MCLAREN SENNA

TheTh road-legaldl lh hy­per­car ev­ery bit as thrilling and vis­ceral as its revered name sug­gests

Wheels (Australia) - - Contents - BEN BARRY

Func­tion over form might be ugly but golly it’s fast

A Mclaren 720S pro­duces 530kw and hits 200km/ h in 7.8 sec­onds. It’s fast. To­day, it’s help­ing me get my eye in ahead of hot laps at Sil­ver­stone in some­thing sig­nif­i­cantly quicker: the Mclaren Senna, billed as the ul­ti­mate road-le­gal track car. ‘Our’ Senna is a ver­i­fi­ca­tion pro­to­type, the fi­nal sign-off be­fore 500 pro­duc­tion cars roll down the line, but a car that’s fully rep­re­sen­ta­tive in terms of chas­sis and pow­er­train.

The ba­sics – car­bon­fi­bre pas­sen­ger cell, 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8, dual-clutch gear­box – ap­pear fa­mil­iar from the 720S, but there are some big up­grades, and the stats put it on another planet: it makes 588kw, weighs 85kg less at 1198kg dry, and can reach 200km/ h in 6.8 sec­onds, a full sec­ond quicker.

The Senna’s di­he­dral door floats open – the carbon struc­ture weighs just 9.9kg – and takes a chunk of the roof in the process, so it’s easy to climb into the cock­pit wear­ing a hel­met. The car­bon­fi­bre seat – canted back race­car-style, weigh­ing just 3.35kg – feels snugly com­fort­able and the driv­ing po­si­tion is ex­cel­lent.

Racer Euan Hankey is pas­sen­ger­ing, and while there’s a friend­li­ness to the com­fort and airi­ness of the Senna’s cock­pit, the an­tic­i­pa­tion and the min­der is in­tim­i­dat­ing: my heartrate bumps as a Mclaren tech tight­ens the six-point har­ness, I can hear my breath­ing quicken like a pervy phone caller as he plugs in my hel­met in­ter­com, and there’s more me­chan­i­cal en­ergy tin­gling through the Senna’s seat than a 720S when the V8 fires, more raw noise too.

We’re in Race mode, so the Senna has dropped by 30mm front and 22mm rear on its hy­drauli­cally in­ter­con­nected sus­pen­sion, con­tribut­ing 50 per­cent more down­force and help­ing gen­er­ate the claimed 800kg to­tal when we blow past 250km/ h on Hangar Straight.

At seven-tenths, you no­tice the per­fect pre­ci­sion of the steer­ing; that it’s light enough to be ef­fort­less, heavy enough to give clar­ity and def­i­ni­tion to the sub­tlest in­puts. Ac­cel­er­ate and the throt­tle buzzes with en­ergy and re­sponse, and some­how this en­gine seems less boosty than other Mclarens, more pro­gres­sive in its de­liv­ery, per­haps be­cause it’s pro­pel­ling less mass. Gear shifts come quickly, but with­out the me­chan­i­cal fe­roc­ity you might ex­pect – in Race, the shifts are cal­i­brated for max­i­mum speed, so they’re seam­less; in Track – which we won’t try un­til we drive the pro­duc­tion car – an ig­ni­tion-cut func­tion prom­ises to sac­ri­fice speed for a more emo­tive punch.

Tyres warmed, I go harder. There’s a pretty rau­cous thrash from the twin-turbo V8, and the noise, the rush of speed and a glance at the revs says I’m about to clat­ter the lim­iter. I’m not. Hold out for the

blue light at the top of the dash, in­structs Hankey – you’re still not tap­ping peak power. The Senna does not boast a par­tic­u­larly en­dear­ing sound­track, but the way it con­tin­ues to gather speed so fe­ro­ciously in those fi­nal few rpm makes ac­cel­er­at­ing right up to the brak­ing marker a se­ri­ously in­tense ex­pe­ri­ence, like jump­ing out of the path of a speed­ing freight train just in time.

Into the fast right-han­der at Farm, you sense weight shift­ing for­wards un­der the brief brak­ing phase, but there’s sur­pris­ingly lit­tle pitch. It’s a sim­i­lar story with body­roll: it’s there, it com­mu­ni­cates the lat­eral loads build­ing, but it’s very sweetly sup­pressed as the sus­pen­sion adapts and works its magic. The com­po­sure gives you huge con­fi­dence to brake later and jump straight back on the throt­tle – a 720S would de­mand more cor­rec­tion from its driver. But it’s still a men­tal leap to pin the throt­tle through the fast left-han­der that fol­lows, to trust all that down­force will squash you into the sur­face. When you do, the feel­ing of lat­eral g-force ramp­ing up as freefall speed swirls you for­wards is pretty over­whelm­ing.

The Senna is equally dev­as­tat­ing through the slower stuff. Stand on the car­bon­ce­ramic brakes and you’re aware of in­stant feed­back and strong pedal pres­sure, as well as stop­ping power to pop eyes from sock­ets and make a very fast car go very slowly in­deed – Mclaren claims the Senna stops from 200km/ h in 100 me­tres, 16 fewer than the P1 hy­per­car.

More sub­tle is how planted the Senna still feels – partly that’s the sus­pen­sion again firm­ing up to com­bat pitch un­der much heav­ier brak­ing, partly it’s the ac­tive aero bleed­ing off ex­cess front down­force, so the rear doesn’t squirm. It must de­mand all sorts of witch­craft to cal­i­brate, but the feel­ing is to­tally nat­u­ral.

Aim for the apex and the front Pirelli Tro­feo Rs bite like a gecko on a sun-drenched wall, and the Senna flicks en­er­get­i­cally through the slow di­rec­tion change at Vale. If the body feels as tied down as you’d ex­pect of a track toy, the com­pli­ance is more sur­pris­ing – when I get greedy with the kerb, it soft­ens the blow like punch­ing a goose-down pil­low.

Ul­ti­mately – in fast corners and slow – there is some safety un­der­steer, but the lim­its are high and you nudge into them gen­tly. Trac­tion, too, is pretty immense, es­pe­cially given the aero isn’t do­ing much at these speeds, though it seems nat­u­ral to short­shift to keep things tidy. Much like my pas­sen­ger, the sta­bil­ity and trac­tion con­trol works away sub­tly in the back­ground, only chip­ping in when, re­ally, I’ve made a mis­take – when I brake re­ally late into a tight righthander, the Senna over­steers pro­gres­sively, I have to wind on cor­rec­tive lock, and I swear the sys­tems do noth­ing at all; they’re more proac­tive quelling wheel­spin than yaw.

Af­ter a blur of laps, Hankey points at the pits and I try to con­tex­tu­al­ize what just hap­pened. It’s funny, be­cause you’re aware that the Senna is al­most oth­er­worldly in its com­pe­tence, but it also feels en­tirely in­tu­itive in that it’s sim­ply do­ing your bid­ding, no mat­ter that you’re mak­ing such un­rea­son­able re­quests of it. Be­cause of this, I ac­tu­ally find it eas­ier to drive quickly than a 720S.

You could ar­gue it’s less dra­matic as a re­sult, but this is a dif­fer­ent kind of dra­matic, more of a race­car ex­pe­ri­ence that’s ac­ces­si­ble to even mod­estly tal­ented driv­ers. And the Senna ab­so­lutely still de­mands com­mit­ment to ex­plore its lim­its. When you peel back all those lay­ers – brake as late as you dare, carry all the speed you can through the fast stuff, lean on that low-speed grip and trac­tion – there’s no doubt the Senna feels as fast and fo­cused and down­right thrilling as its leg­endary name sug­gests.

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