The answer is always yes when you get an invite to drive two McLaren supercars back-to-back at the legendary Millbrook testing facility
It doesn’t matter what else is going on; you clear the diary and make sure you go, as opportunities such as this don’t come around too often. So, when McLaren invited me to their ‘Drive Day’ at Millbrook proving ground, you can probably guess my answer!
Now, I’m no stranger to high-performance cars, but both the 720S, with 0-62mph in 2.8 seconds and the GT, with 3 seconds, completely blew any other cars I’ve driven out of the water in terms of sheer power, handling and – in the case of the 720 particularly – outright, bonkers performance.
Having the opportunity to drive just one of these mind-blowing cars is an incredible experience in itself, but being able to test both the 720S and the GT back-to-back on the same course and in the same conditions allows for a unique opportunity to create direct comparisons between the two.
After arrival, some chinwagging with the McLaren PR team and a driver briefing (along with some fetching security stickers to cover our phone cameras thanks to Millbrook’s understandable secrecy policy), it was time to take to the ‘road’ and experience these twin-turbocharged, V8 powered supercars.
Up first was the 720S in Spyder form, though the roof remained firmly closed during my drive due to the weather conditions on the day.
Firing up the 4.0-litre V8 gives a sonorous howl that sets the hairs on the back of your neck on end, and immediately it’s apparent just how much power is situated behind your head.
The cabin is functional – McLaren is committed to providing as much of a driver-focused interior as possible – but still impressively comfortable. The steering wheel is free of any distracting buttons, and the display is crystal clear with plenty of information, yet not overwhelming in any way. You totally get the impression that this is first-and-foremost a driver’s car, and that’s without having even driven it yet.
Once out on Millbrook’s twisting Alpine Course, the immediate reaction to the car is that it goads you to go faster. The steering is so precise it could be telepathic, whilst giving plenty of feedback despite being electro-hydraulic, meaning that on the go, it’s got plenty of ‘feel’ yet at slow speeds its easy to manoeuvre despite the size of the 720S’ wheels and tyres.
Whilst the steering is undoubtedly impressive, the real party piece is the engine and transmission. Even in Comfort mode, shifts are lightning-fast and delivered with a good shove whilst under acceleration, whilst I swear you could blow on the throttle and be doing 70mph.
Even in left-hand-drive format – which added a level of difficulty since I’d never driven the Alpine Course before – it only took a short trip to get familiar with the car, the layout of the cabin and its handling characteristics.
In comfort mode, the 720S is arguably still usable as a daily driver for the hardcore enthusiast, however, put it into Race mode and everything gets turned up to 11. The gearbox becomes even more responsive and aggressive in its shifts, the throttle more sensitive and the sports exhaust makes itself even more known. It’s an out-and-out assault on the senses in every way, and it’s all the better for it.
One thing I did notice whilst out on the Alpine course was just how progressive the braking is. The ability to modulate the braking is apparent even for an amateur (yet experienced) driver such as myself, so I can only imagine just how well a professional would be able to ‘dance’ between the throttle and brake to really make the most of the 720S’ performance.
This braking ability was about to become even more apparent as we headed out onto the mile straight, where we were able to really put the 720S’ abilities to the test.
Launching from a standing start in damp conditions, even in comfort mode, you have to be very gentle with throttle inputs. First and second were OK, but I pushed too hard in third shifting to fourth, and had wheel spin at triple-digit speeds – a strange, unnerving and yet hilarious experience on such a sterile course, and easily corrected by lifting off slightly and letting the impressive traction control system do its thing.
Having blasted from 0 to 120mph in around 6.8 seconds it felt like the blink of any eye, I was instructed to stand hard on the brakes. This not only makes the most of the carbon-ceramic discs and callipers the size of a small moon, but also engages the various pieces of active aero on the car, most notably the rear spoiler, which deploys to an almost-vertical position in under a second, forcing the rear of the car down into the road and helping avoid any nose-diving under braking… impressive stuff indeed!
As with the famous Millbrook Alpine route, we did the whole thing again in Race mode (with the rotating instrument cluster having made way for the minimalist tachometer and digital readout), the experience was incredible. Having learned my lesson in comfort mode, I was able to exploit the twin-turbo V8 without fear by modulating the throttle a little more. Once again, the sheer braking force was fantastic to experience and the way the car handles the airflow to avoid diving – something that would become especially apparent when taking the GT out later on in the day.
Back at base, I couldn’t help but be bowled over by the 720S. Despite its ridiculous performance and driver-focused cockpit, it would arguably still be useable as a day-to-day car should you wish. However, I would undoubtedly say Race mode is too hardcore for road use, especially given the generally sub-standard conditions of our roads in the UK.
Next up, it was time to experience the McLaren GT. Billed as McLarens’ “Entry Level” car for day-to-day use, it shares the same 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 engine and transmission as the 720S, but in a lower state of tune.
Settling into the cabin – in right-hand-drive format this time – the extra emphasis on comfort is immediately apparent. Plus, leather takes the place of Alcantara and suede, whilst behind your head, there is a large amount of luggage space – enough to take a set of golf clubs – which makes the cabin feel far larger and more spacious than that of the 720S.
The 4.0-litre V8 fires up with the same howl, but the exhaust note is distinctly less aggressive and quieter, befitting of a super GT car, rather than the out-and-out supercar bark of the 720S.
On the road – beginning with the twisting, turning and undulating Alpine route – the GT is noticeably more composed and refined. However, the exhaust note and power from the twin-turbo V8 are certainly still apparent; it must be said the GT feels far happier cruising along at a more sedate pace. In contrast, the 720S always felt like it was goading you to drive faster, to push just a little harder into each turn, to leave each gear until its final moments, whereas the GT is happy for the driver to take the lead, as it were.
Another noticeable difference with the GT is that the turbo induction noise is far more prominent, something that certainly appealed to my inner child, and – of course – the ride is far more compliant, yet still somewhat harsh over the rougher tarmac experienced on the course.
Sport mode once again upped the ante compared to comfort. Still, it has to be said that the change was certainly less dramatic than in the 720S, with no theatrical rotating screen between modes, and less of an emphasis on aural changes, though again, the gearbox mapping was switched and the throttle response sharpened up superbly.
One of the most interesting differences between the two cars was highlighted on the mile straight, where once again, we took the GT from 0-120-0mph several times over. Acceleration felt just as brutal and brisk as in the 720S; however, the braking was an entirely different story; Whereas the active aero on the 720S helped keep things nice and level as you lean on the carbon-ceramic brakes, in the GT, there is no such trick aero, meaning the car dives noticeably more under braking and feels almost uncomfortable doing so compared to the 720S – an odd experience, but once that certainly highlights how good active aero really can be.
Finally, it was off to the high-speed bowl for a spot of laid-back cruising. Beyond the odd sensation of being able to take your hands off the wheel at 75mph (thanks to various scientific forces at play, keeping you in your lane due to the banked nature of the bowl) and cruise around happily, the sensation that really struck me about the GT is just how good it is at high speeds.
Now, that may seem like a strange statement – it is a GT car, after all, it’s what the car’s whole ethos is based around – we aren’t talking UK-legal speeds here. At 70-75, the car feels like it’s barely batting an eyelid, sat in seventh gear and barely touching 2,000rpm. At a continuous cruise of 100mph, the GT feels utterly unphased, the tachometer is only just over 2,000rpm, and the overall level of NVH is impressively minimal, even on the concrete surface of Millbrook’s test bowl. Utterly, utterly fantastic and shows just how good the GT would be on long-distance, trans-continental runs.
Sadly, like all good things, my brief time with two of the highlights in the McLaren range had to come to an end. Both were utterly mind-blowing, and it was an incredible experience in itself to drive both of these cars in a closed-off environment, especially back-to-back, to allow such distinct contrasts to be drawn.
Overall, I’d take the GT, but only because it suits my lifestyle better. Noticeably more refined, it’s the perfect high-performance GT, which would suit me down to the ground as someone that spends most of their time on motorways and main roads, rather than circuits or sweeping B-roads, where the 720S would arguably be more fun.
That said, if I got offered a 720S with the caveat of having to drive it every day, I’d still snap it up in a heartbeat… what a tremendous problem to have that would be, eh?
Thanks to McLaren for having me down and allowing me to tick two cars – plus the opportunity to drive around Millbrook – off my bucket list; A fantastic way to end 2021, and hopefully a sign of things to come next year!
Kieran Bicknell offers his fresh take on car reviews by making the most of his dynamic, yet detailed approach to writing. Having graduated from university with a BA (Hons) in Photography and spending a number of years as a freelance automotive photographer. Kieran is now putting his knowledge and writing skills to use, with the ability to supply both written articles and imagery. Kieran feels at home in anything from small superminis to the latest SUVs, and relishes the opportunity to drive, photograph and write about anything with four wheels.
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