Ayrton’s reputation preceded him – from his Formula Ford success and the way he went about his business. I’d seen him race because sometimes FF1600 had been supporting F3 and he was a hot story. Everyone was looking out for Ayrton Senna Da Silva. And how much he was going to win by. Everyone pretty much had him down as the champion before we’d even started the 1983 Formula Three season.
It surprised me a bit that it was perceived he was going to walk it. I’d had a difficult ’82 but by the end of it I was very strong. But then he went and won the first nine races of our first season as rivals. During that season I had some good races with Ayrton and led him off the line on several occasions. He won those first nine but I was always in the hunt. He wasn’t walking away and leaving me. There were times I was leading. It was close but he was just edging it. I was second eight times in those first nine.
I was a very good starter, always was throughout my career, and carried that through into F1. I think for me it was qualifying and sticking it on pole, which he was strong at. But he wasn’t dropping me for dead on the first lap. He just had all the credentials – the qualifying, the start, the first lap, the race pace, the consistency.
Neither of us was fit enough, though. I’ve got a picture on the wall at home, when I’d won at Donington. It was a very intense race and we both look battered. In terms of being professional drivers we’d done nothing.
He was good in traffic and he was very good in the rain. I remember leading a race early in the season at Silverstone. We’d been going down Hangar Straight to Stowe, in the pouring rain, and he went right down the outside of me. I thought, “See you, but wouldn’t want to be you out there!”. I never did any karting but he went all the way around the outside of me on the karting line and came out in front.
Then the race got red-flagged. Going to the grid for the restart I thought I’d try his line. Well, I hit this puddle of water and very nearly stuck it in the barrier. I survived that and Ayrton won it, though not by much. I said to him on the podium, “Your line into Stowe didn’t work in the second race, did it?”
He said: “I don’t know, I didn’t try. It was too wet.”
To this day it annoys me that he knew that and I didn’t. It’s something that you saw all the way through his F1 career. He had a sixth sense and a gift for knowing where the grip was. We spent a lot of time at close quarters and had our contacts but he wasn’t a dirty driver. I remember Thruxton one time. He had an engine problem and I was passing him coming down the pit straight. They had to move all the pit boards pretty damn quick because there was a car’s width available and I took it. He could have had me off there if he’d wanted to, but didn’t. Whether he never believed I’d go for the gap, I don’t know.
He could be pretty ruthless but the accidents we had together weren’t out of bloody-mindedness, they were out of really aggressive, competitive situations. There was no weaving, diving across the road at me or just being bloody-minded and having me off. Well, maybe just once.
When we contacted at Snetterton I was on pole and led away. He got a good run on me coming out of Sear, I moved to the left-hand side of the straight to make him go the long way around into the Esses, but he didn’t go the long way around. He carried on down my left-hand side, where there wasn’t a full car’s width. He touched the back of my car. Some people say I ran him off the road but I didn’t. I moved there and left him to make his own mind up. The last I saw of him were the rivets of his undertray. When he landed he kept his foot in and tried to T-bone me, but he just missed as I went into the left at the Esses (which is called Brundle now, ironically).
Obviously he had his adventures with Prost later on, particularly Suzuka ’90. I’d say he was a tough and hard racer, but I didn’t find him unfair. Senna was driven from his heart, supported by his head. I’m not saying he wasn’t a clever guy, because he was, but for me his primary energy was his emotions. Suzuka ’90 was an emotional decision. I saw it in ’83 quite a lot. This feeling that the world was against him.
When we sat in stewards’ inquiries post-race at Snetterton, his demeanour, words and expressions were all “it’s the British, it’s F3, it’s the system. You’re all against me”. And I think that’s exactly how it was in F1. It was no longer the British system, British F3 and British stewards, it was Jean-Marie Balestre, the French and the FIA. And I think that’s what caused him to go have a wobble in the middle of the ’83 season. He allowed that to dominate his mind.
As a result, two things happened: one, he realised I could beat him, and two, I realised I could beat him. Those two things just swapped over and mentally it softened him up. I just took off: I can beat this guy, I’m good enough to beat this guy! It all just kept going my way after that. I took chances and it worked out for me. He took chances and it didn’t. You go through those phases sometimes but suddenly I just had that supreme confidence that I could beat him. The thing was, when he’d been winning all those early races, I’d finished second all but once. But then he started having accidents and not finishing and the points gap closed right up.
It was a tough year but I won at Donington, in Austria and the Silverstone European round. Then I detonated my engine and only had two really old ones left. For the Thruxton decider we tried one and it was rubbish so we put the reserve engine in through desperation. We knew it was rubbish, really. I was only third on the grid and I only finished third in the race.
Ayrton, who had a new engine, won the race and the championship.
I’ve got a picture in my gym at home, which I used for great motivation. There’s Senna on the top step of the podium congratulating me on the second step. He was very magnanimous and I remember him saying to TV that Martin’s the best British driver since Jim Clark, and all the things you can afford to say when you’ve just won the championship.
History tells you that the best man won the championship because of what he went on to achieve. But I don’t know whether I’d have been better off dominating the championship, and who cares who else was in it, or because of his reputation, running him close. I mean, 30 years later it’s still talked about in pubs around race tracks in hushed tones.