Let’s face it, there have been better looking supercars than the McLaren Senna. Even McLaren’s boss admits as much, the hope being that ‘dynamite on the track’ performance will mean love at first sight for the 500 buyers who swiped right and stumped up £750,000 without even knowing what they were getting.
I have to admit I struggled when I first saw the studio pictures, and I’m a McLaren fanboy. The Senna’s overbite looked all wrong, the wheels seemed too small for the arches, the split side windows and extra glass in the doors was a bit weird and that wing looked like it was the wrong scale for the car and mounted a metre forward of where it should have been.
McLaren can do sexy looking track cars - check out the P1 GTR and the road-going conversions built from it if you were in any doubt. And I like the fact Woking has quickly evolved from making cars criticised for being too sterile to designing provocative machines like the 720S. But even I was struggling with the Senna.
Until, that was, I saw it for real at McLaren’s new Sheffield carbonfibre production facility.
Much as I was impressed with the ‘Holy Trinity’ I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d have been better without the hybrid stuff. Sure, it was an important technological statement for all three brands. But imagine a 918 Spyder without 400kg-plus of batteries, motors and control systems. Oh, hang on, I don’t have to - it’s called a Carrera GT. And that would get my money over a 918 any day. See also F50 or Enzo in the case of LaFerrari.
In performance terms the Senna nails the P1 at all increments up to 0-186mph (here the P1’s punch ekes out half a second, partly thanks to the Senna’s extra drag) and is a whole second faster 0-124mph than a 720S. Here’s your answer to what an Ultimate Series McLaren would go like without all the hybrid crap. At 1198kg dry this is the lightest McLaren since the F1 and, with 789bhp, it has the most impressive power-to-weight ratio of any road car it’s ever made, P1 included. In McLaren’s own words the Senna embodies “unforgiving design in pursuit of absolute performance,” though this is still a road car with variable driver modes, adjustable ride height and the options of air-con and a lightweight stereo if you want them.
At the full tech briefing I chatted with Ultimate Series boss Andy ‘not the one from Aston Martin’ Palmer, whom I met previously on the 570S launch. He was the one papped putting in the road miles in the black Senna prototype not so long ago, and he said he’d done 500 miles over one weekend in it. Sure, it’s a little bit harsh. But totally viable for that kind of use too, or so he says.
His colleague Ian Howshall was fresh from a slightly more full-on drive at IDIADA in Spain and still buzzing.
“I jumped in as a passenger and was just struck by how raw it was. I knew it was going to be like that but it was still a surprise. Then I went back in a 720S and it felt like a limo!
“After that I drove the Senna and the sensations you get through the seat, through the steering, the vibrations, the kick from the engine - it’s such an event! It was on Trofeos and it was a cool night and after it spun up its wheels in fourth gear I thought ‘OK, you have my respect now, let’s meet again on a nice, dry and sunny day!’”
When you see the Senna in the metal (OK, carbon) it’s way more handsome than you’d credit from those initial pictures. It looks small, mean and - crucially - fast at a standstill like all supercars should. Slammed to the floor in its Race mode with a very F1-style rake (it drops 39mm front and 30mm back) that splitter - 75mm longer than even the P1 GTR’s - juts out from the nose. Meanwhile the clear air visible through the opened-out ‘eye socket’ vents and the bodywork channels mean you can literally see how that 800kg of downforce at 155mph (200kg more than a P1) is created.
Vents Howshall describes as “the wrong trousers” split the air over the front deck, between the A-pillars and front wings and into the gaping engine radiators that rise awkwardly from the rear bodywork. They look weird because the rear deck is 180mm lower than a 720S’s. See the small Gurney flaps on their trailing edges? These are all about creating low pressure to suck air from the F1-style louvres so as not to disrupt the flow over the wing. And that flat section separating the two vents on the nose? This channels air over the screen and into the roof snorkel, the noise of it sucking air into the turbos an event in itself.
To my mind the Senna is less the ‘what if’ of a hybrid-free P1 and more, in fact, a return to the unapologetic road racers of the GT1 era. I’m thinking of the Strassenversion Porsche 911 GT1, the Mercedes CLK GTR, the one-off Nissan R390 and others pushing the boundaries of what ‘race car for the road’ really means. None of them were lookers in the conventional sense. But who’d doubt their sub-zero status?
In an age where Lamborghini openly describes the aero on the Super Trofeo Evo version of the Huracan as a ‘bodykit’ and where Mercedes makes a hot hatch with optional dive planes on its front bumper, the Senna calls bullshit on ‘fake’ aero. The real thing isn’t always aesthetically pleasing. It has purpose. Real aero will make the Senna as fast round a track as anything you’ll ever be able to park in front of your house or drive to the shops in.
The Senna IS still ugly. But, like McLaren, I don’t care.