In the summer of 1987 Ayrton Senna finally sealed a three-year deal to drive for the McLaren team from the start of the 1988 season. Former McLaren team driver John Watson found himself chatting with Senna about his prospects with McLaren during the summer of 1987. The conversation worked around to how Ayrton would handle competing alongside Alain Prost, by then in his fourth season with the team and already the winner of two World Championship titles.
Drawing on his experience of running beside Niki Lauda in the McLaren squad, Watson offered the young Brazilian his opinion that the best way to deal with Prost would be by stealth rather than by engineering a head-to-head confrontation. Senna listened politely, then surprised Watson by telling him that he had other ideas.
“He told me he would beat Prost by being fitter, more motivated and more dedicated,” Watson recalled later. “He said he would make sure he was in a position to drive faster, more consistently, and for longer than Prost could. He meant to beat him convincingly from the front, and I recall thinking, Well that seems a little optimistic.”
Alain Prost was indeed a potent and formidable adversary, not to be taken lightly. He had, after all, won two of the previous three World Championships and at that time he had won more Grands Prix than anyone in history. Beating him would never be easy and while it was fairly obvious that Ayrton had the natural talent to confront him within the same team, with equal machinery, overcoming the mental barrier of actually transcending Prost would prove to be the biggest hurdle.
As the cornerstone of his impending strategy Ayrton Senna made qualifying a speciality which no-one could hope to match in 1988, not even Alain Prost. Nowhere was this more clearly demonstrated than at Monaco where his pole position lap, the 19th of his five year career, was a scarcely believable 1.6 seconds faster than the Frenchman! To outpace a team-mate of Prost’s stature by such a margin was absolutely astounding and up until then … unheard of.
At Monaco, being on the front row can be a decisive advantage and Senna made effective use of his pole position. The Brazilian made a brilliant getaway while his team-mate faltered. Out of the Ste Devote chicane it was Senna … then Gerhard Berger (Ferrari) who had snatched second place from Prost. At the end of the opening lap, Senna had pulled out a 2.5 second lead.
Though Prost drew level with Berger several times under braking for Ste Devote, and even pushed his McLaren’s nose in front, his efforts looked fruitless, perhaps even reckless. When, at last, the Frenchman managed to wrestle second place from Berger, Senna was 48 seconds in front. Prost posted a couple of fast laps, but then when Senna responded with the fastest laps of the race thus far, Prost radioed to his pit and said that he would settle for second place.
“When they told me that Alain had overtaken Berger, I went faster for a few laps,” Senna would say later. Team chief Ron Dennis, then called Senna to inform him that Prost would not be trying to attack. Only a few laps later, Senna’s car bounced off the guardrail on the inside of the right-handed Portier corner and then smashed into the barriers on the outside of the corner.
He trudged away expressionless, numb and he went directly to his nearby apartment. There he promptly fell asleep without even calling his team. On reflection, he concluded that the accident had been his fault, for heeding Dennis’ advice and slowing down. “It was my mistake,” he said “by going slow I lost concentration.”
Given the fact that it was Senna’s avowed intent, when he went to McLaren, to prove to everyone that he was beyond doubt the next World Champion, the shock of Monaco must have been immense on his psyche. It would have buried the confidence of most, especially considering that on points, Alain now led Ayrton in the Championship 24 to 9 and making up a 15 point deficit on Prost would not be the work of a moment. Hard to believe as it was, but after only three of sixteen races, Senna may have already lost the 1988 World Championship at Portier that Sunday.
Ayrton, however, was never one to give up and it was belief in himself (to do even what seemed impossible) that would eventually make him one of the truly greatest racing drivers of all time. He was able to shake off the disappointment of Monaco and came back even stronger and more determined, winning six of the next eight races. As the calendar approached the Japanese Grand Prix, with only two rounds remaining in the Championship, Senna had trimmed Prost’s lead in the standings to 5 points.
In 1988 drivers counted their best eleven finishes towards the Championship and if Senna could win in Japan he would clinch the World Driver’s Championship no matter what Prost did. This straightforward scenario seemed to be perfect for Senna. He seemed to be created for such a task … grab pole, go faster than anyone and win. Ayrton duly took the pole at Suzuka, which was almost a given since, in the end, he would win the pole position in all, save three races, of the 1988 season. Prost joined him on the front row with Gerhard Berger (Ferrari) and Ivan Capelli (March-Judd) occupying the second row.
It was unfortunate that, amid the excitement and anticipation of the moment, the politeness of Suzuka’s efficient organizers was tested to the full by none other than FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre. His first gaffe was to send a letter to the president of Honda Motors reminding him (as if such were necessary) that both Senna and Prost should be provided with identical engines: “otherwise the image of the World Championship would be tarnished.” An ominous precursor to the behaviour of Monsieur Balestre, and an ironic choice of words, given how his actions would reflect on the World Championships of 1989 and 1990.
Politics aside, the stage was set then for the epic showdown that would decide the World Championship. However, moments after the start of the Grand Prix it seemed almost unthinkable that Ayrton Senna would win the championship in Japan. The benefits of his hard-earned pole position, evaporated when his Honda engine died. Prost whizzed by to grab the lead, while on the grid behind there were numerous heart-stopping moments as fast moving cars swerved around the seemingly stricken number 12 McLaren.
“It was the only start I missed all year – and it was the most important,” Senna would relate later. “When I dropped the clutch, the engine died, and then when I got it going, it did it again. I thought: I am going to have to drive as hard as I can, but it will be impossible to catch Alain.”
Senna’s car was fourteenth at the second corner, and one couldn’t help but recall his mental lapse at Monaco. Surely the situation he was in now was impossible. His vastly experienced team-mate was out in front, with the same dominant equipment and twelve competitors between them. After fighting so hard all season to put himself back into contention for the title it is easy to imagine how demoralizing this must have been. Any other drive would have mentally packed it in, but Senna was not like that, and as only he could, he began to fight back. By the end of the first lap he was eighth.
“I found my rhythm and started to go quicker and quicker,” Senna recalled. “Then some drizzle came, so everybody slowed, and that helped me.” Indeed in the slippery conditions Senna’s special brand of skill and daring brought him dramatically closer to his team-mate. Patrese (Williams-Judd), Boutsen (Benetton-Ford), and Alboreto (Ferrari) were all comparatively easy prey – it took three laps to dispose of them, but by then third placed Berger was 9.4 seconds in front.
The gap melted to nothing in five laps, as Berger did his best to stay within the limits of his Ferrari’s fuel gauge. Once past the red car, Senna’s sternest rival would be the excellent Ivan Capelli, who had taken his March past Berger on the sixth lap. At the moment when Senna started to cut into the margin separating him from Capelli, the Italian was giving Prost a hard time. For one glorious moment the sea-green March actually nosed in front of the McLaren in front of the pits, but his normally aspirated Judd just could not match the turbo-charged Honda and Alain maintained the lead.
Prost would not be able to resist Senna so easily. “Ayrton was very strong and motivated, and I knew it would be difficult,” said the Frenchman. “I had a good opportunity when he missed the start, and I controlled the race. Then I had some traffic – and also a gearbox problem – I was missing one gearshift maybe every two or three laps. I am very frustrated and it was disappointing that I lost maybe eight seconds in two laps compared with Ayrton. He overtook me when I had traffic.” Once in front of Prost, a jubilant Senna allowed the remaining 23 laps to tick away without effort. When a second rain shower damped the circuit in the last five laps, Senna victory was assured. There was certainly no mistaking his elation that he felt as he crossed the line, punching the sky with both arms, to win.
Ayrton had pulled off the unimaginable, with a stupefying performance. He won the Championship in the best possible fashion, beating the dominant driver of the day fair and square despite the huge obstacles that were thrown his way. After his victory at Estoril in 1985, he was given the nickname “Magic” and at the Japanese Grand Prix in 1988 he proved how appropriate that nickname truly was.
In the press conference afterwards, Senna was more open, more frank than usual. “I feel as if I’ve lost a great weight off my shoulders,” he said. “I feel very light and pleased. Many times people ask me which was my best race, and up until now it was always Portugal in ’85 in the rain, my first win. But this one is the best one now, for sure.”
“Generally, people don’t realize how hard it is for us to come from behind. There were so many back markers and they were so difficult.” As it happens, one of those who didn’t make it easy for Senna was Prost himself. The passing manoeuvre that gave Senna the lead, and with it the championship, took place as they passed the pits, Senna chose to pass on the inside, and Prost who occupied the middle of the circuit showed no readiness at all to concede. Senna completed the pass in the dirt.
Senna saved the biggest revelation for a question about his now celebrated mistake at Monaco. “I can talk about it now,” he said. “Monaco was the turning point of the Championship for me. The mistake I made in Monte Carlo woke me up psychologically, mentally, and I changed a lot after that mistake. And that gave me the strength and the power and the cool mind to fight on critical situations.”
“That was when I had the biggest step in my career as a racing driver, as a professional and as a man. I have to say that it brought me even closer to God than I’ve ever been, and that has changed my life completely.”
As much as the events during the Grand Prix reminded us of why we love Formula One, Monsieur Balestre’s bias and favouritism reminded us afterwards of how loathsome certain aspects of the series can be. On Sunday afternoon, having heard of Prost’s gearshift difficulties, he rang FISA officials at Suzuka to demand that the offending gearbox be stripped down. This led to the amusing sight of six FISA officials, none of whom knew the difference between a pinion and a potato, trying to make sense of dozens of gearbox parts scattered over the paddock tarmac.
In contrast to the deluded world of Jean-Marie Balestre, Ayrton Senna’s victory in Japan was something real. I truly admired him for readily admitting his shortcomings and making no excuses for his mistake at Monaco. It would have been easy to massage his ego with his eight victories, his thirteen pole positions or his world crown, but it was his ability to make himself stronger through adversity that made me respect him even more. Facing challenges seemed to unlock an even higher level of performance from him, and the more difficult the challenge he faced, the more inspired a performance he could deliver.
This was Ayrton Senna’s “Magic” … this is what made him special, this is what made him the greatest driver of his era.