The new McLaren 650S GT3 made an impressive debut on December 13, racing in the Gulf 12 Hours at the Yas Marina circuit as part of its development programme.  We went along for the ride.

Sitting in the Yas Marina pit garage with engines burbling impatiently, the two new McLaren 650S GT3s hover on air jacks as mechanics buzz around.  The cars are in Abu Dhabi to make their competitive debut in the Gulf 12 Hours, a gruelling test for any racing car but especially for this pair of McLarens, as they’ve been entered as part of the final stages of an intensive development programme for the 650S GT3.  The tension and excitement rise steadily as the clock ticks down to the start of the first race.

The 650S GT3 is a development of the McLaren 12C GT3, a successful race winner in its own right over the past four years.  ‘We wanted the new car to be easier to drive at the limit, as well as more comfortable for all drivers; that’s very important for a GT3 driver,’ says McLaren GT team boss Andrew Kirkaldy.  ‘We’ve improved the aero, improved the cooling in the car by bringing air in through the mirrors, and also increased space in the car with a new roll cage.  We’re treating this as a development test; reliability is the key thing.’

Watching the mechanics work on the cars, it’s clear there are benefits for them too: where previously only the bonnet and engine cover were removable from the 12C GT3, now the front and rear fenders can be quickly removed too, vastly improving access.


On Friday, works drivers Rob Bell, Kevin Estre and Alvaro Parente stormed to pole position with an aggregate qualifying lap of 2:10.753 in the #59 car.  The second 650S GT3, the silver and red #60 driven by the pro-am trio of Peter Kox, Nico Pronk and Gilles Vannelet, showed strong and consistent pace throughout the three qualifying sessions, and starts P10 in its class.  

The car feels better in all aspects,’ says Rob Bell. ‘You can really feel the aero working in the first three corners, so it’s more stable and faster; I’m not as busy at the wheel.’

The race begins at 8.50am under Abu Dhabi’s scorching sun, and over the next six hours Bell, Estre and Parente all have stints in their new car.  Despite pit stops for fuel and tyres continuously juggling the running order, the #59 650S GT3 is always fighting for a podium place.

The Gulf 12 Hour is a unique race.  Now in its 4th year, this non-championship event is split into two halves, so after the first six hours the race pauses for a three-hour break, which gives the teams a chance to regroup, recover and work on the cars.  This innovative twist on the typical endurance racing format means strategy and outright speed are even more important than they are when running 12 hours non-stop, making this event a perfect ‘live test’ of the new McLaren sports racer.

Both of the factory run cars make it to the half-way point, the only issue being an unfamiliar fuel that has caused consumption to be a little higher than expected.  This forces the #59 car to make one extra pit stop – five to their main rivals’ four – but it still finishes the first half in third place.  The first six hours of racing have delivered many positives.  ‘It has a very good set-up and the new ventilation system is working well,’ explains a remarkably fresh-looking Estre in the pits.  ‘Doing an hour in the 650S GT3 feels the same as doing 40 minutes in the 12C.

We’re very good in the technical section of the track.  I knew I had a chance to overtake the Ferrari there, so I took a risk and made it work. It will be tough to win, but if there’s a safety car at the right time, we can still do it.’


The sun dips towards the desert as the second half of the race looms, bringing a welcome chill breeze to the hot, dry air.  Floodlights illuminate the racetrack, and the whale-shaped Viceroy hotel that spans it glows in warm blues, reds and violets.

On the restart, Pro driver Peter Kox starts to carve through the pack in #60, while Bell takes the first stint in #59.  Bell had said his favourite section of the track is at the start – and you can see why.  After the left at the end of the start-finish straight, the track climbs and flows left. You can hear the drivers lift the throttle a little here, then maintain a constant load to keep the car balanced as the track crests and flows down to the right towards a big stop for a tight left.

Again, the pit stops shake things up, but the pace of the McLaren 650S GT3 is undeniable.  As the laps unfold, #59 takes P2, maintains it, then Bell dives up the inside of the leading Mercedes, makes the pass stick and builds up a healthy lead of 22.578 seconds before the team again prepares to pit.  Estre takes over and works his way back up to the lead, but then the sole safety car of the race erases his 42-second lead, and the team call him in for one last stop.  Parente gives it all he’s got on the final stint, but ultimately crosses the line in third place, with the #60 taking P9 in the Pro-Am class. 

The team are rightly thrilled with the result, a podium on the McLaren 650S GT3’s competitive debut, and after 315 laps it’s finished less than six seconds behind the race winner.  With reliability proven and race experience to feed back into the development programme, it looks like the new McLaren 650S GT3 is all set for a strong 2015.



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