“Age is not all decay; it is the ripening, the swelling, of the fresh life within, that withers and bursts the husk.”
Scottish poet and writer George MacDonald’s words may have been written more than 100 years ago, but they perfectly sum up the crumbling yet vibrant majesty of the fabled Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace, located in the Interlagos neighbourhood of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Yes, the circuit is a little worn at the seams, but its spectacular configuration within a natural bowl, challenging and unforgiving nature, and awe-inspiring history make it one of Formula 1’s grandee racetracks.
Add Brazil’s fanatical and adoring fans to the already potent mix and you have all the ingredients for one of the best races on the calendar.
There’s clearly something about this great, sprawling city that is inherently connected to Formula 1. In addition to the circuit, which was built in the 1940s and first hosted the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1973, it is home to many of Brazilian motor racing’s most famous sons.
Double-world champion Emerson Fittipaldi, Rubens Barrichello and Felipe Massa are all native Paulistas; as, of course, was the greatest of them all, Ayrton Senna, who enjoyed a hugely personal relationship with his home, and would regularly escape home to relieve himself of the perennial attendant pressures of life within Formula 1.
Yet Senna’s relationship with the Brazilian Grand Prix was not always easy. He first raced in Brazil, at the fast, sweeping Jacarepagua, in Rio, in 1984, but it would take until 1991, and a switch of venue, for the Brazilian to finally secure victory in front of his home crowd.
A high-stakes afternoon
In typical style, Senna’s first Brazilian Grand Prix was a high-stakes, hugely dramatic affair.
Initially, things looked fairly straightforward – Ayrton set pole position in his MP4/6, 0.383s ahead of the rapidly improving Williams-Renaults of Riccardo Patrese and Nigel Mansell.
The race got underway in warm sunshine, and Ayrton quickly established himself at the front, pushing clear of Patrese and his McLaren team-mate Gerhard Berger, and weathering the challenge from Mansell, who was delayed by a puncture and eventually spun into retirement with a faulty gearbox.
But Senna, too, was struggling with an increasingly recalcitrant gearbox – and, to make matters worse, it started to rain, complicating an already tense race.
On Lap 51 of 71, it began to drizzle. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t have unsettled Aurton, but with the gear-selection issue, traction and dependability became increasingly important.
Ayrton had been consistently lapping in the 1m21s bracket before the rain, but his pace dipped into the 1m23s once the track started to grow damp. The lap-times tell the story. In the beginning, the times are consistent, Senna is clearly managing his lead:
But on Lap 51, The lap-times start to drop off as the track becomes increasingly greasy. In addition, the gearbox problem was steadily worsening. The ’box was jumping out of gear, and, as Ayrton struggled with an ever-decreasing selection, he opted to play it safe and stick the car in sixth, the only gear that wasn’t prone to jumping out.
This was on Lap 65, and is clearly reflected in a sudden dip in pace as he struggles for traction and grip without any low-end torque. Ayrton now elects to stay in sixth; the lap-times drop by three seconds:
But here’s where it starts to become powerful and interesting. Like any great driver, Ayrton is able to start driving around the problem, and pulls back three seconds as he adapts his technique and line to better incorporate the problem:
Managing the gap
So far, so routine – any racing can manage a lightly stricken car to the flag, after all. But it’s what was happening behind Senna that really pricks the attention.
In the damp, Patrese had picked up the slack and began to close down on the leader. Once Senna’s gearbox problem becomes manifest, the Italian begins to slash time from the Brazilian, at times gobbling up six or more seconds on each lap:
Pause for a moment and imagine the scene: the rain-sodden Williams engineers on that crumbling concrete pit-wall seeing an open invitation to steal the win, screaming and urging their man to attack. Senna, strapped tightly into the McLaren cockpit, would have been both helpless and relentless. He would have seen the ashen faces on the McLaren pit-wall, watched the pit-board show the gap being eviscerated. He would have surely thought that the Brazilian Grand Prix, yet again, was another busted flush.
Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat
But then, miraculously, the gap steadies. Ayrton must have driven out of his skin in those final laps to ensure that he didn’t give Patrese the merest sniff of an opportunity. He frustratedly pointed to the heavens as he crossed the line during those finals laps, vainly hoping the race director might heed his warning and stop the race a lap or two early.
Senna would have known it was a somewhat cheap trick. But when you’ve been dealt such a poor hand at poker, you’ve sometimes got to bluff your way out of a tight corner.
He would have also known that, once a faster car gets onto the gearbox of the car in front, it’s a lot easier to aggressively muscle past than it is to push for that final advantage when still three or four seconds’ down the road:
Managing the stress, the pressure, the relief, Senna crossed the line just 2.991s ahead of the Williams driver and was exhausted by the effort. He had to be gingerly lifted from his car, and took to the podium looking frail and weak.
If the effort had been superhuman, the reward was worth it. Ayrton had finally lifted the trophy in front of his home crowd and achieved arguably the most impressive victory of his Formula 1 career.