If one has seen the documentary “Senna”, towards the end of the documentary, Mark Fogerty asks Senna, “Who is or has been the driver you got the most satisfaction of racing against…past or present”.
Generally, one would have guessed it to be someone who he faced during is stint in Formula 1, but instead Senna told he enjoyed competing against Terry Fullerton, his team mate and rival during his carting days in Europe.
Now, why would a driver who is considered the best in the history of Formula 1, choose a guy from his early carting career as the driver who he was most satisfied racing against? Senna’s reasoning for this was, “no money, no politics, pure racing”. Why would a driver who had touched the pinnacle of Formula 1 racing think in such a way?
It all started when Senna joined Mclaren in 1988. He would partner the defending Double world champion Alain Prost. This was Senna’s opportunity to prove to everyone in the F1 paddock that he was indeed special. Perhaps Senna took this fact too seriously during the Monaco Grand Prix in 1988. Senna was leading the race and was ahead of his team mate Prost by 1.4 sec, before crashing on lap 67. Senna was distraught after crashing out and headed straight into his apartment rather than returning to the pit lane. In one of the interviews in the documentary “Senna”, Prost himself acknowledges that Senna didn’t just want to beat him, but wanted to show everyone that he was way better than him. Prost also goes on to say that this particular quality of Senna was his weakness.
After the disastrous result in Monaco, Senna acquiesced that the mistake he made was to feel overconfident to a level where he felt he was close to perfection, this led to a lapse in his concentration, which opened the window for mistakes. However, this was a valuable lesson for Senna, who after having recovered his confidence following the crash at Monaco, never looked back. Senna who was also a firmly religious man said that he felt closer to God after this incident. Senna would realize his belief in God in the Japanese Grand Prix, the venue which would go on to become a standing point in his career. Senna was on pole, but started out slowly off the grid and as a result he slipped back to 14th position. Senna then recovered and went on to win the race in a spectacular fashion outclassing team mate Prost. Senna and Prost together won 15 of the 16 races in the season, out of which Senna won 8 compared to Prost’s 7. And by virtue of this Senna was crowned as the World champion.
1989 was the year when things really hotted up between Senna and Prost. Prost too would have wanted to prove he was no less than Senna. As a result, the season was not harmonious and the aggression between the driver took a whole new level. As per the documentary “Senna” Prost was a man who knew the political side of Formula 1 and knew exactly how to use it, while Senna was a man who believed in being more truthful. This led a wide rift between the two, up to a point where both wouldn’t see eye to eye.
Then came the Japanese Grand Prix, where Senna had to win to secure the championship, whereas Prost’s only chance to win the championship hinged on Senna not finishing the race. When the race began Prost took the lead early on, but on lap 46 at the casino chicane, both the driver collided and ran off the track. As a result Prost had to retire from the race, but Senna somehow convinced the marshals to give him a push start. This enabled him to rejoin the race and pit to replace the damaged front nose of his car. Senna joined the race behind Alessandro Nannini of Benetton, and in just 4 laps overtook Nannini to win the race and the championship.
But Prost was agonized with what happened after their collision. As soon as he saw Senna re-enter the race, he ran straight to the stewards office and aired his displeasure. An unprecedented scenario followed suit where the podium celebrations were delayed as the stewards deliberated as to what action should be taken against Senna. Ultimately, FIA didn’t consider Senna’s re-entry into the race and disqualified him for cutting the chicane after the collision with Prost and for crossing into the pit lane entry which was not part of the track. He was also handed a temporary suspension of his Super License for 6 months. Senna was irate with the decision and felt the close relationship between the then FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre and Prost influenced the end decision. Questions were even raised on whether Prost purposefully collided at the corner with Senna, but Prost out rightly denied this acquisition. Senna was even considered quitting the sport after this incident, he felt he was being projected as a “criminal” (quote by Senna himself) laying all the blame squarely on him. But the Mclaren Team Principle Ron Dennis convinced Senna to return.
Ron Dennis told Senna, “If you are true to your values, if you believe that your values are correct, then walking from the dark forces that you are faced with in life just doesn’t become an option”. In the following season in 1990, Prost left Mclaren to join Ferrari. However, war of words between the two drivers didn’t stop. Prost commented that, “Ayrton has a small problem, he thinks he can’t kill himself, because he believes in God and I think it is pretty dangerous for other drivers”. Senna replied to Prost in the most honest way possible, he said, “Because I believe in God and have faith in God, it doesn’t mean I’m immortal, it doesn’t mean I’m immune, as has been claimed. I am as scared as anyone of getting hurt, especially driving a Formula 1 car. It’s a constant danger”.
These two drivers were still not finished. Again in the Japanese Grand Prix, a situation arose where, if Prost didn’t finish the race, Senna would win the championship, the exact opposite scenario just a year ago. The Pre-race drivers briefing was pretty interesting, where Nelson Piquet had a suggestion.
Senna was on pole that weekend, and had requested that the starting grid for the man on pole position be shifted to the clean side of the track, which was to the left from the dirty side of the track which was on the right. It should be noted here that Prost had qualified second on the grid and hence was on the clean side of the track. But Senna’s request was denied by the FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre. When the race began, Prost took the lead, but Senna tried to take the lead at the first corner, Prost turned in and so did Senna without backing off, which resulted in the both of them colliding for the second year in a row.
This also effectively made Senna the world champion for the season. This led to a lot of speculation that Senna intentionally collided with Prost as he was frustrated with being denied to start the race from the clean side of the track and also because of what had happened a year ago. But Senna denied all the accusation, he said that he saw an opening to overtake and went for it, that’s what a driver who is racing is supposed to do said Senna in his famous interview with Jackie Stewart during the Australian Grand Prix. But later on it was found that Senna indeed did collide intentionally.
In 1991, Senna became the youngest ever three-time world champion,winning7 races and increasing his pole position record to 60. Prost, because of the downturn in performance at Ferrari, was no longer a serious competitor. Prost openly criticized Ferrari for producing an inferior car, which ultimately resulted in Ferrari terminating Prost’s contract as a disciplinary action. 1992 was uneventful for Senna as McLaren weren’t competitive. 1993 was interesting as McLaren didn’t have Honda as their engine partner. Mclaren had to struggle to get on board a decent engine manufacturer. Finally, McLaren decided to use the Ford V8 engines . Senna declined to sign a one-year contract but agreed to drive on a race-by-race basis, eventually staying on for a season. Prost on the other hand secured a contract with Williams, which was a competitive car.
One interesting aspect was that Senna was interested to drive for Williams and was even willing to do it for free! But Prost had a clause in his contract that no matter what Senna can never be his team mate! Talk about two people having grudge against each other! Eventually Prost won the championship for the fourth time in the Williams and decided to gracefully retire. On the podium in the in Adelaide in 1993, Prost and Senna hugged it out, literally. As Prost was no longer a rival, Senna saw no reason for any more hostility.
In 1994, Senna moved to Williams to take the place vacated by Prost. Senna was paid $1 million dollars a race totaling to $20 million for the season. But the rule changes that were effected for 1994, which banned active suspension, traction control and ABS, degraded the performance of the car. Senna had stated that, “I have a very negative feeling about driving the car and driving it on the limit and so on … Some of that is down to the lack of electronic change. Also, the car has its own characteristics which I’m not fully confident in yet”. Senna also went on to say that, “It’s going to be a season with lots of accidents, and I’ll risk saying that we’ll be lucky if something really serious doesn’t happen”.
Unfortunately, a serious incident did take place, an incident which took Senna’s life. It was during San Marino Grand Prix, in Imola. Senna was on pole for the race, but certain incidents during the weekend played on Senna’s mind. One was his compatriot, Rubens Barrichello’s accident at the at the Variante Bassa chicane where he suffered from a broken nose and arm and had to withdraw from the race. And the other during qualifying where Austrian, Roland Ratzenberger was killed after the front wing of his Simtek-Ford broke hurtling at 305 km/h towards the Villeneuve corner, sending the car into the concrete wall.
Ironically, Senna had spent his final morning talking to former McLaren teammate and nemesis Alain Prost to discuss the re-establishment of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association in an attempt to improve safety regulations in Formula One. Being the most senior driver, Senna even offered to take the role of leader, starting from the next race in Monaco. But as fate would have it, Senna had to create the awareness of driver safety through his own death. During the 7th lap at the high-speed Tamburello corner, Senna’s car left the racing line at around 307 km/h, ran in a straight line off the track and hit the concrete wall at around 233 km/h. That was it, Formula 1?s most beloved driver was no more.
At the end all we can say is that Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost were two extremely competitive individuals who didn’t like to loose. This has been the trait of all great drivers in the history of Formula 1. When Senna died, Prost had said that a part of himself had also died, as their careers were so bound together. Moreover, Prost is a trustee at the Instituto Ayrton Senna, set up by his sister Viviane in 1995, which has educated over 12 million underprivileged Brazilian children.