Getting low and fast with McLaren’s Sports Series

Getting low and fast with McLaren’s Sports Series

NO MATTER which way you drive out of Melbourne - north, south, east or west - it doesn’t take too long to find yourself on a route worth travelling. But when Madam Wheels joined British automaker McLaren for a drive day in two of its Sports Series models, we set out straight up - in a helicopter.

Not that things went off without a hitch - Melbourne’s notoriously unpredictable weather put a storm-front in our path, grounding us for a while at MicroFlite Helicopter Services’ helipad beside the Yarra River in the southern capital’s CBD. Once in the air, the 20-minute flight to the Yarra Valley wine region, north-east of Melbourne, was uneventful but dramatically picturesque with the dark storm clouds swirling about.

At the approach to Levantine Hill Estate’s impressive restaurant and cellar door facility at Coldstream, our test subjects finally came into view - the entry-level 540C and its more spec-laden 570S. We wouldn’t be going anywhere fast, however. First the gathered media were treated to lunch (sans wine, of course) by chef Teague Ezard in the restaurant which bears his name

While we savoured sugar-cured salmon, jamon iberico, prawn linguine and pork belly, professional driver Luke O’Neill went through the cars’ features. And from that point on he became our fearless leader on the road.

There’s not a great deal we needed to know about McLaren cars apart from the fact they can get very fast, very quickly. They’re built for drivers so their pared-back interiors provide everything a driver needs and nothing she or he doesn’t.

Ahead of us was 1.5 hours in which to test that, from the Yarra Valley into the mountains of the Great Dividing Range, covering almost 100km through some of the most spectacular scenery Victoria has to offer. We’d start out in one car - Madam Wheels slid into the 570S - then return from a midway point in the other. Things got off to a fairly inelegant start as I turned out of Levantine Hill’s driveway, having inadvertently left the car in manual mode. I  stomped on the accelerator to get a quick start on to the Maroondah Hwy, causing the gearbox to scream and sending the rear end slightly sideways. (Hehehe ..)

Before long we were in the hauntingly beautiful Black Spur Drive, a 28km stretch of road between Healesville and Narbethong. The best way to describe it would be wildly Jurassic Park-like with its moss-covered banks, ancient tree ferns and towering mountain ash trees. I would have opened the window to take in the unique scent of the Australian bush but I really couldn’t have coped with the hideous hairdo that would have resulted.

Anyway, it looked like it was going to rain and it did eventually come down in what one hack later described as biblical proportions, the sometimes torrential rain impeding visibility. In fact, the single negative comment to come out of the day was that the windscreen wipers were sometimes incapable of keeping up with the load. 

We continued north-east to Buxton, where we swapped cars in front of the charming-looking Bucky Hotel before heading down through Marysville then back around the racey turns of Black Spur. Sensing we were feeling more familiar with the cars by then, O’Neill picked up the pace and shot ahead. Like some kind of wild cat, the 540C growled through the turns after him, steering lightly, precisely, it’s rear-wheel drive gripping the road with ferocity. At speed, the scenery we’d so admired on our first pass was a blur of brilliant greens. The focus this time was keenly on the next corner’s apex, aiming for the best through-lines as possible to keep as hot on O’Neill’s lead car as possible.

There’s no overstating the total thrill one gets being so low to the ground while pushing these cars through their paces like that. You really do feel like you’re  part of the structure, particularly the way McLaren’s seats cocoon the driver as the cars whip through the corners with zero body roll. 

It was just magnificent. And I can’t wait to do it again. Next time, though, I’ll bring my own car (drive time from Melbourne’s CBD to Levantine Hill is about an hour) and switch things around. We’ll do a pre-lunch loop of the drive before the cellar door opens at 11am, then settle in for an afternoon at Ezards. The only decision remaining will be whether to drink Levantine Hill’s Katherine’s Paddock Chardonnary or its Rosé. Hell, we’ll try both. Needless to say there’ll be a designated driver on board for the ride home.