MCLAREN SENNA

Max track at­tack in the might­i­est Mac ever minted

Wheels (Australia) - - Contents -

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

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