A 24-year-old rookie, racing for the back-of-the-grid Toleman team, turned heads only six races into his career when he raced to second place at the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix. This virtually unknown Brazilian driver had navigated the deadly barriers of Monte Carlo where the likes of Niki Lauda, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet had failed to. What would have been a certain victory was taken away from him by the conditions and the FIA who red-flagged the race to the advantage of eventual race winner, Alain Prost. Fittingly, a few years later, Senna and Prost would be the two biggest names in Formula One and developed what was, perhaps, the biggest rivalry in the sport’s history.
Senna lived – and raced – in an era when, as John Bisignano put it, the steering wheel only turned the car. The cars were basically bigger, more powerful go karts – there was no fancy computer system to help the driver guide the car around the track – that was left purely down to the driver. It is then clear why Senna’s performance at the aforementioned Monaco Grand Prix was so extraordinary. At one stage he was lapping three seconds faster than race leader Prost. Although he failed to win at that historic day on the streets of Monte Carlo, he had shown the world that he was not just another rookie.
The following season he moved to Lotus and took his first pole position and subsequent race victory. He took five more wins for the team, one in ’85, two in ’86 and two in ’87 (the season which saw him finish third in the Driver’s Championship), before making the move to McLaren.
This was the start of one of the greatest rivalries that F1, if not any sport, has ever seen. Alongside Alain Prost, the team took a simply stunning fifteen wins from sixteen races. Of these fifteen wins, eight were claimed by Senna while his mastermind team-mate took six and lost the Championship by three points.
In ’89, the season was even more nail-biting. After a long, vicious scrap between the two team-mates, Senna needed to win the penultimate race to keep his hopes of a second Championship alive until the final round. If Senna did not finish the race, no matter where Prost placed, the Frenchman would be Champion. Near the end of the race, Senna was rapidly catching Prost. He made a very ambitious dart up the inside of Prost’s McLaren, for that was how Senna raced, but when Prost turned into the chicane, the two collided and were out of the race – or so it seemed. While Prost climbed from his car and waved his hands about, Senna gesticulated to the marshals to push him into the run off area from where he could get back on track. A stunned Prost was left watching as Senna continued on his way and won the race, denying Prost the Championship.
Unbelievably, however, that was not the end of it – for the stewards disqualified Senna for cutting the corner when he used the escape road. This handed the Championship to Prost, while a McLaren protest, against one of their own drivers, was unsuccessful. Undeterred by the whole event, Senna did the same at the Japanese Grand Prix the following year: without even trying to slow his car down, Senna rammed Alain Prost’s Ferrari (for he had left McLaren following the controversial Championship in ’89) off the track. By doing this he won the race, and the Championship.
That was the contradictory nature of Senna, a character who I just cannot fully fathom. The same Ayrton Senna who rammed Prost off the track at high-speed in Suzuka, risking both their lives and the lives of other drivers, spectators and marshals, also stopped mid-session at the 1992 Belgian Grand Prix to save a life. Frenchman Erik Comas crashed heavily during Qualifying ahead of the aforementioned race, and it was Senna who was first on the scene. Abandoning his car trackside, Senna sprinted against other cars to the motionless Comas. Holding his head up and turning the engine off saved Comas’ life. In a tragically ironic twist, Comas was mistakenly given the green light to return to the track while medical crews worked to save Senna’s life at Imola following his fatal crash in ’94. Comas could not repay Senna.
Senna’s die-hard determination is perhaps best seen when he races to victory at the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix – in front of his adoring countrymen. He started the race from pole position and cruised easily for the bulk of the race. However, as he reached the sixtieth (of sixty-seven) lap, rain arrived and coincided with his gearbox getting stuck in sixth gear. A lesser driver would have been forced to pull the car over and curse his bad luck – but not Senna. Senna drove the completely undriveable car in horrid conditions and took his first win at his home Grand Prix. After the race, he was so exhausted that he had to be helped from the car and couldn’t lift the trophy on the podium. It was this absolute refusal to give up that made him the man that he was.
His brilliance was not limited to the track, however. Senna donated a staggering $180 million to underprivileged children and their education, as instructed by his will. He died weeks after discussing plans to set up a charity to help Brazilian street kids. This charity, the Senna foundation, was set up after his death.
Michael Schumacher, who I personally believe to be F1’s greatest driver, himself believes that Senna is the greater. Although he would have undoubtedly been ruthless and unforgiving towards Senna on track – had the two superhumans had the time to fight for the title – Schumacher’s complete respect and admiration of Senna is obvious. He broke down in the post-race conference at the 2000 Italian Grand Prix as he was asked if equalling Senna’s win total (41) meant anything to him.
And although Senna’s tragic death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix occurred just ten years after he made debut on the Formula One grid, isn’t it remarkable that he could achieve so much in such little time? To have left such an impact on Formula One – to be forever remembered as the fighter, the indomitable, the quintessential racer after such a short time is tribute to the man whose absence is still strongly felt today.
Images courtesy Williams F1 Team.