LISBON, Portugal – Stepping out of the low-slung McLaren Senna's cockpit and back onto the pit lane, every ounce of my being wants to wave to an imaginary crowd of ecstatic race fans packed into the grandstand on the opposite side of Estoril race track’s main straight. The beads of sweat streaming down my forehead only add to the heightened sense of drama and despite there being no official timing equipment to confirm it, I feel it’s very likely I’ve just shattered the standing lap record around one of Europe’s most challenging old-school circuits. I feel pumped yet completely prepared for the press conference to follow.
So, did you actually set a new lap record?
Very likely not, but that's not the point. With my final three flying laps around Estoril accounting for some of the most exhilarating moments I’ve ever experienced behind the wheel of a car, it’s exactly this reaction McLaren was targeting when it signed off the concept for its newest machine, amply named after one of its greatest ambassadors, Formula One legend Ayrton Senna.
But, you at least went fairly quickly?
Put it this way: before McLaren sent us out in what it describes as its "ultimate road-legal racing car", the automaker gave us the keys to one of the fastest accelerating vehicles CAR magazine has ever tested, a 720S, as a means of "building up to" the kind of pace that the Senna is capable of. We're subsequently told that, in the right hands, the Senna is some six seconds faster around the 4,18-kilometre-long Estoril track than the 720S.
It's not the prettiest supercar around, though...
While I’d hoped to report that the shape of the newest McLaren appeared that much more resolved when viewed in the metal compared with in pictures, there’s simply no escaping the fact that in penning the Senna to meet its supremely focussed brief some of the fluidity of design that we’ve grown accustomed to from this still relatively new carmaker has been sacrificed for the cause. That said, a closer inspection of some of the elements moulded around the now-familiar teardrop-shaped passenger cell reveals a level of intricacy and sophistication that serves as a welcome reminder of McLaren’s broadly admired commitment towards attention to go-faster detail. Picture the wind tunnel-generated images of air passing through, under and around the Senna’s exaggerated overhangs and pylon-mounted wing and know that this is a car that looks best on the move.
So, what makes it so special?
The second member of McLaren’s Ultimate Series, the Senna represents a decidedly less complex, more track-focussed project than with the P1 from which it inherits its class captain’s badge. Indeed, while the intricacies of the P1’s hybridised drivetrain setup seem destined to play a significant role in McLaren’s medium- to long-term plans, the relative weight penalty associated with this setup was deemed unacceptable for such a track-focussed car. As such, the 1 198 kg (dry) Senna is around 200 kg lighter than the P1 hypercar.
Bolted behind the company’s latest generation (MonoCage III) carbon-fibre tub and fed predominantly via a roof-mounted snorkel is the most powerful iteration of the brand’s M840TR twin-turbocharged 4,0-litre V8 engine to date. Featuring lightweight camshafts, pistons and connecting rods, as well as a racing-inspired flat-plane crankshaft, it’s a powertrain that delivers 588 kW and 800 N.m of torque to the rear wheels via a seven-speed dual clutch transmission. On paper, these figures translate to a claimed 0-100 km/h sprint time of 2,8-seconds, reaching 200 km/h a mere four seconds later.
And to drive?
Designed to be driven to and from the track as well as on it, McLaren’s RaceActive Chassis Control II offers a full menu of driving modes aimed at offering as much on-road comfort as a car with lap times firmly on its mind can muster. As a gesture of intent, Race mode lowers the car’s nose by 39 mm and the rear haunches by 30 mm, simultaneously adjusting all associated systems to their sharpest settings.
The hydraulically interconnected suspension at its firmest setting and the bespoke Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R tyres up to temperature, I find myself completely immersed within the driving experience, every subtle transfer of weight and clatter of a rumble strip communicated via a steering wheel, pedals and seat that feel hardwired into, rather then simply fastened onto, the Senna package. Even in its most focussed setting, each lightning-fast gearshift is despatched with the fluidity of a schoolteacher seamlessly ticking the correct answers on her brightest student’s exam paper.
A short shift into third gear and a wide-open throttle on the exit of Estoril’s tight fourth turn sees the Senna powering relentlessly towards the track’s famous fifth corner kink. In the earlier driver’s briefing, we’re told that the faster you take this bend, the more effective the car’s active aero works. My face grimaced and backside clenched I place my trust in the hands of my Clan and keep my right foot planted, steering decisively towards the clipping point. Here, at 210 km/h, I’m close to the point (250 km/h) at which the Senna reportedly generates 800 kg of downforce, 40 percent more than the P1 at the same speed.
No sooner has my expression turned from a wince to a picture of sheer elation, we’re closing in on the 90-degree turn six at close to 280 km/h. Eight laps into my stint, I’m still not brave enough to wait, as suggested, for the 100 m marker before calling upon the most effective braking system (supplemented by a wing that tilts through 25 degrees) I’ve ever experienced to shed enough pace to afford the front tyres a reasonable chance of turning in.
Rejoicing in both the level of communication and freedom afforded by the Senna’s playful ESC Dynamic setting, I have a few sideways “moments” in final section of the track before placing the car neatly on the inside of the famous Parabolica curve, delicately managing my throttle inputs so as to achieve an optimal exit towards the finish line – and a new lap record. Probably.
As fast or, indeed, as relatively slow as my eventual lap times where, I’ve never felt as intricately connected and tuned into every working part of a car as I was in the Senna. The fact that you can still drive it home after a track session simply adds to the appeal. Say what you like about the styling, like the man it’s named after, the McLaren Senna is poised for "legend" status.