Joining McLaren for a truly epic tour
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Matthew Hansen swaps his Suzuki Swift for two McLaren supercars
“So, why are you here?”
An innocent enough question for her to ask, but it veiled a sense of quizzical curiosity. Like she was asking the fly why he was in her soup, and I was the fly.
It was McLaren's Future Legacies Celebration Dinner, an exceptional black-tie affair of good food and great company.
I'm not a natural in a suit, and I felt thoroughly out of place. But while trying to scope out someone, anyone I knew, to hold my hand for the evening, I had bumped into her.
"McLaren is giving me a car tomorrow," I replied.
I watched as the whites of her eyes doubled, her jaw slackened, and the cogs of her mind shot into life to spit out some kind of response.
"Are you going alone? Can I ... come with you?"
People will do anything to experience the life of society's so-called elite. They'll kill, they'll steal, and evidently they'll even lower themselves to spending a day with me -- though I did decline.
The occasion was the opening leg of the McLaren Epic Drive NZ. The tour involves some of the world's fastest cars, most famed drivers, and, though I'm biased, a spirited drive through some of the best roads in the world.
A total of 32 McLarens would set off from Auckland, wiggling through Taupo, Wellington, then down the South Island to where they will be as you read this — Queenstown. All in a tribute to the late Bruce McLaren and the stunning legacy he's left us.
Being invited to take part in the opening leg of the journey meant being handed a McLaren for the day, which turned out to be a 540C.
In fact it was the exact same 540C I had performed a photoshoot with some months ago. That time I was content enough to sit in the passenger seat and be dazzled. This time I would drive.
Exploring the back roads of Maungatautari in our convoy, it was surprising just how much feedback it offered my fingertips. Whizzing between the trees, the steering wheel would playfully kick left and right under my palms. Like a dog wagging its tail.
Despite all its modern trimmings, it's a car that feels delightfully analogue during a back-street hoon.
That is apart from its gearbox — a seven-speed SSG unit. At road speed it was constantly thinking, providing the right gear at the right moment, and downshifting smoothly for the traffic lights -- making up for a brake pedal that felt somewhat numb.
However, for all the technology packed into the 540C, confidence levels were low as we arrived at the tour's first stop -- which naturally was Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park in Taupo.
The heavens had opened, and buckets of rain had ensured that the track resembled a lake.
As such, the first track session was restricted to practice; a refresher on racing line via Downforce's driver trainers, with only a smidge of flat-foot silliness on the back straight.
The stocks of this single track day were less important to the rest of the group -- some having come from as far as Japan and Canada, most of whom seemed more interested in talking cars with each other between sessions.
Their enjoyment clearly didn't centre around split times and smashed apexes. Petrol heads.
Thankfully the rain didn't last and was replaced with just enough sunshine to ensure a dry track for the final session — for which I would be using a beautiful Vermillion Red 570S.
There are many similarities between the 540C and 570S. They look much the same, and are more or less identical inside. Though the cream carpets in the 570 had become more and more beige as the day had gone on.
But though the pair share the same twin-turbo flat-plane crank 3.8-litre V8, they produce different noises.
The 540C is all turbo, while the 570 is far more musical due to an alternate exhaust package and 30 more horsepower.
In the dry and with former SuperTourer pilot Richard Moore coaching from the passenger seat, the experience had gone from a dressage to an intense collision of sweaty palms and high speeds; peaking at 235km/h.
While the noise is different, what thankfully remains is the amount of feel that the 570 hands to the driver.
Under heavy brake the car squirms, and at the limit it feels like the back wants to swing sideways mid-corner. But while some cars are more than happy to stab you in the back at the limit, the 570 gave the confidence to fight back thanks to
Pirelli P-Zero Corsa tyres, adaptive dampers, and conventional anti-roll bars -- none of that hydraulic bollocks.
Those 15 minutes or so rank as some of my best on this little planet, and much of that is a credit to the car.
But just like that it was over.
The rest of the drivers on tour packed up and set sail for their accommodation while I stuffed my belongings into the back of the car set to take me home, to the desk where I ultimately write these words.
And I'll do anything to get back there.