McLaren 650S versus fog

A fog-shrouded Laguna Seca Raceway: chain link fences, concrete barriers, corkscrewed 2.238-mile asphalt track – all of them soaking. In a suite above pit lane, a blue-eyed Englishman in a McLaren vest discussed a new car and its hydraulically damped suspension with another man in a likewise embroidered vest. The blue-eyed man was Chris Goodwin, McLaren's chief test driver, and the vehicle, the McLaren 650S, a 641-horsepower argument for building sports cars around a latticework of Formula 1 DNA.

From beneath the suite, a white object emerged, resembling a wedge of porcelain sculpted by a 207mph wind. A second, in orange, followed, and another in blue, then black and so on until there were eight in all, aligned nose to tail. The effect, of this singularly beautiful thing somehow multiplied, was disorienting. A McLaren representative assured the journalists who had congregated at this storied northern California racing circuit that the fog would dissipate, and would "not diminish the experience we’re going to have."

Vital Stats

McLaren 650S

  • Base price: $265,500, excluding destination charge
  • Price as tested: N/A
  • EPA fuel economy: 24mpg combined urban/highway
  • Powertrain: mid-mounted 3.8-litre twin-turbo V8 gasoline engine (641hp, 500lb-ft), seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive
  • Standard features: traction control, carbon-ceramic brakes, Pirelli P-Zero Corsa tires, launch control
  • Major options: Fixed-back carbon racing seats, electric steering column adjustment, rear parking camera

Into the driver’s seat. Exiting the raceway grounds and up a twisting country grade, the McLaren's suspension transmitted the pavement’s every nuance while sparing the surrounding car any unpleasant shock or vibration. Constructed around a carbon fibre tub, the 650S – the replacement for the barely three-year-old 12C, which ushered in a new generation of road-going McLarens – felt immensely strong and secure. Under acceleration, the cabin resonated with the exhilarating trill of the mid-mounted twin-turbocharged V8 engine. Squeezing an aluminium paddle shifter produced a wonderfully tactile "click-click" and an instantaneous transaction from the dual-clutch gearbox, attended by waves of torque that wedged this driver into his seat.

On the autocross course, a racecar driver named Kyle Marcelli observed quietly as I made my first timed run. On returning to the start, Marcelli proposed a strategy. "Here's what I'd like you to try on the next lap. Whenever the wheel is straight, you should be at full throttle. As we approach the corners, don't brake until I tell you to." Fighting every instinct to the contrary, I complied. Despite its operator's lack of skill, the 650S kept dead straight under hard acceleration and negotiated hairpins without upsetting a single orange cone. Clocking in, we had looped the little circuit a whole two seconds quicker than the initial run – not podium material, but enough to instigate a certain itch.

Then, with Marcelli at the wheel, the 650S headed onto the racetrack proper, where Marcelli explained the essentials. Brake late and hard, then heavy on the gas. Use the entire track, including the curbs marking the apexes and exits of the turns. As I took my first tentative laps, Marcelli complemented my line. I blushed beneath my McLaren balaclava. The 650S consumed the straights and bends in a manner which, were it not a machine, might be mistaken for joy.

After a few solo laps following a driver whose primary instruction over the radio was, "Imagine you're late for an appointment," a McLaren representative announced that interested parties could experience the 650S at racing speed with a professional driver, a concept that seemed enticing until the first group of cars exploded out of pit lane, over the blind hill into Turn 1. Quaking, I told the man that having nearly lost my mind under a similar arrangement for a recent assignment – the car a Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Grand Sport Vitesse, the driver a fellow named Leitzinger – perhaps someone else might care for my spot.

He fixed me with his gaze, smiled broadly, and with great warmth, said, "You know, overcoming your fears can be a wonderful thing." He proposed that if I were open to it, he would arrange for Goodwin, the McLaren chief test driver, to take the wheel. It was a blue moon, rising.

Gliding out of the pits, Goodwin outlined his 27-year racing career, which took a propitious turn in 1997 when he began driving for McLaren in the F1 GTR, one of the most storied endurance racing cars of the last 50 years. While he still races, he explained, his primary role today is developing and testing McLaren's sports cars, from every aspect of their ergonomics, handling and powertrain characteristics, down to their tires. As such, no one was more familiar with the internal workings, or outer limits, of the white car which, accelerating almost imperceptibly at the behest of a virtuosic foot, was attacking every straightaway and curve faster than the last.

At the centre of the tempest, Goodwin was serenity itself, his voice never rising above that of someone reciting a lullaby to a child. As the tailor-made Pirellis hammered the curbs, Goodwin reassured his passenger. "None of this," he said, "in any way exceeds the capabilities of the car or my capabilities as a driver." Storming the incline that plunges into the Corkscrew, the lullaby continued. "We could go around the track at this pace all day long," he sing-songed, "with no problems whatsoever."

At 150mph, the mind could barely process the now familiar rush of asphalt and concrete, yet the McLaren somehow seemed the safest place on earth, an atmosphere in which, lap by lap, the terrors of speed turned to pleasures, thanks to a car and driver who together had mastered speed completely.