What is it?McLaren claims this is the most extreme road car its ever built. Thats kind of what youd hope given who its decided to name it after, and what theyve decided to make it look like. Needless to say, aesthetic design did not lead the way. The Senna is governed by aerodynamics - up to 800kg of air pressing the mid-engined two-seater into the tarmac at 248kph. It could produce more, but above that speed, McLaren alters the wing angles to maximise acceleration.
Clearly, theres a lot going on here. Not least that vast rear wing, able to swing through almost 90 degrees, and hidden winglets in the nose that work in harmony with it. This is a car that plays with the air, makes it work for the car as it passes over the bodywork.
The Senna is the next step in McLarens Ultimate Series range, sitting above the Super Series (720S) and Sport Series (540 and 570) models. Its not a replacement for the P1, but instead is designed to set new standards in a particular direction - in this case, track performance. It is road legal - quite an achievement when you think about pedestrian safety and getting a car with this many slats, wings and holes in its bodywork through the legislative process. Its built around a central carbon tub made up of 170 separate pieces and powered by the familiar 4.0-litre twin turbo V8 from the 720S. For this application, the engine has a new camshaft, new pistons, intake manifold, and an Inconel and titanium exhaust. It develops 789bhp and 800Nm, powering the rear wheels through a seven-speed twin clutch gearbox. The sprints to 100kph and 198kph are taken care of in 2.8 and 6.8secs respectively and top speed is 333kph. Not that top speed matters here - the Senna, as you would hope, has a single-minded focus on lap times.
And its weight, not power, that has clearly dominated the engineers thought processes. The 4.87kg rear wing is able to support up to 100 times its own weight, each front wing weighs a mere 660 grams, even the door mechanisms have been changed - mechanical releases giving way to electrical, reducing weight by 20 per cent. All told, the Senna weighs just 1,198kg dry, so around 1,300kg with all fluids and fuel.
What is it like on the road?Grippy and brakey. Forgive the poor phraseology, but the main takeaways after driving the Senna are how ridiculously neck-wrenching it is under braking and how ridiculously neck-wrenching it is around corners. Buying one? Do yourself a favour and get your personal trainer to help you work on your neck muscles.
But related to this is how well the Senna transitions between stopping and cornering. This is where the aerodynamics come into play, the rear wing popping up to stabilise the car under fierce braking, shifting the aero balance as you turn in and so on. And its the way the aero package works with the suspension thats the next bit of genius.
Stand by, because this is where it gets complicated. The Sennas adaptive dampers are all hydraulically inter-linked, able to react and alter strategy in just two milliseconds, so the car is stabilised and ready for the corner pretty much as you turn the steering wheel. It doesnt use conventional springs and anti-roll bars. Instead, there are hydraulic gas-filled accumulators, linked from side to side of the car, that almost completely resist roll, keeping the body as level as possible which in turn benefits aero. These are further finessed with a front to rear link, helping to separate bodyroll out from impact stiffness – i.e. it doesnt roll, but nor does it punish you when you start clattering across kerbs.
Its all very clever, and in Race mode the hydraulics drop the car 39mm at the front and 30mm at the rear, further creating underbody suction. Were at Estoril, where Ayrton scored his first ever F1 victory, back in 1985. Thats a lovely link, but with too few fast corners, Im not feeling the downforce that much. Mechanical grip through the Pirelli Trofeo R tyres is terrific, and through the fast fifth gear kink on the back straight the car is resolutely planted. Theres no sense of the car getting light or dancing, instead, it just turns and grips. Its not a playful car in the conventional sense, it doesnt get light under brakes or wag its tail, the steering doesnt writhe in your hands.
Instead, it just feels locked solid to the track. The only time I ever have to apply any dabs of oppo is exiting hairpins. The way it moves into corners is ridiculous, terms such as understeer and oversteer dont really have any place when all you can do is try to get braver and discover where the limits lie. Ultimately there is a bit of push at the front end, but most of the time you spend just marvelling at how composed and stable it is.
And then there are the brakes. The basics are these\: carbon ceramic 390mm discs, six-piston monobloc aluminium callipers at the front, four-pot at the back. But the way theyre made is new and secret\: the layup and construction takes several months, the holes and channels are drilled in afterwards, rather than inserted in moulds. McLaren claims a stopping distance of 100 metres from 198kph, 16 metres less than the P1.
In practice this is staggering. The pedal feels hard to start with, but then, as you work up to it, realise how hard and how late you can hit the pedal, amazed that the damn thing isnt snapping as you exert all your power on it, your body thrown into the harnesses so hard its a job to keep your chin off your chest, well, then youre genuinely staggered.
There is a sense here that the Senna is a bit too professional, a bit too advanced in its abilities and limits to be accessible, a bit too ruthlessly clinical maybe. But thats the sort of car it is, a car thats better than you are, a car thatll rip tracks to pieces and leave you sweating and breathing hard. An adrenaline rush. But a very polished one – its notably less edgy than a P1 GTR for instance, still detectably a road car underneath, with a bit of bandwidth at the edges. You might get sweaty everywhere else, but its not a car thatll give you sweaty palms. Well, apart from the first time you think youve out-braked yourself, only to suddenly discover youre now going very slowly and are still some distance from the corner.
Of course, its fast, but the g-forces pinning you back arent anything like as wild as those throwing you forward or sideways, so you come away feeling the Senna isnt actually, maybe, possibly, that fast. And then you remember you were braking from 280kph at the end of the straight. Nevertheless, the engine is not the star of the show. It sounds gruff and purposeful and although turbo response is good and you never feel off boost when youre lapping, the engine simply isnt that special.
On the road? Cant tell you for the time being – our experience was limited to track only, but when I did slow down the Senna felt tactile, the steering wonderfully precise, the whole car alert and professional, the sensations pure and unfiltered.
On the insideLots of cars have doors that open upwards. Very few have doors that feel as light in the hand as these. Or that the gravel tinkles out as the 9kg weight (less than half the mass of a P1 door) is pushed up on unique hydraulic struts. Yep, the air channels in the panels are a great gathering point for road debris thrown up by the front wheels.
Moving on. Fixed back carbon shelled seats, each weighing a mere 8kg, are not the most cosseting, but depending on your - ahem - build, can be had in one of two widths. Once harnessed in you feel much more in tune with the car, it feels right that getting ready involves more than just clipping in a single seatbelt. Visibility is good on the whole, with narrow A-pillars and good separation between them and the exterior mirrors, and can I urge you to opt for the extra glass panels in the roof and doors, if only for the extra light they let in.
The cabin itself strikes a fine balance between stripped-out racer and modestly equipped road racer. There is a margin in there somewhere. The Senna comes across as very purposeful, thinly padded and bare of carbon, but with all the equipment necessary to at least be tolerable on the road.
And it feels like an event. You dont have much opportunity to look out the lower glass panels when youre driving, but they nevertheless manage to add something to the experience. So too does having the starter button in the roof panel (also up there are the switches for the windows and door releases), and the sensation that the engine is bolted directly to the frame. Its all a reminder that the Senna is not your standard run-of-the-mill hypercar, but something with a very specific mindset.
Theres plenty more evidence for that when you delve into the infotainment system. Not only does the Senna have the nifty flip-up dash display a la 720S, but also a specific track app. McLaren Track Telemetry (MTT) is an option that not only captures data from each lap but also can - for a further additional cost - come with three cameras\: one looking forward from the windscreen, one backwards from the tail and the last mounted between the seats. Suspect thatll be a more costly option than a regular dashcam.
VerdictCalling a car the Senna is tricky – you open yourself up to accusations that youre trying to cash in on a memory and face the risk that you create a car that can never live up to the might of the man. I dont think McLaren is doing the former, and I think its come very close to succeeding with the latter. This is the exact sort of car that suits the name – one aimed purely at lap speed, possessing incredible focus.
And as with the way it looks, it drives unconventionally too – it doesnt dance and play, but instead uses the air and suspension to lock itself to the surface. Is it actually fun to drive? Its more grown-up than that, more steely and determined.
You come away staggered by its abilities, wanting another chance to try to find the actual braking points, to feel again the other-worldly grip and stability as it turns in, to once again pore over the bodywork and try to work out why it looks like it does, to be that fleshy weak link in the chain. I could see how it could become addictive, how every other car in an owners collection would suddenly feel slightly inadequate on track. In short, its a stunning achievement.