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23rd of July 2018

Automotive



McLaren's New Hypercar Ain't Pretty, but It Can Whip a Track

The success of any hypercar hinges on three elements: ludicrous performance, decadent looks, and abject scarcity. Nail all three and you’re on the road to automotive legend. Flub one or more, and you risk becoming a footnote of folly. So it was with some controversy that McLaren’s ambitiously named Senna debuted to skeptical supercar enthusiasts.

McLaren will make just 500 street-legal copies of the car, plus 75 track-only GTR models, so its rarity is ensured. Combining extremely light weight with a 789-horsepower twin-turbo V8 engine, performance should hold up. But in pushing the $958,966 Senna’s visual allure and versatility into the (non-existent) backseat, McLaren won itself quite a bit of backlash. The critiques came not just from armchair enthusiasts (aka internet trolls) but from people who are actually in a position to buy the thing. “Overpriced Lego ride for McLaren fanboys” one multi-hypercar-owning friend groused to me in an Instagram message. The hate, folks, is real.

In naming this car for the late, adored Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna, McLaren made its task more difficult. McLaren’s relationship with the Brazilian phenom was hot and heavy during the 1990s, when he scored a staggering 35 F1 victories and three driver’s titles with the marque. Senna died in a crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, and no driver since has quite filled his Nomex boots. McLaren says this car “embodies Ayrton Senna’s values,” and it donated $2.67 million from the auction proceeds of the final Senna produced to the driver’s foundation that supports children. But coming more than two decades after Senna’s death, the link between the late man and the new machine is flimsy at best.

I’ve come to Portugal to draw my own conclusions about this maligned vehicle, whose looks pose the most pressing questions. Why has the Senna’s styling—or lack thereof—been such a trigger for enthusiasts? Maybe it’s because the bodywork lacks poetry. Unlike the Italian exotics whose curves ancient Roman sculptors would recognize as beautiful, the Senna is all lines, planes, and intersecting surfaces. It’s made for the wind tunnel, not the human eye or heart.

But here in the pits at the Estoril Circuit outside Lisbon, the car makes a wacky kind of visual sense. It’s unapologetically mean, a weapon suited for the apexes and straightaways on which Senna the man won his first Formula 1 race 33 years ago. Maybe it doesn’t have the swoon-inducing allure of a Lamborghini Miura or a McLaren F1. Maybe it doesn’t need it. That depends though, on how it drives.

Though the Senna’s doors open up and outwards, taking a section of the roof within them, it takes some wriggling to get into the thin, hollow, carbon fiber seats. After closing the door with a clunk, I acquaint myself with the moonscape of carbon fiber and Alcantara, aka synthetic suede. If you order the leather trim and soft-closing doors, you’re missing the point.

McLaren painstakingly stripped away the unnecessary bits in a form of automotive asceticism. Even the door struts remain visible (you can color-match them to the brake calipers). The digital instrument cluster offers a minimalist, race-oriented setup displaying key information like engine rpms and gear position. The central, 8-inch infotainment touchscreen is oriented in portrait mode to save space. Other than that, it’s all windshield and the road ahead. Purists (aka masochists) can even delete the navigation, A/C, and Bluetooth hardware in the interest of maximum minimalism.

The lightweighting efforts go deeper. The Senna is built around what McLaren calls the Monocage III, which weighs just 207 pounds but forms the carmaker’s strongest chassis ever. Thanks in part to those stout, slight underpinnings, the Senna is the wispiest McLaren road car since the gloried F1. The automaker’s designers and engineers replaced seemingly inconsequential metal fittings with lighter, simpler carbon bits. They moved the door latches and window switches to the roof to avoid the extra mass that comes with extended wiring. The shrunken retracting window allows for a smaller, lighter window motor. It also comes with an optional, transparent lower panel, made of Gorilla Glass that provides a sideways view of the nearby tarmac. The entire door weighs just 21 pounds, less than half of the 720S’s 55-pound portals. And let’s face it: See-through body panels are damn cool.

To go with the slimmed down look, the Senna offers aggressive aerodynamics. Active front air ducts and a rear spoiler create up to 1,763.7 pounds of downforce at 155 mph, gluing the car to tarmac while cornering. But the system is smart enough to reduce that force at more human speeds, to avoid overloading the suspension and tires. It also uses steering angle and throttle position data to manage the front-to-rear balance of the car and avoid nosedives during hard braking. McLaren says fine-tuning the massive rear wing’s movements was the hardest part of development.

The wing, which weighs only 10.8 pounds but can support more than 100 times its mass, uses hydraulic pressure from the gearbox to adjust its height and angle of attack in fractions of a second. When fine-tuning the system on the famed Nürburgring Nordschleife, McLaren engineers noted that too-sudden changes in airflow could upset the car, requiring a refined algorithm that produced the necessary downforce without destabilizing the vehicle’s delicate handling balance. The suspension is also adaptive, using McLaren’s active hydraulic system.

While I’m looking around the car’s interior, a technician hooks my helmet to the harness that will keep me from snapping my neck if I crash. Another clips my five point race harness into place (my helmet-limited field of vision makes doing it myself tricky). Pro driver Andre D’Cruze sits on my right, ready to help me around the 2.599-mile track. As I exit pit lane, I realize what all the fuss is about, and what all the ligthweighting and aerodynamic work has yielded.

A squeeze of the accelerator yields a frisson of oversteer. “Cold tires,” D’Cruze reminds me. Just like a race car, the Senna’s vast reserves of power must be respected before they can be exploited. I back off the gas, then gradually get back on. Each dip into the throttle produces thrust that becomes more immediate, fierce, and violent as the warmed up tires find their grip.

The 4.0-liter V8 spins so eagerly with each twitch of the right foot, you wouldn’t know it’s twin-turbocharged. The thing just wants to go. For weight savings and fun havings, McLaren ditched much of the sound deadening material. Gun the throttle, and the low-pitched sound bludgeons the cockpit. The wheel feels surprisingly light through my gloved hands, whipping the Senna into each corner with precision.

Approaching the end of Estoril’s half-mile straightaway at 170 mph, I stab the left pedal. The car decelerates so abruptly, I have to release the brake and regain speed going into the hard right-hand corner. McLaren, you see, incorporated the brake booster from the race-prepped P1 GTR into the Senna. It also made drastic improvements to the six-piston ventilated front discs, which now require seven months to construct. That’s seven times longer than typical carbon ceramics.

On the next go around, D’Cruze suggests I wait another 100 feet before braking. I come in at 177 mph, slam on the stoppers, manage to get over the feeling of being punched in the sternum by Joe Louis, and coax the Senna through the corner.

Even with the safety belts pressing my rib cage snug against the firm seats, I struggle to keep my head up as the G forces work my cervical spine into a wet noodle. While the Senna applies the brakes to each wheel independently to help rotate the car into corners, lower-speed bends still require proper weight-transfer techniques to load up the front tires and avoid speed-sapping understeer. I tested the Senna in Race mode, which lowers the suspension in order to enhance the active aerodynamics, but McLaren brass banned the use of the ‘Dynamic’ handling mode, which would have allowed the car greater slides. With the transmission in automatic, it’s easy to keep the car in control, as it tends to upshift earlier than I would and avoid spinning the tires. Switching to manual mode and using the steering-column-mounted paddles lets me taste more of those ginormous power reserves, devouring the meatiest parts of the torque curve and triggering the occasional (controlled!) power slide.

When my track time comes to an end, it takes a moment to fully digest the Senna’s extraordinary limits. Objectively speaking, there are much cheaper cars that match its performance numbers. The $345,300 Ferrari 488 Pista and $293,200 Porsche 911 GT2 RS equal its 0-60 mph time of 2.7 seconds. The Lamborghini Aventador S, starting under half a million dollars, goes 9 mph faster. But numbers don't tell the full story. The Senna’s most alluring attributes are its featherweight construction, tenacious handling, considerable downforce, and relentless brakes. All of which lend it more in common with a race car than a street-legal road car, leaving concessions to comfort and convenience by the wayside.

Because commoners like you and me might wonder why wealthy enthusiasts put so much money into such a car, I reach out to one Senna deposit holder whose garage is filled with hypercars from the likes of Pagani, Koenigsegg, Lamborghini, and of course, McLaren. “The motivation for me was McLaren’s desire to be LM focused,” he says in an Instagram message, referring to Le Mans-inspired race cars that prioritize handling over raw speed. “The downforce and the visibility tricks are 👍.”

When it comes to those controversial looks, he admits that the car received “some rough feedback” initially. “I think it needs to be seen in the flesh to really appreciate it,” he says. But the most telling bit comes last: “Most of the noise was from people that would never buy a McLaren anyway.” And who cares what those people think? McLaren sold every last Senna.

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