10 years in Formula One, 65 pole positions, 41 race wins, 80 podiums and 3 World Championships. Ayrton Senna’s statistics speak for themselves. Yet Ayrton Senna is remembered as so much more than a mere number on a page. 22 years on from his untimely death, Ayrton is still held in the highest regard by F1 fans and drivers alike. It’s a long argument as to whether he was, and still is, the greatest F1 driver of all time. But what made the Brazilian such a special driver? Take a look at five of his greatest races:
Monaco 1984 – A Star is Born.
A wet day in Monaco almost brings Senna the ultimate reward in his sixth Grand Prix.
We shall start where, in many regards, it all began. Senna’s first year in Formula One was spent at Toleman. The Toleman car was notoriously difficult to drive and was unlikely to be a podium contender. That is why Senna’s sixth race in the sport was the one that established his place as the most exciting new talent.
Friday in Monaco saw a huge accident for Martin Brundle, Senna’s former Formula 3 rival. Brundle’s car smashed through Tabac, ending up upside down. He escaped without major injury but concussion meant that he was not fit enough to compete in the rest of the weekend.
Prost took his first McLaren pole, with Nigel Mansell second and Rene Arnoux two tenths back in third. Senna finished the qualifying session in 13th, out-qualifying his team-mate Johnny Cecotto.
Heavy rain meant that the start of Sunday’s race was delayed by 45 minutes. As the race got under way, there was a crash at the first corner. A chain reaction of contact between Arnoux and Derick Warwick meant that Warwick then collided with his team-mate Patrick Tambay. Both drivers were injured. Tambay came off worse, suffering a broken leg.
9 laps later, the lead changed. Mansell overtook Prost to lead a Grand Prix for the first time. Mansell lapped the circuit consistently two seconds faster than Prost but, six laps later, the British driver made a mistake at Casino Square and was forced to retire from the race.
Prost retook the lead but was being caught by Ayrton, who had managed to avoid the chaos and, most impressively, avoid the barriers in his first street race in Formula One. By Lap 29, the weather conditions had become bad enough for Prost to wave at the stewards, signalling for the race to be stopped. The Frenchman also had handling problems and his car was visibly slower when he passed and waved to the marshals again on Lap 31.
The red flag was brought out at the end of the 32nd lap. Prost’s red and white McLaren slowed before the line and Senna came through first to take the chequered flag. But Senna’s maiden win would have to wait for another day- the result was decided on a count back of one lap, meaning that the standings at the end of Lap 31 decided the race result. Nevertheless, it was a stunning drive from Ayrton. Although controversial, the red flag was ultimately shown at the right time for Senna, as suspension issues would have caused him to retire imminently had the race continued.
The race also marked Ayrton Senna’s first fastest lap in Formula One.
Portugal 1985 – The First of Many.
Ayrton masters the rain to take his maiden win.
Senna made the switch to Lotus in 1985. Now in a competitive car, Senna started his second race for the team from pole for the first time in his career ahead of Alain Prost and Keke Rosberg.
On the Sunday it was wet, with conditions similar to when Senna had shone in Monaco the previous year. Senna made the best start and by the first corner it was his team-mate Elio de Angelis who followed him. The two champions behind Senna on the grid had trouble, Rosberg had stalled at the start and Prost had problems keeping his car facing in the right direction. Senna was essentially pulling out a gap of one second per lap. By Lap 30, he was half a minute ahead. One lap later, Prost aquaplaned down the start/finish straight. Conditions were deteriorating and both Ayrton and Niki Lauda called for the race to be red-flagged. It wasn’t. The majority of the drivers were able to keep it together until the end.
The race was dominantly won by Ayrton Senna in only his 17th Grand Prix, with second placed Michele Alboreto finishing over a minute behind. The rest of the 9 finishers were all at least 1 lap down. Senna returned to the pits already half out of the car, with both arms waving in jubilation. He said of his victory:
“The champagne for sure had a special taste that day.”
Japan 1988 – Champion.
Senna wins his first title in style.
The 1988 season was the first of the Senna-Prost era at McLaren. The championship arrived at the penultimate round with it all left to play for between the two McLaren drivers. So far in the season, Prost had won 6 races to Senna’s 7.
Senna and Prost, unsurprisingly, started on the front row for the eleventh time in the season. The start did not go to plan for the Brazilian, though. Senna stalled on the grid but, due to the sloping nature of the start/finish straight at the Suzuka circuit, was able to get going again. By the time he got into motion, he found himself way down the order in 14th.
By the start of the second lap, Senna was back up to 8th. Another four overtakes over the next four laps meant that Ayrton was in 4th by Lap 6. Meanwhile, at the front, Ivan Capelli, who had massively out-performed his car in Qualifying, took the race lead from Prost. Prost soon resumed the lead as he had a turbo engine; Capelli did not.
The rain had begun to fall on the fourteenth lap. Senna, with his mastery of the conditions, was catching Prost. To make matters worse for Prost, he was suffering with a malfunctioning gearbox. The leaders came to lap Andrea de Cesaris on Lap 27. The lapped driver, albeit accidentally, blocked Prost meaning that he was an easy target for his team-mate into the final chicane.
Senna went on to set fastest lap after fastest lap, breaking the lap record whilst on his way to the victory as the conditions deteriorated. The race ran to full distance and Ayrton led home his team-mate by 13 seconds. It was one of the greatest comeback drives in Formula 1, from 14th on Lap 1. Senna was crowned the 1988 World Champion, although it was now mathematically possible for Prost to catch his points tally, Senna would still have had more wins than the French driver.
Senna describes his last lap of the Japanese Grand Prix in 1988:
“I started being thankful as I was doing the last lap. I thanked God. I couldn’t believe I was actually going to win the Championship with all the anxiety and tension. I felt His presence. I visualised, I saw God. It was a special moment in my life. An enormous feeling. I have registered it in my memory, and it remains a part of me.”
Brazil 1991- Home Hero
The elusive home win finally came in 1991.
Formula One’s return to Sao Paulo was greeted with highly expectant fans hoping for a Senna victory.
Senna started from pole, ahead of the two Williams of Riccardo Patrese and Nigel Mansell.
By the end of Lap 8, Senna was 3 seconds ahead of Mansell, who, over the next 10 laps, closed the gap to just 0.7 seconds. Mansell pitted on Lap 26, but the pit stop was a disaster. After an extra 14 seconds in the pits than he would have wanted, Nigel rejoined the track 7 seconds behind Ayrton.
Mansell was gaining on Senna again when the Briton had another disaster- he had a puncture. He was into the pits again on Lap 50. Meanwhile, Senna at the front wasn’t having it all his own way. Unknown to the viewers, Senna had lost forth gear. The 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix is remembered as one of the best examples of Senna driving through his cars problems. Then, on Lap 61, Mansell was forced into retirement. His gearbox had now failed. Despite this, the pressure was still on Senna, with the other Williams of Patrese gaining on him at a rapid rate.
With mere laps to go, the third and fifth gears also gave up on Senna’s car. He was now stuck in sixth, making cornering an extreme physical challenge. To make matters worse, the weather had begun to get worse. Ayrton copied the familiar gesture of Prost at Monaco in 1984, but this time the race would not be halted. Senna crossed the line at the end of Lap 71. He finished just 3 seconds ahead of Patrese, who also had gearbox issues of his own.
Senna was overcome with emotion at finally winning his home event. His struggle in the closing stages had been tough and he suffered with muscle cramps. He was unable to finish his victory lap and, after being lifted from his car, was taken to the podium by the Medical Car. His commitment had brought him the ultimate reward. This race was the second of seven victories which would see him on his way to title number three.
The greatest first lap in the history of F1?
Formula One’s only visit to the Donnington circuit is remembered mainly for Senna’s first lap exploits.
Williams dominated in Qualifying, with Prost on pole and Hill in second. Schumacher lined up third and Senna was directly behind his future team-mate in 4th. As the lights went out and the cars streamed towards the damp first corner, Senna’s move on Schumacher was blocked by the German driver and Ayrton fell to 5th as a result, behind Karl Wendlinger. Schumacher also lost out due to his manoeuvre and dropped to 4th, behind his compatriot. At Turn 3, Senna re-passed Schumacher. Ayrton’s next target was Wendlinger, who conceded at the next turn. Michael Andretti then tried to mimic Senna’s move but ended up taking himself and Wendlinger out of the race. Meanwhile, Senna passed Hill for second and his next target was his old rival, Alain Prost. Through the penultimate corner, Senna overtook the Williams. He had gone from 5th to 1st over a single lap. However, to say the race was an easy win after Senna took the lead would be inaccurate.
As the weather conditions improved and the track dried out, the drivers pitted for dry tyres. There was an issue at Senna’s stop, which cost him 20 seconds. Prost re-took the lead. Then, the rain came again. As the two Williams cars pitted, Senna made the decision to stay out. Luckily for him, the rain stopped again. An issue in the pits for Prost when pitting to re-fit dry tyres cost him time and he rejoined the race in 4th, a lap down on the leader. After the rain had started and stopped again for a third time, Hill was in second but by now he was also a lap down on Ayrton’s lead.
With 20 laps remaining, on Lap 57, Senna set the fastest lap of the race in bizarre circumstances. Of course, in 1993 there was no speed limit in the pit-lane (this was only introduced after Imola 1994). Ayrton came in to pit at the end of the lap, but aborted the pit stop, so instead drove straight through the pitlane. The time saved cutting the final hairpin by using the pit lane entry at full racing speed meant that it was the fastest lap of the race.
Overall, Senna had made 3 pit stops compared to Prost’s 6. As the race ended, Ayrton won ahead of Damon Hill who crossed the line over 80 seconds later. Everyone else had been lapped. An incredible drive but was it Senna’s best? The man himself thought not:
“No way! I had traction control! It was a good win, but compared with Estoril 1985, it was nothing.”
22 years on from his fateful final Grand Prix, the world still celebrates the genius of Ayrton Senna and his name will remain synonymous with the pinnacle of motorsport for generations to come. 65 pole positions, 41 race wins, 80 podiums and 3 World Championships. But Ayrton Senna was so much more than a mere number on a page.