2018 McLaren Senna review: Autodromo do Estoril track test

The McLaren Senna promises to be most outrageous, exotic and challenging race car barely fit for registration on Aussie roads. The $1.2million question is: does it live up to the name? Let alone the hype...

I’ve experienced few things in life that have grabbed my attention quite as savagely as standing on the brakes at around 290km/h and attempting to negotiate a tight, 100-degree-radius, right-hand corner with just 200 metres of road left to work with.

How closely the 2018 McLaren Senna nears 300km/h along Autodromo do Estoril’s main straight depends largely on the cleanliness of exiting the Portuguese circuit’s sweeping, 180-degree Parabolica Ayrton Senna final turn, but even a tardy run onto the one-kilometre chute finds the top of sixth-gear in relentless acceleration, the landscape streaking with warp speed in the peripheral vision as eyes lock onto a small, red 200m brake marker in the distance closing supernaturally quickly.

This is fine. But it’s the final three seconds or so prior to arriving at the Moment Of Truth where you’ll swear the sudden swelling sense of extreme trepidation and imminent cataclysm will make your head and heart explode in unison.

Bang. The instant I jump on the left pedal, my race-suited body heaves against the six-point harness and my helmeted head strains against its whiplash-dampening HANS device tethers, both doubling their weight in minus-two-G deceleration. The Senna pitches forward hard, squirming around in literally breathtaking deceleration, its massive wing suddenly pitched forward 25-degrees like a wind-block, the vessel like some base jumper suddenly snatched by his parachute.

Lift, turn, hang on as the right front Pirelli Trofeo R tyre touches Curva One’s ripple strip and – whoops – a quick dab of opposite lock as the rear end suddenly lurches left, as if to doubly check your driving responses are still on red alert.

But just when you think the outrageous track car for the road has toiled with physic’s limits and belted your attentive beehive with maximum wallop, there’s more. Next lap around, my designated shotgun chaperone Brad, who’s just arrived from racing Le Mans 24 Hour in France, chirps across the intercom that this time I’ll brake “past the 200”.

Where, Brad, where?!

“About 180…I’ll let you know…on my mark.”

McLaren knows fast. It doesn’t do hatchbacks or SUVs. It makes fast and exciting sportscars (Sport Series), faster and thrilling supercars (Super Series) and an exotic third tier (Ultimate Series) seemingly devised to make lesser McLarens, and most anything on four wheels, look, feel and seem a bit ordinary.

In demonstration, the British carmaker has chosen its 720S, the most ballistic McLaren Aussie money can currently buy, as the four-lap “warm-up car” – to “learn the circuit” with – for the international launch of the race-engineered, road-registerable machine named in homage to Brazil’s Formula One demigod.

Money can’t buy Senna. All 500 due to be built - production begins Q3 this year – are vouched for, with “multiple examples” heading Down Under where demand has outstripped supply.

Price locally? Amazingly, that hasn’t been finalised, with McLaren still explaining it’ll be “£750,000 ($AU1.34million) plus duties, taxes, on-roads and so forth.” Call it a $1.5mil ballpark, then. Three times more than the 720S list price.

A great many placed deposits on concept, vehicle unseen and, the company says, “almost all of them want a special or personalised colour scheme”. They’ll choose between five By McLaren colour combination themes, a further 18 no-cost singular colours, and anything they wish for (at a price) via McLaren Special Operations, where extra coin buys optional indulgences such a 'carbon theme' or a 24-carat gold engine heat shield…

“Use the 720S to learn the track, not assess the vehicle,” McLaren asks, akin to sending someone to Antarctica with instructions not to look at the snow. Of course, the 720S is very fast and thrilling on track: it sits flat, is grippy, pointy if forgiving, surprisingly easy to hustle, benign and friendly when pedaled hard. It’s also, by McLaren’s reckoning, a whopping six seconds slower around Estoril than the Senna, or well over half-a-kilometre if you’re measuring the one-lap gap along the main straight.

Pulling into pitlane, I climb out of the 720S and sidle towards the Senna, wondering not how much quicker but just how different the newer car could be, and where…

The lengths its maker has gone in design, engineering, spec and construction to differentiate Senna to ‘normal’ road-going McLaren stock is encyclopedic and too exhaustive to detail (read more here), though I’ll try to knock off some key gear-head highlight as this narrative unfolds.

That tilting rear wing, which aids braking stability, compliments active front aero blades that add or ‘bleed off’ downforce where need be. Add passive aero trickery – a deep front splitter, huge Y-vented front cowl, rear double diffuser – together with active suspension that drops the ride height – 39mm up front, 30mm at the rear – in Race mode and the Senna produces a whopping 800kg of downforce at 250km/h.

Everywhere you look there’s aerodynamic trickery, from those gooseneck rear wing mounts that leave the underwing clean for better airflow control while cornering, to the novel triple-exhaust outlets located behind on the rear deck as to not affect airflow around the wing or the diffuser.

Less conspicuous stuff? That 800kg of downforce is two-thirds of the Senna’s scant 1198kg dry weight, around 200kg less than the P1. The weight reduction regime is extraordinary: the entire rear wing assembly is just 4.87kg, the seven-speaker Bowers and Wilkins stereo (with aluminium and Kevlar speakers) is just 7.32kg, and all carbon-fibre body panels combined measure 60kg, which includes front guards weighing in at just two-thirds of a kilogram!

Swinging the so-called ‘dihedral’ doors open reveals a sea of exposed carbon-fibre splashed with Alcantara inside, plus a pair of TFT screens and not much else. It’s wonderfully minimalist, utterly fit for purpose and chock full of wonderfully functional quirks. For instance, the door release mechanisms, start button and window controls all sit in an overhead panel, while the transmission Drive/Neutral/Reverse switches are in a pod attached to the driver’s hollow carbonfibre seat – the entire seat shell weighs just 3.35kg - and move in tandem with fore/aft seat adjustment (the passenger seat is full fixed).

Seat and wheel adjusted, a McLaren engineer hooks up my intercom and straps me in hard with the six-point harness, which is an MSO option that I soon discover that, like the car’s no-cost air-con fitment, are essential extras for the sake of safety and comfort. To my right, the 8.0-inch TFT infotainment displays the air-con controls, while ahead is the TFT Folding Driver Display screen, a la 720S, that offers large-screen displays in Comfort, Sport and Track drive modes but flips 90 degrees forward for Race, presenting a slim-line ‘strip display’ showing only gear selected, speed and a shift light. It’s simple and brilliant.

The 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 fires up into a characteristically metallic zing typical of motorsport-bred, flat-plane crankshaft engines. No mucking about: Race mode activated, dual-clutch seven-speed transmission in manual, the beast ambles off the mark and down pitlane at low speed in typically smooth and uneventful McLaren manner.

I snatch second, enter the track beyond Curva 1 and squeeze the right foot, the thrust as effortless as you’d expect from car weighing as much as a Volkswagen Polo if harnessing 700Nm (at 3000rpm), then 800Nm (at 5500rpm) before clipping a head-pinning 597kW – or 800ps in its maker’s measure – as the shift light strokes the 7250rpm redline.

It rewards a rev, too: every 2000rpm piles on an extra 10dB of howling war cry from the titanium and Inconel exhaust system. Hard launched, the Senna will do 0-100km/h in just 2.8sec then onwards to hit 200km/h in 6.8sec and will hit the 400m mark in a staggeringly swift 9.9sec. It’s not peaky, unhinged, tyre-frying energy either, but a measured and assertive shove offering pinpoint throttle control made even more driver-friendly via almost entirely seamless upchanges thanks, it seems, to the strange Inertia Push feature which, I’m told, is a kinetic energy-driven “impulse of torque” during the mid-shift. Or something. Oh-so-McLaren, then.

The surprises come thick and fast. It’s measurably sharper and more lively than the 720S, quicker to respond through the superb electro-mechanical steering, more effusive with its zero-tolerance feel, a lot keener to change direction. Up through the quick Curva 2 and deep on the brakes for the tricky, tight, 180-degree Lamy right-hander, the Senna immediately feels lighter and more nimble on its feet despite being only 89kg lighter than its more road-focused stablemate.

The RaceActive Chassis Control II system – with its complicated multi-spring and hydraulically linked suspension design – maintains a flat stance, the Senna hooking in hard yet feeling lively and a little loose on those road-going Trofeo R tyres through Lamy and Curva VIP, a third-gear switchback where the speed’s too low to contribute meaningful downforce. It’s certainly not as glued-to-the-Tarmac as I’d anticipated.

Blasting out of Curva VIP headlong into the back straight kink – the thick end of fifth gear – you can feel increasing downforce progressively drilling Senna’s rubber harder into the hotmix. Where the 720S becomes more benign and looser with rising speed, the Senna does the opposite, sharpening its dynamic edges.

“Keep on it until we hit the black marks,” Brad instructs, referring to the dark rubberisation on the track’s surface up ahead and looming fast. Heart pounding, I nail the anchors like an angry carpenter, another minus-two-G manoeuvre hauling me against the race harness. But I’ve braked too early, and washed off too much speed, in the McLaren that allows you to brake into the Parabolica Interior hairpin a massive 20 metres deeper than the 720S. I’m still trying to recalibrate to a car capable of hauling to a stop from 200km/h in just 100 metres…

The Senna’s brakes look like the ‘usual’ 390mm carbon-ceramic six-and-four-pot monobloc supercar fare. They’re not. Instead, they’re said to be 60-percent stronger and have four times the “thermal conductivity” – they’re typically 150deg C cooler run hard on track – than your ‘average’ carbon ceramics. They take seven months to manufacture and are bleeding-edge “next generation” motorsport stuff. Which is more than can be said of the rubber they’re wrapped with…

“Whoops,” I chirp over the intercom, as the Senna’s tail suddenly steps out, caught by an animated armful of opposite lock exiting the off-camber Parabolica Interior. And it wasn’t the lateral load-up nor overly enthusiastic throttle input that sets the hyper-McLaren’s 305mm rears crying freedom. These Pirellis, I’m convinced, limit pace through a lack of mechanical grip. I’m coming to a realisation that while these are exceptionally good tyres in made-for-Senna spec, they’re still road tyres. And while the Senna is technically road-going, everything else about the package is willing and able to perform on a level way beyond those bound by the rubber worn.

As lap follows lap, I try settling in, building pace and finding rhythm. And every time the arc of confidence builds I’m caught by a messy moment. The Senna jinks alarmingly through the downhill Orelha, feels skatey and loose through the tight second-gear Esses switchback, is far from planted tipping in the final, constant radius Parabolica where there’s swaying yaw through what should be a clean and settled trajectory onto the main straight. All the while two things are clear: firstly, we’re going too quickly for a proper stuff-up on my part and, secondly, the opinion from the passenger’s seat is that we can still go a helluva lot quicker than this.

“You won’t drift the Senna with all that downforce,” someone advised before the launch. Oh really? In fact, the car has a Variable Drift System function – it doesn’t drift for you, but allows you to dial in traction control slip whether you have ESP switched on or off. There’s also the famed Brake Steer that modulates the inside rear-wheel to induce more mid-corner rotation, a trick McLaren debuted in F1 shortly before the dynamic advantage became banned.

It’s a car full of tricks, yet none of them are propping up modest driving talent. Each full circuit, the ‘McSenna’ is catching me out or punishing me somewhere, the notion of a clean and lightning-fast lap increasingly seeming highly improbable.

The car isn’t coming to me, I think to myself, which is actually a bold-faced lie. It’s me that isn’t coming to the car. The learning curve in attempting to get on top of this challenging beast seems terribly steep and distant, despite the white-knuckled pace it’s beginning to pile on almost in spite of me.

The excuse-finder within is convinced that Estoril, chosen largely for this event as home to Ayrton Senna’s first GP win, just doesn’t suit the car. The machine ebbs and flows between zero downforce one corner to magnetically ‘earth sucking’ the next, it doesn’t adhere to that comfortable performance road-car consistency where road-holding and frictional forces are more predictable and cosy.

The Senna is constantly demanding and has a wicked sting in its tail for the uncommitted.

It’s a clear message: the McLaren Senna does not drive itself. It’s not out to flatter. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: it’s out to challenge the driver. And after the sting of sweat starts burning my eyes on what seems like lap 15 of my six-lap go, I’m relieved Brad directs me to head back to pitlane.

Sat in the pit garage, red-faced and sweating, I swap notes with another-if-fresher-faced Aussie who also made the trip to drive this car.

“Well?” I ask.

“It needs slicks,” he retorts succinctly.

And I reckon, as the standing Bathurst 1000 winner, his opinion on slicks with downforce is worth taking on board…

Moments later, Brad storms into the garage, redder-faced than I am, swearing like a trooper to his crew. He does what race drivers do, regaling an on-track incident in hand gestures with his latest pupil who, from what I can gather in sign language, has had the mutha of moments where all involved barely escaped impacting something solid and immobile by the breadth of Brad’s fingers.

We’re back into a different Senna for Session Two. “What happened?” I ask. Apparently the bloke who filled my emptied seat in the morning session mistook a hairpin for the flat-knacker fifth-gear kink in the back straight and more luck than skill averted disaster. I respond with a promise that if Brad continues to call ahead the right gear for right corners, I’ll do my best to spare us both similar misfortune.

Right off the bat, my Senna experience improves immensely. I’ve acclimatised more to the speed, the G-forces, the big braking moments and I’m now getting a clearer read on the road-holding grip everywhere. It’s a more comfortable zone, the car’s feisty nature seeming a touch tamer and we’re also generally moving faster.

I feel like I’m coming to the car. Confidence rising, I even manage to dance the Senna in a left-to-right tailslide, complete with a flurry of steering lock, through the low-speed Grancho switchback like some Mario Kart manoeuvre.

But Brad knows I’m not nearly close enough yet. Not at the kind of speed he has in mind…

“Turn in, hit the apex then brake,” he commands at Curva VIP.

What?

“Brake lighter and tip in early,” he demands into the heart-stopping Parabolica Interior braking zone. Huh? “Brake early, accelerate towards the apex and let it run wide,” he instructs at the Esses. Really? “Just trail the brake,” into Lamy he says. You kidding me?

Essentially, Brad’s instructing me to break my deeply ingrained golden rule of performance road-car driving, a wedded instinct to brake and downshift in a straight line, settle the car then turn through the corner, in that order.

“You’ve been driving it like a road car,” he says. “You need to drive it like a racecar!” Or, in my best interpretation, hustle it like a go-kart at beyond-the-limit velocity.

“You have to trust that the car will respond and do what you want it to.”

The method to Brad’s apparent madness is simple: on these tyres, this car can’t flex its abilities on mechanical grip alone. He wants me to arrive into a corner hotter, later and with more attitude than I believe the car (or its driver) can get away with, overstepping tyre friction and tail-slide the Senna in order to rotate the car through the curve. Cornering quicker than mere grip alone will allow.

Left to my own devices and without an expert minder, I can’t fathom how much track time I’d need to swallow the brave-pills necessary to back the Senna into a corner with the pathological enthusiasm Brad advises. But there’s a time to ‘man up’ and, with all the measured finesse I can muster, I commit to instruction contradicting the alarm bells of intuition in my head, and push well beyond what I thought was threshold of my personal limits – well beyond my comfort zone - in deeper search of those of the car’s.

By the final handful of my dozen of so laps of Estoril, I’m surprised how far I’ve ventured and marvel at how much higher the plateau must be in truly extracting this McLaren’s best. It must take years to truly feel on top of the Senna, to confidently and consistently thread the gap between ‘grip’ and ‘drift’ where this challenging beast’s tech and tuning comes together most naturally and where it seems to be at its happiest and quickest.

“Annnnd…BRAKE!”

I stand on the anchors at maybe 287km/h – or 284 or 281, who knows? – at around about the 180-metre mark on the entry to Curva One, though it could be 171 or 163. My reaction time feels play-like in the moment where – at 80.5 metres per second and 2.3 seconds from the gravel trap if I miss the brake pedal – it needs to be razor-like.

Mash, pitch, shimmy, squirm, the helmet heave, the torso crush. Snap-snap-snap down the gears – try not to over-rev and locks the rears – while easing off the brake pressure and aim towards the apex. Oh shit. Too hot.

I feel front Pirellis scrabble just so for lateral grip up front but the nose tracks true, glancing the apex in a modicum of understeer just as the rear rubber cries freedom, firing signals up through the carbon-fibre seat-of-the-pants. But I’m ready.

It’s only a shallow and momentary four-wheel slide, only half a turn of opposite lock required to hold the angle, but if you took a photo of my eyes at the precise moment you’d see they’re the size of dinner plates. The moment of the most thrilling and rewarding corner I’ve ever experienced.

Is the price of entry to such an experience – the lofty challenges and rich rewards – really worth AU$1.2million before on roads? Some 500 deposit holders, a handful of Aussies among them, certainly think so.

MORE: McLaren Senna stories
MORE: Everything McLaren