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2019 McLaren Senna: First Drive Review

Autódromo do Estoril, Portugal

McLaren says this is the most extreme, responsive and engaging road car it has ever built. It also claims it’s the lightest McLaren ever, and the quickest around a racetrack. Considering McLaren’s history of supercars includes the legendary F1 and hyperkinetic P1, that’s really saying something.

But the new McLaren Senna — note the absence of the company’s traditional alphanumeric naming system — has the numbers to back it up. Its twin-turbo 4.0-liter V8, for instance, is rated at 800 PS — 789 good old-fashioned SAE horsepower, the most of any of McLaren’s internal combustion engines — and 590 lb-ft of torque. That means the Senna can accelerate to 100 kilometers per hour in the same 2.8 seconds as the P1 and hit 200 kilometres an hour in just 6.8. That too, I’m told, is about the same as the P1. I’ll remind everyone that said P1 boasts a total of 903 horses and a hybrid electric motor to help it scoot along.

But none of those statistics, as impressive as they are, are the numbers that count. Nope, the number that really counts is 1,763.7. That is, in pounds, the amount of downforce the Senna produces at 155 miles an hour. The huge rear wing accounts for 1,100 of those pounds and, as McLaren takes great pains to point out, despite its gargantuan size, the carbon-fiber spoiler weighs but 10.7 lb. That means, as McLaren officials were also wont to point out, that it supports 100 times as much downforce as it weighs.

In the real world, this means the Senna gets sucked into the pavement with such force that you’d swear its Pirelli PZero Trofeo Rs — 305/30ZR20 in the rear and 245/35/ZR19 fronts — are going to rip the tarmac right out of terra firma. Fast corners that in a 720S required judicious throttle application, not to mention a dip into the brakes, could be taken flat-out — if, of course, you could recalibrate your right foot not to (third-year aerodynamics theory, don’t fail me now) lift off.

But just like a proper Formula 1 car, what really sets the Senna apart from its contemporaries — and we had an extremely competent 720 S along just for such a comparison — is its braking. Angle up to the tight hairpin at the end of Estoril’s long front straight at, oh say, 280 km/h and then hammer on the brakes. The first thing that happens is that huge rear wing tilts forward its maximum 35 degrees, the front splitters do likewise, and then those big 6-piston front calipers grip the 390-millimeter CCM-TR carbon-ceramic brakes with such a force that, about 50 meters out — an eternity on a racetrack — you realize you’re going so slow that a Camry could clip the apex.

The interesting tidbit about all this downforce-enabled traction is that the Senna could have even more. In fact, after 155 mph, McLaren programs the wing and front splitter to start bleeding off some of that aerodynamic energy, because it would put too much strain on the Senna’s suspension and those ZR-rated Pirelli tires. And since, in Race mode, the hydraulic, cross-linked RaceActive Chassis Control II suspension is lowered some 1.5 inches (in front; 1.2 in. in the rear), more downforce would risk bottoming things out. Nonetheless, thanks to all the traction from said aerodynamics, you really need to "stand" on the brakes to get maximum effect, it helping incredibly if you’ve been doing your squats before heading out to do a few laps in the Senna.

In the end, once you’re passed the initial rush of all that horsepower and how incredibly hard it can brake, the overall impression of this latest "Ultimate Series" McLaren you’re left with is of the physicality of driving it to its limit. Besides the extra-strong quadriceps you’ll need to get the best out of those carbon-ceramic brakes, the cornering forces the Senna is capable of — "over 2.0 g’s" is all Andy Palmer, vehicle line director of McLaren Ultimate Series, will claim — will also challenge your core muscles. Despite the tight squeeze into the one-piece racing seats and an authentic 5-point racing harness, it helps to have some semblance of a 6-pack if you’re going to use all the Senna’s grip in high-"g" corners. Indeed, it doesn’t take more than a couple of corners to realize that, in comparison, the 720 S, normally a standout in the performance arena, is a Sunday-come-to-meeting "street" car compared with the seriousness of the Senna. Yes, it’s road-legal, but its primary purpose is track weapon.

There’s something even more "extreme" coming down the pipe, however. As singularly focused as the Senna is, McLaren is already working on a GTR version complete with 825 horsepower, slick tires and Lord knows what other go-faster goodies. Thank goodness it won’t be street-legal.

To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle’s manufacturer.

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