Car makers, like rock bands, often try to return to earlier glories. And like many of the stars of yesteryear, they often fail to pull it off. The modern McLaren Automotive is a very different company from the tiny offshoot of the Formula 1 team that created the original McLaren F1 more than 20 years ago, but it still returns to the lodestone of its original road car when it needs inspiration for crazier projects.
No wonder: the McLaren F1 was truly off the chart. It was launched as the most expensive road car in the world, the fastest accelerating, the quickest overall and the first to be constructed around a carbon-fibre tub. Not to mention the uniqueness of the three-seat layout and central driving position. It was the first hypercar, and all those that have followed have owed it a huge debt.
None more so than McLaren’s latest, most extreme offering.
But before considering the car, we have to deal with the name, one which moves well beyond of the seemingly random alphanumeric combinations that the company has previously employed: meet the McLaren Senna.
Working with The Senna Foundation, McLaren has licensed the rights to use the name of its most famous driver, and there’s some additional justification from the fact Ayrton’s nephew, Bruno Senna, worked as one of the development drivers.
There’s a strong Ferrari Enzo quality to the moniker – and it’s not as if “McLaren Bruce” would really work – but sticking the Senna name on anything runs the risk of serious hyperbole.
Yet not here. The McLaren Senna is the most extreme road-legal car the company has ever produced, one that’s been engineered around the same obsessive weight-saving mission as the F1. So while the power output is certainly impressive – 588kW from a turned-up version of the 530kW 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 in the 720S, accompanied by 800Nm of torque.
The more impressive number is the one sitting on the other side of the power-to-weight balance. In its lightest configuration, McLaren says this car tips the scales at a mere 1198kg, just 60kg more than the F1 did.
Granted, the Senna only has two seats, and luggage space that is limited to the ability to carry two race helmets in a cubby at the back of the passenger compartment – the F1 had the option of a set of fitted luggage – but it is still a remarkable achievement to build a car capable of passing vastly more stringent 21st century homologation tests while weighing nearly the same.
McLaren is also developing another Ultimate Series car partially inspired by the F1’s touring credentials; the production version of what’s currently only known by its BP23 code will have a three-seat layout, a plush cabin and an even higher top speed than the Senna.
Both cars were sold out before their official existence was even acknowledged; apparently many buyers have ordered one of each.
The Senna is intended to be an uncompromising track car, road legal basically so it can drive to and from circuits. We don’t have full performance numbers yet (McLaren promises they will be extraordinary), but we can safely expect that it will be quicker around a circuit than even the almighty 673kW hybrid P1.
Styling is functional rather than beautiful, every contour the result of the car’s mission for aerodynamic efficiency and the need to throw the maximum amount of clean airflow onto the vast underhung rear wing.
The total surface area is 6600cm3
according to Ultimate Series development boss Andy Palmer (not to be confused with Aston Martin’s CEO). The rear wing can rotate backwards of forwards to trim its aero load, or effectively stall itself to boost top speed. At the front of the car, two active winglets sit inside the sizeable intakes on both sides of the front bumper to help out.
Like the Ford GT, the Senna has a track mode that sees it drop 50mm on its springs, putting the tops of the rear wheels well inside the arches, to increase aero grip still further. The company is staying coy about peak downforce numbers, but when I speculated that the huge wing and its sizeable supports might be able to handle loadings that would equate to a total downforce greater than the weight of the car, Palmer showed no visible dissent.
The interior is less exciting; well designed and serviceable, but with no more bling than you’d find in a prototype racer. Seats are just padding on lightweight carbon frames, instrumentation is a race-like display screen and controls for pretty much everything are delegated to a central touchscreen. On a panel above the windscreen there is the engine start button, plus releases for the two top-hinged doors.
Side windows have fixed upper glazing, the lower part only dropping a few centimeters. A lower glass panel, making it easier to spot apexes, will also be available - but, as glass is heavier than carbon, selecting it takes the Senna above that sub-1200kg dry weight. It’s the same story with the glass panel that separates the passenger compartment from the engine, and also the optional audio system. McLaren suspects most buyers will take the modest weight penalty.
Other mass saving includes the development of an even lighter carbon-fibre tub, the 'Monocage 3' claimed to be 18kg lighter than the previous generation. Non-structural external panels are also constructed from extra-thin carbon; the front wings weigh just 0.6 kg each, compared to 2.19 kg for the same parts on the 720S. Even the forged alloy wheels have been made lighter, the use of centre locks rather than studs (a first for McLaren) allowing them to be designed with nine spokes rather than ten (track-biased P-Zero Trofeo tyres will be standard.) The Brembo brakes use motorsport grade CCM-R material, which has three and a half times better thermal conductivity than regular carbon composite discs, meaning the brakes are smaller and lighter. It does seem that every single gram has been carefully considered.
Both left- and right-hand drive versions will be produced, and McLaren says it plans to offer the Senna in every market where it sells its existing line-up. Only British pricing has been released, with the Senna’s £750,000 tag (including 20 percent VAT), or AU$1.3 million, clearly not discouraging potential buyers.
McLaren is going to build just 500 cars, and already has a name against each of them – the finished version of the BP23 will be even rarer, with a run of 106 to match that of the original F1. So if you’re going to get one from the factory then you already know about it. The rest of us can only drool.
CarAdvice: The Senna will make its public debut at March's Geneva motor show, and the company has confirmed today that we are "likely" to see it in Australia by the end of 2018.
Exactly how many have been allocated to our market is still to be revealed, however.