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Prototype Drive: 2019 McLaren Senna

The maestro would’ve approved

SILVERSTONE CIRCUIT, England — Five minutes after intentionally cutting-short my first six-lap driving session on one of the world's fastest Grand Prix tracks, I excused myself to the pitlane bathroom and unceremoniously tossed up my entire English breakfast. Mind you, I'd been feeling dicey all morning—probably a bad egg—but I'm quite sure that, under normal circumstances, I would've managed to soldier through without any restroom histrionics necessary.

This was no normal morning: I was test-driving a prototype of one of the most uncompromising, technologically advanced, and violently quick supercars ever built, the all-new 2019 McLaren Senna. Trust me: Even without an aperitif of food poisoning, the Senna is such a whirlwind of g forces, so Krakatoa-like in its speed and braking power, in only a lap or two it could easily reduce a NASA astronaut to a trembling, babbling impersonation of Linda Blair.

Back in February, when I first traveled to England for the unveiling of the Senna prototype, I remarked on the considerable, seemingly impossible challenge McLaren had undertaken in attempting to produce a road car worthy of its namesake, the late three-time Formula 1 world champion Ayrton Senna. "Anything less," I wrote then, "would be a discredit to the Brazilian maestro." That was putting it mildly. The stakes for McLaren cannot be overstated: In the history of motorsports, Ayrton Senna is one of the all-time icons, arguably the greatest race car driver who ever lived. In his home country of Brazil he's a national hero. In Japan—which produced the Honda engines that powered his McLaren F1 cars to all three of his world titles—Senna is revered as a god. Even a "very good" effort would have been viewed as a failure. No, to be a "Senna," McLaren's new supercar had to be spectacular.

It is. I had an inkling of that when I first reviewed the specs and technical details of the car back at the February reveal. On paper at least, the Senna looked savage. But it was within minutes of arriving at the Silverstone Circuit for my test of the car that I truly knew I was about to experience a performance monster, a machine possibly unlike any other road-legal vehicle I'd ever driven. "Because you haven't been around this track before," said one of the McLaren handlers as our small group gathered in the pitlane, "first you'll go out for some warm-up laps in a McLaren 720S." Uh, okay … so we're going to warm up in a 720-horsepower, 211-mph exotic car that just won a coveted spot on the 2018 Automobile All-Stars list? Just how fast is this Senna thing, anyway? For a moment I looked down at the fireproof Nomex suit McLaren had loaned me for the day and wondered, "Hmmm. Maybe I should wear two."

Do not mistake the Senna for an upgraded 720S. While the two cars share some basic hardware, the Senna is an entirely new automobile—the new pinnacle of McLaren's Ultimate Series range. Unlike the hybrid powerplant in the McLaren P1, the Senna uses the same basic twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8 found in the 720S—but with such improvements as a revised air intake and inlet manifold fed by a dramatic roof-mounted scoop, revised cams, and dual high-flow fuel pumps. Power climbs to 789 hp at 7,250 rpm and 590 pound-feet of torque (a boost of 22 lb-ft) at 6,700 rpm. A slightly reworked seven-speed dual-clutch paddle shifter carries over from the 720S.

"But wait," you say. "The gas/electric hybrid powertrain in the P1 made a combined system output of 903 horsepower. Isn't the Senna's 789 hp a step down?" Perhaps on a long stretch of unlimited autobahn, where the P1 could theoretically push to 217 mph versus "only" 211 mph for the Senna, you'd have a case. But you'd be missing the point: McLaren built the Senna to be the ultimate roadgoing track car. And on the racetrack, the only venue where it can truly strut its stuff, the Senna leaves the P1 sucking its super-heated exhaust fumes.

Consider a few comparisons. With its towering, constantly adjusting rear wing, movable front aero blades, and purposefully sculptured bodywork, at speed the Senna can produce nearly 1,800 pounds of combined downforce—40 percent more than the P1. Almost every piece of the Senna's bodywork—including McLaren's latest Monocage III tub—is made of lightweight, super-strong carbon fiber. Even the nuts and bolts have been fussed over to be 33 percent lighter. Thus, the Senna—at about 2,900 pounds curb weight—undercuts the P1 by roughly 400 pounds. And then there's this: Going into the famous Stowe right-hander at the end of Silverstone's long Hangar Straight, McLaren's test drivers are braking 25 meters later in the Senna than in the P1. Next time you're inside a football stadium, take a look at how far the 25-yard-line is from the end zone. Yeah, it's a lot. As a track car, the Senna is simply in a different league.

After my morning breakfast cleanse I felt fine when the time arrived for my afternoon lapping session in the Senna. I also was beginning to feel comfortable with the line around the track. We were using Silverstone's truncated, 1.9-mile "International Circuit," but that still included the Hangar Straight, Stowe corner, and Abbey, a turn-one right-hander taken—in the Senna—in fourth gear after the briefest dab of the brakes from 150 mph. Time to give McLaren's new wondercar a good push.

Riding shotgun was McLaren test driver and current British Touring Car racer Josh Cook (a brave soul indeed). During our morning sessions in the 720S and the Senna, Cook had kept our helmet-to-helmet intercoms busy with advice on braking markers, turn-in points, and potential pitfalls. For instance, carry too much speed into the long, long right-hand Club Corner leading onto the International Straight, and you could easily spin into the inside wall and end up on the front page of London's Daily Mail: "Yank Stank! Pinhead Pulverizes Priceless Prototype!"

After a lap to warm up the tires, coming out of Abbey I pushed my right foot flat to the floor and instantly the air was gone from my lungs. The acceleration of the Senna is insane (for you numbers types, that means a quarter-mile time of just 9.9 seconds). As I crested the hill into the quick left-hand Farm Curve, Cook was in my earphones: "More throttle!" We were already traveling plenty fast but, still in fourth gear, I dutifully pressed deeper into the gas and, impossibly, the Senna just bit down and hammered through the bend without so much as a bobble. Such is the frightening magic of working with a high-downforce, active-aero car: more speed produces more downforce, which produces more speed and more downforce! You wonder, will the cycle ever end? (Well, yeah, eventually it will—at which point you'll find yourself launching straight off to Scotland.) Suffice it to say, in my second six-lap stint I never got close to that almighty limit. It was hard enough to keep my head upright as it was.

To produce the cornering force of a tetherball smacked by an angry sixth-grader, the Senna relies upon a symphony of systems working in perfect synchronicity. The rear wing moves constantly; under braking, it pops up fully for maximum drag. On the Hangar Straight, it would essentially flatten-out into what an F1 car would feature as DRS (Drag Reduction System) mode—allowing the Senna to slip through the air as effortlessly as possible. In-between, the wing works in-concert with the front aero blades (which also constantly adjust in angle) to maximize cornering balance and grip. Also incorporated into the bodywork: a "Gurney flap" above each rear tire, which creates a low-pressure void in back that helps suck hot air through the huge radiators mounted in front of each rear wheel. The carbon-fiber splitter under the Senna's nose is so huge it could almost pass for a locomotive's cow catcher.

The aerodynamic aids enhance the prowess of the RaceActive Chassis Control II system, an evolution of the P1's suspension upgraded with revised software. In Race mode, the suspension lowers a dramatic 1.5 inches closer to the asphalt. And then there are the incredible brakes: lightweight carbon-ceramics, each disc requiring seven months to produce and operating at reduced temperatures for greater resistance to fade. The huge binders sit inside McLaren's first-ever center-locking wheels, the single, F1-like bolt allowing an odd number (nine) of spokes, further saving weight. Each wheel wears a high-performance Pirelli Trofeo R tire specially developed for the Senna.

The cockpit is a cinch to enter, thanks to the large opening afforded by the upward-swinging doors, and inside awaits a space of brilliant minimalism. The carbon-fiber seat shells wear just enough pads for driver comfort and support; Senna buyers (every one of the 500 cars has already been sold) can have their seats custom-fitted. The gear-selection and launch-control buttons move fore-and-aft with the driver's seat. The Alcantara-wrapped three-spoke wheel is completely devoid of buttons, switches, or other distractions. Engine start/stop, chassis-mode selection, and even the door-opening switches are mounted in a pod above the rear-view mirror. A folding digital display screen glides up into position when you're ready for tachometer and other info. The view to the front is sensational—almost as if you're sitting in a single-seater.

Hammering out of a tight left-right chicane and onto the Hangar Straight, the Senna's digital speedometer spooled up like a bathroom scale being stepped-on by an elephant. I was reaching the top of fifth gear, just more than 160 mph, before pounding onto the binders for Stowe. The stopping force was like slamming into a parked dump truck. Yet every time, Cook would say calmly into the intercom: "Next lap, try braking even later." On my final lap, going into Stowe I braked so late all the nearby pubs closed—and still the Senna turned-in without so much as a hiccup. The car's combination of grip and poise is nothing short of mind-blowing. (As an interesting side note: For my second lapping session I switched from a full-face helmet to an open-face one. The new lid allowed me to look down through the transparent panel in the driver's door at the rapidly passing asphalt just inches away—dramatically increasing the sensation of speed.)

By the time my six laps were over and I turned into the pitlane, I was toast. Heart pounding, breathing in gulps, Nomex suit soaked with sweat. The McLaren Senna is an absolutely vicious performance car, with limits as high as anything I've ever experienced in my driving career. Yet, amazingly, it's an absolute sweetheart to drive: smooth and accurate steering, unfailingly predictable chassis, effortless shifting and braking response. Though I did not try the car on the road, I have every expectation that it would be docile enough to be a fine daily driver.

For a car to deliver so much performance—indeed, McLaren has clearly produced one of the quickest road-legal sports cars of all time—yet be so approachable is a staggering achievement. I had my doubts when I first heard about this hugely ambitious project, especially given how much I revere Senna myself. But now, having experienced what the car can do first-hand, I can say this with confidence: Were he alive today, Ayrton Senna would be proud that this remarkable new McLaren bears his name.

2019 McLaren Senna Specifications

ON SALE Fall 2018
PRICE $958,966 (base) (all 500 sold)
ENGINE 4.0.L DOHC 32-valve twin-turbo 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
WHEELBASE 105.0 in
WEIGHT 2,900 lb (est)
0-60 MPH 2.7 sec
TOP SPEED 211 mph