JR Hildebrand takes on the McLaren Senna GTR

Images courtesy McLaren

JR Hildebrand takes on the McLaren Senna GTR

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JR Hildebrand takes on the McLaren Senna GTR

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“Yeah, just leave a bit of a margin on the rumble strips here…”

Let me level with you. Sitting right seat isn’t something a racecar driver enjoys.

“…OK, up through the gears into Agostini…”

…especially in a DRS-enabled, 814hp, firebreathing McLaren Senna GTR that’s just been switched to slicks on a cold, damp day at the Snetterton Circuit in Norfolk, England.

“S**t, that was late!”

…with an IndyCar driver (that would be me) behind the wheel.

The Senna GTR is an enigma. It’s everything we believe motorsport should be and everything it isn’t, all at the same time. Its reason for being is pure: an exercise in innovation and technology ultra-focused on performance, conceived and built by McLaren simply because it could.

But its existence has little, if anything, to do with the traditional framework of competition or homologation. Today’s motorsport landscape doesn’t justify the existence of this car; instead, the booming hypercar market, craving ever-more-extreme machines, has driven its creation.

That all 75 GTRs — a way-faster-than-a-GT3, fully race-spec progeny of the McLaren Senna that can only be driven on a race track, yet has nowhere to actually race — sold out within weeks of being announced is a bizarre dynamic that speaks volumes about the current state of flux of both motorsports and the automotive industry. Fresh off a transatlantic flight and driving up to Snetterton, I ponder this until my brain starts to hurt. Then I park, catch my first glimpse of the GTR, and suddenly none of it matters.

Racecars are dead. Long live racecars.

Seeing the GTR alongside the street-version McLaren Senna in the garage instantly and massively changed my perception of the car I’d previously experienced on a race track. The original Senna is unquestionably the most uncompromisingly track-focused street car on the planet. Just the look of it — the feeling of its vicious, 4-liter, twin-turbo V8 resonating through the carbon chassis and seats at idle; and its single-minded purposefulness — have been enough to scare people away. But now, sitting next to the GTR, it seems tame enough for grandma to take out for a grocery run.

Though the two cars share an obvious resemblance and shape, it’s amazing to really see what shedding all regulations (as in, those from any motorsport sanctioning body, as well as any pretensions of road-going legality) can produce.

The extremity of the car’s aerodynamic design hits me first, but it’s more than that. The GTR’s proportions appear completely different from the first Senna. The massive, swan neck-mounted, active rear wing hangs off the back of the car, with LMP-style endplates that connect to the body, while an enormous diffuser extends far beyond the bodywork. A longer, wider, re-profiled splitter and more aggressive, angular bodywork similarly transform and extend the front end.

The body is wider, as is the track, and the front wheels are noticeably more cambered and now tucked up into the front fenders, courtesy of the GTR being more than an inch lower than the street car.

There are no rounded edges; no softening for style or road-going practicality. Every surface is sharp, from the vortex generators carved into the side of the splitter, to the blueish-purple tips of the center-exit exhaust. This is the car that the Senna always wanted to be and it’s something to behold.

For me, however, the real question isn’t how much more insane the GTR is compared to the Senna street car, nor is it specifically how fast it is because, frankly, it better be fast. The road-going Senna is already in the same neighborhood of weight and downforce as a GTE racecar, but with appreciably more power. Taking it to another level, the $1.65m GTR gets proper slick tires, a bespoke derivative of the 720S GT3 car’s lighter and fully-adjustable suspension system, an additional 25hp from an unrestricted wastegate and exhaust setup, and an aero makeover in conjunction with McLaren’s Formula 1 aerodynamicists that’s resulted in a 20 percent increase in overall downforce and an incredible 50 percent gain in aero efficiency.

So what I really want to know is, does it feel like a racecar? From my perspective, that’s where a car like this, a car that has all this freedom of development, design, technology and engineering, but for the most part will be in the hands of amateur drivers on track days, could come up short.

It only takes a couple of laps to find out.

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