It was a filthy day in November 2015 and I was gatecrashing an Autocar group test: I’d heard the boys were roaming around Wales in four fast cars so I offered to meet them “so I can drive the tracking car”. That’s the vehicle from which the photographer dangles while taking a picture of all the cars in the test driving in formation behind. The subject of the test was the then new Audi R8, which we’d put up against the Aston V12 Vantage S and Porsche 911 Turbo S. The Audi got its arse kicked.
But it was the fourth car that won, and it was the fourth car that lay behind my apparently generous offer of assistance: the McLaren 570S. Explaining its victory over such stellar opposition, Matt Saunders wrote: “It pulls the rug out from underneath the fully fledged, £200,000- plus thoroughbred mid-engined exotic. ‘Anything you can do,’ it says, ‘I can do better.’ And cheaper – although you can whisper that last bit if you like.”
When the final frames had been shot, I asked if I could take it back along the road – a swooping, soaring slick of Tarmac, 10 miles out, 10 miles back. It didn’t take long. But in those few minutes, I saw not only what a McLaren could do as a car but also where McLaren could be as a company: lighter, faster, more engaging and just plain better than anything else to which it might be compared. Cheaper, too. I was absolutely knocked out by that car.
More than five years later, I still am. Charged with coming up with some kind of valedictory for the 570S and the entire Sports Series it spawned, I borrowed a car from McLaren’s heritage fleet and headed back to exactly that road, to repeat precisely the same drive, even down to the car parks at either end in which I turned around. And there was not one thing about the way that car got down that road that made me think it’s in urgent need of replacement.
It still felt crazily fast – as fast as you’d ever want to go in public and quite a lot faster besides. It was still one of the best-damped road cars I’ve driven, but above all it was the feel that singled it out, a factor of its lightness, structural stiffness, suspension geometry and hydraulic steering. It was so involving, more like a Lotus Elise turned up until the knob breaks off in your hand than any kind of conventional supercar.
Of course, there are areas in which it does now feel old. The interior is less plush than you’d want these days from a car with a substantial six-figure price tag, and the IRIS infotainment system is a joke – and although part of me is sad to say it, there’s no question that this stuff matters now, and increasingly so.
Yet you cannot quibble with the concept, and this is why the Sports Series was, is and will always be important to McLaren. When we look back a generation from now, it will be as was the Elan to Lotus, the DB2 to Aston and the XK120 to Jaguar. None of these was their creator’s first car, but all are the cars that set the template and, in many ways, define at best how we see those companies today, and at worst how we would like them to be seen. If at some stage McLaren loses its way and wants to recapture its magic, all it will need to do will be to pull the dust covers off a 570S and go for a blast.