It’s the supercar battle of the decade! Ferrari’s new 458 Italia represents the legendary Italian marque’s bid to reassert itself as the world’s premier car manufacturer. But the ‘Prancing Horse’ brand faces a surprising new challenger for its sports car crown in the form of McLaren, a plucky British motor racing rival.
Like Ferrari, McLaren have enjoyed huge success on the Formula One racetrack, securing 12 driver’s and eight constructor’s titles since the team was formed in 1966. But it seems that rivalling Ferrari on the racetrack is no longer enough for the former team principal of the McLaren Formula One team, Ron Dennis. In setting up a new sports car offshoot of the F1 interest, he is now making it his business to beat them on the road too.
From specification to price, in every respect McLaren’s first independent foray into supercar development since the legendary 1990s F1 seems aimed squarely at Ferrari. The company appears to have spotted an opportunity to put more Formula One-style expertise into a road car than Ferrari have yet found necessary in order to keep their products wheel-spinning out of the showrooms and has ensured its new car has benefited from the input of the company’s grand prix drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button.
However, unlike the original F1, McLaren’s new MP4-12C will be no ‘hypercar’, aiming to be the fastest in production and with a similarly hyper price tag. While the company’s stunning new lightweight sports car is expected to demonstrate similarly cutting edge design and engineering to its illustrious predecessor, it will be a standard two-seater rather than the novel three seat design of the F1 that put the driver right in the centre of the car.
Whether in construction, like the carbon fibre ‘MonoCell’ chassis, or underpinnings like the advanced electro-hydraulic suspension that permits tight track performance yet allows a comfortable ride on the back roads, there’s no doubting McLaren’s commitment to ensuring the MP4-12C sets new supercar standards.
Another innovative feature of the new McLaren that will make the leap from racetrack to the road is ‘Brake Steer’. This is an innovative system that slows the inside rear wheel when the car is entering a corner too quickly in order to hold the car on the racing line, but will also operate when the car is accelerating out of a corner to prevent the inside rear wheel from spinning.
For the first time, Ferrari faces competition from a manufacturer with a racing pedigree similar to its own. But will McLaren’s best be enough to beat the latest and, many are claiming, the greatest car yet from the famous Italian marque?
Design-wise, beyond the arrangement of their headlights, the profiles of the Ferrari and McLaren are strikingly similar. From the flat nose and front grille to the tail haunches, the similarity probably owes more to both companies’ race-bred expertise with computers and wind tunnels than the designer’s eye.
McLaren design director Frank Stephenson has said that his aim was to produce a car that “will still look great in years to come” and the British car is clearly the more understated of the two. While it stands out more, the 458’s chiselled looks may prove more of an acquired taste for many.
However, there’s no debating the performance on offer from Ferrari’s new range-topper. In the normal course of events, you might have expected the 458 to have gained a little more power over its predecessor. But new rivals like the Audi R8 have forced Ferrari to up their game, which is why the new 458 has over 100bhp more than the model it replaces.
Under the skin, McLaren have done better squeezing power from their car’s engine, gaining 592bhp from a 3.8 litre, turbo-assisted V8 compared to Ferrari’s 562bhp from a normally aspirated 3.5 litre.
Both represent a significant power advance on rivals like the Audi R8 GT and Lamborghini Gallardo, which glean their lesser power outputs from much bigger 5.0 litre V10 engines, or Aston Martin’s DBS and Vantage models which are fitted with 6.0 litre V12s. The McLaren even boasts nearly 100bhp more than Porsche’s 911 GT3 RS. In power terms, only Mercedes’s extraordinary SLS AMG comes close, yet, in a much heavier car.
The result for the McLaren is class-leading acceleration at 3.1 seconds for the 0-60mph sprint compared to 3.3 seconds for the Ferrari. The McLaren also has the edge on top speed, at 205mph compared to 202mph for the Ferrari.
Prior to the MP4-12C’s launch, Ron Dennis told the world that the rules in the sports car world were “about to be rewritten”. Coming from almost anyone else, it might have sounded a statement too far. But as the man who produced the McLaren F1 supercar, with a top speed of 240mph in the mid nineties, followed by the extraordinary Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, Dennis clearly knows what he’s talking about.
His aim was for the new McLaren to become the “most efficient, most driveable high performance car in the world” and, on paper, he has unquestionably succeeded. Technically, the McLaren has the edge over its Italian rival. It’s more powerful, faster not just in a straight line but also around corners and grips the track like nothing else yet offers silky smooth comfort when on the road. The McLaren is also slightly cheaper to buy.
But its dynamic advantages over the Ferrari 458 are only slight. What’s more, supercars aren’t just about technical brilliance but how they make you feel when behind the wheel. The proof is always in the driving and in a supercar’s ability to thrill. This is where the Ferrari appears to have the edge.
The Italian car overcomes its slight technical disadvantages with bags more character. It has a much greater fun factor than the McLaren, helped by its more striking looks and a much more entertaining soundtrack from its V8 engine. The Ferrari is not just similarly brilliant to the British car on the track, but offers an entertaining driving experience whatever the speed.
Other marques are unlikely to leave this field to these two for long. Audi may be about to spoil British and Italian plans for world supercar domination with a storming Audi R8 RS and Lamborghini are working on a replacement for the respected Gallardo.
But until these emerge, when it comes to supercars both the 458 Italia and MP4-12C are towering achievements and live in a class of their own.