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Can Woking’s 'ultimate road-legal track car' make history at our dry handling track?

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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 McLaren 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.

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

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?

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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.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace


McLaren Senna 2018 road test review - hero rear

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.

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)

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 McLaren 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-constructed 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged 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 flows downstream to the road via a seven-speed dual-clutch 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).


McLaren Senna 2018 road test review - cockpit

One of McLaren’s trademark, up-and-outward-swinging dihedral doors grants you access to the Senna’s interior. Just like on the McLaren 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 fixed-backrest 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 edifice here, with any semblance of a ‘centre stack’ control console dispensed with entirely.

Glass panels in the lower doors look pointless from the outside but they make it easier to gauge the car’s width in a narrow lane so they’re welcome

The Senna’s standard spec is intended to save weight. If you want an audio system, air conditioning or even Bluetooth connectivity for your phone, you have to add them as options. Some of those options don’t cost anything, but the Bowers & Wilkins seven-speaker audio system costs £5500; and, because our test car didn’t have it, we can’t comment on its quality.

The portrait-oriented infotainment remains a challenge at first, but you become used to negotiating its menu structures with practice. The Senna does get McLaren’s factory navigation system, although it remains a little bit unintuitive to programme and doesn’t always suggest the best route. Smartphone mirroring isn’t possible.

McLaren’s Track Telemetry app is an optional feature but ought to be on every Senna. It relays and records much more data than rival systems, from throttle position to tyre temperature to brake pedal pressure, and records and relays video from three cameras around the car to be enjoyed later.

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.


McLaren Senna 2018 road test review - engine

The Senna’s engine isn’t a state-of-the-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 McLaren 720S needed only 2.9sec and a P1 2.8sec.

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

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 jaw-dropping 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-the-art racing car with numberplates is absolutely to be believed.


McLaren Senna 2018 road test review - cornering front

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.

Senna’s stopping power and stability in high-speed corners is breathtaking

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 adrenaline-fuelled 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 third-gear 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.

An expert racing driver might take a few hours to get to the edge of the Senna’s enormous performance envelope on a track day. For a keen amateur, it’d be a process of several visits and attempts, and of many quiet words with yourself in a darkened room.

But the Senna makes the process of getting on terms with it so exciting, and instils such confidence, that its greatness as a track car is beyond question. We tested the car on different circuits, spending a little over an hour in all lapping at pace, and were still finding big chunks of pace and performance in the car when time forced us to stop.

It’s plainly at its best on wider and more open circuits, where it can corner at really big speeds. But even on MIRA’s tighter, narrower, Dunlop circuit, it was immense, taking 1.5sec out of our previous Dunlop lap record (Lamborghini Huracán Performante, 1min 05.3sec, set in 2017).

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.


McLaren Senna 2018 road test review - hero front

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.

Six-point racing harnesses are standard; three-point seatbelts in addition a no-cost option

McLaren’s UK price list on the car is very short by the usual exotic-territory 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.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace


McLaren Senna 2018 road test review - static hero

With its 800 metric horsepower, 800Nm of torque and 800kg of downforce, Woking’s new track-day immortal must surely have been on course, at one point, to be called ‘800R’. Who was it who dared to suggest that it might be worthy of association with Senna? And how much drive and inspiration did that decision provide?

It’s easy to believe that the Senna’s creators must have been in inspired mood to have come up with such a complicated yet supremely clever, singularly exhilarating driver’s car as this. A cynic might suggest this is precisely the sentimental reaction that McLaren had reckoned on receiving for the Senna. But put a helmet on that cynic’s head, give them 10 laps in this car on any circuit you like, and you’ll likely find them cured of what ails them.

Astounding circuit performance made superbly accessible

Confidence is everything in road-legal cars capable of race-car performance. So many offer the outright grip and speed without making it accessible. The Senna is different. No other road-legal track-day car has such a fully realised blend of mind-blowing circuit performance and excitement, amazingly tame drivability and brain-frazzling driver reward.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

McLaren Senna First drives