and the McLaren compresses the period between the two into shattered fractions of seconds characterised by stabs of counter steer, a frenzied threshing from over your left shoulder and the feeling of the rear tyres attempting to corrugate the road surface before bucking and snapping at the futility of it all. You stop the car, pop the door up and attempt to take in what just happened. This thing is being sold to the general public? It ought to require a firearms licence.

Maybe a little break for perspective is no bad thing. The 720S has been independently dyno tested with results indicating around 800PS (588kW) at the crank, which is about what Seb Vettel’s Red Bull RB9 F1 car had to call upon in winning the 2013 world championship; the last title for a V8. This road’s variability gives pause for thought too. It was first surveyed exactly a century ago as a make-work scheme for diggers returning from the Great War.

Construction began in September 1919, with nearly 3000 returned servicemen tasked to build what would become the world’s biggest war memorial. Progress was slow, with the steep coastal hills, dense brush and hand tools limiting progress to around 100 metres per day. It was dangerous work too, many returning from the battlefronts of German New Guinea, Verdun and the Dardanelles only to perish on this beautiful shore.

While appreciative of their efforts, I’m not keen to join them right now, so dial back the speed on the drop to Moggs Creek and Lorne. Beyond Lorne, the road opens a bit and after the staccato catch and release of Big Hill, develops a sinuous flow as the B100 drapes itself across the topography in a lazy chain of rhythmic lefts and rights.

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The McLaren’s hydraulically assisted steering knocks playful punches back at you as the limit of grip nears, telegraphing what the front P Zeros are up to. I have a play with the Variable Drift Control, which lets you hang the tail out to varying prescribed angles of yaw, but clogging the car into oversteer feels lumpen in a vehicle of such unerring precision. The lack of a mechanical differential also serves to limit the appeal.

But could you ever get used to this level of performance? With a power-to-weight ratio similar to that of a Bugatti Veyron and cornering limits way beyond Molsheim’s masterwork, the 720S isn’t so much gobbling up our test route as demolishing it. The video and photography team are, of course, delighted as it gives them more time, so I take the opportunity to share the experience of full-bore acceleration with videographer Dwight.

At 6000rpm, the mike taped to the number plate falls off, the leads to his light box are ripped out and his camera viewfinder punches him in the eye socket. We pull to the side of the road to repair the carnage. “Yeah,” he muses, half dazed, half crestfallen. “Warn me if you’re going to do that again.”

He sends me back up the road while the team rig studio lights to illuminate the corner at Cumberland River. Kill the ignition and you’re shocked by the instantaneous silence. After a few moments of disorienting sensory deprivation, you pick up a very gentle pulsing sound of the car’s electronics, much like a muted version of the bridge on Shatner-era Star Trek.

The folding instrument binnacle motors down, the dash lights blink out one by one, leaving just the background glow of the walkie talkie’s liquid crystal pane for company. A necklace of dim lights on the horizon mark a freighter doggedly cleaving a crosswind path between Cape Otway and King Island, clanking eastwards to the arbitrary 146°55’E meridian where the Southern Indian Ocean becomes the Pacific.

From Cumberland River to Separation Creek is a nine kilometre stretch containing some of the very best corners on the route, climbing to the Mount Defiance lookout before dipping back down to Jamieson Creek. Take a deep breath and pin it for a few seconds just to feel the car writhe and shriek on an eye-widening careen along its rail of brilliant white LEDs. Slide from the accelerator across the perfect flat plane of the pedal set and the lights pick out the glowing eyes of shocked marsupials somewhere in the bushes, cherry red brake discs bathing the near guardrail in a blood glow.

Get on the gas pedal early and the 720S will understeer, the front tyre section being only as wide as a Civic Type R. It’s a car that rewards a certain discipline and rectitude in the way it’s piloted. It has a dizzying skillset but it’s always explicit in communicating what it does best. And that’s just rabid ferocity, giving the impression that it’s ingesting honey badgers and taipans rather than 98RON. It couldn’t be further removed from the playfulness and accessibility of its junior sibling, the 570S.

The welcoming lights of Wye River mark a hiatus in pace, a point to breathe and feel the stabbing adrenaline leach away. A human silhouette stands on a backlit balcony, straining to make sense of the fast-moving spectre whose fuselage skims below the low embankment. His is just one pinpoint of light on a hillside that’s punctuated by inky blanks that mark lots where houses once stood before the Christmas Day fires of 2016. In all, 116 homes out of 300 were destroyed in the blaze, the wind dropping to almost zero as the flame front hit, leaving a bizarre cheek-by-jowl patchwork of destruction and salvation.

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A deer stands by the roadside near Kennett River, transfixed by the light, but it’s the only sizeable animal we see. For the most part, there’s a lack of sufficiently tempting nutrition on the seaward side of the road to bring fauna out of the forest and onto the bitumen. Burst out of the stringybarks near Carisbrook Falls and the road opens up onto rolling farmland.

While waiting for the camera team to catch up, the clouds clear for a moment and the McLaren’s bubble canopy gives a surreal view of the Milky Way arcing overhead. Step outside, and as your colour vision adjusts from the 5500 Kelvin glare of the headlights, it’s possible to make out the hydrogen reds and oxygen teals of gassy nebulae, the frothy pale blues of phosphorescence in the breakers and, closer by, the yellow twinkle of Apollo Bay’s sodium street lights. The engine bay pulses red, its ugly plumbing softened in a molten glow.

It feels otherworldly, almost post-apocalyptic to be here, to have this road to yourself. Deep into the small hours, I’m struggling to think of the last time I saw a vehicle other than the two camera cars. It was hours ago. We’re just 160 kilometres from an urban sprawl of ten thousand square kilometres and nearly five million gently slumbering souls, yet a simple temporal shift gifts you this incredible experience. That and the opportunity to drive one of the most exciting sports cars money can currently buy.

The McLaren 720S has to be counted in that elite rank. There will be some who see no beauty in this car, who recoil at its gargoyle face and charmless flat-plane acoustics. Yet it’s hard to argue with the
fact that it goes harder, steers better, stops more keenly and delivers a cleaner, higher definition feed of information than any similarly priced rival. Yet even that feels reductive. Out here in the solitude and splendour of this magnificent road built by heroes a century removed, the malevolent McLaren 720S feels utterly in its element.

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We turn around and start retracing our route, attuning still further to the car’s freakish abilities, flashing through arc light video set-ups and skipping in the salt wind trying to keep warm during still shots. I lose track of time and wake to find myself in the McLaren in a public car park at Point Addis, just shy of Geelong.

I’ve fallen asleep with a blanket over my head, and there’s a shaggy, bearded surfer peering into the car who gets the fright of his life as I stir. The sunrise is a greasy strip of crimson over the bluffs of Bells Beach. I think it’s Tuesday. It feels as if the 720S needs to vanish before the sun breaches the horizon; to scream in the empty forests here at the bottom of the world; to hide beneath the view of faceless silhouettes peering into the night.

McLaren has created a monster. And as another Melville knew better than any, every great ocean needs tall tales of monsters lurking in the dark.