Mclaren Senna

ROAD TEST

Autocar - - THIS WEEK -

MODEL TESTED SENNA

Price £750,000 Power 789bhp Torque 590lb ft 0-60mph 3.1sec 30-70mph in fourth 4.1sec Fuel econ­omy 16.4mpg CO2 emis­sions 280g/km 70-0mph 37.4m

This week’s road test sub­ject is noth­ing more or less than the most ex­treme road car Mclaren Au­to­mo­tive has built. You may not think that’s such a huge claim since Mclaren Au­to­mo­tive has had only eight years in which to make road cars at all. But con­sid­er­ing that the firm has al­ready man­aged to squeeze the P1, 675LT and 720S into its fairly short but de­cid­edly punchy back cat­a­logue, and with the me­mory of the un­com­pro­mis­ing F1 still fresh and rel­e­vant for a great many, it’s an in­tro­duc­tion that’s cer­tainly pow­er­ful enough to get our at­ten­tion. The Mclaren Senna might be the car that its maker has been fated to cre­ate since its An­tipodean founder first picked up a span­ner. Dur­ing so many decades of cel­e­brated mo­tor­sport suc­cess, the fa­mous British firm has ac­knowl­edged and ad­hered to ‘for­mula’ rules defin­ing con­struc­tion prin­ci­ples, ma­te­ri­als, en­gine place­ment, sus­pen­sion con­fig­u­ra­tion, tyre foot­print, max­i­mum down­force, al­low­able weight and more; oc­ca­sion­ally bend­ing one or two in the name of in­no­va­tion. With its cur­rent road cars, mean­while, it works to make dif­fer­ent but bal­anced com­pro­mises of hab­it­abil­ity, us­abil­ity, driv­abil­ity, prac­ti­cal­ity, com­fort – and, of course, out­stand­ing per­for­mance and han­dling dy­namism.

But what if there were no rules? What if the bud­get was un­lim­ited, and if ev­ery rel­e­vant rac­ing tech­nol­ogy in the tool­kit was up for grabs? What if the usual need to com­pro­mise out­right per­for­mance was thrust so far into the back­ground that it hardly fig­ured? What kind of Mclaren could they make then?

You’re look­ing at the an­swer to that ques­tion. Mclaren Au­to­mo­tive CEO Mike Fle­witt calls the Senna “the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of Mclaren’s mo­tor­sport DNA”. And it’s clearly a re­flec­tion of how po­tent a sym­bol it is con­sid­ered at Wok­ing that the com­pany should have cho­sen to in­voke the me­mory of its most revered rac­ing driver with its model iden­tity. Some think Ayr­ton Senna’s me­mory and le­gacy be­long to mo­tor­sport; that it wasn’t and isn’t Mclaren’s to ap­pro­pri­ate. Oth­ers that Wok­ing’s do­na­tion of the 500th and last Senna chas­sis for auc­tion on be­half of Brazil’s char­i­ta­ble Ayr­ton Senna In­sti­tute is the ic­ing on the cake of a per­fect trib­ute to the great man.

But we’ll let oth­ers ad­dress that con­tro­versy. The job of the Au­to­car road test, here and now, is to de­scribe, ex­am­ine, bench­mark and doc­u­ment the kind of car whose like we don’t see too of­ten. So here goes.

DE­SIGN AND EN­GI­NEER­ING

As ev­ery new de­tail and statis­tic leads you to dis­cover, bit by bit, the sheer pur­pose­ful­ness of the Senna’s de­sign, you grad­u­ally re­alise that this isn’t just an­other hy­per­car. It’s plainly not a nat­u­ral P1 suc­ces­sor, ei­ther, even though it might be priced like one.

The re­mark­able, al­most Bru­tal­ist raw­ness of the car’s ap­pear­ance hits you like a sharp­ened jab in the eye. The Senna clearly isn’t a car that seeks the ap­proval of ad­mir­ing

glances. Its de­sign is, by Mclaren’s own ad­mis­sion, the purest ex­pres­sion of a ‘form fol­lows func­tion’ ap­proach that it has cre­ated. Ev­ery winglet, sur­face, curve and cleft is there not for what it looks like but for what it con­trib­utes. And once our testers had seen those fea­tures first hand and sam­pled what they work to­wards from the driver’s seat, most of them found it im­pos­si­ble to main­tain any ini­tial dis­ap­point­ment that the Senna isn’t bet­ter look­ing.

While we’re on the sub­ject, those fea­tures com­bine to con­trib­ute a barely be­liev­able 800kg of down­force for the Senna at 155mph. This is a fig­ure so far in ad­vance of that of any other road-le­gal per­for­mance car as to be al­most be­yond com­par­i­son. A Lam­borgh­ini Hu­racán Per­for­mante de­vel­ops 350kg of the stuff, but needs to be trav­el­ling at 186mph to make it; a Porsche 911 GT3 RS 500kg at just be­yond 190mph.

The Senna has ac­tive aero­dy­namic winglets in­side its front bumper, on ei­ther side of its ra­di­a­tor grille, as well as that high-al­ti­tude ac­tive wing across its rump. And yet, when run­ning in Race mode (when its adjustable sus­pen­sion drops the ride height by 39mm at the front axle and 30mm at the rear), more than half of its down­force comes as a re­sult of ground ef­fect.

The man­age­ment of so much down­force was al­ways go­ing to be the key chal­lenge in mak­ing the Senna driv­able on track. You needn’t know much about the his­tory of mo­tor­sport, af­ter all, to know that cars with lots of aero­dy­namic grip can be treach­er­ous on the limit. But the Senna bal­ances its down­force au­to­mat­i­cally, as you ac­cel­er­ate, brake and cor­ner, by ad­just­ing the pitch of its ac­tive aero­foils front and rear. More im­por­tant, it also ad­justs the car’s Race­ac­tive Chas­sis Con­trol II ac­tive in­ter­linked hy­draulic sus­pen­sion by de­grees, adapt­ing the lev­el­ness and pitch of its body all the time and, re­sul­tantly, the dis­tri­bu­tion of its weight and ef­fec­tive­ness of its underbody aero. Above 155mph, that rear wing ac­tu­ally be­gins bleed­ing off down­force to pre­serve han­dling bal­ance and sta­bil­ity – and in order to pre­vent over­load­ing the car’s road-le­gal Pirelli P Zero Tro­feo R tyres. Un­der heavy brak­ing, the front bumper winglets also flat­ten out to bleed off front axle load, such is the ef­fec­tive­ness of the car’s front split­ter un­der dive.

Un­der its all-carbonfibre body­work, the Senna is con­structed from an evo­lu­tion of the 720S’s carbonfibre tub called Monocage III. Alu­minium sub­frames are at­tached front and rear, onto

which mounts dou­ble-wish­bone sus­pen­sion at both ends.

The Senna’s en­gine, mean­while, is an evo­lu­tion of Mclaren’s Ri­cardo-de­vel­oped 4.0-litre twin­tur­bocharged V8, dubbed M840TR. It pro­duces 789bhp at 7250rpm and 590lb ft of torque be­tween 5500rpm and 6700rpm; 79bhp and 22lb ft im­prove­ments on the closely re­lated mo­tor in the 720S. New in­duc­tion man­i­folds, be­spoke camshafts, high-flow fuel pumps and a new ex­haust (made out of ti­ta­nium and In­conel) al­low it to make the out­puts, and its power f lows down­stream to the road via a seven-speed du­al­clutch gear­box.

While Mclaren quotes a “light­est pos­si­ble dry weight” for the Senna of 1198kg, the less widely known ho­molo­gated kerb weight for the car (run­ning order, with 100% fuel) is 1314kg. Our test car weighed 1345kg fully fu­elled, where a 720S weighed a like-for-like 1420kg. The Senna’s as-weighed power-to-weight ra­tio (587bhp per tonne) is there­fore well be­yond that of a 720S (500bhp per tonne as tested), although it’s just be­hind that of the Bu­gatti Vey­ron Su­per­sport we tested in 2011 (593bhp per tonne).

IN­TE­RIOR

One of Mclaren’s trade­mark, up-and-out­ward-swing­ing di­he­dral doors grants you ac­cess to the Senna’s in­te­rior. Just like on the 720S but un­like on the 570S, it’s hinged to the body on both the roof and the lower A-pil­lar. And only once will you for­get to close it be­fore strap­ping your­self in to the car’s very ag­gres­sive-look­ing but sur­pris­ingly com­fort­able fixed­back­rest bucket seats (and, in do­ing so, mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble to reach up­wards and grab the han­dle).

The Senna’s cock­pit has a very dif­fer­ent look and feel from that of any of the firm’s other mod­els. The fas­cia is in carbonfibre and is ar­ranged around one hor­i­zon­tal wing-like plane. The adjustable dig­i­tal in­stru­ment screen and por­trait-ori­ented in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem are os­ten­si­bly what you’ll find in a 720S, although the in­fo­tain­ment is pre­sented more like a free-stand­ing

❝ The Senna’s ac­cel­er­a­tion feels noth­ing less than sav­age from the driver’s seat ❞

ed­i­fice here, with any sem­blance of a ‘cen­tre stack’ con­trol con­sole dis­pensed with en­tirely.

The all-im­por­tant pow­er­train and sus­pen­sion con­trol di­als are sited just un­der­neath the in­fo­tain­ment screen, within easy reach; the trans­mis­sion con­trols car­ried on a neat, slim car­bon con­sole fixed to the side of the driver’s seat so that they’re even eas­ier to reach and also slide with the seat. If you’re at a loss to find the starter but­ton for the car’s 4.0-litre V8, look up: it’s nestling in a roof con­sole be­tween the door aper­tures.

Mclaren has proved it­self ex­cel­lent at de­liv­er­ing fine vis­i­bil­ity in all of its su­per­cars so far, and the Senna’s is equally good to the front and side. The car has a typ­i­cally low scut­tle, per­mit­ting a clear view for­wards, and glazed up­per and lower door sec­tions al­low you to easily gauge the size and po­si­tion of the car in its lane and rel­a­tive to things over­head.

Your rear­wards view is en­cum­bered by the built-up na­ture of the rear bulk­head of the car’s car­bon tub, by the rear wing, and by the lo­ca­tion of the only stor­age space in the car: a small­ish en­closed shelf just be­hind the seats at head height, de­signed to be just large enough to carry a cou­ple of rac­ing hel­mets.

PER­FOR­MANCE

The Senna’s en­gine isn’t a state-ofthe-art hy­brid, nor is it the clas­sic at­mo­spheric V12 of your child­hood dreams. For th­ese rea­sons and oth­ers, you may be won­der­ing whether this car will be ca­pa­ble of ac­cel­er­a­tion of a dif­fer­ent order from that we’re al­ready used to from Mclaren.

The an­swer, in sim­ple out­right terms, seems to be no; not that, strictly speak­ing, it needed to be any dif­fer­ent. The Senna nar­rowly missed the stand­ing-start po­tency its maker claims for it dur­ing our track test­ing, need­ing 3.1sec to hit 60mph from rest where a 720S needed only 2.9sec and a P1 2.8sec. We tried launch­ing the car with plenty of heat in its Tro­feo R tyres, and in var­i­ous driv­ing modes, to no im­prove­ment.

A 3.1sec 0-60mph launch would be churl­ish to com­plain about in any mod­ern per­for­mance car, mind

you; and the Senna’s ac­cel­er­a­tion feels noth­ing less than sav­age from the driver’s seat. But it would ac­tu­ally need to run on un­til 90mph, side by side with the 720S, be­fore it started to claw back the deficit to its lit­tle sib­ling. Both cars go through a stand­ing quar­ter mile in an iden­ti­cal 10.4sec, ac­cord­ing to our num­bers – but, by that point, the Senna is car­ry­ing al­most 5mph more speed.

Then, even in Race mode, the Senna starts to run away from the 720S as it ex­plodes on­wards into three fig­ures. A P1 re­mains a more po­tent ac­cel­er­a­tive ma­chine at any speed; but then a P1 was a 903bhp hy­per­car de­signed to be Mclaren’s last word on out­right per­for­mance.

The Senna can jus­tify its slightly lowlier and more spe­cialised place in Wok­ing’s range, as its ul­ti­mate road-le­gal track car, in other ways; not least be­cause, for gearshift re­sponse time, all-round flex­i­bil­ity, high-revving free­dom and lin­ear­ity of throt­tle cal­i­bra­tion, the Senna’s V8 wants for ab­so­lutely noth­ing.

It could cer­tainly sound bet­ter, some­thing we’ve recorded many times about Mclaren’s cars. The Senna’s V8 is noisy right across its op­er­at­ing range and is the kind of en­gine that’s over­whelm­ingly at its best when sam­pled through earplugs – and in­side a hel­met. It’s very ap­par­ently an en­gine of rigid mount­ings when work­ing hard at low­ish revs, when it buzzes and vi­brates un­apolo­get­i­cally. At gath­er­ing crank speeds, its char­ac­ter is part-car, part-lathe, part-in­dus­trial vac­uum cleaner. Then fi­nally, above 5500rpm, it be­gins to sound much bet­ter as it de­vel­ops more of a soul­ful, tune­ful eight-cylin­der howl. The up­shot? That when you’re us­ing the car as it’s meant to be used, the Senna sounds like it ought to. The rest of the time, how­ever, the ques­tion’s wide open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

One thing this car couldn’t have been with­out is a supreme set of brakes. It cer­tainly has them. Mclaren’s claim is that the Senna’s car­bon brakes take seven times longer to make than the ones on the 720S. You’ll be­lieve as much on the ev­i­dence of the ab­so­lutely jaw­drop­ping power with which they haul this car up from high speeds, and the con­fi­dence with which you can heave on the brake pedal on the run into a tight bend with­out feel­ing a snatch of ABS in­ter­ven­tion or the faintest wig­gle of han­dling in­sta­bil­ity.

Ha­bit­u­ally, we only mea­sure stop­ping dis­tance from 70mph, a speed from which the Senna will come to rest in just 37.4m, or about 10% quicker than most su­per­cars. But when stop­ping from big­ger speeds, our test car reg­is­tered lon­gi­tu­di­nal brak­ing power in ex­cess of 1.5g, where it’s un­usual to see su­per­cars beat 1.25g. In this re­spect, as in oth­ers, the rhetoric de­scrib­ing this car as a more driv­able, state-of-theart rac­ing car with num­ber­plates is ab­so­lutely to be be­lieved. Some trep­i­da­tion is in­evitably as­so­ci­ated with the task of driv­ing any car of the Senna’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties to its full po­ten­tial on a track. Com­mit­ment and con­cen­tra­tion are nec­es­sary, ob­vi­ously, as well as plenty of phys­i­cal ef­fort. Be­yond all that, how­ever, it’s what isn’t re­quired – the skill, nerve or ex­pe­ri­ence of a mul­ti­ple-oc­ca­sion Le Mans win­ner – that’s re­ally re­mark­able to ob­serve.

That’s be­cause, while the Senna cer­tainly de­mands you push your own lim­its a good deal far­ther than they’ll likely ever have been pushed be­fore, the car’s han­dling is, for the most part, un­err­ingly con­sis­tent, pre­dictable and be­nign. The Senna chal­lenges you to open up ear­lier, brake later and cor­ner quicker, ex­tend­ing its grip level ahead of you as the tyres heat up and the aero comes in like some adrenaline­fu­elled voodoo. But it also stays with you; on your side at ev­ery step.

That said, those Tro­feo R tyres need to be prop­erly warmed up and then ad­justed for op­er­at­ing pres­sure be­fore the car’s ready to hit its most com­pelling stride (a process that takes a good eight to 10 laps of most cir­cuits, plus a pit stop, in it­self). Drive the Senna too keenly on cold tyres, in one of its higher sus­pen­sion modes and more per­mis­sive sta­bil­ity con­trol set­tings, and you’ll find it sur­pris­ingly short on grip and

sta­bil­ity; ev­ery­thing it ab­so­lutely isn’t when in ground-hug­ging Race mode, with some heat in the rub­ber.

But even hav­ing started your Senna stint right, you ex­pect some­where to have to ne­go­ti­ate one or two hur­dles as a re­sult of the way the car’s down­force builds. They just don’t come. The ef­fect of the car’s ac­tive aero and sus­pen­sion ac­tu­ally seems to be to shift its ap­par­ent cen­tre of mass rear­wards slightly as you start to risk 80mph, 90mph and three-fig­ure cor­ner­ing, adding a bedrock of sta­bil­ity into the car’s high-speed han­dling that al­lows you to guide it with in­cred­i­ble con­fi­dence – and with fairly bold steer­ing in­puts.

At lower speeds, how­ever, that sta­bil­ity bias just isn’t present. The Senna feels su­per-pre­cise, poised and even a lit­tle bit adjustable in its han­dling at­ti­tude on a trail­ing throt­tle around sec­ond- and thirdgear cor­ners. The faster you go, the more quickly the car takes an an­gle, and the more ac­cu­rate and fast you need to be with your steer­ing cor­rec­tions, which is in­evitably true of some­thing so low to the ground, so grippy and so firmly sprung. But the Senna even helps you here, to find the steer­ing an­gle at which those front tyres are run­ning true, by virtue of hav­ing an elec­tro­hy­draulic power steer­ing sys­tem that pro­vides ab­so­lutely world-class con­tact-patch feel and, with 2.4 turns be­tween locks, is ex­actly as di­rect as it ought to be.

And on the road? The Senna is en­tirely man­age­able, amaz­ingly easy to drive, supremely clev­erly gov­erned by its elec­tronic aids and, although noisy, rides in Com­fort mode al­most as com­fort­ably as a Porsche Gt-level 911. The skit­tish brit­tle­ness of ride and the hyper-sen­si­tive han­dling ner­vous­ness you ex­pect to have to put up with in a car ca­pa­ble of other­worldly track feats just aren’t part of the equa­tion.

And nei­ther, we should add, is a great deal of on-road driver in­volve­ment in a car that sim­ply doesn’t feel as though it’s work­ing prop­erly un­less it’s trav­el­ling be­yond 100mph, just a cou­ple of inches from the Tar­mac.

BUY­ING AND OWN­ING

Mclaren Au­to­mo­tive would ap­pear to have been quite care­ful – mod­er­ately con­ser­va­tive, even – with its de­ci­sions about pric­ing and pro­duc­tion vol­ume on the Senna. A £750,000 ask­ing price isn’t ridicu­lous, be­lieve it or not, in the high-net-worth car buff’s world of mul­ti­mil­lion-pound hy­per­cars. And the signs are that the mar­ket might even value the car more highly than Mclaren did, with build slots hav­ing re­port­edly changed hands for quar­ter-mil­lion-pound pre­mi­ums and the ear­li­est cars ap­pear­ing in the clas­si­fieds now at seven-fig­ure prices.

Mclaren’s UK price list on the car is very short by the usual ex­oticter­ri­tory stan­dards. The most ex­pen­sive item on it is £9500 for an MSO De­fined paint job, and the vast ma­jor­ity of its en­tries (tour­ing seats, three-point seat­belts, air con­di­tion­ing, rear-view cam­era etc) are no-cost op­tions that you can spec­ify so long as you’re pre­pared to ac­cept the as­so­ci­ated weight.

❝ The han­dling is, for the most part, un­err­ingly con­sis­tent and be­nign ❞

Snorkel roof in­take feeds air di­rectly into the en­gine. High-tem­per­a­ture cool­ing cir­cuit at the rear is fed by in­takes in the flanks; low-tem­per­a­ture cir­cuit by the ‘ra­di­a­tor’ dam up front.

Th­ese mixed-size nine-spoke ‘su­per­forged’ al­loy wheels are the Senna’s only rim op­tion, but you can have them in ‘satin raw metal’ fin­ish (as pic­tured) or with a ‘dark stealth’ fin­ish.

Senna’s front split­ter is fully 150mm longer than the one on the P1 and 75mm longer than the P1 GTR’S. Mean­while, Race driv­ing mode puts it an­other 39mm closer to the road than this.

Dou­ble dif­fuser is made from a sin­gle piece of carbonfibre flow­ing aft from un­der the rear axle. Like all dif­fusers, it ac­cel­er­ates the underbody air as it ex­its, suck­ing the Senna to the road (or track).

Hy­draulic ac­tive rear wing can swivel through 35deg of pitch in 0.3sec. ‘Swan neck’ py­lon mount­ings al­low it to keep work­ing when air is flow­ing over it from var­ied an­gles, such as in cross­winds.

Blue winglets in­side the front bumper are ac­tive aero­dy­namic blades whose pitch is man­aged to bal­ance the car’s down­force. If you don’t like this colour, they’re also avail­able in orange or red.

Each of the Senna’s head­lights is more than 1kg lighter than the equiv­a­lent on the P1 hy­per­car. They’re all-led units, each con­tain­ing 21 diodes.

P1: Mclaren hy­per­car with a dif­fer­ent brief

Height 300mm Width 350-850mm Length 350mm There’s no boot at ei­ther end of the car, only this tri­an­gu­lar stor­age shelf, be­hind the seats, which is just big enough to ac­com­mo­date a cou­ple of rac­ing hel­mets.

Six-point rac­ing har­nesses are stan­dard; three-point seat­belts in ad­di­tion a no­cost op­tion. In­board belt strap of the six-pointer at­taches to the in­er­tia-reel latch.

The trick aero, so seem­less and ef­fec­tive on track, works best above road-le­gal speeds, so although it’s an easy car to drive on the road, it isn’t hugely in­volv­ing there.

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