Max track attack in the mightiest Mac ever minted
T FLIRTS with the surreal to slip into the blade-like seat of the Senna, the colossal dihedral door stretching skywards as my belts are tugged and tightened by a bald Brit with a sweaty dome. It’s hot at Estoril. Baking heat rushes into the cabin as I process my surroundings: the dished, thinly rimmed steering wheel. The narrow slit of the instrument cluster. The floating centre screen that juts from the dash. The sheer surface area of exposed carbonfibre.
It’s sparse and fastidiously functional, though such is the nakedness of its purpose that it verges on beautiful. Comfortable too. I just have time to digest the reclined rake of the fixed carbon seat, the vast reach adjustment of the wheel, the flat plane of the pedal set, before the door is clipped shut (at 9.9kg, or half the weight of the door on a 720S, it whooshes closed instead of thudding home) and I stretch for the starter button. This is an experience in itself. Unable to reach the dash I catch myself before remembering the red ignition switch is mounted on the roof, just ahead of a small black button that reads ‘Race’. My gloved finger prods the starter. Silence. A single, high-pitched chime. The flurried whir of the starter motor and the 4.0-litre V8 catches, the dry-sumped, twin-turbo unit settling quickly into a monotone idle that has the whole cabin fizzing with high-frequency vibrations.
I’ve been thinking about this moment for weeks. Obsessing over it. As you would too, if given the chance to drive the most focused road-legal Mclaren yet. The fact we’re at Estoril – the iconic, undulating and unforgiving circuit where Ayrton Senna snatched his first Formula 1 victory – only adds to the occasion. Though unlike you perhaps, I haven’t been bubbling with excitement as the anticipation grew. I’ve been twitching and jangling with nerves. The source of my trepidation is easy to trace. The last Mclaren I drove – a malevolent grey 720S – delivered a moment of such savage launch-control acceleration and (thanks to a bumpy surface) huge armfuls of corrective lock at big speeds that it left me a little shell shocked.
The Senna’s promise of weaponising that violence in a package that weighs 220kg less, has 69kw/30nm more (total outputs are 597kw/800nm), an aero package akin to a GT3 racing car, and a price tag of A$1.6m was, I’m not ashamed to admit, a little intimidating.
Strangely, though, hitting ‘D’ on the finger-like carbon control panel, which moves fore-and-aft with the seat, is a centering and almost calming experience. I’ve already driven the circuit in a 720S, so the initial fear-factor has waned, though even in pitlane it’s clear the Senna is a markedly different beast. With Race mode engaged the whole car hunkers down on its hydraulically controlled suspension, the nose dropping 39mm, the rear by 30, making it feel like a sprinter tensing in the starting blocks.
It feels noticeably stiffer, even as we trundle down the pitlane, bumps transmitting jolts of vertical movement, the electro-hydraulic steering twitching and squirming as I adjust to the immediacy of the controls. The brakes instantly feel more race than road car; the brake booster is the same unit used in the P1 GTR and the pedal is extremely firm, almost dead to the first touch. The differences build as I leave the pits and feed in second gear. Vibrations rise with the climbing revs, the softer and comparatively refined cabin of the 720S replaced by resonances that start in your legs and settle, very deliberately, in the small of your back. It’s visceral, direct, connected; oozing with its own personality that’s miles away from the common Mclaren criticism of feeling too clinical; for lacking the intangibles that set Ferrari and Porsche apart.
The first lap is a blur of shifting frames of reference. I’d thought the Senna would feel like a manic 720S, only for that mental preparation to be obliterated almost instantly. The step change is shocking.
There’s more grunt, sure, and the Senna’s V8 does respond with greater ferocity and urgency, but it’s the feedback from the controls, the quicker steering’s sense of intimacy, the innate sense of agility, balance and grip, and the fearsome body control that require quick
IT’S IN A DIFFERENT LEAGUE. A BARELY SANITISED RACER THAT JUST HAPPENS TO WEAR NUMBER PLATES
and total re-calibrations. This isn’t a track-focused road car of the ilk of a 911 GT3 RS or 488 Pista. It’s in a different league. A barely sanitised racer that just happens to wear number plates.
Then there’s the stopping performance from the nextgen carbon-ceramic brakes (see sidebar, left.) There are two heavy stops at Estoril – into Turn 1 and T6 – and it’s telling that in a car with this level of performance that the most addictive thing isn’t how it piles on speed, but how it loses it. More than once I thought I’d hopelessly overcooked it into T6 as I hit the pedal just after the 100m board, only to marvel as I made the corner. No pitching of the nose. No wriggling from the rear axle. Just brutal and unflappable stability and retardation. Mclaren claims the Senna will go from 200km/h to zero in 100m; some 16m shorter than a P1. Stopping from 100km/h takes 29.5m.
Central to this, and to all facets of the Senna, is aerodynamics. Managing airflow is the sole reason the Senna looks the way it does, and while it isn’t pretty, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more visually interesting car. It’s captivating to behold as your eyes trace the grooves, slats and vents that force the air under, in or around the body. The jutting front splitter (150mm longer than a P1’s) is crucial, as is the use of a larger central radiator (a 720S has two, packaged behind the headlights) so that air is channelled through the gaping side intakes and to the active fins lurking within.
Perhaps the most beautiful element is the enormous double rear diffuser, forged from a single piece of carbonfibre that stretches as far forward as the rearaxle line. ‘Enormous’ doesn’t quite capture the rear wing, which creates 500kg of the Senna’s 800kg total downforce. It too is active, capable of sweeping through 25 degrees, though this implies the Senna plays with the air as it flows over it. It doesn’t. It bashes it into submission. It’s a character trait best observed from outside the car, where unlike a 720S, which whooshes past as it blasts by at 250km/h, the Senna seems to tear a hole through the atmosphere, the air making a tortured scream like the edge of a sail rippling before it pulls taut.
What defines the experience, however, is how the Senna actively shifts the aero balance between the axles. Damper stiffness, roll rates and downforce distribution are all managed seamlessly in real time, which compresses the phases of the corner from a structured process (brake, turn in, add power), into one where the edges overlap. Because the front aero blades bleed off downforce as you enter a turn, rather than keeping the aero balance on the nose and unsettling the rear, you have the confidence to carry the brake (and more mid-corner speed) deep into the corner, unafraid that you’ll suddenly swap ends. It will slide, especially in low-speed turns if you’re clumsy with the throttle, but even then it’s not the snappy, heart-in-mouth experience I was expecting. Instead it breaks away cleanly, the electronics hardly blinking as I quickly feed in half a turn of opposite lock. The tyre is a Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R – 245/35R19 up front, 315/30R20 out back – and ultimately, despite their prodigious purchase once warm, they are the limiting factor to the Senna’s ability. Even so, Mclaren says the Senna is six seconds a lap quicker at Estoril than a 720S. I can only imagine what it’d be like on slicks.
With my two six-lap sessions over, I spend a long time in the pits trying to process what I’ve just experienced. No road car I’ve driven approaches the Senna’s depth of ability and I’m left with the frustrating feeling that I’d only just begun to scratch the surface. The fact it’s easy to drive very quickly shouldn’t be misconstrued as thinking its full potential is readily accessible. Instead it feels like a car you could spend years learning as you delve further and further into its dynamic range. It’s complex, multi-faceted and unique, which given its name, is rather fitting.
IT TEARS A HOLE THROUGH THE ATMOSPHERE, THE AIR MAKING A TORTURED SCREAM LIKE THE EDGE OF A RIPPLING SAIL