McLaren’s Senna supercar is one of the greatest of all time
The line continues to blur between where a street car ends and a race car begins, and the new McLaren Senna is the ultimate expression of this phenomenon—right down to its name. How does a machine like this evolve, and how does it perform in its natural habitat? Our own hot shoes find out.
THERE’S NO WAY we’re going to make it. The digital speedometer in front of me has just passed 160 mph as the sweeping right-hander called Stowe charges at us like an angry fighting bull. My right foot is still flat to the floor because the McLaren test driver riding shotgun told me, “Go deeper on this lap,” and so, against every screaming fiber in my body, I do.
The braking marker I used on the previous lap flashes by as the speedo hits 163, and a millisecond later my right foot decides all by itself, “This is deep enough.” I slam the brake pedal, crack off two thunderbolt downshifts with the left paddle, then squeeze back onto the gas as the 2019 McLaren Senna prototype lunges into the turn. Its active rear wing and twin front aero blades angle into our self-made gale to crush the carbonfiber chassis into the asphalt, the roof-mounted snorkel intake roars furiously as it feasts on air, and the huge Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R tires wince under the g load as the Senna, impossibly, almost magically, claws through Stowe and onto a short straight. I have maybe 2 seconds to catch some breath and realize we’re still in one piece before braking hard for the Vale left-right flick, but there isn’t even time for that because the McLaren shoe’s voice is crackling through my helmet intercom again. “Next lap, go a little deeper.”
No street-legal car I’ve driven compares with McLaren’s mind-blowing homage to the man who many consider the greatest racing driver who ever lived. If the late Ayrton Senna—who won three Formula 1 world championships driving for McLaren—were alive today, I have no doubt the Brazilian would be honored to see his name and signature twin-S logo on this machine. The Senna is a masterwork of zero compromises. Just like its namesake.
“IT REALLY IS ABOUT EVERY ELEMENT FOR A REASON ... FUNCTION TAKING PRECEDENCE OVER AESTHETICS, AT LEAST MORE THAN WE’VE DONE BEFORE.”
“We have a relationship with the Senna family,” says Andy Palmer, vehicle line director for McLaren’s Ultimate Series. “The time was right for this car, and more important, the car was right for what the family wanted for Ayrton’s name. I assume they would get requests about lending Ayrton’s name to other sports cars, but they just felt that this was the right one for them to do that. We’re very pleased, obviously.”
McLaren will build just 500 Sennas, at a starting cost of just less than $1 million. If you want one, though, too late: Senna production sold out long before the car was even finalized. (McLaren auctioned off the 500th copy, donating the $2.7 million winning bid to the Ayrton Senna Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to educating and assisting underprivileged young people in Brazil.) The first customer deliveries are taking place as you read this.
“Zero compromises” means it looks more like a racing machine than a sporting automobile. Indeed, McLaren calls it “the ultimate road-legal track car.” “It really is about every element for a reason,” says Dan Parry-Williams, director of engineering design. “Function taking precedence over aesthetics, at least more than we’ve done before.”
The Senna isn’t lovely or elegant in the manner of, say, a Lamborghini Huracán, but there’s an undeniable beauty in a design so committed to the mission of speed. And if you doubt what “committed” means, know this: If McLaren’s own 903-horsepower P1 hybrid supercar were to challenge a Senna on a racetrack, it would be left gasping in the quickly receding wake of the Senna’s superheated exhaust fumes.
The Senna owes much of its staggering track prowess to its light weight. Crafted almost entirely of carbon fiber
around McLaren’s latest, ultra-rigid Monocage III tub, the Senna weighs just 2,641 pounds dry—roughly 400 pounds less than the P1. You want an audio system? That’s $5,680 and 16.1 pounds extra. Air conditioning? That’s free, but you have to ask for it. Parking sensors, rearview camera, and side parking cameras? Also free, but again, only if you ask for the added weight. Hey, this is a company that even fussed over the Senna’s nuts and bolts until they were 33 percent lighter.
Part II of the Senna’s magic track act owes to aerodynamics. Look at that cowcatcher jutting from the car’s nose: The carbon-fiber splitter is 5.9 inches longer than the P1’s, vastly improving downforce. Below each LED headlight lies an active aero blade that moves in unison with the active rear wing to boost cornering power and maintain handling balance. The carbon-fiber rear wing itself, massive in size but weighing just 11 pounds, adjusts its angle constantly to maximize cornering grip and stopping power. (On straights, the wing flattens out for minimum drag.) In total, the aero blades, rear wing, and sculpted bodywork combine to produce up to 1,800 pounds of downforce at speed—40 percent more than the P1. To give you an idea of what that means on the track, McLaren’s test drivers, going into Silverstone’s Stowe corner at the end of the long Hangar Straight, are braking 25 meters (82 feet) later in the Senna than in the P1. Going into the same corner, I braked so late all the nearby pubs closed, but still the Senna had stopping power to spare.
With the feathery weight and aero mastery comes power. Lots of power. The Senna uses essentially the same 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 found in McLaren’s 720S, but it’s been upgraded with a reworked intake manifold (fed by that cool snorkel on the roof ), revised cams, and two high-flow fuel pumps. The result is 789 screaming horsepower in a car that weighs less than 3,000 pounds all up. If that sounds like a recipe for astonishing quickness, eat up: The Senna can blitz from 0 to 60 mph in just 2.7 seconds. Top speed is a claimed 211 mph. The shifter, by the way, is a lightly reworked version of the dual-clutch seven-speed used in the 720S, but the Senna’s incorporates an F1-bred feature dubbed Ignition Cut. In Sport mode, the system momentarily halts the spark during gear changes to improve shift speed. At the same time, a corresponding crack from the exhaust pipes pumps even more adrenaline into your veins.
The Senna’s cockpit is sparse and suave. The upwardswinging doors make entry a breeze, and the carbonfiber seat shells wear only enough pads for comfort and support. (The pads are intentionally spaced apart to allow
for airflow between them.) Many of the controls not used while driving—engine start/stop, chassis mode selection, and the door-opening switches—are mounted out of the way in a pod above the rearview mirror. Gear-selection and launch-control buttons move fore and aft with the driver-seat cushion. The Alcantara-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel wears not a single button or switch; it’s all business. When you’re ready to go, a folding digital display glides up to present the driver with a tach and other essential info. The view to the front is pure IMAX—you could almost be in a single-seater—and the doors feature special transparent lower panels that provide a sizzling view of the tarmac whistling below you. Drivers who plan to keep doing laps in their Sennas until they run out of gas can also order a race-car-like “push to drink” feature that’ll pump liquid refreshment straight into their helmets.
To the Senna’s engine, aero, and minimal weight McLaren adds a remarkable suspension. Dubbed RaceActive Chassis Control II, the system builds on the P1’s setup via revised software. In Race mode (which I used during my lapping sessions), the chassis lowers by 1.5 inches. The Senna also features McLaren’s first-ever center-locking wheels,
each sporting a single F1-like bolt. Inside each wheel lies a massive, lightweight carbon-ceramic brake disc that requires seven months to produce. Hammering on these binders produces stopping force akin to slamming into a parked dump truck.
Check out my colleague Andy Pilgrim’s sidebar for the professional driver’s viewpoint (he drove the car separately, in Portugal), but after my two five-lap sessions at Silverstone, the Senna had beat me to a pulp. Turn 1, called Abbey, is a right-hander taken in fourth gear after the briefest dab of the brakes. The first time I accelerated out of the turn, I almost couldn’t believe what I was experiencing. The Senna simply leaped forward, and we were already doing 120 mph. (This is a car, by the way, that can do the quarter mile in 9.9 seconds.) And there was more shock to come.
Cresting the rise into the quick left-hand Farm Curve, my McLaren ride-along, British Touring Car racer Josh Cook, instantly took to the intercom. “More throttle!” We were already flying, but I did as told and pressed even harder on the gas, and the Senna seemed to suck itself into the asphalt as it screamed through the bend. Not a bobble, not even a whiff of countersteer needed from me. If NASA ever runs out of centrifuges, it should borrow a Senna for astronaut training. That’s the scary magic of high-downforce active aero for you: More speed produces more downforce, which produces more speed and more downforce. You can’t help but wonder when it will all just suddenly let go and you’ll fly off the circuit toward downtown London. Maybe Andy was able to run the Senna right to its lung-crushing limits, but only on a few laps through Abbey or Stowe did I actually feel the Pirellis nibbling at the edge of adhesion, the understeer ever so slight. Mostly, the Senna just did everything I asked of it, and a lot more.
Perhaps the Senna’s most remarkable virtue? It’s a peach. For all of its benchmark-setting powers, this McLaren is as approachable and friendly as a 720S—maybe even more so. (I did some warmup laps in a 720S, and with little downforce to keep it steady, its rear end could get playful in corners, whereas the Senna was utterly bolted down.) The Senna’s steering is smooth and accurate, the chassis unfailingly predictable, the engine and shifter work as happily at low speeds as they do full-bore, and the ride is remarkably poised. (Admittedly, I did not drive the car on the road; that drive comes soon.) Do owners of million-dollar cars use them as daily drivers? I expect most Senna owners will do the majority of their wheeling on closed race courses, where they can experience at least some of the car’s astonishing capabilities. Still, I won’t be surprised when I see a Senna rumbling through the streets of Los Angeles soon. Anyone lucky enough to own this phenomenal work of performance art will likely find it impossible to resist taking it out for a strut.
Ayrton Senna left countless observers awestruck with his driving performances during his all too brief career in Grand Prix racing. Now, a quarter-century later, this McLaren, one of the greatest supercars ever made, has done the same. AM
At left, race driver Josh Cook and the author (holding helmet)gaze at the Senna prototype in which they’ve just lapped the Silverstone circuit at speeds that would leave a McLaren P1 inthe dust.
AERO PAINBelow, St. Antoine fights the g loads inflicted by the active aero. Later, he tried an openfaced helmet to savor the view through the door panels.
At left, the Senna’s upwardswinging doors make entry and exit a breeze. Although it’s a fully streetlegal road car, on a track it could blow away many so-called race cars.