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Full Senna: We Drive the Hard-Core $1.7M McLaren Senna GTR!

The GTR takes the formula to another level. But is it special enough?

BAHRAIN—Occasionally somebody comes up with a simple line about a new car that delivers a devastatingly effective message. McLaren has nailed it with the new track-only Senna GTR, simply saying it delivers "the fastest McLaren lap times outside of Formula 1." Faster than your regular Senna, of course. Faster than a pure racer like the 720S GT3. The GTR is a car designed without consideration of restrictive FIA regulations. McLaren could throw as many wings, flics, and active aerodynamic devices at the shape as it saw fit to add.

Nor is the Senna GTR required to conform to the dreaded "Balance of Performance" index, so there are no intake restrictors and it has a liberating absence of ballast. It's a McLaren Senna with the dial wound up to 12 and dive planes that would slice a pedestrian in half. And today McLaren's most extreme track car is waiting in a pit garage just for me.

The GTR is up on air jacks with four fresh slicks resting nearby, ready to be mounted, when I arrive. There are people buzzing around the car, some on laptops, others just cleaning and preening the GTR so it looks its best. This is McLaren, after all. It might not be a race car, but the scene could be lifted out of a pit box at Le Mans, Paul Ricard, or Silverstone: a factory team undertaking a series of calm, methodical last-minute preparations for an endurance race. The GTR looks completely wild, and any of the awkwardness of the road car shape is forgotten. Tease out the Senna aesthetic to its natural conclusion—massively enhanced aerodynamics, wider tracks, slick tires, and a race car livery—and suddenly the shape makes sense. I wouldn't call it beautiful, but it looks ready to bite chunks out of passers-by, which is pretty cool. Until I remember I'll be driving it in a few minutes. Gulp.

There's little comfort in the spec sheet but a whole lot of shock and awe. Just 75 Senna GTRs will be built with the cost of entry pegged at $1.65 million (excluding tax, duties, and delivery). Its 4.0-liter twin-turbocharged V-8 produces 814 horsepower at 7,250 rpm and 590 lb-ft of torque at 5,500 rpm. That's just 25 hp more than the road-going Senna but still makes it the most powerful McLaren combustion engine ever. (The P1 and P1 GTR were more powerful still thanks to hybrid technology.) And besides, more than 800 horses should be enough to be getting on with considering the Senna GTR weighs just 2,619 pounds dry. That's a power-to-weight ratio of 684 hp per ton.

Yet everybody who talks to me about the GTR—and everyone here wants to talk to me about it—barely mentions the straight-line performance. We're at the last of McLaren's "Pure" events of the season held at the Bahrain International Circuit, and the place is buzzing with engineers, driver coaches, and customers who race in the Pure GT race series or attend these mini McLaren festivals to drive their P1 GTRs. They also receive coaching, participate in race craft workshops, and are inundated with video and data in an effort improve their performance. Three Senna GTRs have been delivered to customers here, and next year many more will replace the P1 GTRs dotted around Bahrain's various pit boxes.

The P1 GTR was McLaren's first go at a track-only hypercar back in 2015. It featured a 986-hp hybrid drivetrain, active aero, and some of the greatest blue flames ever to emerge from a titanium exhaust. The Senna GTR is the next step for many of these guys and is said to be a sizable leap over the P1 GTR. "The P1 GTR is a real beast, so much power and torque and a huge amount of fun," test driver Gareth Howell says. "But it's a relatively heavy car, and you're always managing the rear. To be honest, it can be quite scary on initial exposure."

The Senna GTR is much more focused, and without the weight of batteries and electric motors to lug around, it's much closer to a thoroughbred competition car. "The braking performance and high-speed stability are of a different order," Howell says. "And it's so easy to drive. I know that sounds odd. But I promise it is."

These reassuring words are not buzzing around my brain as I fold myself into the GTR. In fact, it feels vaguely terrifying, and I'd rather like to get out. The multilayered nomex, HANS device, and a crash helmet just up the intimidation factor, and the tiny rectangular steering "wheel" is so alien, you can only wonder if all previous driving experience won't count for a thing when you're guiding this four-wheeled aerodynamic device around an unfamiliar circuit. At least the view out is superb, the rearview cameras with radar will warn me of any traffic approaching (although if I get overtaken in this thing I will immediately retire), and now that I grip it, the odd little steering wheel feels absolutely fantastic.

The start button is housed up in a panel on the ceiling, and after a deliberate prod the V-8 catches quickly with a familiar plain note and then fizzes through the carbon-fiber structure. Like the aesthetic, the blaring, monotone noise that spews from the exhausts and reverberates around the pit garage isn't exactly lyrical, but you sense the substance beneath the din. The whole car exudes a blade-like purpose, and such is the transparency of the experience even at crawling speeds that the nerves instantly disappear. I'm not quite sure how I can tell the GTR will be easy to drive at barely 10 mph as I nose out of the pit garage and into the bright sunshine of a Bahrain winter's afternoon, but somehow it just feels so cohesive and intuitive.

Interestingly, the GTR is a very different beast than the Senna beneath the skin. It retains the same carbon-fiber structure and basic powertrain (the extra power is found simply by removing the second catalyst and hence reducing exhaust back pressure), but the suspension is radically altered. McLaren's RaceActive Chassis Control II—essentially hydraulically linked dampers that adjust continuously to provide the appropriate damping force and eliminate anti-roll bars—is deleted, and in its place the GTR uses a more conventional suspension derived from the 720S GT3 race car. Still with double-wishbones all round, the GTR now uses four-way adjustable Öhlins dampers and has adjustable anti-roll bars, too. It seems strange to ditch the sophisticated system about which McLaren makes quite stupendous claims in other applications, but without the need for a broad operating window it seems the more conventional race car route remains the best.

Regardless of the philosophical arguments, there's no question the new setup is fantastically predictable, superbly balanced, and provides incredible response and outright grip. Within half a lap the 814 hp is barely computing; instead, all I want to do mash the brakes as late as I dare and then roll the GTR into each corner about 15 mph faster than seems even remotely sensible. The steering response is so fast and clean, and the car is so beautifully measured in its responses. In the road-going Senna, despite sky-high limits, you always sense that the front will start to run out of grip in the middle of a turn first. The GTR is different. There's much greater body control on turn-in, and the slick tire pushes back at you, ready for you to commit to the throttle.

At this point you'd expect to require real care. A 4.0-liter engine punching more than 800 hp should have a pretty spiky delivery, yet response is a step above the "normal" Senna's once again, allowing you to really chase the throttle like a car with half its power and potential. I'd expected to be pretty amazed by the sheer performance on offer, but actually the real surprise is that it's so accessible. I probably shouldn't say this out loud, but I'm going to anyway: On the wide expanses of the Bahrain International Circuit, it feels like it could easily take more power. A chunk more.

Perhaps that's because the way this thing stops is way above and beyond how it goes. The GTR uses standard Senna discs and calipers with a new pad material and revised brake booster, and the system's capacity is hard to adapt to. No matter how late you think you can brake, the GTR has you covered—plus a little bit more. Better yet, you can brake deep into the turns to keep the nose pinned to the apex, bleed off some pressure to get the car fully rotated, and then really get into the throttle once you have the steering lock off. The GTR runs a revised version of the Senna's stability control system, and it smoothly manages your excesses without killing the fun. The GTR feels locked down and ultra-responsive—especially through the faster turns where you tend to overdrive the car—yet the balance feels delicate and adjustable.

So the Senna GTR is a hell of an experience. And the whole concept of buying a car like this and then having a personal instructor to help you master it, a team of engineers to hone and fettle it, and, no doubt, a rather lovely hotel room waiting for you at the end of the day seems wholly beguiling. How do you put a price on that? Well, McLaren has managed it. Is it reasonable? Another tough one to answer.

For me there are question marks. This is a money-no-object track car, but it uses a road-car gearbox. The dual-clutch seven-speed is fast, reliable, and responsive. You never even think about it. But a proper race gearbox with pneumatic shifts is lighter, faster, and feels more special. There are GT4 cars—the entry level customer GT racing category—with proper race 'boxes, and you'd never find a GT3 car messing around with road car components. Same for the ABS and traction control systems. For my many millions I'd want a genuine Bosch motorsport setup. Again, the same used in international GT racing and simply a more versatile, more tuneable, and more sophisticated system. The Senna GTR should only have the very best.

Of course, its aerodynamic performance is said to be beyond that of even a 720S GT3 car, which incidentally would cost about $600,000. McLaren say the Senna GTR generates 2,200 pounds of downforce at 155 mph and 1,760 pounds at just 124 mph and also claims its no-rules track car should lap any circuit "significantly faster" than a GT3 competition car. Yet McLaren won't reveal the differences, which seems either overly coy or a sign that maybe it's not that "significantly faster."

I'd love to know for sure. For me, the data would prove the concept because although it's massively impressive, the Senna GTR lacks the dizzying, brutal, and crazed personality of the P1 GTR or the outrageous noise and sinful looks of an Aston Martin Vulcan AMR Pro. It's no less exciting, but it clearly places pure performance above raw fun. So if it's all about being the fastest, why not tell us what that looks like? I think McLaren should shout the lap times from the rooftops. The Aston Martin Valkyrie is coming, and right now might be the Senna GTR's fleeting moment as the ultimate.

*****

All About the Aero

The Senna GTR has a lot of big numbers associated with it but the key to its overall performance is aerodynamic efficiency. Peak downforce is roughly 2,200 pounds at 155 mph (as compared to the road car's 1,760 pounds at the same speed), but McLaren says the car's aero curve means it produces effectively the same level of downforce as the road car at 15 percent lower speeds across its entire operating range. The overall concept was the work of two F1 aerodynamicists.

Some of the changes are obvious—deeper front splitter, dive planes, the huge rear diffuser, and the towering rear spoiler with extra rear uprights that are connected to the lower aero devices. What you can't see are the active flaps flanking the radiator and the articulation of the rear wing, which moves constantly and is specially configured to improve braking stability. The driver also has a DRS button to reduce drag on the straights.

The rear wing itself has been moved rearwards, beyond the bodywork (no crash regulations to worry about here) to help couple it to the powerful diffuser, and those extra side supports aren't load-bearing but instead smooth the airflow along the sides of the car to reduce drag and improve the rear wing's efficiency. The exhaust tips have also been extended beyond the bodywork to improve heat dissipation.

McLaren Senna GTR Specifications
ON SALE Now
PRICE $1,650,000
ENGINE 4.0L twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8; 814 hp @ 7,250 rpm, 590 lb-ft @ 5,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
LAYOUT 2-door, 2-passenger, mid-engine, RWD coupe
EPA MILEAGE N/A
L x W x H 195.4 x 84.8 x 48.4 in
WHEELBASE 106.1 in
WEIGHT 2,619 lb
0-60 MPH
2.5 sec (est)
TOP SPEED
210 mph (est)