I wasn’t even six years old when Ayrton Senna tragically died at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Admittedly, I had very little idea of who the Brazilian racer was; so through the years of growing up and watching Formula One in the modern era, it was slightly frustrating that I’d missed out on the majesty of his actions behind the wheel.
Senna was an individual capable of extracting every ounce of performance and more from any machine he was at the helm of, but there was so much more to the man from Sao Paulo. He was a complex individual that differs so much from the drivers of today, a man that placed so much emotion both on and beyond the racetrack.
While the ever-lasting memory of the great man will be that fateful day at Imola on the first day of May 20 years ago, it is important to also remember why so many revered him as the greatest F1 driver of his time and why he remains the benchmark for every driver in the current crop of the sport today.
Most sports stars show a moment of brilliance that acts as an indication of greater things to come. For Senna, that was the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix.
Soaked in rain, the streets of Monaco were treacherous, so bad that it saw just eight cars officially finished the race. Frenchman Alain Prost, meanwhile, looked have tamed the conditions; however, a certain Brazilian was catching fast in his lowly Toleman, with Senna demonstrating skills in the rain that would be replicated in future races.
Senna looked to set for his maiden race win after overtaking Prost for first place, but a decision by race clerk Jacky Ickx saw the GP end early and deemed the race over the lap before passing his future teammate while Senna was still in second.
As then commentator James Hunt noted: “We are watching the arrival of Ayrton Senna.” He was right.
First World Championship in ‘88
It was inevitable really that Senna would be crowned World Champion at some point in his career, something Hunt also noted following his Monaco heroics four years previously. Senna had achieved his first race win with Lotus in 1985, but joining McLaren in ’88 saw the then 27-year-old with his best chance for ultimate glory.
The 88’ season also had Senna partner Prost for the first time, laying the foundation of a relationship that would be tried and tested over the following years. The two of them won 15 of the season’s 16 races, with Senna just edging out his teammate with eight victories to the Frenchman’s seven, the most important of these being at the Japanese GP where Senna won after coming back from 16th place.
As the relationship between Senna and Prost intensified and subsequently deteriorated over the 1989 season, it was no surprise that the title would be decided by an act of desperation as one driver looked to outdo the other.
At the penultimate race of the season at Suzuka, Senna required nothing other than a win to keep him in contention for the championship and force a showdown in Australia two weeks later. On the slowest corner of the track, the 130R chicane, Senna dived alongside the slowing Prost causing the latter to shut the door on the Brazilian and blocked his path. With neither driver willing to concede to the other, they collided forcing both cars to stall and the two looked to be out of the race before Senna got the stewards to help restart his car.
Following a nose change and some relentless driving, Senna quickly made up time and caught leader Alessandro Nannini and seemingly going on to win the race. However, a judgement by FISA President Jean-Marie Balestre deemed Senna to have broken race rules by using the chicane’s escape road and disqualified him from the race, handing the title to Prost. The result thoroughly upset Senna at the time, but ultimately strengthened his resilience and maturity that helped him on his way to the following two championship titles.
Sao Paulo ‘91
It’s amazing to think that it took Senna until his eighth season in Formula One to claim his first win on home soil. Senna racing in his own city of Sao Paulo was a massive spectacle thanks predominately to the Brazilian fans that went berserk for their national hero.
Senna came into the ’91 Brazilian GP having won the first race of the season in the US and stormed to pole at the Interlagos circuit, following it up with the perfect start. However, the race was not going to be that straightforward.
Nigel Mansell was catching Senna in his Williams after the first round of pit-stops and it seemed the Brit would inevitably catch the local favourite, but an unscheduled stop for Mansell after a punctured tyre put an end to that endeavour, for now at least. Senna’s gearbox began to fail and he was losing gears, with Mansell soon catching again but gearbox problems of his own once more put his chances of passing to bed.
Senna, with just sixth gear his only working cog and the weather deteriorating, overcame all odds and crossed the line just 2.9 seconds ahead of second place. His struggle caused from keeping the car under control with a single gear in the rain resulted in acute muscle cramps and had to be lifted from his car, his exhaustion very much evident on the top step of the podium.
When people speak of Senna’s races, it is rare for anyone not to mention that rainy day in the Midlands in April of 1993. Displaying his rainmaster skills once more, this was a performance so typical of Senna; the Donington track was sopping wet just as the streets of Monaco has been nearly 10 years before and the McLaren driver lay in fourth place on the grid.
Within a minute and a half of the green lights dropping, Senna had marched his way passed Michael Schumacher, Karl Wendlinger, Damon Hill and his nemesis Prost into first place. This opening lap was impeccable beyond belief in conditions that would place fear in the hearts of most drivers today, dispatching of champions and future champions as if they weren’t even there.
This was arguably Senna’s last ever great race win before his untimely death at Imola and one that reminded all around him that he still one of the best, despite a season where the two Williams cars dominated for much of the year.