McLaren Senna track test

If you name a car after one of the most revered drivers in history, it needs to be good. Brilliant, in fact. So is the much-hyped McLaren Senna up to the task?

There can’t be a name that writes a bigger cheque than this. Call a car ‘Senna’ and if it cannot cash it in full, you’re going to look pretty stupid. At best. At worst you’ll have just insulted the name of a driver who I imagine many readers of this would regard as the greatest of the remotely modern generation.

But McLaren made the call and, to use the words of Ayrton’s nephew Bruno, “This is the first project that really connects with Ayrton’s racing spirit and performance. The McLaren Senna honours my uncle because it is so utterly dedicated to delivering a circuit experience that allows a driver to be the best they can possibly be”. So now you know.

Fittingly McLaren has brought us to Estoril, the site of Senna’s first win in F1. I’m glad about that because McLaren could have been all sniffy about the fact that win came in a Lotus and decamped elsewhere.

The car with the impossibly big boots to fill is the second in McLaren’s ‘Ultimate Series’, the first being the P1 hybrid hypercar. Interestingly the Senna has no hybrid drive and, as no one I’ve asked has claimed the P1’s electrical addenda made it any faster around a track, I’m guessing it just wasn’t needed.

The car still has P1 echoes: its carbon-fibre tub is related to that of the P1, its V8 is a development of the P1 engine and, like the P1 (but unlike any other car), it still has a race mode party piece where the car drops on its suspension and triples its spring rate. This it needs to support its body under the ridiculous amount of downforce it can generate, of which more in a minute.

But to look at the Senna as a P1 designed with the benefit of hindsight is to miss its point. The P1 was a technological showcase, a car designed to show how McLaren’s knowledge could be adapted to both road and track. The Senna is road-legal and, I am told, comfortable though rather noisy on a long run, but was designed primarily for the track.

And job one for any track car is not to add power or aerodynamic grip, but to lose weight. So its monocoque is more than 7kg lighter than that of the P1. Each door weighs just 9kg, less than half the mass of those on a 720S. As an illustration, a door of the previous Bentley Continental GT weighed more than 50kg. The front bumper weighs two-thirds of a single kilogramme, while that enormous active rear wing, the biggest I’ve seen on a production road car weighs 4.87kg, less than a big bag of potatoes.

Yet that flyweight wing must support aerodynamic loadings of up to half a tonne, for that is this car’s other great claim to fame: with a further 300kg on the nose, this car develops more downforce than any road car in history and that won’t change at least until cars like the Aston Martin Valkyrie go into production.

Propelling the Senna is the latest version of McLaren’s V8, an engine that started road car life with 3.8 litres and 592bhp in the MP4-12C and now offers 789bhp from 4.0 litres. That’s 197bhp per litre of displacement, a figure unrivalled by any other globally homologated production car.

I’m not sure what I expected when I shuffled into that carbon bucket and surveyed the scene, but it was very familiar. This car might cost £750,000, but while some of the interior hardware has been shifted about it’s still very reminiscent of the cabin in a 720S costing £208,600.

That said, there’s plenty to keep you interested before you hit the start button and head out for an experience that, on paper, should break new ground for road cars. Just locating the interior door release would provide hours of entertainment were someone not kind enough to point out a panel in the roof where it lurks along with starter button, race mode button and electric window switches.

Electric windows, on a track car? Here’s the thing: for all its apparently intense track focus, this is a car with not just electric windows, but air-conditioning, cruise control, satellite navigation and all the usual refinements. McLaren knows that, in the real world, such items are just as persuasive as an additional few kilos of downforce. But I like the fact that you can delete the air-con and, if you’re really obsessive about it, even the interior mirror. In its lightest form and without fluids, the Senna weighs 1198kg, or 1305kg fully fitted out with an almost full fuel tank, which is about 60kg less than the lightest VW Golf GTI. Yes, with almost 800bhp.

If you’re going to drive the Senna properly on track, you need a few other extras: full Nomex racewear, a HANS device and, in my case, a professional racing driver called Rob Garofall in the passenger seat. Rob assures me he is not there to slow me down, but to help me get the most from the machine. We are ready to go.

You reach up and press the button. The car is already in ‘race’ mode and, as it’s unregistered, I’m not allowed to drive it on the road in any of its more sensible personae. It’s going to be maximum attack from the outset. But I’ve already had four sighting laps in a 720S – some training car, I know – and will get two sets of six laps in the Senna .

The engine note is similar to that in the 720S but, with different inlets, exhausts, camshafts, turbos, programming and next to no noise insulation, it sounds a whole lot angrier. It’s not a remotely sonorous engine and with turbos and a flat-plane crankshaft it would be a surprise if it were (although the Ferrari F40 managed it 30 years ago).

In the early laps Rob talks quietly and calmly through the intercom, advising where to brake, turn in and so on, and also making sure I warm the tyres properly. These are Pirelli Trofeo Rs, developed especially for the Senna, and even out here in the Portuguese sunshine they need proper heating before ‘switching on’. And although I’ve known road cars get better with tyre heat, none has been so transformed as this.

“The only approach the Senna understands is bloody fast in, bloody fast out”

At first the Senna feels like a 720S that’s spent a month in boot camp and, for all it’s done for the physique, not much appreciated the experience. The straight-line performance is cartoonish – at this level 0-60mph times are meaningless (2.7sec if you’re interested), but the fact it will take you from rest to 130mph in less time than it will take most people to read this sentence seems absurd. Even when you’re driving and without going near a corner or the brakes, the acceleration can make you feel dizzy.

Then, when the grip comes and you feel just some downforce, you become suddenly, vividly aware you are treading on territory onto which road cars are not supposed to trespass. Things happen very fast, so I revert to tried, tested and trusted techniques: slow in, quick out was always the safest way.

But in the Senna it doesn’t work. The car feels tricky on its way into corners and truculent on the way out. It doesn’t feel as nailed down as I’d hoped and the understeer is such that I am close to running wide at the exit of some pretty quick curves. What to do? I thought having a little whinge at Rob might help and it did, just not in the way I had imagined. “It’s not the car, it’s the way you’re driving it,” came the decidedly sugar-free response.

So for the last few laps of my first session, instead of blundering around ignoring the voice in my earphones, I listened. It still didn’t feel natural but, oh my goodness, it seemed quick. Part of my problem was that I could not believe what a car shod with a street tyre could do, particularly under braking.

But there were other issues, too: whereas I’d been all at sea until I started listening to Rob, now it was becoming a ‘colour by numbers’ exercise, executing instructions as I heard them: brake here, turn there, power now. I felt like a puppet. So I returned to the pits, provided some perhaps not universally complimentary feedback to McLaren’s engineers, stalked off and found myself a quiet corner.

And then I understood that this is a car you can only drive how it wants to be driven. It is a precision instrument set up to work in a specific way. If you want a car that’ll be a hoot to drive whatever your approach, pedal an old historic with too much power and not enough grip, a floppy chassis and tyres that require a slip angle before they’ll work properly. Then the good old ‘chuck it in and sort it out’ approach will work.

But there is nothing else quite like a Senna. You can’t even compare it to a GT3 or GTE racer because they all have fixed aerodynamics whereas the Senna’s rear wing and the front blades perform a perpetual ballet that would be mesmerising to watch if you could see it. Together they trim the car into low-drag configuration on the straights, bleed off the downforce under braking and make sure the car is always perfectly balanced front to rear while providing as much aerodynamic grip as possible in the corners.

So next time out I decided to apply what I thought I’d learned – and it was like stepping into a different car.

The biggest but most important challenge is to forget you’re in a road car. You have to deem yourself to be in a state-of-the-art racing machine because only then will something wonderful start to happen, a phenomenon I’ve only ever noticed in competition machines: the harder you drive, the easier it gets.

The braking area into Turn One is a hellish challenge for such a car because it is downhill and very bumpy and in the Senna you hit the brakes at exactly 180mph. It will then throw you into your belts at more than twice the force of gravity. The pedal takes all the pressure your thigh can muster and the car slows as if it were on brand-new tarmac. That’s not brakes making the car feel so stable, it’s downforce.

But you must not slow too much. The only approach the Senna understands is bloody fast in, bloody fast out. As you turn in off the power you feel the back start to rotate, and if that sounds scary, it’s not when you’re at the wheel. The car is helping you get into the apex. Wind off the lock, wind some on in the other direction if needed, but don’t bale out. Trust the car and when the nose is where you want it, use power to stabilise it. In slower corners the Senna then often needs a short-shift upchange because it has so much torque its far too easy to overwhelm the rear axle, but get it right and it will exit at speeds I doubt any road car in history has approached.

And then it all starts to flow. This car you considered to be awkward and quite possibly malevolent just a few hours earlier has become your partner in crime, to the point where you lose track of which one of you is acting and which is reacting at any given place on the lap, and then realise it simply doesn’t matter: you are simpatico, and that’s all that counts.

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While the exterior shape has come in for criticism, I don’t mind it at all. But there are things I’d change. I’d like it to sound better, and I’d like a greater sense of occasion on the inside – maybe dispensing with the instruments and doing it all via a fighter pilot-style heads-up display. And however far it moves the boundaries of road car performance, and I suspect it throws them over the hedge and into the neighbouring field, I still cannot help but wonder what it would be like on slicks.

The answer to that comes next year, when the track-only Senna GTR arrives, but for now take it from me that this Senna provides a new dynamic level for road cars. Even if all 500 were sold almost as soon as it was announced it is, at least for now, out on its own.

So now the unanswerable question: what would uncle Ayrton have thought? I once did a few laps of Silverstone with him in a Honda NSX and he seemed to be having a pretty good time, so I can only surmise he would have loved the car.

I think it does more than mere justice to his name, I think it honours it. Job done, in other words.