This isn't the first time I've hit the track at Thermal Club, a fine little motorsports oasis east of Palm Springs, California. This also isn't the first time I've driven the, one of the outright best supercars in the world. If the thought of combining these two things sounds like bliss, well friend, it is. And thanks to the 720S's onboard track telemetry, I'm learning how to get the most out of both.
Thermal Club is one of a number of locations where McLaren hosts its Pure driving school. In addition to Thermal, McLaren offers this experience at Circuit of the Americas, Homestead Miami and Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the US. Should you prefer something a bit more exotic, you can attend Pure at international raceways like Spa in Belgium, Portimão in Portugal, Silverstone in the UK or even Bahrain. You can run in your own car (following a safety inspection) or use one of the vehicles McLaren provides. A full schedule, as well as pricing for the various courses, can be found on McLaren's website.
For this story, I'm doing the advanced $10,000 Track Level 3 Performance Academy. This puts you behind the wheel of aor, as in my case, a 720S, which comes standard with the track telemetry app. You get one-on-one instruction with a driving coach, five 20-minute track sessions, a half-day of classroom training and individual telemetry talks, plus all the usual goodies like meals, refreshments and overnight accommodations. Other experiences range from $1,600 half-day courses with three on-track sessions to the full-on, $32,000 Owner Track Car experience, with two full days of instruction for folks who own a McLaren GT4 race car. In the UK, there's even a three-day, six-race program that earns you a National A or International D racing license.
Given this isn't my first time behind the wheel of a McLaren and I know my way around a race circuit, the Level 3 academy is a perfect fit. For this, it's assumed you have a baseline of knowledge, but that there's still plenty of room for improvement.
Regardless of course level, the Pure school starts in the classroom. Here, you're reminded of the fundamentals of track driving: what line to take through a corner, where to brake, how to keep a car balanced. These core skills are explained in great detail, and in the context of the track you're driving.
Thermal Club is set in California's Coachella Valley (yes, that Coachella), and because of the desert landscape, it's largely flat. There aren't any huge runoff areas to speak of, and despite the unassuming topography, small dips and rises create some deceptively blind corners. Before setting out, teachers explain the nuance of tricky sections like the hill mid-way through the north circuit, which unsettles the car, and the way you basically combine some double-apex corners into a single motion. Then they actually drive you around the course -- not in a McLaren; I got a -- so you can get a feel for the width of some corners, the length of a big sweeper or just how much you can't see while cresting that back hill.
Each driver is paired with an instructor, and each instructor works with just two drivers over the course of the day. Five 20-minute sessions might not seem like a lot, but by your third time out, you're not quite as sharp as you were in the morning. Unless you train for extensive track driving, it can wear you out quicker than you think.
All the cars are constantly monitored, huge crews of McLaren employees checking and rechecking tire pressures, engine stats, fuel levels and more. Helmets are required, and therefore provided, all hooked up to an in-car communication system so your instructor isn't yelling over the 720S' 3.8-liter V8 belting out the song of its people directly behind the passenger compartment.
Your first lap is purely for reconnaissance. You sit super low inside a 720S, and that changes your sightlines as you approach each corner. Going slow at first, you're able to acquaint (or reacquaint) yourself with the coupe's sharp steering, taut chassis and powerful brakes. You only drive in manual mode, working the seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission via the carbon fiber shift paddles. Slowly but surely, you pick up speed, the instructor requesting adjustments to your movements with each passing lap. Brake later. Brake harder. Unwind the wheel sooner. Downshift now. Wait for the car to settle. Those first 20 minutes are up before you know it.
Immediately after the on-track session, you're taken inside for some sit-down teachings with your instructor. An SD card inside the 720S holds the telemetry data from your drive, and it's compared to a baseline lap set by one of McLaren's professionals in the same car on the same course in the same conditions.
McLaren's telemetry software is exceptionally robust for a road car, which you might expect given the company's Formula One heritage. Everything from brake and throttle pressure to steering angle to acceleration rate can be examined, and you can single out specific sections of individual laps for precise dissection. Instructors are able to put your data up against the pro's info, and side-by-side videos show exactly what you're doing versus the 'ideal' situation -- assuming you fitted your 720S with the $1,650 camera option, if you're using your own vehicle.
During my first session, I recorded a fastest lap of 2 minutes, 24 seconds, which I'm told isn't bad for the first run. My general line is good, but I'm too eager to get on the power coming out of a turn, which then causes me to have to back off slightly in order to settle the car and prevent oversteer (what can I say, I like to slide). Heading into the hairpins at Turns 1 and 6, the data shows I'm braking way earlier than I should, and not hard enough, too. Comparing my brake pressure line with the pro driver's, it's obvious he hit them later and with more force. Watching the side-by-side videos, with overlays of brake pressure data, it's clear that while I softly start to brake around the No. 6 marker, the pro waits until just after No. 5.
Armed with this new information, I hit the track for another 20-minute session. I brake later and harder. I let the car settle coming out of Turn 5 before going hard on the power. I generally feel like I've got a better sense of finesse as I work through the now-familiar corners. The data agrees: Following this second session, my time is down to 2 minutes, 22 seconds.
As helpful as my instructor is while in the car, it's being able to see the data on screen that's really driving home the lessons. McLaren's tech not only lets you compare data to a pro, but compare your new laps against your old ones. You can calculate sections to learn just how much time you're leaving on the table; if I brake later coming into Turn 14 and then get on the power sooner, I can recapture two-tenths of a second by the time I hit Turn 15. If I wouldn't have scrubbed off so much speed coming into the Turn 1 hairpin, I would've been able to run all the way up in third gear before having to stomp down to slow for Turn 2.
Practice makes perfect (mostly)
Lap after lap, I'm getting better. I'm learning to clip Turn 3 to better set myself up for Turn 4. I'm learning to go wide entering the long, backend sweeper, so I can dive in and pick up tremendous speed as I head for the blind crest. I'm rethinking my braking point before entering the back S-curves, and remembering to jump the last curb while going at full throttle, charging toward a hard brake at Turn 14.
Credit where credit's due: My instructor is calm and collected, and endlessly helpful. For the most part, he's quiet, only communicating the information I need at each moment. Wait to brake. Unwind the wheel. More power. Keep going. Come on, don't lift yet.
By my fifth and final session, I've got a better handle on the long Thermal Club course. Up to this point, the telemetry shows my key weak points are Turns 1 and 6, where I'm still braking way too late and not carrying enough speed through the turns. But my instructor is egging me on. Encouraging me to give it hell. The 720S is capable of massive speeds and there's a tremendous amount of grip available at all times. Only on a track like this can you truly eke out this car's full capability.
When all is said and done, I've managed to cut six seconds off my time. The final reading is 2 minutes, 18 seconds, and my instructor thinks I could've shaved a second off that had my car not reduced power due to an engine overheating malfunction. (For the record, it gets hot at Thermal -- like, triple-digit temperatures -- and these cars are working hard all day.)
On a race track, six seconds is a huge amount of time. That I was able to shave this off my initial lap -- a run I considered to be pretty quick -- after just one day of instruction is a testament to a few things. To my instructor, for pushing me and communicating effectively. To the car, for being so goddamn capable. And to the telemetry, for showing me the precise moments when I was leaving time on the table and how to get it back.
Is the Pure school perfect? No. Because you aren't required to own a McLaren to participate, you have drivers of all skill sets running the track with you. Owners don't have to drive with an instructor in the car, either, so often you'll come up on a slower car with a GoPro strapped to its roof, ruining your perfect line. Yes, passing is allowed -- at your instructor's discretion -- but still, on many occasions, a number of would-be fast laps were squashed by slower cars. It's a hazard of this type of program, however, and certainly not specific to McLaren.
Still, that I was able to walk away from Pure with a sharper skill set and greater appreciation of what the 720S can do is reason enough to attend. It's one thing to drive a McLaren, but it's another thing entirely to safely find its vast limits -- as well as my own.
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