Heat-Seek­ing Senna

McLaren’s Senna su­per­car is one of the great­est of all time

Automobile - - Contents - By Arthur St. An­toine and Andy Pil­grim

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.

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