Senna won in Monaco six times, the most successful driver at the race which celebrates its 90th anniversary this year. He won in 1987 for Lotus before taking five consecutive victories between 1989 and 1993, all for McLaren. The one that got away was 1988, and it was in his hands, not least because their car that year was the all-conquering MP4-4, technical director Gordon Murray’s remarkable feat of engineering that would win 15 of 16 races that season.
Senna took pole in 1988 with a sublime lap he later described as almost not driving consciously, operating wholly on instinct. He was 1.427sec in front of his teammate Alain Prost, a startling differential. On race day, he flew into the lead and had a 55sec advantage on Prost on lap 67 when a momentary lapse of concentration saw him spin into the wall at Portier. He climbed from the car and walked straight back to his home in Monaco, not contacting the team until that evening.
Murray remembers the weekend well and just what Senna had done to put in that breathtaking lap. “Everybody was stunned at his qualifying,” he says. “Everybody. Even the team who were used to him. Success at Monaco in particular is absolutely proportional to the courage. It’s precision and courage. Commitment on the braking points and placing the car on the apex. Qualifying was a combination of those two things.”
Murray, who grow up in South Africa and came to the UK to work in car design, made his name at Brabham in the 1970s and early 80s with his innovative and advanced, often revolutionary cars. In the team run by Bernie Ecclestone and on a shoestring budget Murray returned wonders, with Nelson Piquet taking two titles for them in 1981 and 1983. Then, persuaded by McLaren to become their technical director in 1987, he had the resources to make an indelible mark. He was in charge for three drivers’ and constructors’ titles in a row before stepping away from Formula One at the end of the 1990 season. McLaren and Senna made it four in 1991.
Murray tells his story in great detail in One Formula – 50 Years Of Car Design, which has just been published by Porter Press. Remembering his time at McLaren before this weekend’s Monaco GP he recalls the relationship he developed with Senna.
“We became good friends,” he says. “Although he was very intense about his racing, he was relatively quiet and almost religious sometimes outside the racing. We trusted each other and worked together very well. He loved setting the car up for qualifying. I would manage the session. We had a very simple system of me standing up on the wall with a stopwatch and watching for gaps to send him out.”
In 1988 at Monaco it worked to perfection and Senna was untouchable that weekend until that single lapse during the race. The mistake shocked Murray but Senna’s reaction did not.
“I knew Ayrton well and he would have been so angry with himself because his concentration and his precision and dedication was so intense,” he says. “To do something like that would have destroyed him completely. He didn’t want to face the team but not through embarrassment. I have told drivers: ‘If you do crash the car don’t come back to the pits because I don’t want to see you.’ Drivers who do that a lot don’t want to face the team but not Ayrton. He would have been so upset with himself he would have wanted to contemplate that. He was that sort of guy.”
It is 25 years since Senna was killed at Imola in 1994 and this week the sport had to deal with another great loss when Niki Lauda died on Monday at the age of 70. Lauda won at Monaco twice during his career and more than understood what an achievement it was. He said his qualifying lap for pole here in 1975 left him trembling at its conclusion. Lauda will be honoured in tributes before Sunday’s race and with a minute’s silence on the grid. He drove for Brabham in 1978 and 1979 and Murray mourned the loss of “a good friend, a remarkable individual and a talented driver”. He was, like Senna, a driver Murray says was able to extract more from a car than seemed possible.
“I have worked with several drivers that are so calculating they can see in their mind how much quicker they can go,” he says. “Niki was one. He went out in one qualifying session and did a good time, came back in and said: ‘That’s as quick as I can go.’ Then he sat in the car and after 15 minutes told me he thought he could find another half a second. He put another set of tyres on and did it. He had gone through the lap in his head and found the time. Ayrton could do that, the guys who are that good can do that.”
The remarkable career of Murray, who is now 72, reached extraordinary heights of technical and engineering achievement but when he considers Monaco 1988, his relationship with Senna and his untimely death, it is the man at the heart of the machine he remembers. “Ayrton wasn’t just a sporting loss,” he says. “I had lost a friend; it really, really hurt.”