SHEFFIELD, England — Imagine the pressure. Someone has just asked you to create a piano called “The Mozart.” Or a soccer ball named “The Pelé.” Or a cocktail shaker dubbed “The Dean Martin.” Which is to say, you’ve just been handed a nearly impossible assignment: It’s your job to create a product worthy of the most iconic name associated with it. Oh, don’t worry: If you get it wrong, you’ll only be scorned and hounded by, say, millions of furious fans screaming that you’ve disgraced their idol’s legacy.
Such is the pressure on McLaren. The British maker of Formula 1 Grand Prix cars and exotic road-legal machines recently unveiled its latest homage to the greatest and arguably most ardently admired race car driver who ever lived, the late Ayrton Senna. “Project 15,” the audaciously named “Senna,” limited to just 500 examples and due late this year, is said to be the fastest, lightest, most extreme road car McLaren has ever built. It better be. Anything less would be a discredit to the Brazilian maestro who, in 161 F1 races, started from pole position an unbelievable 65 times.
Yet if anyone can build a “Senna” worthy of the legend, it’s McLaren. After all, it was with the McLaren F1 team in the late 1980s and early 1990s that Senna notched the majority of his Grand Prix victories—and all three of his world driving championships. What’s more, McLaren has the full support of the Senna family. Last December, in fact, the maker auctioned off the 500th and final copy of the Senna (the other 499 were already sold) for $2.7 million (roughly three times the car’s price)—donating the proceeds to the Ayrton Senna Institute, a non-profit headed by Senna’s sister, Viviane, and dedicated to educating and assisting underprivileged young people in Brazil.
Finally, to bake-in one additional sprinkle of “Senna-ness,” McLaren had the prototype tested and evaluated by Viviane’s son Bruno Senna, Ayrton’s nephew who is also a professional racer. “We have a relationship with the Senna family,” says Andy Palmer, vehicle line director for McLaren’s Ultimate Series. “The time was right for this car and, more importantly, the car was right for what the family wanted for Ayrton’s name. I assume they would get requests about lending Ayrton’s name to other sports cars, but they just felt that this was the right one for them to do that. We’re very pleased, obviously.”
The Senna will join McLaren’s three “levels” of road cars—including the Sports Series (570 and 540 models) and the Super Series (720S)—at the top spot in the maker’s Ultimate Series, at present the exclusive realm of the P1 hybrid and the track-only P1 GTR. Yet while the Senna will be completely street-worthy, make no mistake: its true home will be the race circuit. Indeed, McLaren calls the Senna “the ultimate road-legal track car.” Ayrton would’ve wanted nothing less.
Behind the driver’s seat lies a lion of a powerplant. A more extreme variant of the mill in the 720S, the Senna will use a twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8 (with a flat-plane crank and a dry sump) kicking out 789 horsepower and 590 lb-ft of torque—making it the most powerful internal-combustion engine McLaren has ever built. Refinements include a new air intake and inlet manifold (fed by a roof-mounted “snorkel”), specially designed camshafts, a reworked engine-management system, and dual high-flow fuel pumps. McLaren says a single pump was unable to produce the required fuel delivery; instead, one pump does most of the work while the second pump kicks-in as needed. Mated to the engine is the same seven-speed dual-clutch paddle-shift transmission found in the 720S. In Sport mode, an F1-bred Ignition Cut system momentarily cuts the spark during gearshifts, quickening gear changes and, McLaren says, producing a stirring “crack” from the exhausts.
Making the most of the engine’s massive output are a body and structure designed for extreme strength and low weight (indeed, the Senna will be the lightest McLaren road car since the pioneering F1). Almost everything is carbon fiber, the latest Monocage III structure said to be McLaren’s most rigid ever. Once construction of McLaren’s new Carbon Composites Technology Center in Sheffield, England, is completed, all carbon-fiber components will be built in-house. Every piece has been fastidiously engineered to keep weight to an absolute minimum. Each door structure, for instance, weighs just 22 pounds (the middle of each door will feature a unique transparent panel, said to enhance the sensation of speed as the road whistles by you just inches away). The front fenders weigh less than 1.5 pounds each. The towering rear wing checks in at less than 11 pounds. McLaren even fussed over the Senna’s nuts and bolts, reducing their weight by 33 percent. All told, the Senna boasts a dry weight of just 2,641 pounds.
In person, the Senna is a striking piece—a feast of wings and scoops and rakish edges so aggressive the car looks like it’s about to bite your hand at any moment. Yet for all of its visual drama, the Senna is quite intentionally more “beast” than “beauty.” “It really is about every element for a reason,” says Dan Parry-Williams, director of engineering design. “Function taking precedence over aesthetics, at least more than we’ve done before.” Which is to say, think “purposeful race car,” not “beautiful sports car.” The Senna’s lines and scoops and wings are made for aerodynamics and ultimate performance above all else.
At the front, a huge carbon-fiber splitter—5.9 inches longer than the P1’s—slices into oncoming air to maximize downforce and cornering power. Just behind it, on either side, lie active aero blades that move in unison with the active rear wing to help maintain aerodynamic balance. Above the aero blades sit headlights incorporating 21 LEDs each. Digitally controlled, the LEDs can vary their intensity according to steering angle, helping to illuminate corner apexes without the need for a “steerable” motor-driven system. Toward the back, the powertrain is cooled by the largest intakes ever incorporated into a road-going McLaren. An artfully shaped front clamshell helps create a high-pressure flow of clean air past the A-pillars and directly into the intakes, while a rear diffuser helps suck the car to the ground at speed. And then there’s that massive rear wing. Constantly adjusting its angle to vary downforce as needed and, under braking, shorten stopping distances, the wing can support more than 100 times its own weight. In concert with the sculptured bodywork, it helps deliver nearly 1,800 pounds of total downforce—40 percent more than the P1.
The suspension is an evolution of the P1’s, using the same fundamental geometry but enhanced by smart software refined on the 720S. McLaren’s new hydraulic RaceActive Chassis Control II system includes four driver-selectable modes: Comfort, Sport, Track, and Race. In Race mode, the suspension stiffens significantly while the nose lowers by 1.5 inches—reducing underbody airflow and enhancing the effectiveness of the front splitter. “We’re looking for a car that’s agile and stable,” says Parry-Williams. “And that’s the great thing about active aero—you can have both. The Senna delivers more agility than any car we’ve done thus far, but at higher speeds, and under high-speed braking, the stability is just extraordinary.” Carbon-ceramic brakes are standard (it takes seven months to make each huge disc) and, in concert with the active-aero rear wing, help deliver the shortest stopping distances of any McLaren road car ever. Cornering prowess and steering feel are enhanced by Pirelli P-Zero Trofeo R tires developed specifically for the Senna.
Inside, the Senna is a minimalist space entirely focused on the mission of speed. The steering wheel is a simple, Alcantara-trimmed three-spoke design devoid of buttons or switches. Major controls—such as the engine-start button and even the electric door releases—are grouped in a pod in the overhead roof panel. The transmission controls move fore and aft along with the driver’s seat, while the seat shells weigh just 7.2 pounds each and are covered with seven Alcantara (or, at the buyer’s choosing, leather) pads; ducts around the pads allow air to flow, the better to cool the backsides of Nomex-clad occupants attacking a racetrack. Extremely thin roof pillars allow an exceptional view to the outside—and they’re strong enough to negate the need for a separate roll cage.
The cabin may be minimalist, but it’s not bare-bones. Air conditioning and a premium seven-speaker Bowers & Wilkins audio system are optional (designed especially for the Senna, the B&W system weighs just 16.1 pounds). Gorgeous carbon fiber trims almost every visible surface. Other options include McLaren Track Telemetry (which can capture and analyze lap sessions), a camera system to complement it, parking sensors, and a rear-view camera. Behind the seats lies storage space for two race helmets, Nomex suits, and driving shoes. If you’re really feeling racy, you can even order a “push to drink” system so you won’t dry up during extended track sessions. And while McLaren has configured a few “ready-made” color/trim combinations, in truth the company is prepared to deliver almost any color or trim accessory the buyer wishes.
So, yes, the Senna can be outfitted with enough amenities to rival almost any other premium sports car. But at its core this remains very much a track-centric, performance-focused machine. After all, McLaren claims a 0 to 60 mph time of just 2.7 seconds, a top speed of 211 miles per hour, and the most mind-blowing handling performance of any McLaren road car ever built (and having recently driven the 720S, that’s saying a lot). What’s more, the Senna has been engineered to feel raw.
“Because it’s track-focused, we’ve gone a bit mental on things like NVH,” laughs Parry-Williams. “The amount of noise, the noise quality, the amount of vibration you feel in the seat rail and how that increases as a function of speed … this is something we’ve deliberately done to add engagement.” McLaren even evolved the exhaust sound to deliver more “higher-order” content. “Compared with the P1, which was more of a roar, the Senna has more of a howl,” says Parry-Williams.
We’ll get to hear that howl soon enough. In a few months, we’ll return to Europe to drive the Senna prototype. If the car is even close to what its stats promise, McLaren will have done the Senna name proud. And we expect to be howling right along with its exhaust.
2019 McLaren Senna Specifications
|ON SALE||Fall 2018|
|ENGINE||4.0.L DOHC 32-valve twin-turbocharged V-8/789 hp @ 7,250 rpm, 590 lb-ft @ 6,700 rpm|
|TRANSMISSION||7-speed dual-clutch automatic|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 2-passenger, mid-engine, RWD coupe|
|L x W x H||186.8 x 77.1 x 48.4 in|
|WEIGHT||2,900 lb (est)|
|0-60 MPH||2.7 sec|
|TOP SPEED||211 mph|