Remembering Ayrton – 19 years on
On May 1st 2013, 19 years on from the crash that took Ayrton's life, we remember 10 of his greatest racing moments.
1. Monaco qualifying
Senna’s qualifying laps around the narrow streets of the Principality have rightly become the stuff of legend. You’ve doubtless seen the onboard footage, too – its sheer intensity burned indelibly into your memory.
Across the line, the Honda V10 engine surges to a peak, screams on the over-run, and is then kicked into touch with a balletic right foot, balancing the throttle with tiny blips to control the lag; each correction to the steering is a frantic tug on the wheel, with deft flicks of opposite lock just to keep the car from spurring into the wall. Ayrton’s right hand ricochets between the wheel and gearstick, a blur of movement.
This isn’t onboard footage as we now know it – it’s more like watching a space rocket being steered between the Armco. It’s breathtaking, dazzling - incomprehensible. How can a human being do this?
Talking with the journalist Gerald Donaldson about those laps, Ayrton’s recollections have also entered F1 lore for being some of the most vivid and honest reflections on the purity of raw speed:
“I suddenly realized that I was no longer driving the car consciously,” he said. “The whole circuit for me was a tunnel. I was way over the limit but still able to find even more. Then, suddenly, something just kicked me – immediately my reaction was to back off, slow down; it frightened me because I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding.”
2: Europe 1993 – the greatest first lap in grand prix history
It’s strange to remember that Donington was the unlikely host of a Formula 1 race in the spring of 1993. A grand prix had been the dream of owner Tom Wheatcroft for more than a decade, yet, despite repeated attempts, efforts had usually foundered well before they could come close to fruition.
Donington Park held only one world championship Formula 1 race, yet it’s oddly fortuitous that it has down in history as one of the most distinctly memorable races in grand prix history, and – justifiably – as the venue for the all-time greatest opening lap in F1.
In 1993, Senna’s modestly powered McLaren-Ford had no right to challenge for supremacy. It was outflanked by the sophisticated Williams-Renaults, outpowered by the mighty V12 Ferraris and, thanks to a works deal with Benetton, not even Ford’s top-line F1 customer.
Senna was acutely aware that he was the underdog. So when the heavens opened on race morning, he knew the playing-field had been levelled – and he made his mark in the most memorable way possible.
From fourth on the grid, he dropped to fifth as he was overtaken by Karl Wendlinger into the first corner. Finding grip on the inside into Redgate, he accelerated past Michael Schumacher, carved past Wendlinger on the outside at the Craner Curves, and set his sights on the two leading Williams-Renaults.
Side-by-side with Damon Hill into McLeans, he made the move stick. Now he was up to second and was closing on his old nemesis, Alain Prost. Finding ample grip where his rivals were struggling, Senna threw his car down the inside of Prost into the Melbourne Hairpin and motored away into the distance.
He made light work of that afternoon, finishing more than a minute ahead of Prost by the finish. For a man who constantly reinvented superlatives throughout his career, this was simply stunning stuff.
Senna’s greatest race?
3: Suzuka 1988 – the inspired comeback drive
This was supposed to be Ayrton’s greatest moment: pole position on the grid and a straightforward race was enough to collect that holiest of personal grails – the world championship. Sat on the gentle downwards slope of the Suzuka grid, the cars were held for a long time. Then, as the red lights blinked to green, Ayrton surged forward, but dropped the revs. His car spluttered, and was greedily swamped by the field into the first corner.
The comeback drive was a triumph of will over adversity. From 14th, Ayrton scrambled back to eighth by the end of the first lap, and remorselessly kept up the attack. A mid-race rainshower gave him the impetus he needed to close the gap to Alain, and he swept past into a lead he would never relinquish after less than 30 laps.
On the slow-down lap, Ayrton pumped his clenched fists to the heavens, drained yet elated by his victory. Rolling into the first corner, the cameras caught a glimpse inside his visor – you could feel the burning intensity and the deep satisfaction. The man on a mission had completed his greatest challenge in the most dramatic way possible.
4: Brazil 1991 – a home win at last
A home win had been on the cards for years: in Rio in 1988, he had planted his MP4/4 on pole, only for a last-minute chassis change to force his disqualification. A year later, an over-exuberant first-lap tussle with Gerhard Berger caused a smashed front-wing and a lonely drive from the back.
In 1990, the race switched to Senna’s hometown of Sao Paulo – so perhaps it was a mixture of passion and desperation that saw him carelessly clash with a backmarker and lose another front-wing and another potential shot at victory.
In 1991, then, the cards were stacked: a home win was demanded by his loyal Paulistas and Senna was determined to duly deliver. This time, he drove flawlessly, leading from start to finish, but it was car that was almost his undoing.
His MP4/6 slowly started popping out of gear, first losing fourth gear, then more, and more still as the dog-rings slowly became lunch in the ’box. By the end, he was crawling round only in sixth – dipping the clutch to keep the engine alive through the slowest turns and adapting his lines to keep the engine from stalling.
Worse was to come: it started to rain, making the track greasy and unpredictable. By flag-fall, Ayrton was just three seconds to the good – but physically and emotionally spent by the effort. As he slowed to a halt, he slumped exhausted in the car and had to be helped from the cockpit to the podium.
It was a drive that drew from the deepest physical and emotional reserves.
5: Phoenix 1990 – a bullfight with a young pretender
Senna hated to be out-raced. His mindset and quest for perfection required him to assertively remain at the top of the heap – challengers, when they appeared, needed to be dealt with quickly and ruthlessly.
At the opening race of the 1990 world championship, Ayrton met his match when upstart Frenchman Jean Alesi snatched the lead and showed little desire to relinquish it.
Alesi had already made an impression, of course, finishing a sensational fourth on his grand prix debut the previous year. Now, his Tyrrell 018 had been made even quicker: a super-nimble, lean little car. Eminently flickable, it was perfectly suited for the litany of right-angled turns that peppered the Phoenix track. Even better, it was fitted with Pirelli’s aggressively super-sticky tyres – a compound so gluey that they had even helped Pierluigi Martini’s otherwise-uncompetitive Minardi-Ford to second on the grid!
By half-distance, Senna had towed his MP4/5B onto the back of the darty little Tyrrell, flinging it up the inside into the first turn – a sharp right-hander. Senna owned the corner, but hadn’t expected Alesi to fight back. The Frenchman held his line, and was perfectly set up for the following left-hander. Check mate – Senna had no option but to cede the place back before finally muscling ahead a lap later.
This was Senna at his gladiatorial best.
Ayrton's first test
6: 1993 – a last, glorious, roll of the dice
When Honda withdrew at the end of the 1992 season after an unrelentingly brilliant 80-race stint with McLaren, few expected the following year’s Ford-engined challenger to be a serious threat to the Williams-Renault FW15C, the favourites for the championship.
Ayrton clearly relished the opportunity to demonstrate that his previous achievements were derived more from the driver and less the car: he won the second race of the year in Brazil, emotionally standing atop the podium alongside his hero Juan Manuel Fangio. He won the following race at Donington Park, too, cleared up at Monaco – a place he loved – and ended the season on a magnificent high-note with back-to-back wins at Suzuka and Adelaide.
In fact, the MP4/8 turned out to be an intricately brilliant car, which, despite its relatively modest powerplant, fitted a sophisticated array of electronic driver aids beneath its tidy body panels. So, while it’s customary to picture Ayrton behind the wheel of a Honda-powered car, it’s worth reminding ourselves that his brilliance was just as outstanding when driving a Ford HB-powered car.
7: Spa 1992 – the potential life-saver
Ayrton was acutely emotionally involved in the welfare of his fellow drivers. He’d been deeply affected by Martin Donnelly’s horrific crash at Jerez in 1990, when the Ulsterman was thrown from his car like a rag-doll. He would go on to be equally upset by the accidents to Rubens Barrichello and Roland Ratzenberger at that fateful weekend in Imola in 1994, too.
During Friday qualifying for the 1992 Belgian Grand Prix, Ayrton once again showed how invested he was in the safety of others. His was the first car on the scene of a huge accident at Blanchimont – a fearsome, flat-out left-hander tightly penned by barriers. Erik Comas had smashed his Ligier against the wall, shedding all four wheels before coming to a halt in the middle of the circuit.
Ayrton slowed to a crawl, pulled his car over at the side of the track, leapt free and began running frantically back towards the stricken Frenchman, mindfully cutting the ignition to stem the threat of a fire. It was a brave and heroic effort – not least because he risked his own safety by racing through a thick cloud of dust and smoke to reach the crashed vehicle.
Ayrton’s deep spirituality and emotional presence helped make him the revered figure he is today.
8: Monaco 1992 – victory snatched from the jaws of defeat
The fifth of Ayrton’s unmatched six Monte-Carlo wins which will always be remembered for the great tussle he enjoyed with erstwhile leader Nigel Mansell in some of the most dramatic closing laps ever seen at the Principality.
In typically lion-ish style, Mansell had dominated qualifying and the the race in his Williams FW14B. On lap 70, however, with the finish-line almost in sight, Mansell felt something awry with the rear of his car. Fearing a puncture, he barrelled into the pits, bolted on a new set of rubber and blasted back into the fray.
It wasn’t enough for him to hold onto his advantage. Ayrton, who had nursed his tyres throughout, swept past to take the lead, and soon found Mansell’s freshly shod Williams closing up in his rear-view mirrors.
Senna seemed to take perverse delight in keeping the lion at bay, using all his skill and guile on ageing rubber to keep his McLaren’s nose ahead. Mansell feinted furiously, but knew it was a lost cause.
Senna had once again demonstrated his mastery of Monaco.
9: Australia 1993 – the last victory
By the end of 1993, the Senna-McLaren partnership was coming to an end. Too often frustrated by the awesome pace of the Williams-Renaults, he had signed with Frank Williams in the late summer and was destined to switch teams at the end of the year.
It did nothing to dent his motivation: his McLaren swansong – around the mighty Adelaide street circuit – was an emphatic sign-off – pole position and, for the last time, race victory.
By rights, he shouldn’t have started from pole, the team desperately radioing him to abort his final, fast lap for fears the tank might run dry. As it happened, the car finished the lap and he set pole – the 62nd of 65. His sole opponent in the race was his old rival, Alain Prost, who challenged Ayrton before ultimately finishing second.
On the podium, Ayrton finally made his peace with the embattled Frenchman, pulling him onto the top step and warmly embracing him. It was the end of a great rivalry, and the beginning, some said, of a more mellow, reflective Ayrton.
It was the last time he would stand on the podium.
Alongside him, McLaren boss Ron Dennis also quietly ruminated on the end of an era before leaning over and whispering into the Brazilian’s ear: “It’s never too late to change your mind, you know…”
10: 1990s – developing the NSX for Honda
Not a race performance; not even a performance in a racing car – yet, every inch a moment of pure performance.
Ayrton had fostered a deep, mutual relationship with the engineers at Honda. He respected their unparalleled engine know-how and determination to win; they, in turn, revered his awesome commitment, superlative feedback and ability to wring a car’s neck in order to get a laptime.
So when Honda developed the NSX roadcar, they called upon Ayrton’s experience and expertise to hone the package. When he drove the car at Suzuka, in front of a gaggle of Japanese pressmen, he put on a dazzling showcase of the art of the racing driver, laying bare the footwork and car handling skills that took him to three world championships.
This was Senna the racing driver stripped of adornment and showing off the otherworldly skills that too often remained hidden beneath the cockpit.
Search for the footage online – and pay close attention to the footwork of those tassled loafers!