What is there to write about Ayrton Senna that hasn’t already been said? Was he the most gifted Grand Prix driver of all time? Possibly. Was he the most ruthless and determined? Probably. Was he the most divisive? Definitely.
If you haven’t seen the 2010 film ‘Senna’ then I suggest you do it immediately. It’s the most compelling 106 minutes of celluloid you might ever see. But a word of warning: Ayrton Senna wasn’t as saintly as director Asif Kapadia would have you believe, as the 1994 magazine headline ‘Senna: Man or monster’ would testify to. He was capable of anything on a race track, good or bad, from the exceptional to the utterly despicable.
Ayrton Senna began karting at the age of 13, racing in his native South America before leaving home and coming to Britain to pit himself against the best that Formula Ford 1600 could offer, driving a Van Diemen in 1981, winning in only his third race.
After a brief return to Brazil at the end of the season, Senna moved back to England following an offer to drive a Formula Ford 2000, for which the future three times World Drivers Champion would have to pay £10,000. But it was money well spend, as he won both the British and European FF2000 titles, catapulting him to British Formula 3.
A 1983 season of two halves looked like going Senna’s way at a canter until mid-season, when Martin Brundle found form and, to the evident annoyance of Senna, took the Championship down to the wire. Senna eventually took the title and the Formula 1 test drives with Williams FW08 and McLaren that went with it.
He impressed in both tests, and there are anecdotal tales of how quick he was and how he blew the established Grand Prix stars of the day away, but the fact remains, neither team signed him, and he headed to Formula 1 minnows Toleman for the 1984 season.
A now legendary drive in the wet 1984 Monaco Grand Prix made the world of F1 sit up and take note, if they hadn’t already. Starting 13th on the grid in what was the first wet-race of the season, Senna made steady progress through the field, and was up to second, and catching the leader Alain Prost by four seconds a lap when on lap 31 the race was red-flagged in worsening conditions, and Prost was declared the winner, despite Senna passing him on track.
In a revealing snapshot of what was to come, everything that would define Senna’s career was exposed: His wet-weather virtuosity; His will to win; Success at Monaco; His clear disgust on the podium that the result was declared a lap before the red-flag was shown, the establishment robbing him of what he thought was his win and giving it to someone else; His rivalry with Alain Prost.
A move to Lotus for 1985 brought Senna his debut win, again in the wet, at Estoril and a fourth place in the Championship followed.
A second season with Lotus followed in 1987, who, despite Camel sponsorship, Honda engines, Ayrton Senna and active suspension similar to that which Williams would use to dominate Formula 1 in the early to mid 1990s, they were in sharp decline, (post-1987 they would never win another Grand Prix).
His first win at Monaco and a second at Detroit would seal a second consecutive 4th place in the World Drivers Championship. But of course his ambition wouldn’t allow him to be happy with that.
Senna’s first car capable of winning the World Drivers Title he so craved was in 1988, when Ron Dennis put together the dream-team (or so it seemed!) by partnering he and Prost – the young hotshot and the seasoned veteran – in a car powered by the mighty Honda engine. Between them they’d win 15/16 of the races that season, and Senna edged out Prost in the championship to take his first World Drivers title.
Until then, the relationship between the two team-mates had been fierce but amicable. All that was to change in 1989, when, paired again at McLaren, a disagreement about what had been agreed prior to the San Marino Grand Prix started the acrimony, which would worsen and worsen for the entire duration of their time together in the sport.
Senna and Prost shared the spoils throughout the season, and in an episode that would become folklore, the two collided at Suzuka to hand Prost the title. What would prove to be controversial was that there was the hint of intent on Prost’s behalf, that Senna would rejoin and ultimately win the race and subsequently be disqualified, and that compatriot of Prost’s, FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre appeared to be behind the decision to disqualify, and then subsequently ban Senna for the incident.
The incident would have further ramifications when the following season, again at Suzuka, and again under the impression that he was being compromised by the establishment, and again in a championship deciding race with Prost, Senna committed one of the most unforgivably premeditated acts of savagery ever seen in a Grand Prix, when he speared into the side of Prost, now in a Ferrari, to take the title.
Another title with McLaren followed in 1991, narrowly beating Williams’ Nigel Mansell but by the season close it was clear that Williams were brewing something special with their FW14. And so it was, in 1992 McLaren and Senna were blown into third in the WDC behind World Champion Mansell and his team-mate Riccardo Patrese.
A lean 1993 followed in a similar vein, where, despite a number of stunning drives in the underpowered McLaren-Ford MP4-8, including a sensational win in the wet at Donington Park in the European Grand Prix, Williams’ driver and long-time ‘enemy number 1′ in Senna’s eyes Alain Prost swept to the title.
Having tried and failed to secure a Williams drive for 1993, he succeeded the following year, but FIA regulations changes in the close-season resulted in the team starting the season on the back foot trying to compensate for the loss of performance caused by the removal of core driver-aids (traction-control, active-suspension, ABS) that were now illegal.
Partnering Williams’ Damon Hill he season started with Senna, unhappy with the Williams FW15‘s instability after the promise of a cruise to the title, retiring in both the opening Grands Prix, and heading to Imola on May 1 with the prospect of a 20 point deficit to Michael Schumacher in the World Championship to overcome.
On lap 7, following a lengthy safety car period, Senna arrived at Tamburello leading the race, but rather than following the course around to the left, headed straight on and into the concrete retaining wall at around 150mph.
In an agonising few minutes, Senna first appeared to move his head before being extracted, and lying prone, clearly in a desperate condition, before being helicoptered away to the nearby Bologna Maggiore hospital, where he was declared dead.
Senna’s legacy in Formula 1 would be the raft of changes that were made to both cars and tracks in the latter part of 1994, 1995 and beyond, designed to further protect the driver.
His real legacy, though, would be the one he left outside the world of Formula 1. The Ayrton Senna Institute has invested around $100 million to date to help under-privileged children in his native Brazil.
He remains one of the most revered sportsmen of all time.