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Ben Griffin headed to Circuito Estoril in Portugal to try all 789bhp of British supercar madness, as part of his McLaren Senna review for automotive website and YouTube, A Tribe Called Cars.

“When you get out of the Senna, you spend the next half an hour processing what just happened,” a McLaren spokesperson told me. He was wrong. It has been a few weeks since the launch and I’m still thinking about it. Still trying to work out how I could afford one. Do I really need my liver? Is a house that essential?

The noise, the sheer acceleration, the painful level of deceleration, the mix of accessibility and potency, the race car tendencies ─ the Senna really is a breathtaking gathering of British creativity, engineering and know-how, one where function tells form to take a long walk off a short pier. Whether you like how it looks is irrelevant because it cares only about blitzing around a track with unparalleled levels of go. Because let’s face it, no one has ever turned down going for a ride on a roller coaster because they thought the cart was ugly.

On paper, the Senna is an absolute weapon. If the F1 was a V2 rocket, the Senna is an unstable nuke. I was nervous because to stick it into a wall where Ayrton Senna claimed his first F1 victory at Estoril in Portugal (in the wet and having lapped almost everyone) would be sacrilege, especially with his nephew, Bruno Senna, watching from the pit lane.

We attended the third and final Senna rotation, which meant we were joined by a mixture of the creme de la creme of automotive journalism and YouTube. And me. Think Shmee150, Mr JWW, Supercars of London, Vehicle Virgins, Nicki Shields.

First on the agenda were four sighting laps in the McLaren 720S, which is a beast in its own right. But for today’s purposes, it was merely a glorified set of training wheels, there for us to become acquainted with Estoril’s unforgiving layout. A very long straight, one corner you can take flat-out, multiple tight corners that keep on tightening with little run-off in most areas, you soon see why its proper racing days are long gone.

On paper, the Senna should be exceptional. But then former McLarens have suffered from a level of sterility, examples being the original 12C that signaled McLaren’s road presence in 2007. However, the likes of the 570S and 720S have shown a noticeable improvement in drama, is the Senna another example?

Also read: McLaren 600LT review − A Cut Price Senna?

What is the McLaren Senna?

McLaren Senna at Estoril, Portugal

The Senna is from the Ultimate Series, where the P1 and P1 GTR used to live before they sold out, which will be joined by the BP23 ‘ultimate GT’ whenever that turns up.

Numbers first: 789bhp. 800Nm of torque. Kerb weight of 1,198kg. 0-124mph (200kmh) in 6.8 seconds. 200kg of downforce from the rear spoiler at 155mph, making a total of 800kg. £750,000 price tag. Those figures alone suggest the McLaren Senna is no shrinking violet.

On the contrary, it is made to destroy any other road car on track. Yet, somehow it is road legal. This is a car you drive home via Waitrose on the same Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R tyres, having reached 180mph on the straight at Circuito Estoril. Assuming you managed to keep them from tearing themselves to bits, which is easier said than done.

Treading that delicate line between race car and road car is never an easy one. Especially when your creation is faster than the 900bhp hybrid P1 hypercar. Less power is countered by the lack of an electric motor and a battery.

McLaren always makes aerodynamics a priority, but with the Senna it is to a whole new level. This is why its exterior aesthetic is somewhat awkward and fragmented, somewhere between a jet and a kid’s toy. But then every vent, every subtle louvre is there for a reason. To stick it to the road, improving cornering performance.

Materials have been chosen accordingly. Its gigantic active rear wing is made from carbon fibre to withstand the forces as you approach its 211mph top speed, while the engine bay can be seen through a lightweight, worryingly thin slice of polycarbonate.

Quite a few of the panels on the Senna are, in fact, more flexible than you would want them to be in the event of losing control, although as is the case with all McLarens you are encased in an incredibly strong and torsionally rigid carbon fibre tub, which would survive most impacts ─ even if you fail to do so.

Carbon fibre is prominent elsewhere, too, but even its use is sparing to save weight. The seats, for instance, are just a few sheets of the stuff positioned in a way that stops you from being thrown out the window. As a result, they weigh just 3.35kg apiece. Somehow, they’re comfortable-ish.

Our test car was known as ‘the red one’. This meant more carbon fibre than any other Senna at Estoril and, rather unfortunately for us given the high temperature, no air conditioning. Were it not for the three-course dinner the night before, I may have noticed some sort of performance difference derived from ditching a supply of cold air.

Power comes from the 4.0-litre V8 used in the 720S, which is also used (minus 0.2 litres of displacement) in every other McLaren, including the more wallet-friendly 570S and 540C. Although in the Senna’s case, the twin-turbo engine has been extensively reworked to ensure losing the P1’s electric motor has had anything but a negative effect.

McLaren plans to build just 75 examples of a GTR version and 500 of the standard Senna. Unfortunately, if this is the first time you have heard about the car, you are too late to buy one. All have sold.

McLaren says 95 per cent of them are undergoing MSO customisation treatment of some sort. Shmee150’s car, for example, is being sprayed ‘Shmee Blue’ as he calls it. Given its huge base price, a few extra quid is hardly an issue for those with deep enough pockets, nor is it surprising.

How does the McLaren Senna compare with a 720S?

There was no road test for the Senna. Instead, we went out in the 720S, which was fun in itself, before undergoing a 20-minute blast in the Senna prior to lunch and then again after.

While Ayrton Senna is sadly no longer with us, his nephew is. He actually helped develop the 720S, but the Senna is the first project he has been fully involved in.

Although Estoril is no longer safe enough for F1 racing and hasn’t been for some time, it is still a hugely exciting circuit. You have a straight that borders on aircraft landing-friendly before a relatively tight right-hander, followed a few sharp hairpins.

Then there is corner five, which is where you are meant to lift off to ensure you stay on track. But the Senna lets you blitz it without bothering, such is its ability to stick to the hot tarmac like dried cereal to a bowl.

Most people would be happy to drive the 720S around Estoril and, indeed, it was sufficiently pokey. The brakes are strong and the straight-line speed is more than just about anything else currently on sale, while its handling is enviably capable. McLaren can do a fast car better than almost anyone.

Yet the 720S, even in race mode, has a forgiving edge and the Senna highlights that like nothing else. Where the 720S steers fast, the Senna is lightning quick and more direct. It is also more intuitive, as we found out when having to correct a rather sideways moment. You get this sense you play more of a role in the mechanical process.

The noise and sensation of speed in the Senna is greater, too. With 516lb/ft (700Nm) of torque available from 3,000rpm, you spend most of your time being squished against that aforementioned carbon fibre construction and being subjected to a barrage of whoosh from the hefty turbos.

The rest of the time is spent being squished against the four-point harness because the Senna has a new braking system. Stopping from 62mph (100kmh) takes just 30 metres, while you can brake from 124mph to 0 in 100 metres.

Few words can really describe just how potent the brakes are. As you reach about 180mph on Estoril straight, your mind wants to brake at the 300m sign, then the 250m. Your mind is screaming: “Brake!” Other areas of the body are preparing for the worst.

Initially, I dropped to the right speed with too much distance to spare, something reflected in the fact I was already in third long before the right-hander (manual all the way for this kind of car and experience, obviously).

By the end of our first session, however, I was leaving it until 150m, which seemed as good as it gets because we had no breathing room whatsoever. Smashing down through the seven gears like my life depended on it. Unless I fancied a foray into the gravel and then a wall, I suppose it did.

Feeling like the Senna is not to be trifled with yet it had looked after me thus far, session two was about pushing as hard as possible. Later braking, harder on the accelerator, smoother on the steering, suddenly it was all clicking into place. One nervous Senna let me last, another was easy to tail but remained stubborn until it pulled into the pit-lane.

My confidence was growing and the Senna never felt anything but willing. Where I would usually give the chicane kerb a wide berth, the last few laps involved ploughing over it, providing a straighter line and the ability to accelerate away earlier.

What should have ended with a snapped spine and facing backwards was actually a doddle. Only the juddering of the car made me squeeze the accelerator that little too much, resulting in the rear wheels losing traction. But a quick shift to third, using the silky smooth, unphased seven speed automatic, and all was well.

What is remarkable is how much cornering grip you have on tap, as is how snappy the pace is despite an inevitable dose of turbo lag. You really have to be gentle with the accelerator.

Once in fourth and beyond, the high level of downforce keeps the Senna from feeling much, if at all faster than the 720S. But its ability to communicate the road, in part thanks to less electronic intervention, and change direction is sensational.

Suffice to say, Estoril felt very small for the Senna, which is a big compliment for any road-legal car. Yet never once did I feel out of our depth. Were it up to me, I would still be out there, working hard to improve my lap time. And burning through a mountain of expensive rubber.

Bet the McLaren Senna rides horrendously!

Actually, no. On a circuit, at least, the Senna is, in fact, rather supple. Almost as much as the 720S, which would suggest it may actually prove bearable on a road.

By combining two suspension systems, the Senna can be softer and more forgiving than the P1 at low speeds, but as the pace increases it becomes firmer – its adaptability more noticeable than any McLaren before it. Gone are the days when a ride in a supercar meant reconstructive spinal surgery.

A road, potholes and all, will be the real test. But I can see the Senna being more comfortable than it looks. Even if you forgo air conditioning.

What about the McLaren Senna’s interior?

One of the best bits about the Senna is that you start it up using a button in the roof, which is about as jet fighter-esque as it gets. Then there is the rotating dash display, which (like in the 720S), folds down to show a rev counter only. Perfect for those times you need to concentrate.

Compared with other McLarens, there is a level of familiarity. The infotainment screen is, for example, the same one in the 720S. But there are some key differences.

Everything that is important to the driver is in the line of sight, while the relatively few buttons are deliberately chunky so they can be operated in racing gloves. It is a thoughtful design tweak given that the Senna will spend some of its life at a track, as opposed to circling around Harrods. We hope so, anyway.

With just about every carbon fibre option ticked, our Senna definitely erred on the side of race car, yet it was neither claustrophobic nor uncomfortable. Although you would find the hassle of a four-point harness noticeable when popping out to get some milk.

Should I buy the McLaren Senna, then?

The McLaren Senna is not the battering of the senses I expected. It actually felt more delicate and measured than brutal race car.

Yet I have no doubt there is very little that would be as capable on track that you could take you to Aldi on the same day. At least, not something with a proper roof and two seats. In some ways, it is more palatable than the likes of a hard-riding Peugeot 208 GTi or a Ford Focus RS.

Acting less aggressivelu than its looks suggest has its perks anyway, in that you get a rewarding level of accessibility. Cutting apexes, braking at full tilt and enjoying the odd moment of opposite lock, the way it makes mere mortals feel like a racing driver is really quite special.

Yet I got out of the Senna knowing it still had ample room to breath before reaching the limit, knowing that it would takes the likes of a Senna to wring every last drop of performance out of it.

And that is why the Senna is sensational. Not because it is the fastest McLaren ever, but because it encourages you to push yourself to the limit and every second you do is as exciting and as memorable as the last.

£750,000 is a lot of cash, but it really is the sort of car that makes the idea of selling everything you own to buy a Senna seem like a wise move. And given the likely appreciation in value, it probably is.

McLaren Senna review ─ King of the road?
Absolutely brutal yet still accessible to drive, the McLaren Senna is a race car for the road that helps you get the best from it. What a pity, then, that all have sold.
The good
  • Breathtaking performance
  • Immense braking power
  • Easy to learn, difficult to master
The bad
  • Lacking in elegance
  • Good luck affording one
  • All 500 have sold
4.6The Score
Reader Rating: (0 Votes)

About The Author


Ben Griffin is a motoring journalist and founder of the website and YouTube channel, A Tribe Called Cars. He is also a contributor at DriveTribe.

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