Brazilian Ayrton Senna is remembered as one of Formula 1’s most talented, controversial and divisive figures, one half of an incredible rivalry that would define an era. I did not appreciate what I was watching at the time, but as I’ve delved into the archives of F1, and watched old races, I’ve come to realise that Senna set the benchmark for many others, and has earned his place in sporting history.
One of my earliest memories of Senna is watching Mansell and Senna collide at the 1989 Portugese Grand Prix. Mansell had been disqualified for a pit-lane infringement but inexplicably didn’t respond to the black flag that signaled his disqualification. As Mansell and Senna battled, Mansell pulled alongside Senna’s McLaren and dove down the right-hander at the start, and Senna turned in too far, taking himself and Mansell out of the race.
The accident was Senna’s fault, but it would never have happened if Mansell had obeyed the instruction to remove himself from the race.
Such incidents were not exactly few and far between for the passionate Brazilian. Another memorable collision happened later in the 89 season, one that is still talked about today. Senna had been catching his teammate and title rival Prost at the Japanese Grand Prix, pushing hard as he needed to win to keep his title hopes alive.
Many have talked of the incident that effectively ended the title race that year in Prost’s favour. Was it Senna’s fault? Was it a ‘racing incident?’ Was Prost to blame, either intentionally or through neglect?
Judge for yourself:
In this fan’s humble opinion, Prost made a mistake. Senna had at least half a car alongside Prost when Prost turned in, at which point, a collision became unavoidable. Had Prost not done so, the incident would have been avoided. Yes, this would have cost Prost the lead, but such was his championship lead that he could afford a second place to Senna.
What happened after this crash proved even more controversial. Prost immediately got out of his car, convinced their duel (and the title fight) was over. Senna meanwhile, encouraged the marshalls to push his car, and bump-started it, rejoining the track via a slip-road. Senna would go on to chase down Alessandro Nannini’s Benetton. He won the race, but immediately afterward, he was informed he was to be disqualified by the race stewards for missing the chicane where his collision with Prost had occurred. Senna was furious, believing the disqualification to be an act of sabotage by F1 officials (most notably Frenchman Jean-Marie Balestre, whom Senna would clash with more than once), and McLaren appealed the decision to no avail. This meant Prost was champion of 89.
The issue McLaren raised was the danger of going back onto the circuit via the chicane, as it would have raised the likelihood of a collision with another car approaching it. This argument was dismissed.
Given that Prost felt McLaren were favouring Senna and given the state of open hostility between the two men, Prost had made the decision earlier in the season to leave McLaren and announced shortly before the Italian Grand Prix that he would be racing for Ferrari in 1990. Senna was now the undisputed number one driver at McLaren in 1990 and he started the season strongly, winning three of the first five races.
Prost and Ferrari would fight back and the season would be one of Prost snapping at Senna’s heels throughout the year, until the penultimate round in Japan. With the animosity between the two of them still simmering away, Senna qualified on pole, but his request to have pole moved to the clean side of the track was denied by the authorities. Senna, still fuming over what he considered to be the injustice of last year, promised not to yield at the first corner if Prost (who had qualified second) got in front of him.
At the start of the race, Prost did indeed get ahead of Senna. The rest is F1 history, and a low point for Senna.
The collision decided the 1990 world championship in Senna’s favour, but to many it left an indelible impression of Senna in their minds – the ruthlessness of the move, which had the potential to kill them both, was shocking.
1991 is a year I remember well. Nigel Mansell was back at Williams and the Williams team had taken many steps to improve their car, but Senna and McLaren were also looking good. Reliability problems for Williams meant Senna was able to win the first four races of the season quite easily – though I remember staying up late at my aunt’s house to watch Senna take his only victory on home soil in Brazil, and looking exhausted at the end, as he’d been fighting a faulty gearbox for several laps.
Senna was also involved in a dramatic drag race with Mansell at the 1991 Spanish Grand Prix, but one of the most famous memories from that year is of Mansell giving Senna a lift back to the pits at the end of the British Grand Prix.
Owing to Senna’s strong start to 1991, and Mansell’s correspondingly poor start, Senna was able to see off the rising threat from the Englishman and would take his third world championship in four years at Japan, as Mansell would spin out whilst chasing him.
1992 was a struggle for Senna. Williams pushed on with developing their car and McLaren fell behind. In fact, McLaren didn’t have their new car ready until the third round of 1992, and it failed upon its debut! Senna could only watch as Mansell built up an unassailable lead, but he did take a brilliant, hard-fought win at Monaco (where he fought off Mansell’s vastly superior car for the final few laps), and would also take advantage of chaos at the Hungarian Grand Prix to win there as well. A further win would come in Italy, but for Senna, the main issue as 1992 wound down was where he would be driving in 1993.
Senna wanted to join Williams, who wanted to bring in Alain Prost. Mansell was on record as saying he didn’t want to partner Prost, owing to difficulties from their time as teammates in 1990 at Ferrari. Prost had a clause in place to forbid Williams hiring Senna in 1993, and therefore Senna was considering two main options – remaining with a McLaren team who were set to lose their powerful Honda engines – or quitting Formula 1 altogether. In the end, he agreed to stay with McLaren.
To many observers, 1993 was Senna’s best season in Formula 1. Despite a car that was even worse compared to the new Williams than the cars of 1992, Senna would surprise many by winning two of the first three races and three of the first six. As the season progressed it was difficult for Senna to keep apace with Prost’s Williams, but he would win five races in total, including a stunning win at the rain-soaked European Grand Prix in Donington, where he demonstrated his considerable skill in the wet to cruise past the cars in front of him with ease.
I’m not going to go into detail about 1994. The details of Senna’s fateful final few races are well documented and I feel no need to elaborate on them. Suffice to say, when Senna died on that horrible weekend at Imola on the 1st of May, it ripped a hole in Formula 1. Senna was fast, talented, dangerous and reckless. He was also compassionate, generous and humble. He once parked his car during qualifying for the 1992 Belgium Grand Prix and sprinted across the track, at great risk to himself, to help Erik Comas, who had crashed heavily and was actually unconscious in his car. He donated a lot of his personal fortune to improve the lives of impoverished children in his native Brazil. The man who was prepared to cause a collision at over a hundred miles per hour at great risk to himself and Prost was also the man who did these things. He was also the man who won 41 races, and three world championships, and will always be remembered for being incredibly quick.