A quick glance at the speedo in the $1.3 million, 789 horsepower McLaren Senna showed I was knocking on 300 km/h, and quick brain math meant that was nearing 186 mph. My foot stayed planted on the gas. Then at the 200 meter board... I stood on the brakes to make turn one at Estoril. We lost over 100 km/h in no time at all.
My face felt heavy, then my neck took the strain of the right hander, my left cheek trying to detach itself from my face. Every sense was alive, every movement carefully choreographed, every control on a hair trigger.
The Senna pushes you to your limits, then beyond.
(Full Disclosure: The folk at McLaren wanted me to drive the new Senna so bad I was flown from London to Portugal, put up in a super fancy hotel, fed and watered, so I could drive the car around Estoril race track. They also knew I'm terrible at taking pictures so had a team of pro snappers on hand.)
The latest Ultimate Series McLaren isn't for the fainthearted. It plays with your face, tests your skill, and it's a blast while doing so. Let's just say it lives up to that big name.
What is it?
McLaren's Ultimate Series cars are the hypercars, the ones that push the boundaries of what's possible. They have the most power, the most highly specialised setups, and the wildest looks McLaren's designers can muster.
Yet they are not all meant for the same tasks. The first, the P1, was the ultimate mix of road and track car (or so they say), the upcoming BP23 will be the ultimate road car (fast, comfy, three seats), but the Senna is the ultimate track car.
It's safe to say the Senna's looks have caused some consternation. It's a case of function over form rather than (the usual) other way round. Its shape is dictated by aerodynamics and cooling, and the more time you spend with it its brutal shape becomes more appealing.
Despite its track-forward nature it runs on road tires: specially developed Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R rubber. They will likely be a handful in the wet, but on a dry day they will be nigh on unbeatable. This, and the fact that its huge wing doesn't exceed the footprint of the car, means the Senna can licence plates. It's road legal.
It doesn't take a keen eye to spot its standout feature: the massive rear wing. Not only does it provide active aero assistance, but it also acts as an airbrake, because that's a thing that cars need now.
McLaren has fitted some neat touches to keep the Senna as easy to use as possible. Designed with track, and therefore helmet/HANS device use in mind, the cabin has been laid out accordingly. The door release is on the ceiling, gear selectors attached to the seat so they move with you. Everything you need is within eyeshot, and while it's wonderfully built in there there's little to distract you from the job of driving.
Specs That Matter
Breathe in, because there are lots of numbers here. So many that stats fans will probably lose their shit. I know I did.
The Senna is powered by a modified version of McLaren's 4.0-litre turbocharged V8. That means unique air intake and inlet manifold, bespoke camshafts and twin high flow fuel pumps pumping. And that means a claimed power output of 789 HP and 268kg-ft of torque.
Because of that, McLaren reckons this car will get from 0-62 mph in 2.8 seconds, 0-200km/h in 6.8 seconds, and 0-299km/h in 17.5 seconds. The 0-62 and 0-124 figures match the more powerful, heavier P1.
It is, at risk of understatement, cocking brisk.
Oh, and you'll clip a claimed 340km/h if you've a flagrant disregard for the law or a long strip of straight race track.
Big power isn't all that matters in the Senna. There's also the weight, or lack thereof. Dry, it weighs in at a claimed 1,198kg, 667 less than a Porsche 911 GT3 RS. McLaren managed to keep the heft down with extensive use of carbon fibre in the right places. The rear wing weights just 5kg, a fender a mere 1.5. And there's nothing present that needn't be there.
And a light car with a lot of power needs to be able to stop, too. Each carbon ceramic brake disc takes seven months to create and is mated to a booster used previously in the P1 GTR. McLaren says they will get you from 200km/h to a stop in just 100 meters. Ow. You can almost feel the seatbelt in your sternum just thinking about that.
Now, the spoiler again. It produces downforce. Lots of it. 800kg of it at 155 mph (fun fact: that's 29kg more than the Viper ACR). In fact, McLaren had to tone it down for the sake of the springs and tires.
The look. Yes, it's a bit awkward in pictures, but spending time with it and pouring over the details it makes sense. Every slash, vent, strut, angle makes sense. There's beauty in functionality. And also, I suppose, in the eye of the beholder. As in whoever's beholding the key to this monster and the unbelievable driving experience it offers.
Also, windows in the bottom of the doors are just cool. You can see the track/road rushing by as you go.
Obviously, the light weight and savage power are a highlight. I mean… how could they not be?
Having the controls in sensible places is a godsend. Not only because moving your head around can be a faff with a lid on, but also because having the 'engine start' button on the roof is cool AF.
And the Senna looks best in white, like an angry Stormtrooper. Disagree and I'll fight you.
Not knowing the door opener is on the roof and getting trapped in the car on a hot day. It's a mistake you make once and ensure you're very grateful that people who know what's up are walking by to stop you from cooking inside a very expensive oven. Thanks, guys. I owe you one.
Limited numbers can do one, frankly. Only 500 Sennas will be built, a further 75 Senna GTRs, and then that's it. Depressingly they're all spoken for. The fact it's going to be so rare is a shame. A 720S will have to do for us mortals, I suppose.
To warm me up for the Senna, McLaren put me in a 720S with a pro driver and told me to go nuts. Hell of a day when a 720S is your "warmup" car. The ability that car has is nothing short of breathtaking. It will lap and lap and lap until the cows come home.
The 720S' rear gets pretty mobile if you push it hard. It will stop with a moment's notice. As a warm up act it was pretty stellar, but it does make you wonder what the entree's going to be like if the starter involves regular 274km/h runs down the main straight.
When I strapped myself in the Senna, with former British Touring Car Championship driver Paul O'Neill alongside to push me, the 720S I drove earlier seemed to be full of unnecessary… stuff. Its seats too big, too many buttons to press. My eye line had the Senna's huge windshield, the speedo, and relevant mirrors in view, the necessary HANS device stopping me from moving freely. On track you only need the essential things, so that's what's been put there for you. Even through a helmet you can hear the Senna's triple pipes wailing at idle, goading you to make it bark.
The car was set to race, lowering the front by 39 mm, the rear by 30 mm, ready to go. RaceActive Chassis Control II set to "angry." Perfect.
Pulling out of the pits slowly gave a bit of time to appreciate how light the cabin is. The shiny new, and super strong, Monocage III means there's near 360 degree views on offer, though with HANS on you can only really enjoy how much light it lets in. No bad thing.
Out on the circuit, the short straight between the first and second turn meant a gentle prod of the gas pedal. However, the Senna's throttle is on a hair trigger so "gentle" is a relative term. The car pushed to triple figures easily, before requiring a stab on the brakes to make the corner safely. Acceleration can be savage, brutal even, but it's fun to explore if you've got the space.
Rifling through the seven speed DCT is worryingly easy to do. It's quick when it changes cogs by itself, but if you choose your own adventure it's instantaneous. As the throttle is so sensitive, you can use it to adjust the car mid-bend easily: fiddle with your line at will.
Yet braking is the Senna's party piece. Thanks to its trick braking system, light weight, and enormous air brake/wing combo it loses speed immensely well. The pedal is hard, so it will take a while to get used to if you ever drive your Senna around town, but once you've given it a good boot you're grateful for the four point harness keeping you in place.
I've never braked so hard I worried I'd end up licking a windscreen until I drove this car.
To put it in to perspective: in the 720S we'd clip 290km/hs heels and brake hard at the 300 meter board to slow for turn one. In the Senna, you brake at the 200 board, at over 290km/h. After that, pick your line and turn in as the blood in your face moves back to where it's supposed to be.
Steering is direct and sharp. The wheel feels a little light, but you can feel pretty much everything through it. Much like the gas, you need to be precise with your inputs as it's easy to give it too much and end up understeering. That said, once you've adjusted to its sensitivity, you'll be able to find your mark time after time.
The grip available is staggering. Pitch in on warm rubber and it clings to the road. Yes, you can unsettle it by overdoing things, but when things are just right the g force it puts upon you drags your face in to funny positions.
You feel the car dig in, balance it, and power out of a corner. The Senna's active aero and trick dampers work together to get you around bends unlike anything else out there. It's the kind of thing you expect fast cars to feel like when you watched them on TV as a kid.
If you overdo it a touch and find the rear starting to slide, it's pretty easy to bring back in to check. While the Senna is a hardcore turbomeganutterbastardcar it's been built for actual human to drive it, so unless you're pedalling like an utter moron it will give you fair warning before anything untoward happens.
The car's aero is simply staggering. You can feel it working as you turn in, you can feel it working as you boot it in a straight line. It's just… epic. In fact, the whole car is.
If you've got $1.3 million (before options) and a love for driving then the Senna is probably going to be worth its weight in gold (73 million, in case you're wondering).
Every time you get in it, you'll fire up the motor and know where your money's gone. You'll feel more than you could possibly feel, you'll fall for it as you lap a track over and over. You might struggle to fit a weekly shop in there though. If your priorities when choosing your $US1 ($1) million car involve groceries, then the Senna and its ilk probably aren't for you.
McLaren has yet to make a dud. The 720S is one of the most capable cars around, one of the fastest too. Yet the Senna manages to make it seem heavy and a bit slow. The delicacy of the controls, the way you have to learn it to reap great rewards, the fact that while it won't eat you for making a mistake it will still teach you a lesson.
With a Senna you get the rawness of a proper track toy, like a Caterham, but coated in McLaren finesse and tech. And obviously, much much faster. As track cars go it will take some beating. As hypercars go, it forgoes the unnecessary and keeps all you need to have fun.
It's wild and addictive. And it stops better than anything this side of a race car.