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That night I lay in bed, unable to sleep, replaying the lap in my head, again and again and again. Just three corners of Silverstone’s International Circuit in Northamptonshire, England, had changed everything. Norms smashed, benchmarks tossed aside. The edges of the envelope reduced to blurry lines in the distance. I’ve hot-lapped road cars on racetracks for more than 30 years, but nothing I’ve ever driven comes close to the majestic McLaren Senna.

Abbey into Farm Curve, a sweeping right-left sequence just past Silverstone’s magnificent F1 pitlane complex. 150 mph in fifth, hard on the brakes where the curb starts at the left, and back to fourth. Turn in early and then back on the gas well before the apex. Understeer builds gently. 100 mph. The outside edge of the track rushes into peripheral vision. Don’t lift! Keep looking through the corner—hands follow eyes—find the clipping point of the left-hander. There! Roll the wrists, and the orange McLaren calmly jinks left at 120 mph and barrels down the short chute into the tight right at Village.

Stowe, a right-hander with a hungry curb on a tightening exit at the end of Hangar Straight. 170 mph at the marker, the shift light nuzzling the blue zone. Wait … wait … synapses firing, disbelief suspended, time and distance collapsed. Now! Stomp the brake pedal, hard as possible. Ooof! The six-point harness bites. Fourth. Dammit! Could have gone deeper still, carried more speed into the apex. Easy … easy … float out to the curb on the left, open the steering, full throttle. Bellow and thrust, 789 horsepower at work.

Change of direction, midcorner speed, braking. Abbey, Farm Curve, Stowe; three corners that reveal the McLaren Senna to be a car apart from the snarling pack of street-legal track rats from Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini, and Mercedes-AMG. Like the legendary Formula 1 driver whose name it carries, it’s on another level altogether.

We covered the technical highlights of the Senna in detail after the car’s unveiling earlier this year, but just to recap: It’s based on the 720S but is about 200 pounds lighter. The mid-mounted 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 makes its 789 hp at 7,250 rpm and 590 lb-ft from 5,500 rpm to 6,700 rpm, thanks to a new air intake and carbon-fiber plenum, unique lightweight cams and pistons, new sensors that allow higher combustion pressures and temperatures, and two high-flow fuel pumps. McLaren claims the Senna will hit 60 mph in about 2.5 seconds, reach 124 mph in 6.8 seconds, and dust the quarter mile in under 10 seconds. Top speed is limited to 211 mph.

The Senna’s hydraulically modulated, computer-controlled, height-adjustable suspension is an evolution of the setup used on the P1 and enables independent control of roll and heave motions. The braking system is also based on that of the P1, but with the latest-generation 15.4-inch CCM-R carbon-ceramic rotors all round. Tires are specially developed Pirelli P Zero Trofeo Rs, 245/35R19s up front and 315/30R20s at the rear.

It might look ready for Le Mans, but the Senna is a legitimate road car. It has air conditioning and cruise control, parking sensors and hill hold assist, anti-lock brakes and traction control. Power windows and a backup camera, too. There’s sat-nav and audio, controlled via an 8.0-inch high-resolution touchscreen that’s also the interface for McLaren’s Variable Drift Control system. The interior’s functional but beautifully finished, awash with Alcantara and structural carbon fiber. Solid engine mounts mean there’s more noise and vibration than in a 720S, but you can drive the Senna to a track day without feeling sweaty and wrung out, ears wringing and back aching, when you arrive.

Make it light, and make it powerful. It’s a time-honored formula for going fast, as old as the automobile. What the Senna adds to the mix is a 21st century application of the art and science of aerodynamics. Aero blades tucked under the headlights, a wing thrust high into the airflow at the rear of the car, an aerodynamic floor, and bodywork that’s been uncompromisingly designed to optimize aero efficiency, work together to generate an incredible 1,764 pounds of downforce at 155 mph.

The clever part is the blades and wing are computer controlled, altering their angle of attack to change both the amount and distribution of downforce. Above 155 mph they are progressively trimmed to reduce drag, allowing the Senna to hit 211 mph (which occurs in sixth gear, not seventh) while maintaining downforce at a constant 1,764 pounds. Hit the brakes, and the blades bleed off downforce to compensate for the weight transfer onto the front axle while the wing snaps almost vertical to act as an airbrake and increase the load on the rear.

None of this is evident from behind the wheel. All you’re aware of is massive grip and stability through high-speed corners and under heavy braking. There’s a preternatural calmness about the McLaren Senna at speed that’s quite unlike anything else, even Ferrari’s magnificent 488 Pista; the omnipresent downforce makes it feel as if it’s steadied by the hand of God. Yet the Senna can be danced playfully through the slower corners, kicked sideways with the throttle, and quickly caught with an armful of opposite lock. It’s intimate and immediate, but not intimidating. The Senna is a car that not only encourages you to explore your limits as a driver. It also recalibrates them.

McLaren says the Senna is intended to be the most exciting street-legal car you can drive on a racetrack. And after lapping Silverstone in VP736, one of the handful of Senna validation prototypes built for final calibration and sign-off before production starts next month, this much is clear: None of the 500 customers about to hand over the best part of a million bucks for a Senna of their own is going to be asking for a penny of their money back.


McLaren Senna GTR

One step beyond

The McLaren Senna is quick on a racetrack, quicker, even, than the P1, until now McLaren’s alpha-dog hypercar.  McLaren has crunched the numbers at Silverstone: The Senna is 5 mph faster through the flat-in-fourth Farm Curve than the P1 and 9 mph faster at the end of Hangar Straight, on the entry to Stowe Corner. And it can brake 82 feet later for that critical right-hander.

But, says McLaren Auotmotive engineering design director Dan Parry-Williams, there are McLaren customers who will want more. So, just as with the P1, there will be a track-only, slick-tire GTR version of the Senna. It will be 70 to 110 pounds lighter than the road-going Senna, with more power—813 hp, to be precise—and even more downforce. Just 75 will be built, with a price tag in the U.S. of around $1.4 million, plus taxes. All are spoken for, and Parry-Williams says McLaren could have easily sold twice that number.

The road-going Senna has been carefully set up to suit gentlemen drivers, particularly through high-speed corners: As the car nears the limit, it’s the front end that gives up first, with easily modulated mild understeer the default handling mode. A pro driver would like more front-end bite to help the Senna carry even more midcorner speed. But a pro driver also has the talent and reflexes to catch a 150 mph slide when not even 1,100 pounds of downforce on the rear axle is enough to keep the tires glued to the tarmac.

Parry-Williams says the Senna development team debated the idea of allowing more adjustability to the chassis balance but ultimately decided against it. “You don’t want to confuse people,” Parry-Williams says. “You don’t want to give them a function that they might forget.”

Senna GTR owners will probably be given more ability to fine-tune the handling of their cars, however. “What we learned on the P1 GTR program is the people who get into it are quite serious about it and want to improve their performance,” Parry-Williams says. “Some of them are very good drivers, so to be able to extend the experience even beyond the Senna, we are exploring the idea of developing the GTR’s systems further to have the facility to make more things driver controllable.”



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