The McLaren Senna can achieve what other F1 cars can't

The name alone could almost have justified the $1.7 million asking price. Except the Senna was sold out before McLaren announced it would pay homage to a man considered the greatest ever to wrestle a Formula 1 car, Ayrton Senna.

As the most track-focused of the Ultimate Series – the pinnacle of the three-tiered McLaren supercar lineup – the Senna has one goal in mind: going fast. It achieves that in a traditional way: lots of power and not much weight. But it's the race-inspired aerodynamics and clever electronics that give the Senna its performance edge.

Space-age specs

With 597kW – translating to a neat 800 horsepower – it is the most powerful car you can buy. But the most impressive thing with the McLaren Senna is not how quickly it builds speed. Nor is it the moniker, replete with swoopy "S" logos throughout. It's the way it stops, closely followed by how it tracks through fast corners.

Firing down the long Hangar Straight at the Silverstone circuit at something around 280km/h is a thrill in itself. The DRS system – or drag reduction system, using the same principal employed by modern F1 cars – lies the enormous rear wing flat and opens flaps in sizeable ducts below the headlights. The Senna is as slippery as it'll ever be through the air, its twin-turbo V8 thrusting hard as it lunges towards its 340km/h-plus top speed.

Punch the firm brake pedal and powerful hydraulic rams prop the wing nearly vertical and use electric motors to close the front flaps, working in concert with new carbon ceramic brakes to slow things with the sort of ferocity that gives an insight into the world of purebred race cars. It helps that the Senna is about 1300kg, among the lightest cars on the road.

Banned by other cars

The Senna is doing things banned in modern F1 cars: constantly altering the aerodynamic setup depending on speed, steering, braking, throttle and the surface of the road. Even headwinds are taken into account by a computer furiously calculating and proactively preparing the various systems for the next high speed challenges. Calculations are being made in microseconds, then directing everything from the suspension and wings to which of the enormous rear wheels to send drive to.

Not that you sense the technology working from the driver's seat, a snug single bucket of carbon fibre weighing just 4.7kg, part of an intensive weigh-saving mission that includes utilising the latest techniques in laying carbon fibre and shrinking the side glass apertures to operate them with smaller window motors.

Instead, it's the unerring stability and directness to driver inputs that shines. My only hint of understeer, where the front tyres want to scrub wide, is into a fast right-hander.

Pick up the pace

Turns out I wasn't going fast enough, thereby allowing up to 800kg of downforce to squish the car to the road, in turn increasing the friction between the sticky Pirelli Trofeo rubber and the bitumen. It's that downforce that calls for a new driving style, one that requires you to abandon traditional boundaries, trusting the car and its ability to extend beyond what you'd ordinarily expect.

Advertisement

Step up the pace and the car finds extra grip that didn't exist at lower speeds. Maintaining some brake pressure into bends applies additional downforce, something reduced when you reapply the throttle.

Early on it creates some heart-in-throat moments, with that awful sensation you're travelling too fast and your destiny involves a shower of gravel spearing towards a concrete wall. But you learn to trust it – before realising there is so much more in reserve.

McLaren engineer Andy Palmer won't divulge the G forces being exerted under brakes, citing it as sensitive information, at least until Ferrari or Porsche get hold of a Senna once cars hit the road.

Valuable assets

Our early drive is of a validation prototype in the weeks leading up to engineering sign-off, a critical step in the development process before the first of 500 customer cars begins their intensive hand building process. It's brief and fast, but enough to ascertain McLaren has raised the bar when it comes to lapping a track.

The Senna is the sort of car that few will be brave enough to take to its stratospheric limits.

Yet its relatively easy going nature and thoroughly normal cabin allows exploration of those limits for what is the closest thing to a road going race car.

Sure, it's a toy for the track. But for those with a few spare million to blow on toys you're guaranteed the sort of adrenalin rush no other four-wheeler can dish-up. Not to mention a car with the sort of pedigree – and name – that should see it increase in value.