Pity the poor Chinese modelmaker, hunched over a workbench somewhere near Hong Kong. Creating the pattern for the 1:43 resin model of the new McLaren Senna that Octane will take home as a souvenir of the car’s launch must have driven him to distraction. All those diffusers, all those spoilers, all those knife-edge carbonfibre body panels that duct air here, there and everywhere! An old-school monocoque race car, a Jaguar D-type for example, must be a piece of cake to sculpt in comparison.
While it’s not a conventionally beautiful car like those old racers, the McLaren Senna is a superbly compelling machine. Paradoxically, given the looks, it’s also more traditional than you’d expect. It has rearwheel drive and it is not a hybrid, instead relying on a twin-turbocharged V8 for its immense performance. To find out why McLaren decided that batteries should most definitely not be included, we talked with the automotive division’s CEO (and, let’s not be modest here, long-time Octane subscriber), Mike Flewitt, during the car’s launch at Estoril circuit in Portugal.
LIKE SO MANY McLaren employees, Mike is a confirmed petrolhead, his 11-car stable including a 1967 ex-Piers Courage McLaren F2 single-seater, a 1961 Lotus Elite and a ’63 Elan, which he races. He’s motor industry through and through, having begun his career as a trainee at Ford’s Halewood plant and subsequently worked for Rolls-Royce, Volvo and TWR, before returning to Ford again. He’s now been at McLaren for five years. Who better to understand what turns on a car guy?
Mike is also ‘one of us’ – the majority of us, anyway – in that he admits to being a keen driver and amateur racer but not an especially talented one.
‘My wife, Mia, is more committed than me and she’s definitely faster! In fact she’s leading the McLaren GT4 series at the moment. The chairman of our executive committee also races, and the Senna is very much aimed at people who enjoy driving but aren’t professional racers. Is it the most extreme road-legal car of the pre-hybrid era? That’s impossible to say for certain, but it is the most extreme made to date.’
A bold claim, but the statistics back it up. The 0-60mph figure of 2.7sec and top speed of 208mph might be the headline grabbers, but there are two others that are even more significant: braking from 124mph to standstill can be done in 100 metres – just think about that for a moment – and maximum downforce is 800kg at 155mph. (Rather neatly, the maximum power and torque figures are also 800PS and 800lb ft, respectively.) The car’s brakes and aerodynamics are gamechangers for a road-legal car.
Yes, the Senna is road-legal, but as Mike Flewitt readily admits: ‘It’s not the car you’d choose for that classic London to Monte Carlo road trip. We’ve done enough that you can drive it to a circuit, but the focus has been on ultimate light weight; after the F1 it’s the lightest road car we’ve ever made, at 1198kg dry. That’s one of the reasons we didn’t make it a hybrid.
‘Because it’s part of our Ultimate series, we have the licence to do something very extreme in a particular direction. It can have compromises because it’s not something that’s going to sell 5000 units a year.’ In fact, production is being firmly capped at 500 road cars, each retailing at £750,000, plus six to eight refurbished prototype and show examples. There’ll also be a run of 75 track-only Senna GTRs, and a couple of pre-pros.
As with all current McLarens, the central cockpit is made of carbonfibre. The lower part of the tub is similar to a 720’s, as is the rear subframe – albeit with new K-damper suspension (‘K’ being shorthand for ‘kinetic roll system’) – but nearly everything else is new. Starting with proven essentials meant that the Senna could be developed in just a couple of years. The engine is based on McLaren’s 840 unit, and is a twin-turbo V8 of 3994cc capacity.
Technical highlights include active aero, front and rear, which adjusts the downforce so that it’s at its maximum when you need it – high-speed cornering – and reduced when you don’t; for example, at the front end when braking hard into a corner, which could destabilise the rear. Then there’s the latest development of McLaren’s interconnected hydraulic suspension and damping, which in Race mode allows the suspension to be lowered by 39mm at the front and 30mm at the rear, to keep the downforce working as effectively as possible. And as for the brakes… We’ll come onto those in a moment. Let’s go and drive the thing.
IT LOOKS SCARY. There’s no denying it. And any looming sense of anxiety has only been heightened by the email received from McLaren’s PR man before the drive, requesting clothing sizes so that we could be kitted out in flame-retardant underwear (‘…unless you have your own. Well, you might,’ said PR man, drily). As I don my flameproof pants – no, I don’t possess any – plus full racesuit, HANS device and intercomequipped helmet, I feel like a medieval knight girding himself for battle. And, like a knight, you really need your own personal squire to help get yourself saddledup in the Senna’s figure-hugging, superlight carbonfibre bucket seat. At least one of the six harness belts can be guaranteed to fall out of sight and, once each belt has been located and slotted into the central hub, they all have to be pulled so tight that you feel as though you’ve been ratchet-strapped into the seat. The tension increases, both physically and metaphorically.
Reach above your head for the roof-mounted starter button and the V8 fires with the hard-edged, businesslike, but not-terribly-sexy, blare that we’ve come to associate with this flat-plane crankshaft design. The interior is pleasingly simple, and even simpler when the car is set to Race mode and the touchscreen in front of you folds itself away through 90º to reveal a minimalist, edge-outward digital display of revs, speed and selected gear.
Ease out into the pitlane, and the car is a pussycat at low speed, with a protective cushion built into the initial throttle travel. Let the speed build a little and waggle the steering wheel experimentally; after the 720 that we drove earlier for some circuit-learning laps, response from the Senna’s electro-hydraulic setup immediately feels so much sharper. The ride is noticeably more fidgety, too, as the car hugs every tiny imperfection in the circuit’s surface.
Start pushing harder. You’re still travelling at only a fraction of the Senna’s capability and yet it takes a while for your mind to adjust to this whole new set of parameters. Estoril is the perfect circuit on which to learn the car: there’s a long pit straight followed by a tight right-hander, and there are fast, open curves interspersed with sharp esses and a seemingly neverending parabolica that flings you back out onto the pit straight again. It takes at least a couple of laps before you can even begin to acclimatise, but when you learn to trust the Senna and really lean on it… Oh wow.
It’s hard work mentally, that’s for sure. The V8 will scream up to the redline in what seems like the blink of an eye, so your fingers are always dancing on the paddleshifts to optimise engine revs for the relentless procession of corners and straights; there are transparent panels in the lower doors, à la Lamborghini Marzal, supposedly incorporated to aid visibility, but the reality is that you’re focusing too far ahead for them to be of practical use. You’re vaguely aware of the engine howling away behind your head but it’s muffled by your race helmet and, honestly, there’s no time to spare for aural distractions; your brain is constantly processing information – which line do I take for the next corner, how hard do I brake, which gear do I need to be in, where’s the apex, how soon do I get back on the throttle, which point am I aiming for as I exit the corner, how wide can I let it drift…
Braking is the least of your worries, because the Senna’s carbon-composite brakes are little short of miraculous. Hammer down the pit straight and you can easily get the car up to 170mph and rising, but at the end there’s a 90-right that demands maybe 40mph to be despatched neatly. Hold your nerve down the straight – even on what seems like perfectly smooth tarmac, the car starts to buck beneath you as the aero clamps it down hard – and keep the throttle mashed to the floor until the 200-metre countdown marker flashes past, then stand on the brakes with all your might: the Senna slows as dramatically as if it has just plunged into a tank of water, the active aero doing its stuff to keep the rear nailed to the tarmac, hydraulics and electronics working together with lightning-quick reactions to keep the car flat as the massively powerful disc brakes grab it in a metaphorical iron fist and pluck it from the vortex. Now you’re grateful that those harness belts have been done up as tightly as they are.
Yet despite the constant adrenaline rush, the V8’s omnipresent battle-cry, the physical and mental demands being heaped onto you, this car does not feel scary as you continue to explore its limits, and your own. You can sense it moving around beneath you in the corners and, even with McLaren’s clever electronic stability programme switched on (they aren’t quite brave enough to let journos loose, first time out, with a totally unfettered 800hp), which gives a natural bias towards understeer – something you really notice as you hug the kerb on the looooong final corner before the pit straight – the car will still oversteer quite readily if you’re heavy-footed on the exit from a corner.
The beauty of the beast is that it’s easily reined back in, which encourages you to try harder and learn some more. As someone will sagely remark later in the day: ‘The car is always better than you are.’
‘You don’t have to be a professional to get a lot out of the Senna. It will let you develop at your own pace'
MIKE FLEWITT has been driving Senna prototypes since they were at the test-mule stage and, being boss of the company, he’s had the privilege of trying it flatout with ESC switched off. So, Mike, what’s it like?
‘In the tighter corners, if you’re carrying the speed that the car is capable of, the ESC will brake the inside rear wheel slightly, and you can feel it dragging – but you may want to keep the back end loose, to get on the power early for a fast exit, and that’s when it’s an advantage to have ESC off.
‘Of course, you have to use your discretion – but people like myself are pretty representative of our customer base, in terms of driver ability. They’re knowledgeable and they’re good drivers, but they’re not chassis dynamics engineers. We’re not a bad test sample, all-in-all.’
Besides its user-friendliness, the Senna has one more surprise up its NACA ducts: it won’t be a particularly expensive car to run, and far less so than the P1. That’s partly because there’s no hybrid element to its drivetrain, and also because the brakes – while a massive step forward in terms of stopping power – are a lot less costly to make than the P1’s. A set of specially developed Pirelli Trofeo R dry-weather tyres will retail for a reasonable £1500. What’s more, any McLaren dealership will be able to service the car – and, of course, you can drive it there because it’s road-legal.
For a final bit of Senna pub-quiz trivia, you should know that the distinctive triple exhaust outlets in the rear deck are a feature of Euro-spec models only; US cars will have just two. ‘Europe has more demanding exhaust drive-by regulations, so one exhaust operates up to 4000rpm, and then the dual exhausts take over above that,’ explains Mike. ‘But the US is less restrictive, so the twin exhausts work throughout the rev range.
‘We debated whether to leave the third pipe on the US cars, but it bugged us that there would be a pipe that didn’t actually do anything. Authenticity is very important to us, so we took it off.’
I had approached the Senna with a degree of apprehension. You’d be a fool not to; electronic safety aids can do only so much. But I came away not only exhilarated but reassured. You don’t have to be a professional to get a lot out of the Senna. It will let you develop at your own pace; even in the space of a few laps it’s remarkable how much more confident and relaxed you become in handling its power and grip.
As I drove back home up the M40 from Heathrow the following day, I passed one of those Currys electricals delivery trucks with the slogan: ‘I’m no racing driver but I know how to deliver a hard drive.’ It’s a terrible pun that I’ve always found excruciating – but in the context of the Senna, it’s spot on.