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First drive: McLaren Senna. Image by McLaren.

First drive: McLaren Senna
We’ve had twelve tantalising laps in Race mode of the astounding new McLaren Senna.


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McLaren Senna

5 5 5 5 5

The launch of a new McLaren road car is always exciting. If it's a member of the hyper-rare, hyper-fast 'Ultimate Series', doubly so. And as if there wasn't enough pressure on its team of talented engineers, McLaren went and called its new model after Ayrton Senna, nothing less than a legend, with legions of passionate fans. How can one car live up to all this expectation, all this hype? Time to get up close and personal with the flabbergasting new McLaren Senna.

Test Car Specifications

Model tested: McLaren Senna
Pricing: £750,000
Engine: twin-turbocharged 4.0-litre V8 petrol engine
Transmission: seven-speed twin-clutch automatic, rear-wheel drive
Body style: two-door coupe
CO2 emissions: 280g/km (VED £2,070 first 12 months, then £450 annually)
Combined economy: 22.8mpg
Top speed: 208mph
0-62mph: 2.8 seconds
Power: 800hp at 7,250rpm
Torque: 800Nm at 5,500-6,700rpm

What's this?

Only one of the most talked about cars of the past 12 months - and not always in a good way. When McLaren took the covers off the Senna in December last year for the first time, simultaneously announcing its name, there were more than a few raised eyebrows. Daring to call a mere car after the great Ayrton Senna? Cue furious activity on social media. That was only matched by those that instantly took a disliking to the appearance of the McLaren Senna.

But McLaren has been unapologetic about the design, shaped as it was more so by the aerodynamic needs of the car than the aesthetic desire of the company's stylists. This car develops up to 800kg of downforce, which is massive by the standards of a car that can be driven on the road, but more impressive yet is the way the active aerodynamics balance the load over the car to enhance all aspects of its performance - from reducing braking distances to allowing high-speed cornering, improving traction and even reducing drag when needs be. It's all controlled by active aero blades at the front and that massive 'swan neck' rear wing, which alters angle rapidly on the move.

All that works at its most focused when you select the Race mode (there are Comfort, Sport and Track settings too), which reduces the ride height (by 39mm at the front, incidentally, in comparison to 30mm at the back - for aerodynamic reasons of course) and considerably stiffens up the suspension. The Senna uses McLaren's RaceActive Chassis Control II (RCC II) suspension, which features hydraulically interconnected dampers and a hydraulic replacement for conventional mechanical anti-roll bars. There are carbon ceramic brakes and special Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R tyres, too.

Powering it all along is what McLaren refers to as its most powerful road-car internal combustion engine, a twin-turbocharged 4.0-litre V8 putting out 800hp and 800Nm of torque. The core engine might seem familiar to other McLaren products, but for the Senna, the intake and inlet manifold are new, as are the camshafts and high-flow fuel pumps. Finally, it breathes through a special Inconel and titanium exhaust, exiting on the rear deck, which not only sounds incredibly loud, but also is claimed to significantly enhance the aerodynamic performance.

What else? Well, that wind-shaped body is made from carbon fibre to bring weight down (to as low as 1,198kg) and is wrapped around the Monocage III carbon chassis, featuring dramatic doors that take part of the roof and side sills with them when opening to ease entry. The interior is quite sparse looking, but gorgeously put together, and some controls live in the roof, allowing McLaren to keep the glasshouse packaging tight. You guessed it, for aerodynamic reasons.

And what price all this technical marvelousness? £750,000. Or rather, it would be if you didn't add options or personalise the interior and exterior to your financial capability (seriously, some buyers may double that cost with extras). Then again, as all 500 are sold, the price is all but irrelevant, isn't it? And you're too late for the 75 track-only Senna GTRs as well.

How does it drive?

Before we're allowed onto the track in Estoril in Portugal (where Ayrton won his first GP...), we have to don fireproof underwear, a race suit, race boots, a balaclava, a helmet and a heavy HANS (Head And Neck Support) device. Yes, we are about to drive a car that is homologated for public road use, but such are the speeds it can achieve on a fast circuit that the powers that be deemed it necessary to take no risks. And we're not pootling around with time to get to know the car, either. My instructor for the day introduces himself, helps me tighten up the (optional) six-point harness, then tells me to fire it up and go straight for Race mode. *gulp*

Minutes earlier we finished a session on track in the McLaren 720S, to learn our way around 2.5-mile lap, and never has the phrase out of the frying pan, into the fire been more poignant. The Senna's V8 may be related to that in the 720S, but it's far angrier, even at idle. Some of that is due to the dearth of sound deadening, while more vibration is felt by the occupants because the Senna's engine mounts are firmer, but you get the feeling that McLaren's engineers have pushed this engine hard for this application. In contrast, the gearchange paddles are fingertip-light (too light if I'm being critical) and the dual-clutch transmission makes it a cinch to pull out of our garage into the pitlane. Even at the low speed limit and on the smooth tarmac it's quite obvious that the Senna's suspension is far far stiffer than that of the 720S. Time to take a deep breath as we join the racing line for the first time to an empty track and squeeze the throttle open.

Yeah, it's fast. But beyond the outright power and fury of the engine, what sticks in my memory is the trigger-like response to throttle input. There's no lag obvious. And yet the performance is seemingly endless. My instructor lets me find my feet for a few laps then suggests that we start to use all of the rev band. I stare at him in disbelief. Until then, I had been relying on the noise and vibration to feel when to change up, but it turns out there's an even stronger top end on this thing than I realised. And the Senna, hardly a wet kipper up to this, really comes alive when you're using the top quarter of its revs.

By the middle of my second session in the Senna, I'm really getting a feel for what it's capable of. Confidence is building. You see, the Senna is not at all difficult to drive, but its limits are incredibly high, higher than many will expect, so a lot of drivers will genuinely have to lift their own limits to get the most from it. And the Senna is at its most rewarding when you do that. The electro-hydraulic steering tells you what the front tyres are doing, the rock-solid brake pedal feels good and controls one of the best set of stoppers on any road car, ever, and it's all accessible to mere mortals - if they're willing to push themselves. That massive downforce means you can take fast corners at eerie speeds, while the active aerodynamics clearly play a very large part in ensuring the Senna is massively stable at all other times. It really did take a very short amount of time to feel comfortable with driving this car at what can only be described as bonkers pace.

That's not to say it will do it all for you and make it easy for any driver to do so; no, the Senna is more challenging than that, but it's not as intimidating as some will expect. That's down to nigh-on perfect control weightings and responsiveness, great visibility, feedback through the chassis to the driver and an inherent lightness and stability that make it an absolute joy to drive quickly. To say that this is an exhilarating car would be a gross understatement.


Once you accept that McLaren would have undoubtedly sold all examples of the Senna, regardless of what it was called, it's easier to understand the rationale of using the great man's name, even if there will always be doubters. This car takes inspiration from Ayrton, in particular his intensity and single-minded focus; it's a tribute to his abilities and personality. And the McLaren Senna has personality and ability in abundance. Sure, it's road-legal, but it has been developed from the ground up to be an engaging track car that challenges its driver to raise his game to new heights. Very lofty heights.

4 4 4 4 4 Exterior Design

4 4 4 4 4 Interior Ambience

3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 Passenger Space

0 0 0 0 0 Luggage Space

5 5 5 5 5 Safety

3 3 3 3 3 Comfort

5 5 5 5 5 Driving Dynamics

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Powertrain

Shane O' Donoghue - 17 Jul 2018    - McLaren road tests
- McLaren news
- Senna images

2018 McLaren Senna. Image by McLaren.2018 McLaren Senna. Image by McLaren.2018 McLaren Senna. Image by McLaren.2018 McLaren Senna. Image by McLaren.2018 McLaren Senna. Image by McLaren.

2018 McLaren Senna. Image by McLaren.2018 McLaren Senna. Image by McLaren.2018 McLaren Senna. Image by McLaren.2018 McLaren Senna. Image by McLaren.2018 McLaren Senna. Image by McLaren.


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