The secret Senna
A new book, ‘Ayrton Senna’, published by Blink Publishing with the full support of Ayrton’s family and the Senna Foundation, uniquely tells the behind-the-scenes tale of Ayrton’s life at McLaren, his home for six seasons.
With unparalleled access, and fascinating insight from the team members who worked closely with Ayrton himself, ‘Ayrton Senna’ lifts the lid on a fascinating and unexpected series of exploits and adventures, including a secret visit to the McLaren garage in Lotus overalls, a meeting in Scotland with the Bishop of Truro, why Ayrton’s race-gloves were worn-in aboard a Mini Metro, why secret plans to race a Lamborghini-engined McLaren came to nought, and how Ayrton unwittingly acted as a postman for one long-serving McLaren employee!
1987: An unexpected visitor
After concluding his final race for Lotus, at the 1987 Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide, and keen to get started with the next step of his career at McLaren, Ayrton secretly visited the McLaren garage during pack-up for his first hands-on experience with a McLaren…
“After finishing his last race for Lotus, Ayrton came straight over to us. He wanted to sit in the car. It seems surreal because, of course, that sort of thing would never happen now. Ayrton was like a kid, wanting to play with his new toy. That’s all there was to it because he couldn’t do anything; we weren’t going anywhere to test; we were just packing to come home. But he couldn’t wait to sit in the car. Having known him for so many years and watched him progress into F1 and win races, we were the same age and I was learning as much as he was learning. It was an absolutely amazing feeling for me to have him come to race in our team.”
“I had never met Ayrton until the moment he came into our garage. He more or less came straight in and sat in the car. My memory is that he didn’t fit very well because that car was actually quite small. We had Alain and Stefan [Johansson] driving for us, and the cockpit was, of course, based on when Niki [Lauda] had been our driver. We hadn’t really changed much in the chassis from those days. Ayrton’s legs were hard against the steering rack. That MP4/3 then became a mule for the Honda engine during the winter.”
1989: Portugese Man O’War
Ayrton had controversially tangled with Nigel Mansell during the 1989 Portugese Grand Prix – an accident that ended with both cars in the barriers. Ayrton’s frustration over the collision was exacerbated by his pit stop having taken 12.5 seconds; twice as long as the norm at that time. The mechanics, led by Neil Trundle, knew the reason, even if Ayrton did not:
“It was one of those few occasions when we saw the other side of Ayrton. When he came in for that pit stop, we already knew we had a problem with the rear wheels and the screws coming loose. We should have told Ayrton, but we didn’t. We agreed that, in the pit stop, if we took the wheel off and the screws had eaten into the wheel, we knew how to do the screws before putting the wheel back on. It was down to the guy on the wheel to take it off and look. We ripped the wheel off, put the new wheel on – but the guy did a double take to check everything was okay, and it was a slow stop as a result.
Ron Dennis Exclusive – The great Ayrton Senna
“When Ayrton got back to the garage, he was shaking with anger. And I mean shaking. He grabbed me by the shirt and said: ‘Who put the f***ing right-rear on?’ I couldn’t tell him the story at that moment of how we’d agreed to check the screws; that it was done for all the right reasons because he could have lost the wheel. We should have told him beforehand, of course. I was very upset. Someone had a word with him and he apologised at dinner that night.
“He had a fiery temper, but I’m glad to say we didn’t see it that often.”
1991: A visit to Scotland
Having spent $8.5 million on a British Aerospace 125 twin-engined business jet, Ayrton left a pre-season test at Estoril, flew to London Heathrow, where he collected Professor Sid Watkins and his wife, and then flew on to Edinburgh.
Professor Sid Watkins
“It was Friday 21 February 1991. He stayed at our house in Coldstream in the Tweed Valley and the next day we went for lunch in a nearby hotel, where nobody recognised him – and that pleased him immensely.
“Ayrton had always wanted to go to the Jim Clark Museum at Duns and arrangements had been made with the curator for us to visit that afternoon. The one proviso Ayrton made was that it was to be a private visit; no press, no publicity and, apart from the staff at the museum, nobody else was to know. Next to Fangio, Jimmy was the driver Senna most admired.
Infographic: Ayrton Senna Donington 1993
“I was driving as we went into Duns and, turning into the road where I thought the museum was, I hesitated, looking for a signpost to indicate its precise location. ‘There’s the sign to it,’ said Ayrton. ‘Where?’ I replied. ‘At the top of the road,’ he said. ‘It says Jim Clark Museum.’ I couldn’t even see the post the sign was on, never mind the inscription. Extraordinary visual acuity was one of Senna’s attributes, as it is with most F1 drivers.”
That evening, Senna gave a talk at Loretto, Jim Clark’s old school.
Professor Sid Watkins
“After the talk he took questions for about 20 minutes or so. He was absolutely super. After having photographs taken in the Loretto Chapel, where there is a plaque to Jimmy, we had supper in the headmaster’s quarters with some of the Sixth Form and some of the older boys. The Bishop of Truro was there and he and Ayrton got into a nice little chat about religion because, of course, they were on opposite sides of the wall: Anglican and Roman Catholic. After the meal, Ayrton had to leave. I took him to the airport and he flew back to Portugal.”
1991: Homely memories of a maiden home victory
Victory at his home race in Brazil had consistently eluded Ayrton. If anything, his home race was the scene of disappointment and disqualification. It was only in 1991 that he finally scored a victory – a particularly emotional one.
“His first victory in Brazil is the one we remember most as a family. This was a missing victory as, every time he raced in Brazil, something unexpected happened. He was a champion already, he had won many races in different countries, but never in Brazil. It was an intense emotion for him and for all Brazilian people. The fans were in ecstasy. A huge crowd gathered in front of our parents’ house, where he was recovering after the race. They stayed there for hours, until Ayrton finally went to greet them. It was a wonderful moment.”
1993: If the glove fits
His final season with McLaren – and Ayrton wrestles with the unexpected, and corporate, pressures of super-stardom…
“I worked in the McLaren team-clothing department. One of my jobs was to pack the drivers’ kit into the drawers in the truck before the trucks left for the races. Around the middle of the year, a deal had been done with Shell and Ford which involved having their logos on the leather patches across the knuckles of Ayrton’s driving gloves. These duly arrived and I put them in the drawer as usual.
Infographic: Ayrton Senna Brazil 1991
“On the Monday morning after the race, there was a great deal of fuss because the gloves hadn’t been worn; therefore, the logos hadn’t been seen from the onboard camera. I did a bit of investigating and found that Senna liked his boots and gloves worn-in so that they fitted him – like a glove! – particularly for the races. He would usually break in new boots and gloves during testing and, of course, this hadn’t happened. These were brand-new gloves and he wouldn’t wear them. What could I do?
“I lived in Sidcup, which was over an hour’s journey each way to McLaren. The only answer was for me to wear the gloves while driving my little Metro GTA to and from work every day for a week. People must have thought I was a bit nuts when they saw me in my Metro – which was red – wearing Ayrton Senna’s red flameproof gloves. But it did the trick.
“After a week, the leather was soft rather than brand new and tight. I put the gloves in his drawer and, at the next race, there they were, on the telly. I regret now that I never took any photographs. I was only doing my job, even though it meant my only claim to fame is that I wore Ayrton’s gloves before he did…”
1993: Please Mr Postman
Ayrton’s visits to the McLaren factory were always special – especially for Ian ‘Barney’ Barnard, who recounts an incredibly unlikely tale…
Ian ‘Barney’ Barnard
“I had worked part-time for McLaren as a van driver and I was really keen to work there full-time. I kept my foot in the door and when I heard they were looking for someone to work in the stores, I said I would definitely go for it. I had a call from one of my mates at McLaren and he told me to submit a CV.
“Thing is, I didn’t have a CV. It was early evening and my wife and I got out this old typewriter and eventually put something together. I was going to put it in the post but we decided to deliver it by hand that night. Having talked our way past security at the gate, I pulled up outside the dark glass entrance doors – only to discover there was no letterbox. I started to push the envelope through the gap between the doors and, suddenly, I saw movement inside, from somewhere behind the reception desk.
“This person was on the phone and, still talking, as he came to the door. ‘Christ!’ I thought. ‘That’s Ayrton Senna!’ I’ve pulled the envelope back out and he’s banging on the glass telling me to try again. I did, he pulled it through – and gave a thumbs up. I got back in the car and said to my wife: ‘You’ll never believe this; Ayrton Senna’s just taken my CV!’ It was just so exciting; quite emotional, actually.
“I got the job.
“We wouldn’t see Ayrton when he was back in Brazil in the off- season. But when he did come to the factory, there was a real buzz about the place. People would be waiting to see him; that was the charisma of the man. I got to talk to him one day and told him the story of the CV. He remembered, and said he was using Ron’s phone that night to call Brazil!
“Having met you, he never forgot your name. I’m transport manager now but, as I said, at the time when Ayrton was with us, I worked in goods-in. The amount of stuff we used to receive from fans for Ayrton was unbelievable, particularly from Japan; things like origami birds using different-coloured paper; silk dressing gowns. Others would send him hand-made biscuits; fortune cookies; you name it.
Ayrton's Greatest Moments
“When he came to the factory, Ayrton would systematically go through everything. He never idly looked at something and threw it in the bin; he took an interest in everything. He really cared. On one occasion, a Grateful Dead CD arrived, accompanied by a very humble letter from [lead guitarist] Jerry Garcia. His son had become an Ayrton fan and Garcia was saying he fully understood what it was to be famous and how having people write to you can be difficult. He simply said something like: ‘If you have it in your heart to send me an autograph for my son, I would be incredibly grateful. And, by the way, if you haven’t heard of me, I enclose one of my CDs for you.’
“Ayrton looked at this CD; he hadn’t got a clue who Garcia was. I told him they’re one of the most iconic rock bands going. ‘Really?’ he said. He would write notes to himself on the back of the letter and then reply in person. He said he wasn’t sure if he would like the CD, so he gave it to me. I’ve still got it, of course.”
1993: Top secret – Project Lambo!
It’s common knowledge that McLaren was investigating the possibility of using Lamborghini V12 engines for 1994. It’s less widely known that the team was sensationally set to race a third car – for Mika Hakkinen – in the closing races of the ’93 season. Team member Ron Pellat reveals all…
“The package was fantastic; the engine, although longer than the Ford V8, was very neat and tidy. We started testing with Ayrton and Mika for its first outing at Silverstone; it showed promise then. Everyone was pretty impressed with the performance and Ayrton couldn’t wait to get out and try it. It was active; basically an MP4/8 but with a V12 engine that had more power than the Ford which meant the drivers could push the car a bit more.
“We went to Pembrey for another test with Ayrton and Mika. Before we could run, the mechanics had to go out for a while in the hire cars to get a dry line. Then they sent Mika out, and he was rolling the tyres off the rims! That was the nature of the test; so relaxed, but everyone was up for it. The atmosphere was fantastic because the drivers loved the car. We knew if Ayrton liked this car, it had to be good. He knew what he wanted. His word counted for a lot when decisions were made; it was almost as if he was rubber- stamping this car.
“The story was that the test team were going to race it in the last three races with Mika. We had Michael Andretti as our second driver at the time. We were all set. And we just knew we were going to put this car on pole. We were kitted out in white Boss gear – except the trousers, of course. We didn’t have any sponsorship; the car was all white. We practiced pit stops, rehearsed everything in the pits and in the garage; we really were that far down the road.
Meet the Trophies: Coupe de SM Leopold III
“Then, less than two weeks before going to Portugal, the project was cancelled. Why this happened, I don’t know. Some people reckoned it was a pole position car but not a race winner because it probably wouldn’t do a race distance. Either way, we were gutted because we were ready to go.
“For me, one of the saddest things happened as we were packing up after the test. I was under the car, doing something with the floor, and Ayrton got underneath and shook my hand. He said: ‘Goodbye, Ron.’ That seemed very strange because normally he’d maybe shake hands or wave and say, ‘See you later’. In fact, it was to be his last time with the test team. He didn’t say why he was saying goodbye because he knew at that point he was going to Williams, but he couldn’t say anything to us.”