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Ayrton Senna's 10 defining moments

Celebrating the sport's brightest star

Ayrton Senna was one of the most talented drivers to ever grace Formula 1. His mastery on track was unparalleled and bordered on the downright otherworldly.

His life was tragically cut short at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at the age of just 34, yet he still amassed an extraordinary 41 wins, 65 pole positions, 80 podiums and three world championships. But beyond the numbers, it’s the way in which he profoundly touched the lives of so many that makes his legacy is so enduring.

Although the Brazilian raced for four different teams during his 10-year Formula 1 career, many of his most unforgettable moments came during his six-year spell at McLaren.

We take a look back at the 10 moments that defined Ayrton’s magical time at McLaren – moments that tell the story of a man whose brilliance was spellbinding, and whose immense compassion and kindness belied his ruthlessness in the heat of battle.

These are the moments that tell the story of the sport’s brightest star.

1 | 1988 Monaco Grand Prix | A different dimension

Just three races into his McLaren career, Ayrton’s Monaco 1988 pole lap is widely considered the greatest qualifying lap of all time. He trounced team-mate Alain Prost by almost 1.5 seconds in the same machinery. “Suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously, I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension,” he explained. “On that day, I said to myself, that was the maximum for me, no room for anything more. I never really reached that feeling again."

2 | 1988 Japanese Grand Prix | The first title

1988 was dominated by Ayrton and Alain, the pair winning all but one of the races heading into the title decider. Either could win the championship and Ayrton drew first blood by taking pole position. However, he came unstuck at the start of the race by stalling on the grid. He hurriedly bump-started the car on Suzuka’s downhill start-finish straight, but ultimately dropped to 14th. And so began one of the most remarkable comeback drives, which culminated in seizing the lead from Alain on lap 27 and Ayrton winning his first world championship in dramatic fashion.

3 | 1989 Japanese Grand Prix | Tipping point

Ayrton and Alain’s rivalry boiled over in the 1989 title decider, the pair colliding with seven laps to go. Alain abandoned his car believing the championship was settled and their race over, but Ayrton persevered. Despite a pitstop to change his front wing which cost him the lead, he spectacularly chased down new leader Alessandro Nannini and passed him three laps from the chequered flag. It was all in vain though, as Ayrton was disqualified for using an escape road to rejoin the circuit after his coming together with Alain, ultimately handing the title to his rival.

4 | 1990 Spanish Grand Prix | A point to prove

During free practice, Ayrton saw Martin Donnelly thrown from his car in a horrific 170-mph crash. It deeply affected Ayrton, but in qualifying he responded in arguably the only way he knew how. Having already taken pole, he wanted to prove something to the track that had almost taken Donnelly’s life. He went back out to beat his own time with a blistering lap of 1m 18.387s. It was a new track record and a full 1.2 seconds faster than his team-mate Gerhard Berger.

5 | 1990 Monaco Grand Prix | F1’s most iconic onboard

It may not have been his finest lap around the Principality – his exploits in 1988 take that honour – but millions of people have watched, in complete awe, the onboard footage of Ayrton’s qualifying lap for the 1990 Monaco Grand Prix. And it’s hard not to see why. It shows Ayrton in full flow, masterfully tackling the twists and turns of Monaco in the McLaren MP4/5B. 

6 | 1990 Japanese Grand Prix | “If you no longer go for a gap that exists…”

Ayrton claimed vengeance at Suzuka in 1990, after controversially missing out on the title to Alain Prost the preceding season. Starting alongside one another on the front row, neither made it beyond the first corner. Ayrton took Alain out; the collision immediately ended the race for both and secured Ayrton his second world championship. When quizzed by Jackie Stewart in the aftermath, Ayrton was unrepentant: “If you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver, because we are competing. We are competing to win.”

7 | 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix | Against all odds

Victory on home soil eluded Ayrton until the 1991. And even then, he had to do it the hard way. When Nigel Mansell was forced to retire, Ayrton was left out in front with a lead of 40 seconds over Riccardo Patrese. However, that gap reduced dramatically in the closing stages due to a gearbox failure that meant Ayrton could only use sixth gear. Against all odds, he held onto victory by 2.991 seconds. Physically and emotionally exhausted, Ayrton had to be helped out of the car and was barely able to lift the winner’s trophy in an emotional podium ceremony.

8 | 1992 Belgian Grand Prix | Lifesaver

During Friday practice, Erik Comas crashed heavily at the high-speed Blanchimont corner and was knocked unconscious – his engine still running and his foot pressing on the accelerator, pumping fuel into the system. Senna was right behind him on track. He immediately stopped and, risking his own life, ran to help his stricken colleague. Spotting the danger of an imminent explosion, he switched off the engine and held Comas' head in a stable position until the paramedics arrived. Comas later explained that Ayrton’s actions saved his life.

9 | 1993 European Grand Prix | The stuff of legend

Ayrton’s performance at Donington Park was extraordinary and all began with the greatest opening lap in history. From fourth on the grid, Ayrton was shuffled down to fifth at the start. Undeterred, he used his masterful feel in wet conditions to stage an immediate fightback and remarkably end the first lap in the lead – having overtaken Michael Schumacher, Karl Wendlinger, Damon Hill and Alain Prost. In the end, Hill was the only driver to finish the race on the same lap as Ayrton, albeit a staggering 83 seconds behind.

10 | 1993 Australian Grand Prix | The final win

In his last race for McLaren, Ayrton did what he did best. He stormed to pole on the tight, fiddly Adelaide circuit and won the race. He was untouchable, finishing over nine seconds ahead of his great rival Alain Prost. As the pair stood together on the podium for the last time, neither of them could have imagined it would be Ayrton’s final grand prix victory. Bounding onto the top step, Ayrton made this a moment of public reconciliation, seizing Alain’s hand and slapping him on the back.