There are not many places left in the world where you can use the full performance of a supercar, let alone one sporting 1,000bhp. But like Koenigsegg in Sweden, Saleen is lucky enough to have a former military airbase right next door where they can unleash their creations in relative safety.
In this case, the airbase is the former US Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) El Toro in Irvine. De-commissioned in 1999, its claim to fame in the civilian world was its role in the 1996 sci-fi movie, Independence Day, in which Will Smith played Captain Steven Hiller, an F/A-18 Hornet pilot based at El Toro.
Today however, there are no F/A-18s and certainly no alien attack craft in sight. The only UFO I can see is the bright red and very rapidly moving Saleen S7 morphing out of the heat haze on the long runway towards my camera.
A gentle breeze is blowing my way, and the thunder of the twin-turbo V8 becomes gradually louder as it echoes across the vast open site. The dramatic looking Saleen S7 blasts past in a blur of raw speed, and scant seconds later, I see its tail-lights glowing even brighter than its scarlet paintwork.
The sleek red vision turns around and makes its way over to where Saleen’s CEO, Dan Reiner and I are standing and comes to a halt with its hot exhausts ticking over the rumbling idle of its deep-chested V8. The driver’s door swings open, the test engineer gives the thumbs up, climbs out and looks me in the eye as he says, “Everything checks out, now it’s your turn.”
With world-class performance and dramatic styling to match, the S7 is a credible alternative to the Ferrari, Koenigsegg, Lamborghini, Pagani and Porsche establishment. Thanks to its relatively inexpensive Ford-derived V8 motor that makes 750bhp and 700 lb ft (948Nm) of torque in current bi-turbo form, it also promises significantly lower running costs.
The street version of the S7 went on sale in 2000 with a 550bhp normally-aspirated 7.0 litre V8 motor. Its race-bred chassis was so good that customers soon cried out for more power, so from the 2005 model year on, twin-turbos boosted the S7’s output to 750bhp with a top speed of 200mph and 0-60mph in 3.4 sec.
However, there will always be someone out there who wants even more power. In 2007, a member of the Dubai Royal Family popped the question and opened his wallet. Saleen obliged with a 1,000bhp version that actually did not require a massive amount of re-engineering to build.
Taking the 7.0 litre Ford V8 motor to this level was not a major performance as the big engine has the headroom. The normal production 750bhp twin-turbo version does not need an intercooler as its Garrett T3/4 turbos run relatively low boost. The main changes were the addition of a pair of water-cooled intercoolers to allow higher boost pressures, and then uprating the fuel system and engine management to suit. Thus modified, the motor then dynoed at 1,000bhp with just over 900 lb ft (1,200Nm) of torque.
The metallic orange Dubai car was in the final stages of build when I visited Saleen’s Californian HQ in Irvine. But Saleen had prototyped its uprated engine installation on their own hard-used development car, and this was the beast I had to tame today.
The S7 is low and its sills are wide, so the fact that Saleen has not gone for deep competition bucket seats is a blessing. That said, the butterfly doors make a dignified entry relatively easy, and once you are in the firmly padded, the leather-clad sports seats support you nicely for fast road driving.
The cosy cabin is well trimmed, and the leather seats, panels and Alcantara headlining make the perfect backdrop to one of the nicest and most distinctive sets of instruments I have seen in a car in years.
As with so many cars of all types, Saleen has fallen for the fashionable separate Start button for the engine, but that and the fancy standard-fit slide and tilt radio/sat-nav apart, the rest of the controls are focused on the art of driving fast.
I have the whole runway to play on, but with a car this fast, it is easy to eat up the tarmac very quickly indeed, so I need to establish a safe braking threshold.
First impressions are that there is an awful lot of car around me, and in the usual mid-engined supercar manner, visibility is not brilliant. But the car itself is easy to drive.
The medium-weighted clutch comes out progressively and we are off. I build speed progressively, and the big V8 growls away behind me as I short shift up though the gears on my exploratory lap.
The gearbox feels very mechanical, but gear selection is precise, and the small, thick-rimmed steering wheel gives good grip. Even with small changes of direction to feel how the S7 responds off-centre, it is evident that the steering is direct and full of feedback.
Like several other mid-engined sportcars, the S7 uses larger diameter as well as wider rear tyres. Here, 9.5J x 19 wheels with 275/35ZR19 Michelin PS2 tyres are used in front with 12J x 20-inch rears shod with 345/30ZR20 tyres at the rear. These massive tyres support a car weighing just 1,250kg.
Despite only using just over half the engine revs up to fifth of the six gears, I soon waft up to 120mph with seemingly no effort at all, and the end of the runway is approaching rapidly.
Saleen use Brembo brakes featuring huge 380mm vented discs in front with 355mm vented discs at the rear, and a six-pot calliper aluminium at each corner. They wash off speed effortlessly, and I heel and toe down to second gear before doing a 180 degree turn to return the way I came.
With the mid-day heat shimmering off the runway, it is nearly impossible to see further than halfway down its length, but that is of no consequence. I line the car up and use up all the revs in second from a rolling start.
Where a normal road car would stand on its tail under the onslaught of so much grunt, the race suspension of the Saleen keeps it more or less level as the massive torque fights with the mega-wide rear Michelins in a battle that the engine will always win.
Second gear disappears in a flash as the rear tyres almost break traction. A measured upshift into third brings a very slightly diminished shove in the back and a return of the thunderous soundtrack.
By now, the scenery is passing very quickly indeed as the S7 goes into warp speed. End of third gear and into fourth. Whao! This is like a rocket-assisted roller coaster ride, and I am not sure I would like to drive this car flat out on a public road with other cars and solid parts of the scenery as chicanes.
Out here on the runway however, everything is under control even though I am running out of tarmac now very quickly indeed. With the twin-turbocharged motor in full battle cry, the rate of acceleration in fourth seems hardly diminished, and I out of the corner of my eye I have just seen the speedo needle flash past 160mph.
Designed to be ultra stable at high speed, the spoilers, flat underbody and venturi tunnels of the carbon-fibre-bodied S7 create so much downforce that from 160mph onwards, it could theoretically drive upside down. At this speed, the S7 feels like it is out for a Sunday drive and I can see why it is such a successful race car.
I recognise the marker cone I had identified as my safe braking point. Time to deploy the anchors. The massive brakes wash speed off in the blink of an eye, and I can feel the safety harnesses digging into my shoulders as the speedometer needle drops back rapidly into sane territory.
I do a couple more runs for the record and then it is time to do the action photos and see how the S7 drives on the street as we make our way back to Saleen’s nearby Irvine headquarters.
The answer is that it drives extremely well indeed for a ferocious beast capable of well over 200mph. But there is no question that driving this car at any speed is a visceral experience.
It grunts, snorts and rumbles like a caged tiger, but on the other hand, its clutch and throttle are medium-weighted and progressive, its steering is direct and accurate. Even the ride is not bad for a car that can run away and hide from almost every other car on the planet. Visibility apart, it is actually quite civilised on the street.
As the road car is the homologation platform for the racecar, it is no surprise that the suspension is typical racecar style with double-wishbone suspension and coil-overs. However, the springs and dampers are a strange amalgam of Eibach main springs, H&R helper springs and Koni dampers. The steering rack is made by Woodward for Saleen.
Like the Mosler MT900, the Saleen S7 was born in America, and is the street legal version of a GT racing car. But where race cars have to conform to a well defined set of rules, their street legal counterparts do not, so the road car can end up being much more powerful as it is in this case.
The normally-aspirated 600bhp, 1,150kg Saleen S7R racecar has done extremely well in most of the races it has been entered in. In 2001, its first year of competition, the S7R won its class in the prestigious 12 Hours of Sebring. It then went on to win the FIA GT Championship in Europe twice along with two American sports car championships.
A Saleen S7R was entered in Le Mans in 2001, coming third in class and 18th overall. In 2005, the ADEMCO Team were runners-up in the American La Mans series and then took 11th overall in the 2006 24 Hours of Le Mans. The Oreca Team contested the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the first time in 2007, their cars finished 5th and 9th in class.
By the time S7 production was wound down and the company sold in 2009, the S7R had taken seven GT Championships, eight outright championships and over 60 pole positions and fastest race laps. The Oreca Team also ran it in the American Le Mans Series.
The old adage, racing improves the breed is as true here as it could ever be. Wins on the racetrack help to underline the Saleen S7 credentials as one of the fastest and best handling supercars ever made. So where many dramatic looking supercars simply talk the talk, the Saleen S7 has proven that it can also walk the walk.