New McLaren Senna review - first drive of track-focused hypercar
We've been on track in McLaren's most thrilling road-car yet, and it hasn't disappointed
As is now the modern way, you’ve probably already read plenty about the Senna, McLaren’s road-legal ultimate track car. Like most of us, you may have gasped, perhaps in horror, at the initial pictures, and shared a collective scepticism when those that had seen the car in-the-carbon seemed infatuated by it. I am of that camp: bemused on first acquaintance, but besotted having walked around it, understood the crazy shapes, and felt its presence. The Senna has stellar presence, just like its namesake did when he walked into a room.
Having suspended myself in mid-air across the sill and then fallen with as much grace as I can muster into the moulded seat – just 3.35kg of carbon shell with cushioned pads in strategic places – I’m clamped in place, notably across the shoulders, and I clip in the four-point harness which the McLaren tech then pulls tight over the HANS device.
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We’re in Race mode, with ESP off but some of the Senna’s sophisticated traction-enhancing software on, and the driver display has rotated in my eyeline so that it’s in the prone position, for minimal distraction. I click in first gear with that smooth, engineered action of the right-hand paddle, and brush the throttle to tentatively edge us away from the pit garage.
The idea behind the Senna is that it – and you – are totally focused on the driving experience. This it does successfully, because there really isn’t much to look at inside, and more than that, there isn’t time to look around, nor to admire the scenery. As I squeeze the throttle to the stop in third gear it sucks the road’s surface towards us and Village immediately beckons. Yep, that brake pedal is solid, but wonderfully reassuring at the same time, as if wilt and inadequacy are abhorrent.
Across the Link section, feel the car go light over the awkward bump and the rears get slightly agitated, then guide the nose early into the right hander, letting it then run wide as there’s plenty of room on the exit. Time, then, to unleash the full straight-line fury of the Senna.
There is no pause, it’s already in the zone, and angry – angrier than virtually any internal combustion engine I can recall. I’m operating entirely by feel and sound: can sense the engine increasing in revolutions by the shift in harmonics, how at a certain rpm the V8 induces a fizzy twitch in my spinal cord, how the dorsal intake really sucks and screams as the red line approaches. Colours flash in my lower peripheral vision, an unusual shade of blue in the final space over on the right which I take to mean ‘change up now, you fool’. I register a glimpse of 8,000rpm, I think, possibly, and so it goes on, each gear taking less than you’re requiring to read a line of this story, the Hangar straight a bitstream of grey and green. And Stowe is approaching.
Ah Stowe. A hero’s corner. Mansell’s corner. I confess I don’t know how quickly we’re travelling, but fifth gear, that must be really fast, right? Resisting every last urge I have to brake, I leave it until what seems ludicrously late and then stamp on that left pedal. What follows is what separates the Senna from any other road car I’ve driven – what makes the 720S that I drove for some familiarisation laps first seem weirdly normal, almost soft willed. The Senna just stops; digs into the asphalt like it’s drilled down to the hard core beneath that old RAF runway and moored itself on giant iron chains.
I was too early. Far too early. Never mind, guide the nose into Stowe. Don’t apex too early. Those attributes that we look for in a road car – the response, weighting and accuracy of the steering, the sense of balance to the chassis – all seem spot-on, largely because I don’t question once their authenticity.
It’s another big stop for Club, where a trailing in on the brakes reveals a wonderfully predictable sense of rotation, then out past the Wing and finishing line.
The Abbey-Farm Curve complex highlights the Senna’s other key attribute. Aero, all 800kg of the stuff at 155mph. Dammit, with each lap I try to leave the gas on more, just breathing on the brakes and turning in earlier, even when that seems like a ticket to understeer oblivion, only to hear Euan’s encouragement to push harder still on the entry. Bloody aero, it’s just not natural when you’re used to mechanical grip, and yet at the same time it is hypnotically attractive, a new invisible partner that you want to push against, seeing what liberties you can get away with. It’s the same at Stowe, which my left shoulder can attest to as it’s crushed repeatedly against the seat.
With each lap I try to leave the braking that bit later, squeeze that cornering speed a bit higher. I know I’m nowhere near the limit yet, but oh man does it feel fast. Yet there’s something else: by the last lap I am getting tired. Or specifically, the Mk1 eight-bit device atop my shoulders is starting, just slightly, to lose its grip. A missed apex here, an incorrect gear choice there. I am glad to pit – I need to digest everything, ruminate, then head out again. If only.
Yes, the Senna is mind-fryingly quick, but it’s the braking and cornering speed that astound. That, and the intensity of the experience – a word, too, often associated with the great man. This validation prototype – VP736 – is ‘currently what we think will be production spec’. We’ll drive the finished article this summer. I may have just about calmed down by then.