McLaren Senna

In a world-ex­clu­sive road drive, we take the Senna from Es­to­ril to Monaco, two places piv­otal to its name­sake’s suc­cess


A roadtrip in the tyre tracks of Ayr­ton, from Es­to­ril, his first-ever win, to Monaco where he dom­i­nated

Es­to­ril, 27 June 2018. The rain has cleared away, but the place still looks a lit­tle for­lorn. F1 doesn’t come here any­more, but the name has re­turned.

A car called Senna. The world’s fastest road-le­gal track car. That’s the billing. 800PS (789bhp), 800 ki­los of down­force. It’s ready, dropped into Race mode, en­gine idling fret­fully, pointed ar­row-straight down the pit­lane, siz­ing up the down­hill ap­proach into Turn 1, ready to head out and show what it’s ca­pa­ble of.

But this is a dif­fer­ent story. One that ends not back in this pit­lane af­ter a hand­ful of hot, fu­ri­ous laps, but some 1,500 miles (2,400km) away in an­other place that Ayr­ton Senna made his own. So, having clicked into first and crept away, I turn a sharp right through the rust­ing bar­ri­ers and out through Es­to­ril’s gates.

You have to be very care­ful if you choose to name a car af­ter the world’s most revered rac­ing driver. That car had bet­ter live up to the man, re­spect his mem­ory, re­flect his glory, be a fit­ting legacy. Ayr­ton Senna da Silva. Think not only of what he achieved, the 41 Grand Prix vic­to­ries and three world cham­pi­onships, but what he was: per­haps the purest, most fo­cused rac­ing driver there has ever been.

Un­com­pro­mis­ing. There’s a word that fits both man and car. “You com­mit your­self to such a level where there is no com­pro­mise. You give ev­ery­thing you have, ev­ery­thing, ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing,” Ayr­ton once said. McLaren’s com­pro­mise is more nu­anced, couched in terms of reg­u­la­tion and leg­is­la­tion: “Le­galised for road use, but not sani­tised to suit it,” says the lit­er­a­ture. Butt ugly, in­sists al­most ev­ery­one that sees it.

The ba­sics are fa­mil­iar from the 720S: car­bon chas­sis tub, 4.0-litre twin-turbo

V8, 7spd twin-clutch gear­box, in­ter­con­nected hy­draulic dampers. But then the en­hance­ments: the loss of weight, the ad­di­tion of down­force, the rise in power, the change of fo­cus. The big­gest achieve­ment of all is that it’s road-le­gal, meets all the re­quire­ments for pedes­trian im­pact, for curve ra­dius (sharp edges aren’t per­mit­ted), that a child’s head can’t fit be­tween the slats on the rear deck. That’s an ac­tual rule.

How it could get there in the first place isn’t men­tioned. But then we stop for break­fast ( bo­cadillo jamón ibérico would be a re­cur­ring theme across the Ibe­rian Penin­su­lar leg of our trip), and I see how peo­ple are drawn to it. And I find my­self ges­tur­ing at the In­conel and ti­ta­nium ex­haust, not be­cause of the ex­otic ma­te­ri­als, or the fact it looks like a Star Wars char­ac­ter, but be­cause it’s chuff­ing hot. I warn them about the pro­trud­ing front split­ter, the way the doors spring up and out, not to press too hard on the del­i­cate car­bon pan­els that de­lib­er­ately de­form in the air­flow.

They treat it dif­fer­ently to other su­per­cars be­cause it plays with their heads. They have the same re­ac­tion I did – why does it look like it does? And when the only per­son who can an­swer their ques­tion is an

English­man who blows on his fin­gers and points at the tailpipes be­cause he doesn’t know the Span­ish for hot, their only re­course is to poke and prod it them­selves.

We’d left Es­to­ril way be­fore dawn, want­ing to get a few hours in the can be­fore break­fast. It was worth it, not just to avoid the reck­less­ness of rush-hour Lis­bon or adapt to the car (the Senna surges against the clutch when ma­noeu­vring and the brakes need a fair amount of pres­sure be­fore they start work­ing), but for the dawn sky, a hot pink rip­ple through the cloud base. And that was Por­tu­gal done: 150 miles (240 km) knocked out be­fore pink had mor­phed into or­ange. One coun­try down, three to go.

Well, as­sum­ing we count Monaco as a sep­a­rate coun­try. It has its own

Grand Prix, which is rea­son enough for me.

Are the miles slip­ping by eas­ily? No, not re­ally. OK, you’re not out there bat­tling the el­e­ments with your face, but there’s a wear­ing rau­cous­ness to the ex­pe­ri­ence. The en­gine is ever-present and makes a de­cid­edly un-pretty noise – a flat, rowdy blare that echoes around the bare, unin­su­lated cabin. Vi­bra­tions are trans­mit­ted through the seat, so that af­ter an hour in the su­per-light car­bon shell you find your­self need­ing a com­fort break…

But that’s fine, be­cause the car will need fuel about then, too.

Down­force might work for you on cir­cuit, but not on road. That rear wing, for all its wind-sculpt­ing abil­i­ties, swan-neck links, near-90º tilt­ing range, wing-pro­file stan­chions and so on, is noth­ing but a barn door where drag is con­cerned. And drag is a con­cern when it means fuel-light chicken be­gins be­fore 180 miles (290 km) have passed (cruis­ing econ­omy will later work out at 13.7L/100km when a 720S will hap­pily do 10.5L/100km).

There’s also con­sid­er­able road noise from the tyres, a smack of im­pact over each and ev­ery ex­pan­sion joint, the hiss of an­gry air whip­ping over the body­work, and in your pe­riph­eral vi­sion white lines flash past the lower win­dows, the dots and dashes a Morse code mes­sage: t-a-k-e-m-e-t-o-a-t-r-a-c-k. And I know what you’re think­ing – this is ir­rel­e­vant, it’s a track car, so suck it up, but­ter­cup.

But what will own­ers do with their cars? Be­cause I could, I asked Bruno Senna. “The main ob­jec­tive was to do that [track work], but mine is the vis­ual car­bon­fi­bre one, so I might track it once, but then not so much be­cause all it takes is some­one go­ing into the gravel trap and then you have chips ev­ery­where.” So that’s Ayr­ton’s nephew, an­other born racer, say­ing he’s not do­ing too much track stuff be­cause of the threat of cos­metic dam­age. But at least he’ll drive his. Many, I sus­pect, won’t.

And that’s a colos­sal shame.

Be­cause what’s be­com­ing rapidly ap­par­ent is that, if you man up, this is an awe­some roadtrip car.

The greater the chal­lenge, the richer the ex­pe­ri­ence – that’s my phi­los­o­phy (al­though it can also be con­tained in a sin­gle word: masochist). Driv­ing from Es­to­ril to Monaco in a GT would be no ad­ven­ture, but in the Senna, you earn the miles. Dots have been joined be­tween Cáceres, Sala­manca, Val­ladolid, Bur­gos and Pamplona, and things have hap­pened, mostly no­tably a wal­let-light­en­ing, hour-long Guardia Civil de­lay, back­ache and the dis­cov­ery that west­ern Spain has not only ski re­sorts but grassy plains that could dou­ble for the Serengeti. I try to find Toto on Spo­tify.

And then we’re into the Pyre­nees. So far, the Senna has been a bor­der­line bru­tal com­pan­ion. But this is where it counts, where we learn if McLaren has cre­ated a car that ac­tu­ally serves a pur­pose be­sides fluff­ing the rac­ing egos of the wealthy.

I’ve never been much of a one for round-and-round rac­ing (don’t have the dis­ci­pline), so maybe that’s why I find the NA-214 and NA-137 so much more en­thralling than a cir­cuit.

This is to­tal in­volve­ment: scenery, road, en­vi­ron­ment, traf­fic, never a mo­ment you can switch off. Or want to. Be­cause very soon I re­alise that what I’m driv­ing is a spec­tac­u­lar road car.

It’s be­gun al­ready, of course. The driv­ing po­si­tion, the or­gan­i­sa­tion and ori­en­ta­tion of the con­trols,

the feel of the naked Al­can­tara steer­ing wheel in your hands. The cabin, stripped to lit­tle more than the bare es­sen­tials, hits ex­actly the right note: se­ri­ous, solid, dra­matic, fo­cused, yet it also has air­con, USB slots and de­cent cen­tre con­sole stor­age. There is no boot. The seats are the wider Tour­ing items. I’ve stuffed a fleece down ei­ther side to pad it out and stop me slosh­ing fleshily about.

And now a sense of the car get­ting into its stride, its reach ex­tend­ing with ev­ery me­tre of al­ti­tude gained. Your rub­bery nerve-end­ings and tone­less mus­cles are the only bit of slack in the whole sys­tem. That a car named the Senna is bet­ter at driv­ing than you are we can take for granted, but that it’s so able to de­liver mas­sive thrills when be­ing driven at a frac­tion of its po­ten­tial is per­haps McLaren’s great­est achieve­ment (OK, that and the road le­gal­ity).

The sus­pen­sion is ge­nius. Con­ven­tional springs are there only to as­sist, their work largely re­placed by hy­drauli­cally in­ter­linked dampers that ac­tively re­sist roll, pitch and dive by pump­ing fluid around in­stan­ta­neously, and which are able to re­act in just two mil­lisec­onds.

It’s lu­di­crously com­plex, of course, but it works, help­ing sep­a­rate lat­eral forces from ver­ti­cal im­pacts. On the smooth Span­ish side of the moun­tains it doesn’t have so much to do, but the mo­ment you cross onto gnarled French tar­mac, you re­alise how un­canny it is.

I’m not fully sold on the en­gine. It’s cer­tainly not short of thrust

– the de­liv­ery is un­com­fort­ably, thrillingly ram­pant at the top end – but there’s still lag low down that never com­pletely dis­ap­pears. It’s a mas­sively ef­fec­tive in­dus­trial com­po­nent, rather than some­thing liv­ing and be­guil­ing. The turbo hiss is the best sound it makes.

The steer­ing – calm, re­as­sur­ing, con­fi­dence-in­spir­ing, tac­tile, brim­ming with feed­back – is sen­sa­tional, not only be­cause you know ex­actly how much grip you have and what the front end is do­ing, but be­cause it re­li­ably de­liv­ers that in­for­ma­tion, no mat­ter how fast or slow you’re go­ing. You al­ways know pre­cisely where you are on the slid­ing scale of grip. And since the front tyres are only 245-sec­tion, it is pos­si­ble to dis­cover that the Senna will even­tu­ally nudge into un­der­steer.

On track, it’s the brakes that dom­i­nate; out here, it’s the steer­ing – ev­ery­thing flows from that. Trust in the steer­ing brings con­fi­dence to ex­ploit the power, to play with the bal­ance through cor­ners, to en­gage with a ridicu­lously sharp-re­act­ing yet ap­proach­able chas­sis.

And back­ing it all up is the knowl­edge that you can al­ways, al­ways brake harder, stop faster than you cur­rently are.

This is es­pe­cially use­ful when you steam around a cor­ner and find a cow in your way. Or a sheep. Or a foal. Or a goat. Or the mess they leave be­hind, which soon cakes the Senna’s flanks and starts to smell… Yep, the

Col de la Pierre Saint-Martin is far more heav­ily traf­ficked by pas­toral wildlife than hu­mans.

It’s bloody awe­some, ac­tu­ally. The Span­ish side is rich in va­ri­ety from the mo­ment you leave the au­topista: fast sweep­ers, long straights, hair­pins, a sec­tion where the Car­retera del Ron­cal loops back over it­self among trees that cling to the skin of rocks. The French side – tight, dark and weav­ing – is more op­pres­sive and chal­leng­ing. It’s the Senna’s man­ners on that side that im­press me more as we de­scend the moun­tains at night. Its move­ments are so ef­fi­cient and con­tained, but it’s less se­vere, less pun­ish­ing, less win­cein­duc­ing than I ex­pected. I find my­self driv­ing with all knobs turned to Track.

I’m tempted to give low­ered Race mode a go – which crea­ture will re­port me for driv­ing in a mode that’s not road le­gal? – but the re­duced ride height makes me ner­vous for the car­bon split­ter, and it’s not like I need even more rigid con­trol. Ground clear­ance, I dis­cover, when clat­ter­ing over an un­seen cob­bled speed­bump in the first vil­lage we ar­rive into, is car­bon-sav­ingly bet­ter than you might imag­ine. The down­side is that in daily driv­ing it doesn’t have the stance it de­serves.

Day one fin­ishes with 775 miles (1,250km) done and an 11pm McDonald’s run to check the drive-through abil­ity of the win­dow slots. Tip: don’t go for a Big Mac Maxi.

An­other moun­tain ses­sion the next morn­ing only serves to con­firm how stel­lar the Senna is. I get so car­ried away we have to dis­patch the sup­port car for an emer­gency jerry can, be­fore de­scend­ing to Pau, top­ping up the tanks and head­ing out onto Fri­day af­ter­noon au­toroutes. This is the kind of jour­ney

I’d like to hope that Ayr­ton would have done, just taken him­self off to do some­thing for the hell of it. It was some­thing Bruno said that had con­firmed his more play­ful side: “When­ever he came home, we used to mess around on the farm. We’d go rac­ing for hours, all day – it was such a good time. We drove the go-kart un­til the tyres failed. You could see the can­vas, but you’d con­tinue.”

The 500 miles (800km) to Monaco pass pleas­antly enough. A rich or­ange sun­set il­lu­mi­nates the A8, and I get some tunes go­ing through the two-speaker light­weight Bow­ers & Wilkins sys­tem. It’s not go­ing to win any prizes, but lis­ten­ing to mu­sic, even if it’s tinny, is a tonic. Peo­ple wave, the light fades, traf­fic thins, calm­ness de­scends.

And then we ar­rive in Monaco. And are in­stantly the big­gest story in town. The Senna brings Casino Square to a stand­still. A throb­bing mob de­scends, phones wave, In­sta­gram ex­plodes. One bloke, fully grown, trem­bling from head to toe, grabs my arm and says: “I lit­er­ally can’t be­lieve what I’m see­ing – this is the great­est thing ever! Thank you, thank you.” It’s clearly not, is it, mate – it’s just an­other hy­per­car. But then I re­alise it’s not.

Not one per­son men­tioned Ayr­ton. But they all know that only one per­son can ever be the first to bring a new hy­per­car into Monaco. Tonight it was me, in a McLaren Senna. And to them, that mat­ters. When we drop ‘our’ Senna off at McLaren’s Monaco showroom, I’m doorstepped by a loafer wearer, “I’ve got one com­ing,” he says, apro­pos of not much while shak­ing his heavy watch, “F**king ugly.” “What are you go­ing to do with it, then?” I ask him. “Sell it,” he says with a shrug.

This place is wrong. I’m ashamed that these peo­ple who claim to love su­per­cars know so

lit­tle about them, that their ap­pre­ci­a­tion is so shal­low. And es­pe­cially here, where the links to Ayr­ton are so strong. Six times he won here. Six.

But there’s an­other side to Monaco.

I push through the mad­ness of Casino

Square, down to Mirabeau, around Loews hair­pin, the right at Portier and into the tun­nel. They come through here at 170mph even though it’s nar­row and that kink is quite pro­nounced. I find a quiet spot in the har­bour to get out, look back and take stock. Ayr­ton mas­tered this place by driv­ing with ruth­less pre­ci­sion. “My un­cle was a man of ex­tremes,” Bruno said. “As a racer he was ex­tremely hard, re­ally ag­gres­sive, but his hu­man side was very soft, su­per­friendly.” Senna the car doesn’t have quite the same scope, but that’s not the point. It works on road as thrillingly as it works on track, is as fo­cused and de­ter­mined as the man whose name it bears. A fit­ting trib­ute to the leg­end that is Ayr­ton Senna.

“It works on road as thrillingly as on track, is as de­ter­mined as

the man whose name it bears”

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