F1 Spotlight: Ayrton Senna

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Ayrton Senna was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil on the 21st March 1960. He began to develop an interest in cars from the age of four, learning to drive his father’s Jeep (including changing gears without using a clutch) around the family’s farm at the age of seven. Ayrton’s father built his first go-kart and powered it with a small H-1 lawnmower engine. By thirteen, Senna had begun to compete in karting races at the Interlagos circuit and he went on to win the 1977 South American Karting Championship and continued to compete in the category for the next few years.

Ayrton Senna karting
Senna racing in his go-kart – NewAtlas.com

Senna’s Early Single Seater Career

At 21, Ayrton moved to England in order to begin competing in single-seater racing. He won the RAC and Townsend-Thoreson Formula Ford 1600 Championships in the same year. Following this he moved back to Brazil, unsure if he would continue in motor racing.  Offered a drive in a Formula Ford 2000 team for a £10,000 salary, he returned to England. There was one significant change that came with this move though. Up to this point, he had been racing under his father’s name of da Silva, a common name in Brazil. So, for his return, he decided to use his mother’s maiden name – Senna.

In 1982, he won both the British and European Formula Ford 2000 Championships. Then, in 1983, he drove in the Formula Three category where his main rival for the title was a young Martin Brundle, who began to catch him on points towards the end of the season. But Senna was able to wrap up the title at the final race of the season and his transition to Formula 1 began.

Joining F1 with Toleman

During 1983 Senna tested for a variety of different F1 teams. McLaren, Williams, Brabham, and Lotus all had an interest in signing him. However, due to factors such as sponsor involvement in driver choices, Senna ended up racing for the less competitive Toleman team.

Senna driving his Toleman at Monaco 1984
Senna driving his Toleman at Monaco 1984 – F1i.com

He made his debut at the 1984 Brazilian Grand Prix but retired when the turbo failed on his Hart 415T engine during the eighth lap of the race. The next time out in South Africa, Ayrton scored his first world championship point – a result he repeated at the following round in Belgium.

Senna’s best result that season came at the wet Monaco Grand Prix. Qualifying thirteenth, he made his way up the grid, passing Niki Lauda for second place. He was beginning to catch race leader Prost when the race was stopped for safety reasons. Up to that point, he had been catching Prost at four seconds a lap. Senna had two more podium finishes that year. One was at the British Grand Prix, and one at Portugal. Ayrton finished ninth in the Drivers’ Championship.

Recognising Ayrton Senna’s genius

Senna’s skills in a Formula 1 car were recognised in 1984 at the U.S Grand Prix in Dallas by race engineer Pat Symonds. After crashing out of the race by hitting a wall, Senna told Symonds that ‘I’m sure the wall moved!’ Naturally, Symonds doubted this but nevertheless, he agreed to visit the scene of the accident with Senna after the race.

Upon closer inspection, they discovered that someone had hit the far end of the concrete block that made up the wall, thus causing the edge of the block to move out by a few millimetres. Senna had been driving up to that point with such precision that the few millimetres were the difference between crashing and not crashing.

Joining Lotus and getting his first win

In 1985, Senna moved to Lotus. At the second race of the season in Portugal, he achieved his first pole position in Formula 1. He then converted that into his first Grand Prix victory. He did it in style, too, winning by over a minute ahead of second-place Michele Alboreto.  The Lotus lapped everyone up to third on the grid.  An achievement made even more remarkable by the fact that this was a wet race. Senna won once again that season, this time at Belgium.

Senna racing for JPS Lotus
Iconic livery: check. Iconic team: check. Iconic helmet: check. // Image GPToday.net

1986 started promisingly for Senna when he won the Spanish Grand Prix, though he was unable to maintain this level throughout the rest of the season and he finished fourth in the drivers’ standings for the second year in a row.

For the 1987 season, Lotus secured V6 turbocharged engines by Honda.  The same engines used by the dominant Williams. After a mixed start to the year, Senna won the Monaco and Detroit Grands Prix. His US win was the first victory for an active suspension car.

Senna now led the Drivers’ Championship. He came second at the final two races of the season in Japan and Australia but was disqualified from the final round due to his brake ducts being wider than permitted. He finished the season in third place overall.

Senna and McLaren – The legendary partnership

Dissatisfied with Lotus, Senna moved to McLaren for 1988. His flourishing relationship with Honda was instrumental in them supplying engines to McLaren instead of Williams for that season. Senna’s teammate at McLaren was none other than Alain Prost. The partnership between the two men would go down in sporting history for its intense rivalry.

“If you no longer go for a gap that exists, then you are no longer a racing driver”

Initially, however, both realised that in order to win, they had to put their personal rivalry aside and work together. At the Monaco Grand Prix that year, Senna retired on lap 67 just before entering the tunnel section of the track, crashing into the wall. Furious, he immediately left the track, returned to his apartment and wasn’t seen for hours.

It showcased his frustration at himself when he made a mistake in the car. The relationship between Senna and Prost continued to bubble along. Perhaps most notably at the Brazilian Grand Prix, where Senna almost took his teammate out as Prost was driving at 180mph.

Ayrton Senna McLaren
Ayrton Senna in his McLaren in the garage – Image EN AS.com

Yet despite the competition between their drivers, McLaren won 15 of the 16 races that year. Senna won his first world title as a result, although Prost had more points overall. But only the best 11 results of the season counted, thus giving the championship to Senna. His eight wins that year surpassed the record held by Jim Clark and Alain Prost. He also set a new record for most pole positions, 13, beating the previous record of nine held by Nelson Piquet.

Alain Prost vs Ayrton Senna

The McLaren MP4/5
Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost with the McLaren MP4/5 – Image GPToday.net

In 1989, the rivalry between Prost and Senna intensified, leading to numerous on-track battles throughout the season. Not to mention a number of psychological war games off the track. It all ended in Japan when the two collided on lap 46. Senna was able to get his car going again, whilst Prost retired, going on to win the race.

Due to missing the chicane after his “restart”, Senna was disqualified after the race. The decision meant Prost was able to claim the World Championship with a race to spare. The relationship between the two McLaren drivers got so unbearable that Prost left to join Ferrari for 1990.

“Being second is to be the first of the ones who lose.”

1990 saw Prost replaced by Gerhard Berger at McLaren. Senna took control of the championship with six wins, two second places, and three thirds. Once again, the fate of the championship came down to the Japanese Grand Prix. Here, Senna made one of the most controversial moves in F1 history.

Ayrton took pole in qualifying.  He requested that the pole grid slot be moved to the clean side of the track. The FIA rejected his request. At the start, Prost got the better start, but Senna kept his foot on the accelerator as he and Prost entered the first corner on the first lap. With Prost following the natural racing line, Senna just continued on and the cars collided at 170mph. Both cars were out of the race. Senna’s nine-point lead coming into the race gave him the 1990 championship.

The will to win

Prost seriously considered retiring from the sport after the incident due to the “disgusting” nature of the crash. At the following Grand Prix in Australia, Jackie Stewart interviewed Ayrton about the accident. Stewart stating that Ayrton had been in more incidents than any other World Champion. Furious, Senna disregarded what Stewart claimed.

But one has to wonder, with all the talent Senna obviously had behind the wheel, why would he need to cause such a dangerous collision to win? Surely, he could have overtaken Prost naturally somewhere else in the race? And if necessary, even take the championship battle to the final race of the season. It was a defining moment in Senna’s career that demonstrated just how far he was willing to go in order to win.

Ayrton Senna the triple champion

In 1991, Senna won seven of the sixteen races. Yet still had to encourage Honda to keep developing their engines if he wanted to stand a chance of winning the championship. At the British Grand Prix, Senna retired on the final lap. On his victory lap, Nigel Mansell pulled over and gave Senna a lift back to the pits on the sidepod of his Williams, creating an iconic image of the sport.

At the Brazilian Grand Prix that year, Senna was finally able to win his home Grand Prix. But the struggle he endured throughout the race to keep the car under control gave Senna extreme muscle cramps and fever. He had to be lifted out of the car due to exhaustion and was taken to the podium in the medical car.

Senna did, however, manage to lift the winner’s trophy. Japan would once again be the championship battleground.  This time it was between Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna. Mansell threw away his chances of becoming the World Champion for 1991, however, as he crashed out of the race at the first corner. Senna finished in second place after gifting the victory to Berger for helping him out that season. Senna then became the youngest triple World Champion in Formula 1.

McLaren dip as Senna’s heroics shine

1992, in comparison, was a disappointing year for Senna as the McLaren was uncompetitive. He did manage to win three races that year, though. The standout moment for Senna, although he probably didn’t think so, came at the Belgian Grand Prix.

French driver, Erik Comas, crashed heavily during qualifying. Senna was the first on the scene.  Disregarding his own safety, he got out of his car and crossed the track to help the stricken Frenchman. The move won him a lot of praise both in and out of the F1 community. Overall, he came fourth in the drivers’ championship as Nigel Mansell took the title.

The fight to join Williams

In 1993, Senna attempted to move to Williams after not believing that the McLaren car for that year would be competitive. Williams instead signed Prost who was returning from a sabbatical year. Prost had a clause in his contract banning Williams from hiring Senna as his teammate.

Senna remained with McLaren but called Prost ‘a coward’ for his actions. The statement received criticism as people noted that Senna was being a hypocrite. Ayrton himself had prevented Derek Warwick from joining Lotus back in 1986.

Against the odds, Senna managed a reasonably competitive season.  He finished second in the Drivers’ Championship, beaten once again by Prost. His best performance of the year came at the European Grand Prix at Donington Park. Senna lapped everyone but second place in changing conditions before going on to win the race. He also set a record for the fastest lap in an F1 race through the then speed-unrestricted pit lane.

Ayrton ended the season with what would turn out to be his final victory in F1, this time at Australia. With Prost retiring for good, Senna pulled him up onto the top step of the podium and embraced him. It was a move that surprised many, Prost included.

In 1994, Senna was finally able to join Williams for a reportedly $20 million salary.  In an attempt to slow the cars, the FIA had banned the active suspension of the previous seasons.  Williams was not as competitive as Senna had expected. It was his worst start to an F1 season. Despite two poles, the first two races ended in retirement.

Imola and the death of Ayrton Senna

The third race of the 1994 Formula 1 season was the San Marino Grand Prix, held at Imola.  The weekend began on a sombre note when a young Rubens Barrichello crashed badly during one of the practice sessions. Were it not for the quick handiwork of Professor Sid Watkins, Barrichello would likely have died from the crash, having swallowed his tongue and being unable to breathe. He also suffered a broken nose and arm.

Worse was to come on the Saturday during qualifying.  Austrian driver, Roland Ratzenberger, died after crashing into a concrete wall at 190mph at Villeneuve corner. The death sent shockwaves throughout the paddock and the F1 world. Ratzenberger’s death shook Senna badly. Going against the advice of Watkins and other close friends, Senna decided to race.

“It suddenly became unacceptable to die in the name of sport” – Martin Brundle

Senna started the race on pole position and initially led the race before a stoppage thanks to a start line incident. High flying debris injured two drivers, eight fans, and a police officer. The race restarted on lap six. One lap later at the Tamburello corner, Senna crashed into a concrete retaining wall at 145mph.

Sid Watkins performed a trackside tracheotomy to try and keep Senna breathing.  But Watkins could see Senna’s fully dilated pupils. His instincts told him that he was unlikely to survive. Ayrton Senna was pronounced dead at 18:40 in Bologna’s Maggiore Hospital. He was thirty-four.

The Aftermath

Following Senna’s death, the Brazilian Government declared three days of national mourning. Approximately three million people lined the streets of Sao Paulo as his coffin made its way to the funeral. Alain Prost, Gerhard Berger, Damon Hill, and Emerson Fittipaldi were amongst the many drivers who were pallbearers that day.

Funeral Pall Bearers
Gerhard Berger, Reubens Barrichello and Alain Prost are among the pallbearers carrying Senna’s coffin into the church – Image autoevolution.com

Senna’s death (alongside Ratzenberger’s) triggered a major overhaul in the safety improvements made to F1 tracks in the subsequent years and decades.

His sister also set up the Instituto Ayrton Senna. It funds social programs and works with schools, NGOs, the government and the private sector. The foundation aims to offer children and teenagers from low-income backgrounds skills and opportunities for success. Bernie Ecclestone, Gerhard Berger, Frank Williams, and Alain Prost all help advise the foundation.

Reflecting on the career of Ayrton Senna

There is no doubt that Ayrton Senna was a talented Formula 1 driver. His natural racing ability was unlike anything most in that era had ever seen before. But his dedication to doing whatever it took to win also made him controversial. The legacy he left is huge, and it is a testament to the safety improvements made since Imola 1994.

In the 26 years since Senna’s death, there has only been one fatality in Formula 1. Jules Bianchi’s 2015 accident at Suzuka was a tragic reminder that motorsport is still dangerous. The drive for ever improved safety has seen many innovations such as wheel tethers and the halo introduced to F1. It isn’t difficult to see why many hold Senna in as high a regard as they do.

What do you think of Ayrton Senna? Is he one of the best F1 drivers of all time? Would F1 have become safer were it not for his tragic death?


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