Many superlatives have described the McLaren F1, including reference to its prodigious speed.We all know it's quick, but now it's officially quick...

Words: Peter Dron Photography: Colin Curwood

Andy Wallace, wearing jeans, blue shirt and brown shoes, pulls on his helmet, straps himself into McLaren F1 XP5 and blasts onto Volkswagen's high-speed test track at Ehra-Lessien, northern Germany. One lap later, he has set a new production road car world speed record - at over 240mph (386km/h). For the record, the time is 3.08pm on 31 March. As he'd stepped casually aboard, Harold Dermott, McLaren Cars' customer care manager, asked Andy if he was going to put on his racing overalls. "It's a road car, isn't it?" he replied.

Two days earlier, 500 miles to the south, the Geoff Lees/Thomas Bscher McLaren F1 had pulverised Ferrari and Porsche opposition in the Monza 1000km, while, in Brazil, Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard were cruising to their third consecutive Formula One grand prix one-two. Even by McLaren standards, the last three days of March were remarkable. A few short minutes later Wallace climbed from the car and expressed surprise at how easy and drama-free it all was. "Before the run, I thought I'd get up to 360km/h (224mph), which I've done in it before, but then that it would go unstable and possibly prevent me from going faster. It wasn't like that at all. I'm amazed how stable it was at 240mph. The forces acting on it when you are going that quickly are not double what they are at 100mph - it's the square of the speed." There was a tricky transitional stage. "Up to 340km/h (211mph), the car is extremely stable, with no problems whatsoever," says Wallace. "Then it starts to wander, very slightly, though the steering doesn't get light.

"It's not as if you've got frontal lift. I've experienced that in other cars, so I know what that's like. If you're doing 125mph on the road in a car and it starts to wander slightly, you can easily correct, without really being aware of it. Above 200mph, you're moving so far along the road every second that any small corrections have very large effects. So the car moves several centimetres to the left, and you correct it; before you know it, you've gone too far to the right. But when you go faster in the F1, you get more downforce, and you don't find yourself correcting at all. Above 380-385km/h (236-239mph), it's as stable as at 340, perhaps more so. It very easy to drive at maximum. Just a load of wind noise, that's all."

Gordon Murray, McLaren Cars technical director, analyses the phenomenon: "I think it is a local vortex effect, or boundary-lay shift, perhaps caused by a crosswind, or the car settling or going fractionally nose up or down over a tiny bump. The sheer numbers acting on the car above 200mph are so enormous. It is interesting that it becomes more stable at higher speed."

Ron Dennis explains how the record run came about: "Last Christmas one of my son's presents was a copy of the Guinness Book of Records. I was most surprised to find the F1 was not recognised as the fastest production road car. It seems the original Autocar test results were not official, so we decided to implement this programme."

The record run was provisionally scheduled for the first Thursday in April. The team left its Woking headquarters early on the Monday morning in confident mood, but the weather forecast looked ominous. Tuesday dawned dry and slightly overcast - perfect weather. The car was ready and the team was fully prepared. This was an opportunity not to be missed, so they decided to go for it two days earlier than planned. Ehra-Lessien's track controller gave the go-ahead. The next day, 1 April, was not the best for claiming serious records. Heavy rain fell throughout the rest of the week.

Wallace hit the rev limiter in sixth on his first run. It is normally set at 7500rpm (about 236mph with tyre growth).

"That's because the bonded crankshaft damper has limited durability over 8000rpm," says Dermott. "Probably fast enough for a road car. Nobody has ever complained that they haven't got enough performance! "All we did was wind up the rev limiter in stages, first of all to 7900. Our objective on the initial run was to confirm the 231mph (set at Nardo in Italy); foolishly, we thought Andy might work up to it, like any normal mortal.

"Andy came in and said, 'I want to confirm this - I think I'm on the limiter in sixth.' We checked the data, and he was. He said, 'That's not very comfortable - I got a rapid pitch change. I wouldn't like that to happen again.' It got his attention for a moment. How you come out of the power at that speed is very important: with a large, naturally aspirated powerplant like this V12, there's substantial engine braking. We shifted it to 8100. On the second run, coming off the banking, he noted where the rev limiter cut in in fifth, to make sure he wouldn't hit it again. He lifted when he got close. 'I want it right out of the way,' he said. So we took it to 8300. We did the final run and that was it."

It all sounds very clinical, but Dermott will never forget one Ehra moment: "We were standing in the parking area between the two carriageways of the high-speed circuit. Andy came past doing over 225mph - we were behind the guard rail and he was one motorway lane away - it was absolutely awesome, like a jet fighter taking off! We felt the aerodynamic wash off the car, and there was that wonderful engine howl, accelerating into the distance. I've been in the business a long time, and I don't get emotional about much to do with cars nowadays, but that really was something very special.

So that's the record: 386.7km/h, 240.3mph, 1km every 9.3 seconds, one mile every 14.9 seconds, 107 metres per second, 100m in 0.93 seconds. That is seriously fast.

"It's great to have done 240mph - it's a nice number," says Murray. "I thought when it came up in km/h it would be some funny number like 238.7 or something. I wouldn't mind making a little wager that this remains the record speed for a true production car for a very long time."

"When we first established the car's top speed at Nardo on 8 August, 1993," says Ron Dennis, "we appreciated that, in running on an oval, no matter how large it is, you lose ultimate velocity because of the scrub effect on the tyres. The continuous cornering moment, however slight, has a detrimental effect. But I was still quite surprised at the revised top speed achieved in this official test at Ehra-Lessien."

The project was undertaken to establish how fast the F1 would go, before production ends; the final one leaves the line at the end of May. Would Murray design the F1 differently now if he were starting from scratch? "Aerodynamically and stylistically, I'd do it exactly the same," he says. "The proof of the pudding is that it hasn't dated. It's a modern classic, whatever that means!"

What would be needed to go beyond 400km/h? "It's not a question you can answer. Horsepower becomes almost irrelevant at that speed. We think we could get 1000bhp out of this engine, revving to 9500 or 10,000. You'd probably then be able to do 250-255mph, but it would be hard to meet the required emission standards, in order to be able to homologate such an engine.

"It's easy adapting a racing car and calling it a road car, and going that fast, especially with a turbo. You just whack the boost up. But that's got nothing to do with road cars."

Could a production car go that fast?

"The only way is to make the CdA [drag coefficient times frontal area] much smaller, but if a car appears too dinky, people don't think it's butch enough. I don't know how we'd go quicker if we started again." As Harold Dermott says: "The F1 has fulfilled everything we wanted from the project. McLaren did state, early on, that it wouldn't build more than 300 F1s. Well, it hasn't! I don't think whether the F1 was profitable was an issue. Although the financial aspects of the project were not my responsibility, and I'm not sure whether we made or lost money, I think Ron and Mansour [Ojjeh] were satisfied that we achieved our original objective - to make the world's best supercar. Some people outside the company don't understand that."

Ron Dennis sums up the achievement: "Inevitably, in anybody's career, there are mistakes. Probably one of mine was when, many years ago, I was a few minutes late at a grand prix for a team press conference. As I entered the room a reporter threw a remark about my lateness which was, for me, both rude and ill-timed. My immediate response was to point out that the team made history, and that he purely wrote about it. It was not the best thing to say in the circumstances. However, the result of this record run to me genuinely represents another piece of history, and I am very proud for the company to have been part of it."

The Record Team
Gordon Murray, technical director
Andy Wallace, driver
Scott Robinson, technician
Harold Dermott, customer care manager
Ron Hill, truck driver
Ben Bradford, technician
Mike Sopp, chief technician
Paula Webb, PR and marketing

At the wheel
Andy Wallace
Aged 37.
Lives in Le Mans, France.
Gas service engineer before full-time racing.
1979-1984: Formula Ford and FF2000. 1985: Formula Three, runner-up in British championship. 1986: British F3 Champion, Macau F3 Grand Prix winner.
1987: Formula 3000.
1988: Le Mans 24-Hours winner in Jaguar XJR-9LM, shared with Johnny Dumfries and Jan Lammers.
1995: third at Le Mans in McLaren F1 GTR, having led the race with only one and a half hours remaining.
1997: four GT1 wins in the USA, including Daytona (Riley & Scott-Ford), US World Sportscar Champion. This year he is driving for Panoz, and was second at Sebring, winning GT1 class.
Other victories: Daytona 1990 (Jaguar), Sebring 1992 and 1993 (Toyota), Brands Hatch and Silverstone 1996 (McLaren F1 GTR). May, 1991: record run, at 212.3mph, highest speed ever recorded by a production car, at Fort Stockton, Texas, in prototype Jaguar XJ220. At Ehra-Lessien in the McLaren F1 XP5, he broke his own record. Test development driver, Jaguar XJ220, McLaren F1, F1 LM and F1 GT.

Life and times of f1 XP5
McLaren retains ownership of four F1s - besides XP5, there's an LM and GT road car, and also the Le Mans winner.

McLaren Car's customer care manager Harold Dermott tells XP5's story: "This car has led a hard life. As we completed the record run it clicked 77,003km (47,849 miles). It's done gearbox durability, plus other development testing, virtually all the marketing stuff, Autocar's acceleration figures, worldwide demonstrations, and it still has its original chassis, engine and gearbox. It was built five years ago, before production specification was finalised. Whenever it's at the factory, we update it with all the latest production tweaks. We do that with customers' cars, too, in our preventative maintenance programme - anything new that we develop is fitted free for three years." XP5 was not specially modified for the record attempt, apart from raising the rev limiter and polishing it underneath. Dermott says: "We gave it the standard, major 18-month service and fitted new suspension bushes. It was absolutely standard. Even the Michelin tyres were run at normal pressures. Using standard road tyres made the point that this is an average F1, without special tweaks.

"In the end we took some spares, because we didn't know what we would need. I suppose, in reality, it was just to make us feel better. We had spare sets of tyres, and some bits and bobs from the workshop, plus a spare gearbox, but no spare engine. In the end, we didn't lay a spanner on it."

Ehra-Lessien test track is 10 miles north of Wolfsburg, Germany, site of Volkswagen's main factory (originally built for the Beetle). Its 21km three-lane, high-speed track is kidney-shaped. The straight heading southwards is 8.4km long; the shorter northbound straight just over 4km. At each end is a 380m-radius, 42 per cent banked corner. "The track cost about 800 per hour on an exclusive basis," says Harold Dermott. "In the scheme of it that's good value; you can't do what we did anywhere else in Europe."

Andy Wallace liked it: "It's nice to have what resembles a normal motorway, with a very long straight, as far ahead as you can see. You just concentrate on staying in one lane, and you haven't got to worry about stopping at the other end. You can really stretch the legs of the car. It's nice to be on the track on your own, too; the closing speed with other traffic would be enormous."