On 25th March 1984, a new talent was born.
A talent that would rewrite the rules of F1 with years to come until his death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix on 1st May.
Ayrton Senna was regarded as the best and fastest driver of his generation. This is including the times when the likes of Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet were on the scene – three of the toughest men in the business!
Many F1 fans consider him to be the greatest driver in the sport’s long, long history.
The Brazilian was also well-known for his personality off the track too which made him stand out from the other established world champions.
This post is about highlighting the aspects of Ayrton’s career that made him be remembered so fondly 20 years after his tragic death.
3 world championships (1988, 1990 and 1991)
65 pole positions
19 fastest laps
6 Monaco victories (1987, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1993)
Qualifying – The One Lap King
Ayrton’s dominance in qualifying started as soon as he was in a car capable of winning – this lead him to his 65 pole positions.
This happened when he stepped into the Lotus 97t.
Some of the laps he put in were… were unbelievable.
Mark Webber, 2010
The colour of the Brazilian’s yellow crash helmet and the black and gold colour of the car complimented each other straight away. Ayrton’s crash helmet combined with the black JPS Lotus looked cool.
His first pole position came at Estoril in 1985 (that weekend was remembered better for the race which I’ll talk about later on), but the lap at Adelaide was a work of art.
Throughout the course, the 97t was dancing through all parts of the lap. The spectators were on the edge of their seats, glued to the TV screens to see whether Ayrton would hold it together.
And he did!
For me, seeing it on YouTube (this happened 12 years before I even existed) just seemed surreal.
He had to manage his coordination like upshifting and downshifting gears with the manual gearstick, whereas today’s drivers have the semi-automatic gearbox.
Let’s move on by three years to when Ayrton joined McLaren to partner Alain Prost in 1988.
You’ll know what I’m going to talk about next: Monaco.
The Brazilian put in a stunning fastest time to go 1.4 seconds quicker than Alain!
Even Michael Schumacher couldn’t pull out such a margin in his dominant days with Ferrari.
Alain had gone into the pits, convinced he had the pole in the bag. But then his teammate went out and put in a sneaky lap. The red and white McLaren MP4/4 was dancing again. But, this time it was at Monaco where the tyres and barriers would be an inch away from each other!
What was amazing as well was that Ayrton had one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the gearbox. Everyone was gobsmacked. The crowd were going wild. The media moved away from Alain to Ayrton. This was a lap when qualifying was just about to end, when pressure is absolutely extreme.
Yet, he was a master of this type of situation. He demonstrated this in qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez in 1990.
The session was put on halt after Martin Donnelly’s horrific crash where he was thrown out of the car (thank god that he survived).
This crash affected Ayrton. Whereas you could say that it affected him negatively as he was upset, it also made him stronger. This reflected his personality – being resilient.
The McLaren was again off the limit but this time not wiggling around the track like at Adelaide and in Monaco. At Jerez, there were two cars which could have potentially destroyed the whole lap. But, Ayrton kept his foot down and managed to flash past them which was equally as skilful.
I just loved the engine sound of the Honda engine in the back of the MP4/5B – this also made the experience of the lap very special.
And, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, put your feet up, go to YouTube and type “Senna pole laps” into the search bar.
When the track was wet on race day, Ayrton was the one that everybody was keeping an eye on.
Especially so on 3rd June 1984, when the Grand Prix was in Monaco. He didn’t live up to his reputation of being the fastest man ever as he qualified down in 13th. But then he amazed the spectators unsurprisingly when he finished second in a Toleman, which is equivalent to a Marrussia today!
The master of them all
James Hunt, 1992
It’s like Jules Bianchi moving through the field to finish second in his Marrussia (he came close with ninth two weeks ago though).
Anyway, everyone else was tip-toeing around and spinning out whilst Ayrton only made one error by clipping the old Nouvelle chicanes just after the tunnel. He still kept picking off cars one-by-one, including Niki Lauda – who was overtaken by the Brazilian around the outside of Sainte Devote (turn 1).
The Toleman was then catching the leading McLaren, Alain Prost (considered as the Maestro of that time) by 3 seconds a lap!
In the end the race was stopped due to the monsoon-like conditions. And, there was drama every inch of the way when Alain just crossed the line before Ayrton, robbing him of his first victory. It was still an incredible second place though.
Almost a year later, when Ayrton joined Lotus, there were similar conditions in Estoril – this time he was on pole.
As soon as the lights went to green, he was off into the distance and wasn’t seen until the chequered flag was shown.
The second place man, Michelle Alberto, was the only other driver to complete full distance such was the extent of Ayrton’s dominance.
When the rain came down from the clouds, Ayrton would humiliate the rest of the field and make them think ‘what’s the point’.
He certainly did so at the 1989 Australian Grand Prix when his nemesis Alain withdrew from the race thinking it was too dangerous to drive. Ayrton though, still feeling bitter about the way his team-mate won the championship in Japan, destroyed his opposition including Pierluigi Martini, Thierry Boutsen and Riccardo Patrese by pulling out nine seconds on them within the first lap of the restart.
Watch it on YouTube here.
Yes, Pierluigi Martini in the MINARDI was bunching the rest of the pack up, but it was still an impressive lead to build up.
Ayrton was also as good in the dry/mixed conditions.
I’m thinking about the 1993 European Grand Prix. I know this is not in chronological order to the other events I’m going to talk about, but this could have been his finest victory.
In one minute and one lap, Ayrton went from going down to fifth from his fourth place grid slot to overtaking his arch-rival Alain to take the lead.
He then pulled out six seconds after two laps on the superior Williams cars of Alain and Damon Hill.
Then came the story of the pitstops. They all ended up making five or six pitstops and Ayrton made the right tyre choices to go out and win.
This shows not only was he an outstanding overtaker and a blindingly fast driver but also a very intelligent tactician. He was one of the most experienced drivers on the grid of that time.
Before the 1993 European Grand Prix, Ayrton proved that he was also a fierce competitor when it came to wheel-to-wheel combat.
This was when an opponent was attacking him from both the front and rear in both his black JPS Lotus and his red and white Marlboro McLaren. He’d shown this in the 1985 San Marino and British Grands Prix when he came under attack from Alain.
In the San Marino Grand Prix, Ayrton positioned his car in places where Alain struggled to use his brain to find a way to get passed – showing us that he already had experience in coming under pressure from opponents behind him when leading a race.
The British Grand Prix was no lesser of a ferocious battle. Except for this time Alain got passed and then Ayrton used the toe from the McLaren to retake the lead again – later retiring with fuel injection problems (where the fuel tank stopped supplying the engine).
In 1986, Ayrton had another tough rival in Nigel Mansell at the 1986 Spanish Grand Prix. Alain was in there too, but the action was mainly between Ayrton and the ‘English lion’ as they called Nigel then. This was similar to the European Grand Prix at Donington in terms of tactics where you could say the Lotus driver outsmarted the ‘English Lion’.
Nigel used the backmarker of Martin Brundle to put himself down the inside of Ayrton. However, the Englishman pitted and Ayrton stayed out for the whole race – there was always one to have the bravery to not come into the pits back then (they wouldn’t be to do that today).
It looked like it was the right decision to stay out – the pace of the Williams and fresh tyres meant that Ayrton had no chance of feeding back into the lead after his stop.
The rest of the race was more like cat and mouse and in the end, Nigel finished just half a car length behind (0.014 seconds behind to be exact – the closest finish in modern day F1 history) the Brazilian who had taken his third victory.
I’m also thinking of the times when Ayrton actually came up through the pack to win a Grand Prix.
Such as the 1988 Japanese Grand Prix, when Ayrton clinched his first title. He was on pole position as usual, but the pressure of being a championship contender got the better of him as he stalled the car on the line and then dropped all the way down to 14th. But, with the fortunate rain and a powerful Honda turbocharged engine, Ayrton managed to claw this way passed many others including his team-mate Alain (with the help of the blocker Andre De Cesaris) to win the race and take his first title.
This again demonstrated Ayrton’s resilience. Something we should all remember – when you get knocked down, you get back up again and success will follow.
Ayrton put in some excellent drives when Williams came good again in 1991 and 1992.
He really did show who was the ‘champ’ of that time.
In the Italian Grand Prix of 1991, the focus wasn’t on the scarlet red Ferraris, it was more on the tactical battle between title rivals Ayrton and Nigel.
Nigel was hustling Ayrton all the way – what made this battle so special was that both drivers tried to outsmart each other.
Ayrton used the cars he was lapping to his advantage. For example, he lapped Mark Blundell on the straight going towards the Parabolica (the final corner of the Monza circuit) and then ducked back in front of Mark who’d moved to the side of the track to let Ayrton and Nigel through. That was to stop Nigel from getting a double toe from the McLaren and the Brabham which Mark was driving.
Today. That. Would. Be. Forbidden.
This is because it would be classed as weaving which I personally don’t agree with.
Anyway, Nigel had Riccardo Patrese as a team-mate (who was equally as quick) and couldn’t find a way to pass Ayrton. So, he let Riccardo through to put pressure on the McLaren driver to try and wear his tyres out.
The Spanish Grand Prix was a very different flavour of racing – just going absolutely off the limits with no fear rather than using brain power.
Basically, on the home straight of the Catalunya circuit, Nigel went to pass Ayrton. However, Ayrton wouldn’t be passed without a fight, resulting in one of the most memorable battles of all time.
The McLaren and the Williams were inches away from touching each other with sparks flying at 200 mph!
Years later Nigel described Ayrton as “the most ferocious competitor in protecting his own space” in a Top Gear segment about the Brazilian in 2010 and quite rightly so.
A similar battle took place at Monte Carlo the following year in 1992 between Ayrton and Nigel – except this time the battle was for the lead!
Nigel was comfortably going for a first win at the principality but he had to come into the pits after a wheel-nut had come loose. This gifted the lead to Ayrton who had chewed his tyres right down to the core – this meant that any hope of victory for him would be down to his pure skill and the narrowness of the circuit.
Pure skill is what Ayrton had! The much faster Williams caught up to Ayrton very, very rapidly. Trust me, I have never seen anything like it in the streets of Monte Carlo. The McLaren went from left to right all the time to make sure Nigel didn’t find a way past, even drifting in some of the corners (due to his shredded tyres you could say).
If you weren’t a fan of Ayrton then even you would have to admit that he was a racer and had to be respected as a competitor.
His rivalry with Alain Prost
If there was any bitterness between them then, they now hated each other’s guts
Murray Walker, 1989
There were two things that ignited the most iconic rivalry in F1 history:
1) Ayrton wanting to be the best, which meant having to beat Alain (this was not an easy task) and
2) It was Alain’s idea for McLaren to sign Ayrton for the 1988 season.
McLaren were initially intending to sign fellow Brazilian, Nelson Piquet, but Alain pushed the Woking team to pen Ayrton for 1988. I guess Nelson had the experience to make McLaren the best all-rounded team, but with some decisions you just have play with fire.
The Brazilian and the Frenchman were mates as you might say throughout the beginning to middle of their first season at McLaren together.
The Portuguese Grand Prix was when the relationship started to go downhill. This was as coming onto the start-finish straight, Alain got a better exit from the round last corner of the Estoril circuit than Ayrton and got alongside him. Ayrton then almost put Alain into the pitwall (that must have been a scary experience for all the personnel sitting there). Yet, the French driver made it through and took the lead.
Then came the Japanese Grand Prix, where Ayrton snatched the title out of Alain’s hands – the first of three title deciders in Japan – the first time round wasn’t as controversial as the second and third title deciders.
In 1989, the two drivers were growing further and further apart until they didn’t speak at all anymore.
The rivalry turned more into a feud at the San Marino Grand Prix as Ayrton ignored a team order which Alain agreed to – this was to let the driver who was leading going into the second corner (the Tosa chicane) win the race.
Of course, knowing Ayrton with his ‘will to win’ attitude, Alain should’ve known that his team-mate might not conform to the agreement. I’m not saying that it was all his fault as Ayrton was wrong for ignoring the agreement.
Later in the year came the Japanese Grand Prix – the second title decider. This time it was decided in Alain’s favour.
Every single TV camera was focused on the battle that everyone was waiting for all year round – it was almost as though Ayrton and Alain were the only drivers in the race.
On lap 46, Ayrton dived down the inside of Alain’s McLaren at the Casino Triangle complex (the final set of corners on the Suzuka circuit). The pair crashed into each other leaving Alain out of the race (he could’ve restarted his car and kept on going as there was no suspension damage on his MP4/5) and Ayrton saw this and kept on going.
But, after the race the FIA dramatically disqualified the Brazilian driver from the race, handing the title to his team-mate and now bitter rival, Alain. This was because he missed the chicane once the car was going again.
To be honest I think that was the most ridiculous rule I’ve ever heard – it would have been dangerous to push the car back, possibly into another driver if Ayrton would’ve gone from the chicane.
After this, Ayrton almost quit F1 as he felt that the FIA were unjust towards him, and I don’t blame him.
From the aerial pictures, it looked as though Alain turned in too early to deliberately crash into Ayrton. Either way it was probably the worst time of Ayrton’s life as he felt as though the whole world was falling down on him.
In 1990, Alain had moved to Ferrari partly due to the strong dislike between him and Ayrton.
However, good old Ron Dennis convinced Ayrton not to quit. It wasn’t only thanks to Ron but also thanks to Ayrton’s courage and resilience to face up to his fears for the first time since the Japanese Grand Prix.
I have to say that the 1990 season and the relationship between the two top drivers of that time was a lot more harmonious than the previous season. At a press conference midway through the season, they both shook hands and got on with their business. If you asked me if Ayrton and Alain had respect for each other, I’d say yes.
There was another shocking twist to the season and guess where? At Suzuka!
Ayrton was more enraged than downhearted this time – firstly as he requested the grid position for the pole sitter to be on the racing line rather than on the dirty side of the track and surprise, surprise the FIA didn’t meet his requests – favouring Alain.
Secondly, he was still hungover from the previous year’s affairs and felt very bitter about it. This led to the most outrageous moment anyone will ever see in F1 history where at the first corner, Ayrton drove into the side of Alain’s Ferrari flat out, leaving the drivers to head into the gravel like two rockets.
Now, Ayrton felt that he got his justice and got his world champion status back for the second time in his career.
Following the series of events at Suzuka, there were further little confrontations between Ayrton and Alain, and Ayrton and Jean Marie Balestre (the head of the controversial and biased, in my opinion, FIA).
The 1991 German Grand Prix is a great example of this.
After his accident in Mexico earlier in the year, Ayrton didn’t want the tyres to be used as acting barriers down the escape roads and instead proposed in the FIA meeting for cones to be put in place. He felt that, on impact, the cones would be much safer for the other drivers – I agree to be honest with you. This led to a heated discussion (or stand-up row if you saw the SENNA movie) between Ayrton and Jean Marie Balestre. Ayrton made sure he won this by giving evidence from the handbook of rules for the 1991 season that the cones complied with the rules in the book. Jean Marie Balestre had nowhere else to go with his arguments and gave in to the Brazilian’s demands.
During the race, Ayrton and Alain were tussling over the fourth place which ended with an incident, as usual.
Alain positioned his Ferrari around the outside of Ayrton’s McLaren at the end of the first long straight and then was forced on a slippery part of the track. He found himself in front of the cones and had to wait for the marshals to move them. By that time the car was stalled, and the little Frenchman removed himself from the Ferrari.
Next, they were blaming each other for what happened in front of the media: Alain said that what Ayrton did was incorrect for a world champion and that he’d pushed him off the circuit intentionally. Ayrton in response said that Alain always tried to blame others for his own mistakes.
To conclude this explosive rivalry and relate back to Ayrton a bit more, the Brazilian wanted to show who was boss.
This meant trying to embarrass and beat Alain in any way possible (it was certainly a dream scenario for the media and helped them to attract more readers and viewers as they wanted regular updates on the rivalry). If that meant pushing Alain off the track or pipping him to pole position by more than a second, he would do it.
In 1993 (when they were racing each other again after Alain’s sabbatical, but in a more respectful manner) and 1994, the pair became closer and maybe even friends again.
Just before the worst weekend ever in F1, there was a broadcast on French television where Ayrton did an onboard lap around the Imola circuit and said over the radio “A special hello to my dear, our dear friend Alain… We all miss you, Alain.”
I don’t care if that was scripted by the French TV channel or not, it showed Ayrton’s very strong personality. He was able to reach out to his biggest enemies. Alain also said when Ayrton left the motorhome and saw him, he waved.
This brought the curtain down on all the tension between the two and showed they had respect for each other.
On the track
There are three words to describe Ayrton’s personality when he was in ‘racing mode’: Serious, focused, determined.
He always pushed himself harder than any other driver whilst preparing for and driving a race.
For example, when the other drivers had their breaks and maybe went to the pub for a drink or two, or to chat up girls, Ayrton stayed in the garage to try to set up his car for the race the next day.
This shows that if you go the extra mile for something you’re passionate about, you’re likely to come out on top. That’s exactly what Ayrton did. It gave him the reputation of being a serious, focused kind of guy. It was also part of his ‘win at any cost’ philosophy.
The Brazilian driver also had lots of charisma when it came to interviews as he demonstrated with Sir Jackie Stewart in 1990 after the controversial Japanese Grand Prix.
Jackie referred to Ayrton as having the most crashes out of any driver since he joined McLaren. Was Ayrton calm? He certainly wasn’t! He didn’t half stick up for himself! He told Jackie that he thought his statement was totally irrelevant and proved it by giving the Scot an insight into the statistics of his career.
In fact, watch the full interview on YouTube – “Ayrton Senna 1990 interview“. It’s truly epic.
Apparently, Ayrton never wanted to speak to Sir Jackie Stewart ever again. He took it so personally.
Then, four years later, he rang Jackie up and admitted that he had every intention of taking Alain off the road at Suzuka. I find this quite a remarkable story as it must have been on Ayrton’s mind all that time.
He was known for having an incredible memory of certain events. He could remember that the wife of someone who he worked within the lower formulas of racing was having an operation. Then 10 years later, when they met up again, Ayrton asked about the guy’s wife’s operation and how it went.
Even though Ayrton might have seemed like a private person, he was honest when it mattered.
Like Sir Jackie Stewart, Ayrton cared about the safety of other drivers (he was caring as well as serious, focused and determined).
In the 1992 Belgian Grand Prix, Erik Comas had a serious accident approaching the bus stop complex (the final corners of the Spa circuit) with cars whizzing past the wreckage at full throttle.
There was only one man who stopped to help: Ayrton Senna!
Professor Sid Watkins, the F1 doctor, had taught Ayrton the recovery position. Until the marshals and the doctors (including Professor Sid Watkins) arrived, Ayrton actually got Erik Comas into the recovery position whilst the Frenchman was sitting unconscious in his Ligier car.
The Brazilian risked his own life to help another person in danger. This to me was pure bravery, and I especially respect him for that.
He was also a devout Catholic which could have added another dimension to these feelings of caring about a driver being hurt.
At the weekend of the San Marino Grand Prix, just before his death, he made sure that his friend Rubens Barrichello was unscathed after his near-fatal accident. He rushed down to the medical centre only to be stopped by marshals guarding the premises.
The next day was even worse when Roland Ratzenberger died. Ayrton, like everyone else, was saddened and shocked by the Austrian’s death. But, Ayrton demanded to go to the scene of the accident to see what was going on, like he did when Martin Donnelly was injured back in 1990.
When Ayrton got upset and started crying (he was an emotional person) in front of Professor Sid Watkins, the F1 doctor told Ayrton to quit racing and go out fishing with him. But, Ayrton said in reply that he couldn’t quit: his heart was still in F1 even though he had seen a fellow driver die.
Ayrton then agreed to be the leader of a driver safety committee which was short-lived due to his tragic death.
Off The Track
Ayrton’s lifestyle away from racing looked to be the lifestyle that anyone would dream of: Girls. Jet Skiing. Wealth. Pranks.
As with any massive star, Ayrton had many girlfriends including Lilian de Vasconcelos Souza (his wife from 1981 to 1982, who he sacrificed to pursue his career in racing), Xuxa Meneghel (who he dated from 1988 to 1990) and Adriane Galisteu (his last girlfriend who he dated from 1993 to his death).
There are many more but I’d be going on forever if I named all of them. They are the most well-known ‘WAGs’ that Ayrton had.
He also had other passions apart from girls in Brazil, which were jet skiing, building remote control planes and of course fishing.
Ayrton owned many properties, in Brazil and in Europe such as in Portugal. I probably would if I were rich.
The Brazilian had his own brand called ‘Senna’ (distinctive enough for a catchy brand name). He sold watches, merchandise, bicycles, motorbikes and boats. He was an entrepreneur as well as a top racing driver.
Gerhard threw millions of dollars of Ayrton’s cash off a plane they were in together. Ayrton then retaliated by putting lots of spiders in Gerhard’s bed. If that would’ve been me I’d have poured buckets of water on his bed I would’ve been that angry.
Anyway, they must have had lots of fun – Gerhard was a good team-mate to Ayrton as he taught him not to take himself and life too seriously.
Ayrton also setup his own charity called ‘Instituto Ayrton Senna’ dedicated to children who were suffering from widespread poverty in Brazil at the time just before his death. He started up by investing the profits he generated in the ‘Senna’ business (I want to do something similar when I’m older in setting up a charity for anyone with Aspergers Syndrome – the condition I have, or Autism). It was found that he invested (or donated whatever you want to call it) $400 million in his charity which is money wisely and kindly spent. Viviane Senna, Ayrton’s sister, has continued the charity making it a well-known institution all around Brazil.
All that I’ve written (if you’ve taken it all in) proves that Ayrton impressed everyone with his style of driving. He used his coordination and brain to go absolutely off the limit in the cockpit.
I would name Ayrton as the best driver that has ever lived. He had the skills all the other great drivers had combined in one.
For example, Michael Schumacher’s ability to win in any car, Alain Prost’s ability to use his brain in terms of which strategy to take and how to set up his car for race day, and Lewis Hamilton’s racing spirit in today’s era of F1.
At the beginning of Ayrton’s career (in the 1980s), we saw the speed and raw talent of him. And, in the latter stages (in the 1990s), we saw the maturity of Ayrton where he tried to better himself as a person at home in Brazil and started to focus on other commitments.
Other commitments such as focusing on his ‘Senna’ brand and his charity ‘Instituto Ayrton Senna’. Both of these stages in his career complemented each other well to show that Ayrton was as much of a great human being as a racing driver who we lost on 1st May 1994.
Do you have anything to add? Get in touch!