Just how fast is the McLaren Senna? Officially 100kph arrives in 2.8 seconds, double that in just 6.8 seconds, it then passing 300kph in just 18.8 seconds. Fast then, however you look at it, but it’s not so far removed from the 720S I’ve just jumped out of to do a few exploratory laps of the 4.18km and 13 curves that make up the Autodromo do Estoril. Fittingly it’s where Senna won his first Grand Prix, back in 1985, and it’s where I’ll be experiencing the 800 horsepower McLaren wearing his name. 

Its reception has been mixed, much of the focus being on how the Senna looks. A lot has been said about the styling, but here, now, and understanding why, it works. If it’s busy of line that’s because it’s assiduous in producing its performance. There’s nothing that can be described that is other than beneficial, whether that is moving air to cool, push, or stabilise, the Senna visually is very much the embodiment of its namesakes’ ruthless pursuit of performance. Beauty be damned, then, the Senna looks to all intents like a pure racecar, even if it isn’t.

Ridiculous as it might seem the Senna is homologated for the road. All 500 — it’s sold out — that will be built can be driven on public roads. The intention is that owners will do so, en-route to their favourite circuit, its ability on the road facilitating its true purpose. Even so, there’s no precursory drive around the roads of Estoril today, instead I’m handed a set of racing overalls, a helmet, HANS device and introduced to Goncalo Gomez, one of McLaren’s Pure McLaren drivers. He’ll accompany me on my laps around the challenging Portuguese track.

 

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I’ve lucked out, Gomez is local, having lapped around here enough he could probably do so blindfolded. He might just want to today. Other drive modes are available, but with a track then it’d be an exercise in futility to select anything but Race. Gomez concurs and I’m strapped into the simple, yet neatly executed cockpit, the Senna’s suspension, aero and ESP systems primed for the track. That’s cockpit, not cabin, the interior demonstrating its purposefulness, the super lightweight bucket seats, the shells being 3.4kg if you’re asking, so positioned and shaped to help prevent you from submarining in them under heavy braking, assisting the five-point seatbelts in managing your own mass as the Senna exerts its extraordinary forces upon you.

It’s comfortable, the thin padding working well, the steering wheel supremely adjustable. It’s worth closing the door before you do up those belts though, as unless you’ve someone on hand to do push it shut for you’ll be undoing them again. There’s an optional glazed area in the door, useful for spotting apexes, heightening the sensation of movement, even if it does add a little bit of weight to the Senna’s 1,189kg dry kerbweight. Power comes from the snappily titled M840TR V8, a development of the 720S’s 4.0-litre twin-turbo unit. It’s so significantly revised it might as well be described as new, it developing 800 horses at 7,250rpm and 800Nm of torque from 5,500-6,600rpm.

The engine start button is positioned, like the window switches, in a panel in the centre of the roof. That’s to keep the wiring loom as short — and as light — as possible, neatly removing the need for it in the doors. The engine fires, it needing a firm push on the brake to allow it, then the driver mode selection is as familiar as any McLaren. Race mode is selected, the Senna is hunkered down in expectation of its track workout.

 

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Pulling out of the pit lane the steering feels beautifully crisp, the slightest movement of the wheel guiding the bespoke compound Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R tyres exactly where you want them, without any unnecessary, dulling weight. It’s surprisingly delicate to steer, even, when that aero is working above 180kph and pushing the Senna into the tarmac with 800kg of force.

The first lap is exploratory, the immediate changes over its not slow 720S relation being the detail and accuracy on offer. Not just where you can place it, but to every input. There’s no slack when you step off the brake and chase the accelerator, the first millimetre of the accelerator’s movement translating to immediate, explosive force, backed with a howling scream of that V8 and the delicious intake sounds that feed it. It chews through rapidly fired gears as it races towards its soft limiter, the ferocity of the acceleration that accompanies each new gear never abating, the Senna feeling like its shifting zero mass as it slingshots towards the next braking zone. 

You could forgive the engine a momentary hesitation, the merest of pauses before the turbos get to work, but the 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 exhibits no such laziness, its eagerness more akin a tiny fly-wheeled naturally aspirated unit.

 

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There’s lightened internals here, a flat-planed crank, dry-sump lubrication and sophisticated individual cylinder sensing to optimise output and immediacy. The turbos are twin-scroll units with electronically controlled wastegates, the upstream flow ahead of those turbos enhanced by a carbon fibre intake plenum, fed from a snorkel in the roof. There are two high-flow fuel pumps to feed it all. Apparently one just couldn’t cope.

That could all manifest as a racer’s recalcitrance, but the Senna is a paragon of civility, that remarkable given the ridiculous figures that are associated with it. Within a few turns it’s apparent I’m not braking hard enough, or being quick enough back on the accelerator. Pushing harder and deeper into every bend requires a recalibration of what you think is possible, particularly as it’s on road-legal, albeit track optimised, tyres.

At the end of the main straight I’m still pulling gears approaching 300kph as the 200m braking zone arrives. Standing on the brake a blink after, and I’m still too early. Those brakes. Just breathtaking. The way they wash off speed is extraordinary, the seven months the discs take to create are worth every second. They deliver incredible bite, feel and resistance to fade all while running cooler, being smaller, lighter and stronger, which, along with the tiny details like shaving the raised McLaren badge from the callipers, reduces the unsprung mass further.

It’s actually easy to drive, yet don’t mistake that ease for uninteresting, the many layers of its ability revealing and challenging you to push yours.

Their performance is allied to outrageous stability, with wheel and body control exemplary, the active aerodynamics seeing the rear wing stand up to stabilise and slow. The Senna’s speed is gained not in the straights, but in the braking zones and its ability to take great chunks of time through and exiting a corner. The steering weighting is perfect, it light and quick, and rich in detail as to the grip, the suspension’s mesmerising ability to contain and control, even if you’re taking liberties with the track’s kerbs little short of chassis wizardry.

It’s playful, too. Surprisingly so. The tight, off-camber right hander that follows turn one able to be exited with some corrective lock, a quick stab of the accelerator allowing the attitude to be changed and exploited, as you might in something with a quarter of the Senna’s output. It feels so natural to do so, yet laugh-out-loud ridiculous, the Senna a car that’s difficult to comprehend, but not to exploit.

Do that and it reveals McLaren’s goals, a car that can be enjoyed on track without being daunting or difficult. It’s actually easy to drive, yet don’t mistake that ease for uninteresting, the many layers of its ability revealing and challenging you to push yours. That’s the balance that McLaren has got spot on, the Senna a car that will reward and entertain, every lap a learning experience, its genius being in making its performance exploitable whatever your level of confidence and skill. It doesn’t matter how fast it is, because the chances are, unless you’re as skilful as the name it wears, you’ll never be as fast as it could be.