We’ve been telling you about McLaren’s plans for a new Ultimate Series hypercar for some time, a project heretofore known only by its P15 internal project code. This is the stripped-out super performer that insiders promised would be quicker around a racetrack than the seminal P1. The fundamental ingredients—an overabundance of power in an extremely lightweight package—were already known, so it seemed that the only secrets left to spill would be the relative quantities of those, as well as the final exterior design.
We were wrong. McLaren managed to keep the best secret under wraps until the car’s official unveiling: its name. Meet the McLaren Senna. There’s a certain Ferrari Enzo quality to this news, both in the decision to dig into the brand’s illustrious motorsports history for its most extreme project—Ayrton Senna having won all three of his Formula 1 drivers’ championships with the team—and also for the confidence that it projects.
After something of a shaky start with the original MP4-12C, McLaren has become a brand that most definitely has its swagger on, buoyed by rave reviews for the new 720S and strong sales for the entry-level 570 models.
The company has also proved capable of selling out every limited edition before officially confirming their existence, with the two-seat Senna being the latest case in point—the total production run of 500 units is already spoken for despite a price tag that, in the United States, is likely to run very close to seven figures as-delivered. The same applies for its grand-tourer sibling, the three-seat BP23, which is McLaren’s other current Ultimate Series project. There are owners’ names attached to each of the full run of those 106 cars, this before final details have even been confirmed. We’re told that many buyers have opted for one of each. Sounds like it’s fun at the top.
Aside from its name, the Senna has plenty more awe to invoke. It is designed for track use first and foremost; the idea is less daily driver than a car that is street-legal for drives to and from the track. That has led to some serious mass saving, including the development of an even lighter form of carbon fiber, and although the power output is impressive, the claimed weight is even more extraordinary.
McLaren says that it has turned up its twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8 to produce a claimed peak of 789 horsepower and 590 lb-ft of torque. The hybrid P1 had a total system output of 903 horses, but the Senna does without the electrical components, motor, and battery pack and their attendant weight. McLaren says that, in its lightest possible configuration, the Senna weighs just 2641 pounds dry; we’ll see when we get one on our scales. More relevant is that this is over 400 pounds lighter than the company’s estimation of the P1’s mass and just under 400 pounds heavier than the dry weight it cites for the original McLaren F1. Official performance estimates haven’t been issued, but we can safely presume they will be equally astonishing. Given that the 720S is already quicker around most racetracks than was the P1, we can bet that the Senna will raise the bar by several additional notches.
The styling of the Senna, like that of the Enzo that debuted 15 years ago, is more brutal than beautiful, the result of the car’s mission for uncompromised performance and the consequent need for aerodynamic efficiency. The potential path of every air molecule passing over its many surfaces has been carefully considered, from extra-compact radiators in the nose to the need to direct clean airflow over the vast rear wing, underhung from its supports like an endurance racer’s and with a total surface area of 1007 square inches across its various elements.
Like the Ford GT, the Senna will hunker down into an extra-low Track mode to reduce drag and increase aero grip further, the drop of nearly two inches putting the tops of the rear wheels inside the arches. The wing can tilt forward to increase downforce or backward to take its main element out of the airflow to improve speed in a straight line. There also are two movable flaps inside the air intakes on both sides of the front bumper that will be used to increase or decrease aerodynamic grip at the front and keep the car in balance. McLaren is staying coy about the exact downforce numbers. When we tried to discuss the substantial loads that the burly wing supports are clearly designed to handle, vehicle line director Andy Palmer (no relation to the Aston Martin CEO of the same name) showed no visible dissent when we speculated that the peak figure could well be greater than the weight of the car itself. This might be the first roadgoing car to boast the theoretical capability of driving on the ceiling.
In contrast with the extremism everywhere else, the interior offers the bare minimum. The seats are little more than padding on lightweight frames—they can be sized for individual drivers—while the controls have been pared down to just a central touchscreen. The engine-start button and the releases for the two top-hinged doors are located overhead. A compartment behind the seats just big enough for two racing helmets and suits constitutes the entirety of the luggage accommodation. The side windows are split and feature fixed upper panels with an inset portion that opens, similar to those on the McLaren F1 (and the Subaru SVX and the DeLorean DMC-12). The car McLaren showed us also featured additional fixed glass below the beltline to maximize apex-spotting opportunities on the track. Glass weighs more than carbon fiber—even the lightweight, smartphone-type glass that McLaren has spec’d—so these actually carry a weight penalty. Getting the lightest possible Senna will mean losing the additional visibility provided by the lower windows and ordering carbon panels in their stead as well as foregoing the lightweight audio system and the glass partition between the passenger compartment and the mid-mounted engine bay.
Other weight-saving measures have been conducted with the fastidious diligence of the truly obsessed. As with every McLaren road car, the Senna’s chassis uses a carbon-fiber tub. This one is called the Monocage III and is responsible for 40 pounds of saved mass over the previous Monocage II. The engine still mounts to an aluminum substructure and there is a partial-metal crash structure up front, but almost every other part of the structure is finished in carbon fiber, including a new extra-thin weave that will be used for nonstructural external parts. We’re told that the front fenders weigh just 1.4 pounds each, compared with 4.9 for the same pieces on the 720S. The forged-aluminum wheels have been made even lighter through clever design, with the decision to use center locks rather than studs making it possible to symmetrically design them with nine spokes rather than 10. Even the license-plate holders are designed to be easy to detach to shave mass and improve aerodynamics on the track.
The Senna also gets a new type of carbon-ceramic brake disc: motorsports-grade CCM-R made by Brembo, which uses a new compound with 3.5 times better thermal conductivity than previous-generation carbon-ceramic rotors, meaning they can be made smaller and lighter. Track-biased Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R tires will be standard, but more road-friendly rubber can be swapped in if buyers want. Or just buy sets of each and hire a man to swap them for you.
According to McLaren, its deal with the Senna Foundation to use the iconic driver’s name is limited to this car. If so, that’s a shame, as the perfect title for the production-spec BP23 three-seater would surely be the Ayrton. Deliveries will start next year, and although U.S. pricing hasn’t been confirmed, any putative American buyers will already know if they have made the cut. In the United Kingdom the car costs £750,000 (including Britain’s 20 percent VAT sales tax). That’s equivalent to $837,000 before tax at current exchange rates, barely more than the McLaren F1 cost 23 years ago.