A Formidable Weapon

McLaren Completely Changed Supercar Design With the “Boundary-Breaking” 720S


September 19, 2018 Cars By Photo by Hunter D. Kelley
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It has become an eye-rolling trope of automotive marketing to claim that extreme supercars offer “everyday drivability” or “accessible performance.” Part of that reaction is a kind of resentment from the overwhelming ranks of enthusiasts (like me) who will never come close to owning a half-million-dollar supercar and instead daily drive a truly “everyday” vehicle. Additionally, it seems to be an obscene lie to say that a 700-horsepower carbon fiber tub hovering two inches about pavement is in any way practical. Consider that claim from a relative point of view, however, and you’d be correct to say that McLaren — quirky, nutty, outrageous McLaren — has mastered the art of the everyday supercar.

I spoke with Dan Parry-Williams, McLaren Director of Design Engineering, about what separates the physics-defying 720S supercar different from its competition, and the answer is, plainly, that the McLaren 720S is engineered that way. Thanks to a strong focus on ergonomics, the 720S is just as easy to park in a garage as it is to take on a road trip as it is to scream around a race track. And that’s not entirely marketing speak.

“It was a driver from the onset to go above and beyond in terms of ergonomics,” Parry-Williams told me. “We decided right from the get-go to actually break a new boundary for a supercar. If you like, when the 12C (made from 2011-2014) came out, and later became the 650, it had surprisingly good vehicle dynamics in terms of comfort and track performance, and I think previously that had been an area that had been a poor compromise for supercars. That car represented a big step forward in terms of being able to have both comfort and dynamics.”

This is where ergonomics come in to play. McLaren designs its cars to be more physically accessible and approachable from an everyday perspective, doing away with the notion that a supercar — say the Lamborghini Aventador — needs to be a squinty-eyed cave from the driver’s perspective. A driver must be able to get in and out in normal settings and see where he’s pointing his car — reasonable enough notions, but a significant departure from the rest of the fray.

“When we came to do the 720, we wanted first of all visibility to be amazing from the driver’s perspective,” said Parry-Williams. “So we slimmed down all of the [windshield] pillars, we worked out how we could have almost 360-degree visibility. The rear window is much lower than other supercars [and] visibility in the mirror is much better. Over the shoulder visibility too — we’ve glazed the quarter panels. That means that when you’re driving the car it’s not intimidating. You can park it, you can see what’s behind you, you can see all around you.”

Earlier this summer, I borrowed a 720S from McLaren for a long weekend, during which time I confidently wound through Manhattan with ease, parked in narrow garage spaces and easily cruised, passed and navigated all manner of highway driving. In many other vehicles – even massive G-Class SUVs and many passenger cars – I wouldn’t have felt as confident.

In terms of engineering tweaks, perhaps most significant in the 720S’s pursuit of ergonomics is the engine location. The topmost point of the entire car clocks in at about 47 inches tall — for comparison, a Toyota Camry is about 57 inches tall. You can imagine, then, that space is precious. “We decided to actually lower the engine — we redesigned the entire plenum of the engine to be about three and a half inches lower,” Parry-Williams explained. “There’s space inside the car for two [duffel bags]. You’ve got room in front for two … and we created this big luggage space over the top of the engine.”

Aside from its alien design, the one aspect of any McLaren that almost any 10-year-old is most excited about are the doors which, of course, open upwards. Certainly, the upward-swinging doors give the car an even more exotic look, but they are truly a practical addition, says Parry-Williams. “We set ourselves a target: if you park the car between two other standard cars in a parking bay, can you fully open the doors? You can’t even do that in a compact. That’s another area where supercars haven’t been particularly brilliant. We decided to go back to the door concept we did for the F1 — the previous generation of McLaren — where the door cut into the roof like a Ford GT40. Not because it was cool, but because what it does is create a different axis which throws the door over the top of the roof.”

Like I said previously, I squeezed the mega-wide 720S into a garage parking space from which I had no right being able to physically escape. The 720S is over 80 inches wide; compare that again to the Camry at just under 72 and you’ll begin to see what I mean. Inside there’s an astounding amount of room for a car that moves as though it’s mostly engine. “When you take the door across into the roof,” Parry-Williams continues, “you no longer have that restriction so the thickness of the door through that whole area can be like an inch thick instead of maybe three inches thick. Which means that in the 720 it meant that we could have this beautiful teardrop shaped glass house. It pulled the external surface inside where the driver’s head is considerably further than it was in the 650 but there’s actually more room inside. So we had an aerodynamic benefit, we had a design benefit from an aesthetic point of view and better ergonomics. That’s the kind of cool solution we really like: when there’s two or three things.”

It’s not only ergonomics that set apart the 720S. As one can imagine, its level of performance borders on indecent. I cannot fully explain in words what it feels like to accelerate at full tilt in a 720S. The best I can do is to say that it is a lot like one of those barf-inducing, magnet-driven roller coasters that accelerate faster than they should, only with less barf. Mashing the throttle from a docile 30 or 40 miles per hour conjures enough adrenaline in the next four seconds to revitalize a corpse and make you see stars. I say this without irony: it is enough to make me afraid. The sound from behind your head — whooshing turbos and air being sucked into that lowered plenum — sounds nuclear, like a cheesy sci-fi movie about rocketships that can somehow make noise in the vacuum of space. In short, the physics of an accelerating 720S feel as though they simply should not happen.

I didn’t take the 720S anywhere near its limit, but on a track, it is a formidable weapon. “We’ve evolved the suspension concept,” Parry-Williams tells me. “The system we use, where it constantly monitors what the car is doing and then uses real-time to calculate optimize the damping. The roll of the car is [managed] with gas springs and hydraulic lines and not with mechanical roll bars. Which gives us this kind of characteristic of zero warp stiffness (where the body twists as the front and rear suspensions lift and drop at different rates). Normally when you go across a road where you’ve got changes in camber, it destabilizes a sports car because a car has to be stiff in roll. But the characteristic that this creates is one that just cuts through these reverse camber, combination corners. That’s grip and that’s performance.”

Did McLaren set out to evolve the supercar with the 720S? I think probably, but Parry-Williams suggests otherwise. “We just wanted to make it a big step up. We didn’t really have a benchmark. We felt that we had already achieved our benchmark target with the 650. We just wanted to see how far we could push it beyond that to evolve the dynamics and ergonomics and the design.”

Reading back, maybe this does all sound like marketing speak. But I swear to you on all that is automotive and holy, that I have never been in a machine that moves and feels like the 720S. It does things you don’t expect — like move as though it is part of a lightning bolt, or carry four duffel bags, or deftly park in between Camrys. Purposeful or not, McLaren has pushed and broken the boundary of what a supercar can be, not simply by going faster or being wilder, but being smarter.

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