Among the greatest racing drivers of all time, Ayrton Senna combined blistering raw pace with a ruthless focus to win the Formula 1 title on three occasions. He was a complex man for whom the end result was paramount – whether it be disputing a corner or choosing the best team with which to progress. His rivalry with Alain Prost became the stuff of legend and his death in 1994 shocked the sport to the core.
His talent was apparent from the moment he sat in a kart for the first time although the World Championship in that discipline would prove elusive. Ayrton da Silva, as he was known at the time, finished as runner-up behind Peter Koene and Peter de Bruyn in 1979 and 1980 respectively. However, it was his team-mate in the DAP team, Englishman Terry Fullerton, who he later identified as the greatest rival of his racing career.
Unstoppable in the junior categories
It was in British Formula Ford 1600 that the Brazilian made his impressive car racing debut in 1981. Driving a works Van Diemen RF81 and initially living with the Firman family, Senna won 12 times to beat Rick Morris to the RAC and Townsend Thoresen titles. Ever his own man, Senna then returned to Brazil on holiday rather than race in the Formula Ford Festival despite being the overwhelming favourite for the end-of-season event at Brands Hatch.
Unable to raise the budget to graduate straight to Formula 3 in 1982, Senna concluded a late deal to join reigning FF2000 champions’ Rushen Green Racing on the eve of the season. He dominated both the EFDA Euroseries and Pace British championships from the opening weekends – winning 22 times to clinch both titles with time to spare. He also made his F3 debut in the end-of-season non-championship race at Thruxton – qualifying West Surrey Racing’s Ralt RT3-Toyota on pole position and leading all the way in front of the BBC Television cameras.
He remained with WSR for the 1983 British F3 Championship and began the season in record breaking form. He won the opening nine races and it was round five before a rival so much as led a lap. Seemingly impregnable, Senna proved himself fallible as Martin Brundle grew increasingly competitive. The momentum began to switch at Silverstone’s European Championship round where Senna crashed while chasing the Englishman’s leading Ralt-Toyota. They crashed together at Snetterton and Oulton Park as Senna’s points lead evaporated – the indignant Brazilian fined £200 for the latter contretemps. A couple of retirements handed Brundle a slim championship lead but Senna dominated the final race at Thruxton to secure a deserved title. He then won the non-championship Macau Grand Prix to confirm his immense promise.
Formula 1 – starring with Toleman and Lotus
Formula 1 was next and he tested with both Williams and McLaren before signing a three year contract with Toleman. Sixth in South Africa and Belgium driving the old car at the start of 1984, Senna starred as heavy rain fell in Monaco. His second placed Toleman TG184-Hart was closing on Prost’s leading McLaren before the race was halted early – possibly depriving Senna of a famous victory. He then finished third in the British and Portuguese GPs during an impressive maiden campaign although he was dropped for the Italian GP when he announced that he would not be remaining with Toleman for another season.
Senna’s single-minded ambition led him to renege on his Toleman contract and move to John Player Team Lotus for the 1985 F1 World Championship. It took just two races to fully justify that ruthless decision – Senna’s Lotus 97T-Renault dominating the wet Portuguese GP as he scored his breakthrough GP victory. Seven pole positions was more than any other driver that year but poor reliability initially hindered his cause. However, five podium finishes in a row included another victory at Spa-Francorchamps and helped Senna to fourth in the final championship standings.
It was a similar story in 1986 with Senna again dominant over a single lap – qualifying on pole position on eight occasions. He beat Nigel Mansell’s Williams by just 0.014 seconds in the Spanish GP at Jerez and assumed the points lead with victory on the streets of Detroit. But mechanical failures restricted Senna to fourth overall once more.
Lotus switched to Honda engines in 1987 with the team now sporting the yellow and blue colours of Camel cigarettes and experimenting with computer controlled suspension. Senna and Mansell clashed during the Belgian GP before the former won back-to-back street races in Monaco and Detroit. Third in the final standings, there was a suspicion that Senna was now carrying the once great team.
The McLaren years – World Championship glory and racing’s greatest rivalry
Senna defected to McLaren for the 1988 season with Honda replacing TAG Porsche as engine supplier. Teamed with Prost for the first time, they dominated proceedings like no combination had before. Their MP4/4s won 15 of the 16 races as team-mates traded victories during a classic confrontation – only losing the Italian GP when Senna collided with Jean-Louis Schlesser’s Williams-Judd while lapping the French debutant. On pole position for 13 races that year, Senna won eight times and clinched the World Championship for the first time after a dramatic comeback drive in the Japanese GP at Suzuka. Only 14th after a poor start that day, Senna drove back through the field to claim a famous victory and the title itself.
If their relationship had been terse during 1988, then the rivalry between Senna and Prost developed into one of distrust and distain during their second season as team-mates. Senna won six times but crucial mechanical failures meant that Prost was ahead in the points as they headed to Suzuka for the penultimate race of the year. In need of victory to keep his title hopes alive, Senna attempted to pass the Frenchman at the chicane with seven laps to go. The two cars collided and appeared out of the race. However, Senna resumed, changed his bent nosecone and overtook Alessandro Nannini’s Benetton to win the race. Controversially, Senna was disqualified for not re-joining the track at the point he had left it. That handed the World Championship to Prost and left Senna feeling a grave sense of injustice.
Prost moved to Ferrari rather than remain as Senna’s team-mate but the 1990 World Championship was once more between these best of enemies. They arrived in Japan with their roles reversed – Prost needing to win to prevent Senna from regaining the championship. Senna qualified on pole position (one of 10 that year) but was ordered to start from the dirty side of the track. Feeling aggrieved, and still fuming about the 1989 Japanese GP, Senna simply drove into Prost’s Ferrari at the start to clinch the title in suitably controversial circumstances.
Four consecutive victories at the start of 1991 included an emotional first win in his home race but Williams-Renault and Nigel Mansell grew ever-more competitive as they sorted the state-of-the-art FW14. Senna eventually won three more times and clinched his third title when Mansell spun off in Japan.
With his car now fully sorted, Mansell dominated the 1992 World Championship. In contrast, Senna was restricted to three victories and fourth overall. That was Honda’s final season as McLaren’s engine partner (until 2015) and the team were forced to use underpowered Ford V8s instead. Prost returned from a year away to lead the Williams-Renault line-up, Mansell having defected to the Champ Car World Series. With old enmities renewed, Senna won in Brazil and, famously, at Donington Park to take an early championship lead. That victory in the European GP included passing five cars in the opening lap alone and remains one of the greatest wet weather drives of all-time. He won the Monaco GP (for a sixth time) and the final two races of the year but could only finish as runner-up behind Prost’s technically superior Williams-Renault.
1994 – the move to Williams ends in tragedy
Having tested for Williams a decade earlier, Senna now signed for Didcot-based concern – prompting Prost into permanent retirement. Overwhelming pre-season favourite for the 1994 title, Senna initially struggled to develop the FW16 and he was outpaced by Michael Schumacher’s Benetton-Ford in the early races. He spun out of the opening two races and arrived at Imola without a point to his name.
Senna qualified on pole position for the third race in a row but Rubens Barrichello’s serious accident and the death of Roland Ratzenberger had already dampened the mood before raceday. Senna was leading Schumacher when he crashed at the 190mph Tamburello corner at the start of lap six. Part of the suspension struck Senna’s helmet and he was airlifted to the Maggiore Hospital in Bologna with serious head injuries where he was pronounced dead later that afternoon. Senna was buried in his native São Paulo in a full state funeral with a million or more grief stricken compatriots lining the streets. Writing in Motor Sport as racing came to terms with such a numbing loss, Executive Editor David Tremayne noted that “motor racing [had] lost one of the greatest kings it will ever know. To many – especially those with whom he worked – Ayrton Senna will always be the greatest.”