Even from an enigma such as Ayrton Senna, his answer was intriguingly obscure: ‘‘Fullerton. Name, Fullerton.’’ He’d been asked ‘‘Who was your toughest rival?’’ and, having carefully considered it, began talking about Terry Fullerton, his karting teammate from a decade previously. ‘‘It was pure driving, pure racing,’’ said Senna with quiet reflection, a memory of a time before he was the megastar driver; a simpler time, free from the influence of politics and money, when only the next apex mattered.
Purity. Most of us seek it to some degree, yet as a state of mind it’s increasingly hard to achieve in the modern world. Our connected society is all online, multitasked, assisted and artificially enhanced, while simultaneously being more complex and, invariably, more stressful, too. Performance cars, sadly, have not escaped this trend, with their instant gratification, endless driver modes, and preoccupation with retaining everyday usability: it’s no wonder the simpler pleasures of modern classics are increasingly popular.
McLaren Automotive likes to think it’s pure. Its models are carbon-tubbed, mid-engined, relatively lightweight supercars. It even retains hydraulic assistance for its power steering, choosing purity of feedback over a small improvement in fuel economy. But now it has built a car with the sole remit of providing maximum driving thrills, mainly on track, and it’s named it after the great man himself. That’s either an inspired partnership – an association no other company could, or would, dare flaunt – or a level of expectation that can’t possibly be equalled.
Something else has resonated, too: right from the very beginning, McLaren has repeatedly stressed how the car’s on-road manners – its ride quality, NVH and so on – have been compromised in the pursuit of that incredible track ability. But maybe, just maybe, it was worrying unnecessarily – might the Senna’s adherence to a pure doctrine, its very rawness – actually make it a more memorable road car, more involving and more of an experience, more of the time? That’s why we’ve decided to bring what might just be the ultimate car, arguably named after the ultimate driver, to what for me is the ultimate road – the western stretch of the North Coast 500 in the Scottish Highlands. If it works here, there really isn’t anything left to prove.
It’s difficult to adequately describe the feeling when someone opens the doors of an innocuous covered trailer to reveal a Senna with your name on the paperwork. It’s a preposterous-looking device, but to spend any time with it is to quickly fall in love with its alien form, its intergalactic presence and the sheer extravagance of something this bonkers wearing number plates. The figures are already etched on my brain: 588kW, 1198kg dry, 0-100km/h in 2.8sec, 491kW per tonne, 800kg of downforce at ‘only’ 250km/h. Just for a moment I can honestly say I feel rather overwhelmed, and more than a little emotional, but the desire to get behind the wheel soon obliterates that and I reach into the space below the car’s beltline to pop the butterfly door open.
Somewhere, in a layby en route, is a rental Vauxhall Zafira with the rest of Aston Parrott’s camera gear in it, because there’s no way that’s fitting in the Senna. There’s no storage space in the front or the rear, and the only place to put anything is on a small shelf behind the seats, where you might just be able to squeeze in a soft travel bag if you’re lucky. To do so would decimate vision to the rear, but on this particular car there is none anyway, given that it has the solid rear bulkhead option.
There are so many observations during the first few kilometres that my brain feels like it’s swelling up like a nappy dropped in a swimming pool. But I’m going to prioritise one straight away, and it answers perhaps the biggest question of all about using the Senna on the road: it rides. Yes, it has an inherently stiff-legged approach below 30km/h, but the faster you go, the better it gets, and once you’re driving at pace you never question whether a road, however poorly surfaced, is going to upset either you or the car. At one point on our route there’s a collapsed road surface, lasting for over a kay, but the Senna glides across it at unprintable speed in a manner that makes Aston and I turn to each other simultaneously with a look of utter bemusement. I don’t know how it does it, but clearly some very clever people have been involved with the Senna’s hydraulically interlinked damping.
As we trace our way along the coastline, much of the Senna’s intimidation factor has already evaporated. Visibility aft is poor, but I’ve soon developed a technique to improve the line of sight from the side-mounted mirrors. Recalling how a Spitfire pilot taxis on the ground, weaving from side to side to peer down past the skywards-pointing Rolls Royce Merlin V12, I adopt the same technique in the Senna, gently weaving one way then the other when I want a clear view of behind. We christen it the ‘Spitfire shuffle’, and it soon becomes second nature.
Even by McLaren’s formidable standards the driving position is exceptional, the wheel pulled back in the chest and an unobscured view of the rotating dial pack familiar from the 720S, with beyond that a sightline straight down to the road’s surface just in front of the protruding snout. Above my head is a pod with the starter button and interior lighting, while in the middle of the dash a sliver of a TFT screen angled towards the driver constitutes the centre console, and the usual transmission selectors are placed in a carbon pod that’s actually attached to the driver’s seat, and hence moves with it. And what seats they are. Carbon shells with Alcantara pads, they weigh just 8kg each and I’ve quickly realised they’re incredibly supportive and comfortable. I won’t get a single twinge from driving the Senna, even after almost 12 hours solid. Talking of twinges, the twin-turbo V8 is already making its presence felt, a tremor via the stiff engine mounts relaying its efforts directly into my body.
There are three distinct levels to driving the Senna. You can drive it slowly, and thanks to its fanatically efficient twin-clutch ’box that’s so easy anyone could do it. However, I can’t bring myself to drive a car such as the Senna in auto, so I thumb Active on the centre panel then choose from the familiar Comfort, Sport and Track modes for both handling and powertrain, leaving both in Sport for much of the time. Even Track mode isn’t overly stiff, though. There’s a Race mode, too, but with its reduced ride height (by 39mm front, 30mm rear) that’s not an option for the road.
What I’m enjoying most of all is the Senna’s steering, which is unlike that of almost any other car currently on sale. In fact, you’d have to turn – no pun intended – to the products of Lotus and Caterham to find a system on a par, for the Senna’s wheel chatters, cajoles, informs and occasionally shouts at the driver in a constant diatribe of astonishing clarity about what’s happening down at the front wheels. Yes, it loves to run with a camber, but you soon learn that the secret to driving the Senna well is to understand what it’s trying to tell you, and that 80 per cent of those movements away from the straight ahead are self-correcting: it’s knowing the 20 per cent that need a subtle input from the driver that’s the key.
By the time the road runs along the cliff edge past Loch Ewe, my restraint has long since evaporated. Time for ‘level two’, where you work the engine typically between 3000 and 5000rpm, feeling the true force of that 800Nm. Now there’s a breathy paaah every time I lift my foot from the accelerator, and a WHOOSH-PAAAH if lots of boost has built up and is suddenly expended. The giant Pirelli Trofeo Rs are so sticky to the touch it’s like squeezing liquorice between your fingers, but cornering grip starts to take on a new meaning because something else, something deeply profound, is making its presence felt and lifting the Senna into another dimension. I’m talking about downforce.
The sense that it’s squeezing the Senna unwaveringly into the tarmac is palpable, the stability of the car hugely confidence inspiring. There is always more grip than you think, but that doesn’t make the car aloof; you don’t have to use all the grip to feel the reward. So beautifully direct and informative is the hydraulically assisted steering, so finely weighted, that apices become a ludicrous game of dare with kerbstones and verges, an analogue activity where it’s utterly absorbing to deal in fractions of a degree. I’ve left Aston on the cliff top, snapping away, and I swear the improved power-to-weight ratio is detectable, the Senna feeling even more heroically feisty. The road rushes past my peripheral vision through the glazed lower doors and I feel like I’m in a spaceship pod, not a car. Blimey. I think I need to pull over.
Coffee and cake on a remote hillside is a chance to lower the heart rate and contemplate. I am stunned by the Senna’s immersive driving experience, staggered at its ability to ride with aplomb over the ultimate B-road. I love how raw it is: that there’s no radio fitted, or carpets, and no air con. Yes, you really notice the heat soak when stationary, but the tiny side windows that drop below the split line supply fresh air without any buffeting at speed. I run through everything my mind has absorbed over and over again, but I can find only one thing that doesn’t enthral, and that’s the noise it makes. The M840TR engine, like all McLaren V8s, is a tool for the job, and not about enriching the soul. When it’s idling it feels like all those valves, springs, cam lobes and everything else are oscillating, rotating, vibrating right next to your ear canal, so close does it seem. Gah-gah-gah it goes, with all the aural sophistication of a fairground generator. It’s dramatic and intimidating, I’ll give it that – a constant reminder that there’s 588kW connected to my right foot, like holding a very powerful chainsaw and suddenly contemplating that one slip that could have life-changing consequences.
Suitably refreshed, I know it’s time to experience the top strata of the Senna’s ability. My heartbeat speeds up and my hands tingle in anticipation, an in-built guilt mechanism primed to face down the devil that’s about to take control, because I know what I’m about to do is wrong, but we really are miles from civilisation, on the side of a mountain, so now’s as good a time as any. Combining the final 3000rpm of the Senna’s engine output with its peak braking performance and aero-assisted grip on the road is like the Ghostbusters crossing the streams. Risky, and liable to set your hair on fire, but if you want the ultimate it needs to be done.
The Senna goes utterly berserk past 6000rpm. At first it seems heavily torque-restricted in the first two gears, albeit smooth in delivery, only really gaining impossible urgency once third gear has registered with a click of the right-hand paddle. But this is simply the ESC system massaging away the carnage. Switch the ESC to Dynamic, or off, and it all makes sense: it’s loopy, it’s like being strapped to the nose cone of a ballistic missile, it’s absolutely bloody marvellous. Even on a dry road the fat, sticky Pirellis spin up at the top of first and second gears, the rear axle faithfully betraying what’s going on, the tail occasionally swaying gently from side to side under full power in the pursuit of traction.
Into third and the speed readout is basically a blur, but a corner is approaching and the game crystallises on how long you leave the taps open for, how late you dare brake. You know you can brake impossibly late; you know the giant ceramic discs and parachute-like rear wing rotating forwards will mean the Senna will stop, and more convincingly than any car you’ve driven before, but such are the accelerative forces that everything is condensed into milliseconds. A blink of an eye too long on the throttle and it could be too much.
The road twists randomly, and over the worst of the undulations the Senna’s rear wheels pick up and the engine slaps the rev limiter – ra-tat-tat – the car landing a few degrees sideways then moving back into line. Was it me, did I subconsciously get the lock on and then off again, or did the car sort it? No time to ponder, because we’re deep into a corner and on the brakes, the firm pedal giving the best feel to be found on any car currently on sale. Trail off and sense the nose bite hard and the tail edge out: one turn, one line, everything in harmony. The Senna comes alive when it’s driven this hard, rising onto its tiptoes once enough forces are put through its chassis. Get a little greedy in the slower stuff and you can edge the tail out more with excess power, although it feels like juggling with cavalry sabres for a hobby.
An inadvertent whoop of laughter follows a successful slide, as much through relief that we’re not sliding backwards down a mountainside, composing the first line of an email to the insurance company, as it is through excitement. What really scrambles my brain is one downhill third-gear left-hander. Just at the apex there’s a pronounced compression, and the Senna is forced down onto its outer front wheel with enough G-force to thump my chin against my chest. Yet that large front splitter never once even kisses the road’s surface. That’s extraordinary damping; revelatory poise. It’s verging on witchcraft.
And then it’s all over, for the simple reason that the intensity, the physical battering the body gets, shoulders pinned repeatedly to the seat, becomes too much. As soon as I dial back the pace, I notice my mouth is dry, my forearms pumped, and although there’s no mirror to look up into, I bet my pupils are the size of squash balls. Frankly, I’m grateful we need to take some static shots – that is if we can avoid being mobbed by the inquisitive passers by and die-hard car nuts who converge instantly on the car every time we stop. You get to meet a lot of people when you drive a Senna…
Soon we need to push on again. The light is fading now, and the gloomy peaks of Canisp and Beinn Gharbh have a looming menace. The road is fast – long straights, occasionally punctuated by sweeping curves that roll lazily left and right. I’m back at level two in the Senna, pushing on but well within its limits. The windows are down, the cabin full of sweet, fresh Highland air, but again weirdly with no blustering, no distractions, just the rush of scenery and the feeling of the car almost floating over the ground. And there, for the next thirty minutes, I think I’ve found my definition of automotive purity: thirty minutes where every bend, every crest and every straight is completely absorbing, enriching, unforgettable.
I don’t want it to end, but I know that once past Kylesku Bridge the road eventually narrows to a single track, and that won’t be any place for a Senna. No, I’d rather call it quits at the zenith of this drive, and with a grin stretching my face until it hurts I feed the car off the main road, roll it slowly down a lane and come to a stop on a slipway just a few feet from the lapping water of a loch. It really is, literally, the end of the road.
With the Senna’s engine shut down there’s an all-enveloping cloak of silence, and as I look out across the loch and on to the unending vista of the foreboding Atlantic, my overstimulated brain wanders and I imagine if Ayrton were here, what he would think of this car – this crazy, wonderful car. It’s an older, greyer Ayrton, wearing the same ‘Nacional’ cap, now slightly faded. It’s an Ayrton who didn’t put ink to paper on a Williams-Renault contract, but decided instead to hang up the famous yellow helmet for good, retire to Brazil, and concentrate on his charitable foundation. I turn to him with embarrassing childlike excitement and say: ‘‘Ayrton, that’s the thrill of driving right there, isn’t it?’’ And that inimitable quiet smile starts in the corner of his mouth and breaks across his face, and he simply says: ‘‘That’s pure driving. Adam Towler
Engine V8, 3999cc, twin-turbo
Power 588kW @ 7250rpm
Torque 800Nm @ 5500-6700rpm
Transmission Seven-speed dual-clutch, rear-wheel drive
Front suspension Double wishbone, coil springs, adaptive dampers
Rear suspension Double wishbone, coil springs, adaptive dampers
Brakes Carbon-ceramic discs, 390mm front and rear
Wheels 19in front, 20in rear Tyres 245/35 ZR19 front, 315/30 ZR20 rear
Weight (dry) 1198kg
Top speed 340km/h
Basic price c$2,000,000