In the Eye of the Beholder

“Art is an idea,” says Bertrand Petyt. He manages »Le Beauvallon«, a hotel residence in Saint-Tropez, and teaches art in Monaco. We flew down for a visit – and drove back in a new McLaren GT.
Text Matthias Mederer
Photo Matthias Mederer & Maximilián Balázs ·

Bertrand Petyt is standing in front of a glass case looking at a teddy bear whose body consists of hundreds of small, golden pyramids. “That, for example,” he says, scratching his chin a little thoughtfully, “I don’t understand.”

Admittedly, neither do I. But I do find the teddy bear face with the dark button eyes quite droll. For Petyt, it remains incomprehensible. “A teddy bear is something to cuddle and play with. Something for children. But with those hard gold pyramids, this here is anything but soft and cuddly.” Then Petyt moves on and says, “Art is always an idea.”

An idea, hmm? Perhaps like a McLaren GT? I find myself toying with the idea of associating the new McLaren GT with the concept of art. Then I realize I would only be bringing myself into the passive role of an observer, someone who stands in amazement before a work of art and states in appreciation: “Simply wonderful! A masterpiece!” But with a McLaren, that’s only the first step. After all, the point to these cars from Woking is to sit in the driver’s seat and become an artist yourself. So to speak.

We’re in Saint-Tropez, on the French Riviera, at the hotel residence Le Beauvallon. Le Beauvallon isn’t a hotel in the classic sense. You can’t just book one of the forty-one individually appointed rooms and spend a few days here on holiday. If you want to stay at Le Beauvallon, you have to rent the whole place, including the beach pool house. Bertrand Petyt manages the estate, which is furnished with works of art predominantly according to the Daoist teachings of balance and harmony known as feng shui. He also teaches art in Monaco. He reveals one thing to us: “I always tell my students that I can’t really teach them anything. All I can teach them is that they have to be courageous, take risks, and then have their experiences.” I again catch myself trying to reconcile this advice with the McLaren, though I keep that to myself for the time being. After all, there’s the purchase price of around 200,000 euros to consider.

»Ich sage meinen Studenten immer, dass ich ihnen nichts beibringen kann. Alles, was ich ihnen mitgeben kann, ist, dass sie mutig sein müssen, auf Risiko gehen sollen und dann ihre Erfahrungen machen werden.«

When McLaren first came up with the idea of building a GT, my initial response was: “Just don’t make the thing too heavy or too soft.” For you bean counters out there, the 1,530-kilogram GT is in fact the heaviest McLaren ever. But this fact is about as useful as leaving the EU. It makes much more sense to talk about the additional luggage space in the back. The rear hatch opens automatically. Looking back at my interview notes with a McLaren employee: “Fitting a big golf bag or a pair of skis in there shouldn’t be a problem.” – “Or the Mona Lisa.” – “What?” – “What?” Forget it. Just get in, please.

One glance at the functionally simple and clean steering wheel and a sly grin spreads across my face. Over 125 years of development and creative ingenuity have been put into the automobile. What haven’t we thought of during all this time? And what does McLaren do? A round steering wheel! Almost, at least. That’s it! Ergonomically shaped, to be sure, but otherwise freed of any switches or stylistic bells and whistles. A wheel of realization, if you like. And more. A mockingly purist sideswipe to pretty much everything exaggerated in our hectic world. They should put a McLaren steering wheel on display at the MoMA! My opinion.

I shut the door and hit the gas. At first all leisurely, although the new McLaren GT does have a way of pumping almost as much adrenaline into the driver’s bloodstream as a lap on the racetrack in an LT. Thanks to a much higher front lip, however, you could take on the treacherous French speedbumps with this GT as ruthlessly as you would with a rental car (quote from a McLaren employee who, for data privacy reasons, prefers to remain anonymous). Anyone who has ever provoked the bloodcurdling creaking of a ridiculously expensive carbon apron on rough asphalt will have developed a deep-seated protective instinct that makes it near-impossible for him to simply steer a McLaren through one of those bumps at 30 clicks without stopping. The GT can do it. Though it’ll take you a few of those bumps to get there.

Country roads. A very different discipline. Much more familiar. An old love. Accelerate. Brake. Accelerate. Brake. Accelerate . . . The mountain roads just behind Saint-Tropez set the pace and the McLaren flows over its usual well-balanced inner eight-cylinder center. First realization: harmony is not a question of steadiness. Sheer speed was never the true essence of driving a McLaren in general and the GT in particular. Rather, it’s about being composed, practicing concentration, being totally and exclusively at ease with oneself, understanding the moment, what’s happening right now, overstraining the ever-changing states and forces acting almost on a meta-level, much larger than ourselves. “Keep going, keep going,” German goalie (and hobby philosopher) Oliver Kahn once famously said. That about sums it up: understanding all that has driven man, this transient little being, on this earth for so many centuries – and continues to drive him through all the confusion, changes of direction and curves that must be mastered. The straights then serve to demonstrate what is commonly described as the tremendous power of acceleration nailing everything to the seat.

Second realization: a motorhome, especially a (warning: stereotype ahead!) Dutch motorhome is an absolute disturbance of harmony in a McLaren. Especially if, as is the case here, it cannot be quickly overtaken. On the other hand, this does leave some time for reflection. Bertrand Petyt had pointed out to me a second work of art. One that he really likes a lot. It is a metal sculpture by Zheng Lu that wraps itself around the pillars in the lobby of the early twentieth-century building like a stream of water droplets. The fascinating thing about it is that the work entitled Dripping – You and Me is actually a calligraphy, because the sculpture consists of the letters used by the French poet Paul Géraldy in his literary love letter Toi et Moi. I didn’t count the letters and compare them, but I’ve seen the meter-high sculpture so I’ll just take it for granted.

The artwork’s intention is to illustrate the interweaving of the complex relationships between the building and the sculpture: “You are still in love with me as I am still in love with you and I will always be.” No doubt about it: had Géraldy ever had the opportunity to drive a McLaren, he would have chosen exactly the same words. I briefly pull twice on the left paddle shifter, the transmission clack-clacks into third gear, the V8 twin-turbo trumpets, rumbles and stretches its way somewhere at 4,500 revolutions in this McLaren-typical stand-at-attention, then tears away and rushes off. As a driver, you can hardly believe your luck that you’ve been allowed to be there. This must be what a cheetah feels like when, after countless unsuccessful attempts, it has finally caught something big and juicy – and, above all, no one else disputes the festive roast. It would be interesting at this point to find out how the driver of the Dutch motorhome feels. But he’s already so far behind that we’d have to wait forever to ask him.

»Er atmet die schwere Hitze über seine Öffnungen aus. Knistern. Und der starre Blick auf das Emblem am Heck: "McLaren" chromblitzt es da im Sonnenlicht an der französischen Mittelmeerküste. Sonst nix.«

Short rest stop. Time to catch our breath. And that’s exactly how it is with the McLaren GT. It exhales the heavy heat over its openings. Snap, crackle, pop. The chrome “McLaren” badge at the rear flashes in the sunlight of the French Riviera. Nothing else. Except for the dramatic sky above. A Dante-like inferno is looming. Or rain. An espresso would be nice right now. But where to get one? Only mountains, shrubs and road as far as the eye can see. Two racing cyclists, calves tough as steel, tanned arms, brightly colored Tour de France jerseys, matching helmets. Their energetic pedal-pumping rhythm is interrupted for a brief moment at the sight of the golden sports car by the roadside. I hear only a few specks of conversation that the wind blows over. “Alpine? Porsche?” Oh, mon Dieu! In an initial fit of outrage, I want to shout after the two in prickly German: “It’s a McLaren, dammit!” But then I come to my senses, think that maybe it really is a bit like art. And that everyone can see whatever they want in this car. Even two French cyclists.

McLaren GT

Engine: twin-turbo V8
Displacement: 3,994 cc
Power: 620 hp (456 kW)
Max. torque: 630 Nm at 5,500–6,500 rpm
0–100 km/h: 3.2 s
Top speed: 326 km/h

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