New Car Reviews

Pro Racer Test Drive: McLaren Senna

Andy Pilgrim says the Senna is beyond magical

ALCABIDECHE, Portugal — The late three-time world champion Ayrton Senna claimed the first of his 41 F1 wins at the Estoril racetrack in Portugal on April 21, 1985. I thought about that win as I wandered slowly down Estoril’s long front straight. I had driven past the circuit about nine months earlier, on my way to do a 24-hour race in Portimao; I had wanted to stop by then but didn’t have the time. Yet here I was, less than a year later, to drive a monster of a car, for McLaren chose Estoril as a venue to give the media its latest taste of the “Ultimate Production Track Car,” the Senna.

My first glimpse of the Senna occurred the evening before during a dinner party on the second floor of a hotel. A friendly crane operator had delivered the car to the designated spot. (The Senna does not, despite the copious talents of McLaren’s engineers, take off vertically—not yet, anyway.) The Senna family was involved throughout the conception, design, and development of the car, and I was even able to say hello to Ayrton’s nephew, Bruno, at the dinner.

Such an interaction hammered home the point that this is a special car, made specifically to honor a very special race driver. I was/am a massive Ayrton Senna fan. For me, the Brazilian set the bar for focus and grim determination; I still get sad today when I think about him being gone, about his fatal crash at Imola in 1994. Every race fan knows that he was one of the very special drivers to bring his talent to the sport.

To my eyes the McLaren Senna has a striking presence and exudes unapologetic functionality. I heard comments from several other media folks present who voiced completely opposite opinions. Fair enough. Maybe it’s because I see the stance of one of my favorite cars, the Ferrari F40, in it, but I think it looks impressive. Having seen images of the car before I got to Portugal, I can now say pictures don’t really do it justice—go see one in person if you have the chance.

I spoke with several McLaren design and engineering people during my time in Portugal, and they impressed upon me the idea that every square millimeter of the Senna serves a purpose. Indeed, McLaren’s lofty performance goals necessitated some exquisite carbon-fiber fabrication to make use of air in exactly the way the engineers needed for maximum effect; in my view it’s a work of art.

Kenny Brack was also on-hand. Brack, you might know, is a massively quick and successful race driver. He is probably best known for winning the 1999 Indianapolis 500—and also for his horrendous IndyCar crash at Texas Motor Speedway in 2003, where he withstood measured deceleration of 214 g’s. (That’s not a misprint, just an unreal number.) It was great to see him looking well and obviously enjoying his role of chief test driver for McLaren. I spent quite a while downloading with him about the Senna’s handling, chassis, braking, and power/tire management after my drives.

For our first laps around Estoril, McLaren provided us with a 720S. Yes, to find our way around a circuit most of us had never seen before, we merely “warmed up” in the massively fast 720S. Imagine it as a 710-hp rent-a-car type of thing. Worth noting: The 720S is a rather well-balanced car, but I find it doesn’t have much in the way of aerodynamic downforce to help you, especially compared to other 700-plus-horsepower cars now available such as the Corvette ZR1, Porsche GT2 RS, and Lamborghini Huracan Performante. To get a fast lap in a 720S, you have to move/slide it around a lot, including through high-speed turns. Thankfully the car’s balance is so amenable and communicative that slipping and sliding it all day at “complete nutter” speeds is twitch-free and enjoyable. And, of course, the 720S is notably fast in a straight line. I have yet to drive any regular production car that’s quicker in a straight line, as it will run the quarter-mile in about 10 seconds—a staggeringly quick time.

After a few laps in the 720S “learner car,” it was time to jump into the Senna. I was excited and tried to take as much out of every minute as I could. Estoril is not a difficult track to learn, and apart from one horrible “slow them down” chicane, it was exactly as Ayrton Senna found it as he won his first F1 race. But thank goodness we did not have the horrendous rain Ayrton did on that particular April day.

The Senna’s controls are very similar to those in the 720S, apart from having several buttons (including the starter) mounted up in the roof, as you might find on an aircraft. McLaren says this saves weight, as it needs to run less wire through the car as a result. Both Sennas I drove were left-hand drive, and I had another pro driver who races in the FIA World Endurance Championship sitting next to me at all times on the track. After exchanging pleasantries, I told him I was mighty impressed that he would sit in the passenger seat of an 800-hp rocket with complete strangers, stumbling around an old F1 track. But he had an idea about my racing background and helped me learn the track quickly.

I will describe my on-track Senna-driving experience from the viewpoint of my second five-lap stint. At that stage, I was comfortable with where the track went and had a very good feel for the Senna’s handling at the limit. My pro-driver passenger seemed to be relaxed, saying nothing much at all during my final stint apart from a little chit chat until it was time for my cool-down lap.

If you have 800 hp of go, then you better have plenty of stopping power. The Senna can pull 2.1 g’s in deceleration, a number that is serious race-car good. The most common utterances I heard from other media folks were exclamations of how the Senna’s stopping power took their breath away once they figured out how hard they needed to press the pedal to get the most out of them. The brake feel is excellent and easy to modulate; I could just tickle the ABS or modulate deceleration to rotate the car on corner entry. You enter the brake zone for the 50-mph first turn at more than 180 mph so you better have the stoppers. No worries in this case, as the Senna’s brakes do the job.

The steering is quick but not too quick for my tastes. Although the Senna comes with Pirelli Tropheo R tires, they are still street tires and need a slower steering rate than a race tire to get the most from them, especially after they heat up. Once I slowed my hands down, I could manage the plentiful front grip much better. Slowing my hands gave my steering input more time to speak to the tire patch through the suspension. The Senna is sprung on the stiff side to handle the almost 1,800 pounds of total downforce it can generate at 155 mph. The stiffer suspension setup makes any steering input an almost instantaneous instruction to the tire patch, so it’s up to the driver to control this.

Another interesting point involves active aerodynamic features. The Senna has active front aero blades and an active rear wing. They move very quickly to help/adjust downforce relative to speed, deceleration, and cornering load; less on a long straight, more in a fast corner or under braking. The figure of 1,800 pounds of downforce at 155 mph in a 3,050-pound (fuel and driver included) street car is just amazing. The active aero also adjusts downforce to that maximum of 1,800 pounds due to tire-saving considerations, so the downforce level in theory could be even greater. For comparison, a new Corvette ZR1 or Porsche GT2 RS will produce about 450 pounds of downforce at 155 mph and a maximum around 1,000 pounds at their 212-or-so-mph top speeds. That’s not really any comparison to the Senna, which makes you think of a GT3 race car compared to a Prototype racer in terms of cornering speeds.

The other impressive part about the Senna suspension setup is the overall front-to-rear chassis balance. As stiff as it is, once I got my steering-wheel rate figured out on corner entry, I could use the steering and a slight throttle lift or slight left-foot braking to move the car and control rotation. This was very useful entering the mid-speed kinks. Downforce helped to make the turn-five kink easy to take flat-out at more than 130 mph. The ability to rotate the car on corner entry to mid-corner takes away the need for the front tires to do all the work, allowing me to carry more speed and making the car a joy to drive. I could also use these same techniques for post-apex/corner-exit power-down situations. It particularly worked well for putting the power down early in the Mini-Parabolica turn six and the really quick and long Ayrton Senna Parabolica turn 13. This car is so much fun to drive on the track at full rip, I have to tip my hat to the McLaren engineers and Kenny Brack for its development.

In terms of acceleration, I often find it is the least impressive part of high-performance road cars, especially when you get them on a track where everything around you is going equally as quick. However, the Senna feels impressively strong on acceleration, especially from 0-100 mph. When the turbos hit full boost, which is almost instantaneously, the horizon basically gets rammed down your throat. It’s a highly addictive experience.

If you look at the 720S, you have roughly 4.6 pounds per horsepower when you include fuel and a driver. You might be surprised to find a modern day GT3 race car would be around 6 pounds per horsepower. The Senna is a very impressive 3.7 pounds per horsepower, including fuel and a driver. It feels like a Prototype race car on acceleration, especially up to 100 mph, when the downforce is lower, and the car still pulled very strongly to more than 180 mph on Estoril’s front straight.

My laps in the Senna were over rather too quickly, but the memories will stay vivid for a long time to come. This is certainly the quickest street car I’ve ever driven on a track. McLaren has produced a vehicle well worthy of carrying the Senna name.

2019 McLaren Senna Specifications

ON SALE Fall 2018 (all 500 sold)
PRICE $958,966 (base)
ENGINE 4.0L twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8/789 hp @ 7,250 rpm, 590 lb-ft @ 6,700 rpm
TRANSMISSION 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
LAYOUT 2-door, 2-passenger, front-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
0-60 MPH 2.7 sec
TOP SPEED 211 mph

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