Inside the Million-Dollar Senna, McLaren’s Fiercest Road Car Ever

If you want to properly understand the million-dollar McLaren Senna supercar, you've got to make the pilgrimage to Woking, just southeast of London. There, you'll find McLaren’s UK Technology Center headquarters. What looks like a science fiction movie prop dropped in the English countryside is in fact home to the factory hand-building road cars, and McLaren's Formula 1 team. The kidney shaped structure wraps floor to ceiling glass around a pool of tranquil water, which is used for cooling the mechanics when a huge on-site wind tunnel is running.

It is, that is to say, exactly the sort of place that would produce a car like the Senna, which promises to be one of the world's most radical road machines. The 4.0-liter V8 engine, sitting behind the two carbon fiber seats, produces 789 brake horsepower, a whole lot in a car that weighs just 2,461 pounds. It's also the sort of place where your tour guide confirms that yes, that's Fernando Alonso who just walked by. He's there doing interviews before the F1 season kicks up, but you wonder if McLaren keeps him around to remind visitors that it's been in the sport for 50 years.

Inside, a wave of a hand over a hidden sensor causes a section of wall to glide open, revealing new curved corridors. Another hidden, swooshing, door reveals the back of house, where a brand new McLaren Senna sits on a turntable.

“For us, it’s a real treat to be able to spend some quality time with a real vehicle, a production car,” says Mark Roberts, McLaren’s design manager, explaining that he’s happy to take time out of his day to show me around the car. Normally, he sees a vehicle as a clay model in the studio, perfects it, then moves on to the next project. There's not much time built in for looking back.

With the Senna, the million-dollar base price buys you less not more. It’s stripped back, bereft of everything that adds weight. All that's left is a passenger cell, shrink wrapped in carbon fiber, with an enormous wing on the back. “It’s like the car’s been working out in the gym, it’s showing the structure, and the skeleton underneath that,” Roberts says.

This machine is all about performance, and sits at the “ultimate” end of the spectrum of road cars that McLaren has produced for just 25 years, dating back to the revolutionary three-seater F1, then the P1 in 2012. The company also builds the slightly more reasonable “sports” series with the 570S, and the “super” series with the 720S.

The Senna unashamedly prizes function over form. The resulting extreme looks are polarizing, but look more cohesive in the flesh than in photos. Waving his hands over the car, design engineering director Dan Parry-Williams shows how air gets sucked around the squared-off front splitter, and through the wheel arch. The cutaway design of the door accelerates the airflow, steering it down the side of the car. “We pushed the door in as far as possible, right into the structure,” Parry-Williams says.

It's one of many techniques his team used to generate a phenomenal 1,763 pounds of downforce, the thing that keeps the car glued to the road in the corners—key to performance. “The car grips in every situation, it’s pretty much like an F1 car,” says Roberts. More help comes from that giant surfboard-like wing on the back—a full four feet off the ground—and the car has active, steerable, aerodynamic elements to deflect air and shrug off some of that downforce when it’s not needed, like when pelting down a straight when it would just be drag.

Inside, one of the few design flourishes comes into view. As Roberts reaches up to close the flip-up door, I can see straight through to the floor outside, thanks a glass panel in the lower part of the body. But even this, Roberts paints as a functional touch. “You are effectively a component in this car, and even at low speed you see the track or road whizzing past you, and it gives you that sense of heightened excitement."

Because this is a car designed to be raced as well as driving on public roads, the interior was made with a helmeted driver in mind. The center screen, with controls for radio and heating is high up, to remain visible even through a visor. The park, reverse, neutral, buttons are attached to the bottom of the driver’s seat, so they slide when it does, and always fall directly under hand.

In a nod to practicality, there’s space for two helmets and race suits to be stowed behind the seats, but that’s about it. This is not a car for your weekly shopping trip. “For me, it’s a race car with a number plate,” says Roberts. So it will fit in well nicely when it heads to the Geneva Motor Show for its official debut this week, where even the fanciest of attendees will be able to look, but not buy: All 500 planned production models are already spoken for.

Extreme Engineering

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