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2018 McLaren Senna review

By Ben Barry, 02 May 2018 Reviews

2018 McLaren Senna review

The road-legal hypercar every bit as thrilling and visceral as its revered name suggests

WHAT IS IT?

The Senna is McLaren’s first Ultimate Series model since the P1, dubbed the ‘ultimate road-legal track car’.

WHY WE’RE TESTING IT

We’ve been awed by the specs, but this is our first stint behind the wheel of a verification prototype at Silverstone. Chassis and powertrain are fully representative of production car.

MAIN RIVALS

Nothing directly comparable right now, but Lamborghini Aventador SV Jota, Mercedes-AMG Project One, Aston Martin Valkyrie will be quite feisty too.

THE WHEELS VERDICT

The Senna is brutally fast and thrilling to drive at the limit, but its chassis, aero and braking provide freakish composure that makes it accessible for non-Sennas who don’t believe God’s got their back.

PLUS: Stunning performance, low- and high-speed composure, steering, braking, driving position, easier to drive fast than 720S
MINUS: Looks, noise, easier to drive fast than 720S

THE WHEELS REVIEW

A MCLAREN 720S produces 530kW and hits 200km/h in 7.8 seconds. It’s fast. Today, it’s helping me get my eye in ahead of hot laps at Silverstone in something significantly quicker: the McLaren Senna, billed as the ultimate road-legal track car. ‘Our’ Senna is a verification prototype, the final sign-off before 500 production cars roll down the line, but a car that’s fully representative in terms of chassis and powertrain.

The basics – carbonfibre passenger cell, 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8, dual-clutch gearbox – appear familiar from the 720S, but there are some big upgrades, and the stats put it on another planet: it makes 588kW, weighs 85kg less at 1198kg dry, and can reach 200km/h in 6.8 seconds, a full second quicker.

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The Senna’s dihedral door floats open – the carbon structure weighs just 9.9kg – and takes a chunk of the roof in the process, so it’s easy to climb into the cockpit wearing a helmet. The carbonfibre seat – canted back racecar-style, weighing just 3.35kg – feels snugly comfortable and the driving position is excellent.

Racer Euan Hankey is passengering, and while there’s a friendliness to the comfort and airiness of the Senna’s cockpit, the anticipation and the minder is intimidating: my heartrate bumps as a McLaren tech tightens the six-point harness, I can hear my breathing quicken like a pervy phone caller as he plugs in my helmet intercom, and there’s more mechanical energy tingling through the Senna’s seat than a 720S when the V8 fires, more raw noise too.

We’re in Race mode, so the Senna has dropped by 30mm front and 22mm rear on its hydraulically interconnected suspension, contributing 50 percent more downforce and helping generate the claimed 800kg total when we blow past 250km/h on Hangar Straight.

At seven-tenths, you notice the perfect precision of the steering; that it’s light enough to be effortless, heavy enough to give clarity and definition to the subtlest inputs. Accelerate and the throttle buzzes with energy and response, and somehow this engine seems less boosty than other McLarens, more progressive in its delivery, perhaps because it’s propelling less mass.

Gear shifts come quickly, but without the mechanical ferocity you might expect – in Race, the shifts are calibrated for maximum speed, so they’re seamless; in Track – which we won’t try until we drive the production car – an ignition-cut function promises to sacrifice speed for a more emotive punch.

Tyres warmed, I go harder.

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There’s a pretty raucous thrash from the twin-turbo V8, and the noise, the rush of speed and a glance at the revs says I’m about to clatter the limiter. I’m not. Hold out for the blue light at the top of the dash, instructs Hankey – you’re still not tapping peak power.

The Senna does not boast a particularly endearing soundtrack, but the way it continues to gather speed so ferociously in those final few rpm makes accelerating right up to the braking marker a seriously intense experience, like jumping out of the path of a speeding freight train just in time.

Into the fast right-hander at Farm, you sense weight shifting forwards under the brief braking phase, but there’s surprisingly little pitch. It’s a similar story with bodyroll: it’s there, it communicates the lateral loads building, but it’s very sweetly suppressed as the suspension adapts and works its magic.

The composure gives you huge confidence to brake later and jump straight back on the throttle – a 720S would demand more correction from its driver. But it’s still a mental leap to pin the throttle through the fast left-hander that follows, to trust all that downforce will squash you into the surface. When you do, the feeling of lateral g-force ramping up as freefall speed swirls you forwards is pretty overwhelming.

The Senna is equally devastating through the slower stuff. Stand on the carbon-ceramic brakes and you’re aware of instant feedback and strong pedal pressure, as well as stopping power to pop eyes from sockets and make a very fast car go very slowly indeed – McLaren claims the Senna stops from 200km/h in 100 metres, 16 fewer than the P1 hypercar.

More subtle is how planted the Senna still feels – partly that’s the suspension again firming up to combat pitch under much heavier braking, partly it’s the active aero bleeding off excess front downforce, so the rear doesn’t squirm. It must demand all sorts of witchcraft to calibrate, but the feeling is totally natural.

Aim for the apex and the front Pirelli Trofeo Rs bite like a gecko on a sun-drenched wall, and the Senna flicks energetically through the slow direction change at Vale. If the body feels as tied down as you’d expect of a track toy, the compliance is more surprising – when I get greedy with the kerb, it softens the blow like punching a goose-down pillow.

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Ultimately – in fast corners and slow – there is some safety understeer, but the limits are high and you nudge into them gently. Traction, too, is pretty immense, especially given the aero isn’t doing much at these speeds, though it seems natural to short-shift to keep things tidy.

Much like my passenger, the stability and traction control works away subtly in the background, only chipping in when, really, I’ve made a mistake – when I brake really late into a tight right-hander, the Senna oversteers progressively, I have to wind on corrective lock, and I swear the systems do nothing at all; they’re more proactive quelling wheelspin than yaw.

After a blur of laps, Hankey points at the pits and I try to contextualize what just happened. It’s funny, because you’re aware that the Senna is almost otherworldly in its competence, but it also feels entirely intuitive in that it’s simply doing your bidding, no matter that you’re making such unreasonable requests of it. Because of this, I actually find it easier to drive quickly than a 720S.

You could argue it’s less dramatic as a result, but this is a different kind of dramatic, more of a racecar experience that’s accessible to even modestly talented drivers. And the Senna absolutely still demands commitment to explore its limits.

When you peel back all those layers – brake as late as you dare, carry all the speed you can through the fast stuff, lean on that low-speed grip and traction – there’s no doubt the Senna feels as fast and focused and downright thrilling as its legendary name suggests.

SPECS

Model: 2018 McLaren Senna
Engine: 3994cc V8 (90deg), dohc, 32v, twin-turbo
Max power: 597kW @ 7250rpm
Max torque: 800Nm @ 5500-6700rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch
Weight: 1198kg (lightest dry weight)
0-100km/h: 2.8sec (claimed)
Economy: TBC
Price: £750,000
On sale: Now