Ugly or effective?
McLaren’s head of design says he cherishes the controversy surrounding the Senna's styling, defending the function-over-form ethos driving the company's design.
Speaking to CarAdvice at the Geneva motor show this week, Rob Melville, chief designer for McLaren, defended the Senna’s aggressive styling, arguing it’s a no-compromise car in search of 'ultimate road-legal track car' status.
“We haven’t done that just to tell the story visually,” Melville says of the Senna’s controversial styling.
“It’s a reflection of the package and what the car needs to do. The two things are interlinked, the aesthetic and the function, they should reflect each other.”
Melville says the best way to consider the McLaren range is to view the 720S as a 400m runner, and the Senna as a sprinter.
“[It has] more definition, muscles are larger, more defined, it's more aggressive in your perception of its frame and body.”
He uses the example of packaging around the radiator to differentiate between the two cars, and credits those details for the hyper-aggressive form of the Senna and Senna GTR.
“On a 720s we have the radiator on the body side, the body panels come up and flow down so you’re increasing the front area. On the Senna we literally bring the panel up across and down, mirroring the package underneath exactly.”
That level of decision-making behind its design is why the Senna is viewed as an engineer’s dream, where function takes precedence over aesthetic form.
“Senna has been driven a lot by engineering requirements, aero requirements, but to me that’s what design is. I hate the word ‘style’, ‘styling’, it died out in the 70s.
"If you’re a designer you need to be thinking of the ergonomics, the way someone steps into a car, what it’s designed to do, if I was designing an SUV I wouldn’t design it with 10mm ground clearance. Here we are creating the ultimate track car, we know we need a huge rear wing, huge front splitter.
“For me as a designer, if you’re intelligent and you’ve got good design thinking the car [must] represent what its mission is. On the 570[S/GT], the attributes and forms are less extreme.
"So, there is more scope for more fluid lines. With 720 there is still a lot of scope for sculpture and elegant solutions but when you come up towards Senna it comes more and more like an LMP1 car.”
Its design decisions are also a reflection of this separation, with more mainstream models able to achieve more flowing lines compared to the purpose-built track cars of the Ultimate Series.
“You cannot afford to compromise on some of the technical areas that you can on a Sport Series, because the mission is so extreme that if we are going to go and do it, we need to be extreme.
"If we start to compromise in that we come out with another 720, so to achieve that mission it has to be what it is, for me the aesthetic is right and it matches exactly what it’s supposed to do to achieve that mission.”
Meanwhile, the market has already spoken: the Senna is sold out. Melville says he has enjoyed the passionate debate about the way it looks.
“I love the controversy it has caused. Everyone goes the ‘competition is doing this’… we will go ‘ok, that’s good, we are glad they are doing that but we are doing this’. We approach it like a technology company.”
Melville sayshe was inspired by the likes of the McLaren F1 and the SR-71 Blackbird fighter jet as a kid, as they represent ‘pure engineering and look stunning’.
His first project at McLaren was the P1, his team is responsible for the current face and design language of the brand.
While Italian supercar manufacturers appear to value aesthetics and design on the same level as engineering requirements, McLaren’s technology and engineering-centred approach is likely to see it create supercars that will continue to polarise car lovers the world over.