Every modern McLaren, from the 2011 MP4-12C to the P1 to the 720S is powered by a single family of twin turbo V8s. This engine didn’t come out of nowhere; it started life in a largely-forgotten supercar from Nissan.
This is the Nissan VRH35L. It’s a twin-turbo 3.5 liter aluminum V8 used for endurance racing at Le Mans, the final line of development of Nissan’s VRH35 architecture that debuted in ‘89. Nissan and Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR) put the VRH35L together for their entry into the madcap GT1 category back in 1997 in the R390 GT1.
Engine weight was 170 kilos (just over 374 pounds), which I assume counts the weight of the two IHI turbos. Nissan claims its torque figure was “over” 520 lb-ft and horsepower was somewhere around 640 in race trim, 550 for the street-legal homologation specials mandated by the rules.
I do mean specials; only one street R390 GT1 got built, rebodied and VIN-swapped from red to blue, which never made it out of Nissan’s hands.
Nissan was never quite able to eke out a win at Le Mans with the R390 GT1, much as it had never quite been able to get an overall victory in its thousand-horsepower Group C years.
After running in 1997, 1998 and 1999, Nissan peaced out of the 24 Hours of Le Mans’ top classes and the whole effort has fallen into a dusty part of history in a way that, say, Porsche’s 1990s campaigns did not.
But the engine lives on still! Early on in the development of the old MP4-12C, McLaren picked out the VRH35 for the basis of its engine program and bought the rights to it from TWR, as Car and Driver reported at the time. McLaren and their engine builder Ricardo did a great deal of work to the design and basically made the thing their own, renaming it the M838T.
That engine was further retooled to become the center of the P1's hybrid drivetrain and now continues on built out to a solid 4.0-liter in the 720S.
This new M840T is up to 710 HP, wailing up to a 8,500 RPM redline, for mile after mile, on pump gas, on the street. It’s bizarre to think it started as a top-flight Japanese/British racing program 20 years ago.
Correction: Astute global supercar expert and friend of Jalopnik Peloton25 pointed out that while Nissan’s official corporate line for quite some time was that it had produced two GT1 road cars, this interview from 2016 admits that there was only ever one road car, repainted from red to blue and re-VIN’d (!!) as the car was never put on the open market. This article now reflects this info, which is crazy wonderful. GT1's twilight years were nuts.