Feel My Power

Adam Hay-Nicholls drives the McLaren Senna to East Anglia in search of something equally light, prestigious and expensive

By Adam Hay-Nicholls

May 17 2020

The McLaren Senna was designed to set lap records. I know this because I’ve previously thrashed it around Portugal’s Estoril Circuit, the track at which its namesake, Ayrton Senna, won his first Grand Prix. The aero-aided braking was so severe, my eyeballs spat tears onto the inside of my glasses. But as well as generating 789 horsepower and 800kgworth of downforce, it has a number plate. So, driving to North Essex and the Suffolk coast, I would experience this moveable feast of carbon-fibre in a very different way – traffic, cruise control, traction set to sensible.

Picture the scene: The weather is reminiscent of Ayrton’s epic triumph in ’85. It is lashing down and the windows have steamed up. I’m stuck in motorway traffic. At 1,000 rpm, half of the cylinders shut down, so the McLaren is quiet and economical. There is glass at knee-level designed for corner apex visibility, but on the M25, surrounded by trucks, it leaves one feeling exposed. This car is pre-production. A plaque reads “No. 000 of 500”. The software for the stereo is built-in, but you pay extra for speakers in both money and weight. At 1,300kg, this car is stripped out. The only music is the twin-turbo V8.

I pull off the M11 at junction 9a, taking the B184 to Saffron Walden. This market town, in the 1500s, was the epicentre of the world’s saffron cultivation. By the 17th century, every field, churchyard, garden and window box would have been filled with crocuses. Production petered out when cheaper imports from Iran and Kashmir arrived, but English saffron is still considered the finest, thanks to our soil.

Like the McLaren Senna, saffron is very light and very expensive. By weight, it’s more valuable than gold. I’ve come to meet David Smale, a scientist by trade, who has singlehandedly resurrected saffron growth in this area. He has 100,000 bulbs and sells to Fortnum & Mason. It is labour intensive: 200 flowers need to be handpicked to produce just one gram of saffron. David opens the boot of his car and produces a bag full of dark orange flecks. Saffron is worth £40 a gram and £40,000 a kilo. To an onlooker, this has all the hallmarks of a drug deal. There’s thousands of pounds-worth of merchandise here. As well as enlivening rice and a myriad of dishes, saffron has been a status symbol since long before the hypercar. History reveals that Cleopatra bathed in saffron and ass’s milk. Henry VIII dyed his tights with it, while Anne Boleyn used it for her hair. It was a sign of wealth, designed to evoke splendour. It was also considered the Viagra of its day. Shakespeare makes reference to it in A Winter’s Tale, and the Bard is also said to have stayed at my Suffolk B&B.

McLaren Senna
The McLaren Senna

Dating back to the 13th century, Darsham Old Hall was once owned by Anne Boleyn’s uncle. A little later, Anne Bedingfield lived here. She was the first woman in England to own a theatre, which is how she met Mr Shakespeare and invited him up to Darsham. In the 1800s Sir Henry Rous, the father of modern horse racing, turned it into a stud farm and now, under the ownership of Paul and Jude Rylott, prize-winning pedigree alpacas are bred on its land.

From Saffron Walden, I take the A11 towards Newmarket and then the A14 past Bury St Edmunds. Darsham lies at the end of the A1120 just before you hit the coast at Dunwich.

Due to the gaping aero holes in every piece of the Senna’s bodywork, which are designed to help its tyres grip at gargantuan cornering speeds, the Senna makes an unnerving racket on unswept roads. When I arrive at Darsham Old Hall, after negotiating its gravel approach, half the driveway falls out of the dihedral doors.

Like the Senna, alpacas are strange beasts to see in the Suffolk countryside and, while I’m finding the car to be very compliant and not scary at all, alpacas are terribly difficult to control. “Manitou” and “Incan Fortune” pull violently on the reins Paul and Jude offer me. I had no idea what big business alpaca baby-making is. Manitou’s cousin sold in the US for $750k. That’s basically as much as the Senna. Incidentally, one of the Rylott’s herd gave birth the day after my visit. The newborn was named “Ayrton”.

I drive up the A12 to the idyllically secluded Walberswick, at the mouth of the River Blyth, and dine on dressed Dunwich crab with saffron mayo at The Anchor. An inordinate number of celebs have homes in this tiny village on the coast. The Freud family have long had a base here. The director of the Bourne series, Paul Greengrass, keeps a cottage here, too, and presumably, with his penchant for shaky cinematography and thrilling tension, he’d appreciate the McLaren.

Senna with his McLaren Honda at the Spanish Grand Prix, 1990

One wouldn’t be wise to push the Senna hard on public roads, but even a mild squirt of the throttle and brakes demands that you recalibrate your brain to the speed. And while I’d happily drive one every day if I could (if you intend to bring anything bar what you’re wearing, you can’t, there’s no boot), it does have a firm ride and almost zero soundproofing. Hit a cat’s eye and it makes a sound like a blacksmith hammering an anvil.

With any hypercar one must be wary of the rozzers, but the only police car I meet is an old Wartburg. Its owners are on a rally, visiting Cold War sites around East Anglia. There is something rather Cold War about the Senna too, in terms of its shape and thrust. The engine start/stop button is on the cockpit’s roof. It recalls the US Air Force’s SR-71 Blackbird.

There’s a loop you can take out of Darsham, past Sibton Park to Dennington, then Stradbrook on the B1118 and on to Laxfield on the B1117, past Heveningham Hall – home to Foxton’s founder and car collector Jon Hunt. The McLaren clings on around the tight and twisty lanes. Diverting up the A144, I stop at Fen Farm dairy, home to Montbéliarde cows and the UK’s first raw milk vending machine. Pop in £1 and fill a litre bottle of delicious, creamy, unpasteurised milk.

“Raw” describes the Senna. For me, this is the spiritual successor to the Ferrari F40, in both philosophy and looks. It’s the most focused McLaren road car ever, and the truest to the racing team’s DNA. Like Fen Farm’s produce, it’s untreated. Just about complying with motoring regulations, it’s right on the edge. And it’s sensational.

Adam Hay-Nicholls is a writer and media consultant specialising in motoring, Formula One racing, culture, travel, luxury and adventure.