Ayrton Senna came to Europe in 1981, at the age of twenty-two, to begin his open wheel racing career competing in British Formula Fords. He was already well known for what he had accomplished in karting. A portfolio which included the 1977 and 1978 South American Championship. He was also the Brazilian national champion four straight years, from 1978 to 1981.
Ayrton won his third ever car race at Brands Hatch on March 15th 1981, at the wheel of a Van Diemen RF81. By the end of the season he had established himself as the man to beat, winning the two prestigious national British Formula Ford titles.
In 1982 he graduated to Formula Ford 2000, competing in both the British and European Championships. Utterly and completely dominating the formula he won twenty-one of the twenty-seven races contested. That season Senna also had his first chance to race in a non-championship Formula Three race at Thruxton. He started from pole position and won easily.
At the start of 1983 several F1 teams were keen to bankroll Senna’s F3 season in return for an option on his services. He refused them all, choosing instead to maintain his independence and decide his own future. That year he drove for Dick Bennetts’ highly respected West Surrey racing team in the British national F3 championship. This partnership began with a formidible display of dominance as Ayrton won the first nine races of the season and duly took the title after a season long battle with Martin Brundle.
Bernie Eccelstone, well known as the commercial driving force behind F1s multinational television coverage, was in 1984 also the owner of the Brabham Formula One team. Eccelstone was keen to have Senna drive for him, but it never materialized. Instead Senna signed for the Toleman F1 team. While the Toleman team was neither a top team nor particularly well financed, it did have some talented people in it`s ranks. These included designers Rory Byrne, who went on to design championship winning cars for Benetton and Ferrari, and Pat Symonds, who succeeded with the team as it transitioned to Benetton and then eventually Renault. Towards the end of the 1983 season the team began to show some promise. It was only their third full season, but their TG183B design, in the hands of Derek Warwick scored points in the final four races of the season.
Senna was quick to realize this and even at this early stage in his career Senna knew precisely where he wanted to go and how he intended to get there. From the start of his relationship with Toleman he displayed a finely honed analytical mind. It was with two impressive point scoring finishes at Kyalami and Spa-Francorchamps that Senna and Toleman would arrive for the sixth round of the season at Monaco.
Qualifying had seen World Championship leader Alain Prost (McLaren) take pole position with Nigel Mansell (Lotus) second, ahead of Rene Arnoux (Ferrari), Michele Alboreto (Ferrari), Warwick (Renault) and Patrick Tambay (Renault). Senna qualified an admirable 13th.
Race morning was marked by steady rain and conditions were so bad that the start of the race was delayed for forty-five minutes. At the first corner Warwick and Tambay collided and were out. Prost led the opening lap with Mansell giving chase, then the two Ferraris. Senna and another talented rookie, Stefan Bellof (Tyrrell) who started 20th, made excellent getaways from the start and at the end of lap one were up to 9th and 11th respectively. Briefly Prost extended his lead over Mansell. His teammate Niki Lauda (McLaren) was also going well and by lap 6 had overtaken both Ferraris to move into 3rd place.
n lap 10 the Englishman’s Lotus was right up with the McLaren and on the following lap Mansell passed Prost for the lead. By this time both Senna and Bellof continued their steady charge through the field despite the treacherous conditions. Senna was 6th and threatening Keke Rosberg (Williams) for fifth, and Bellof was 8th immediately behind his compatriot Manfred Winkelhock (ATS). Leading a Grand Prix for the first time now Mansell began building a gap. The weather, however, continued to downpour unabated and on lap 16 when, going up the hill to Casino Square, with the power hard on, he touched the painted white line in the road with one of his rear wheels. The car flicked right, then left, before clouting the Armco barrier on both sides of the track. With his rear wing now askew and his suspension broken, Mansell tried to limp back to the pits but spun at Mirabeau and retired. By this time Senna had found a way past Rosberg and Arnoux. He was simply flourishing in the incredibly challenging conditions holding 3rd on merit and closing now on Lauda in second.
Within two laps of Mansell’s retirement on lap 19 he overtook Lauda to take second place and began to chase Prost, who was half a minute ahead. Five laps later Lauda crashed in Casino Square. As Senna chased Prost so attention focussed on Bellof who was up to fourth place from last on the grid. It was a mighty performance. On lap 27 Bellof blasted past Arnoux to take third place and set off in pursuit of Senna. As Senna closed on Prost so Bellof closed on the pair of them.
By lap 28 Senna had reduced the gap between himself and Prost by an incredible ten seconds, and it was at this time that Prost began gesturing to the flag stand to stop the race. By lap 31 was just seven seconds adrift, with Bellof inching ever closer to the Brazilian. But the world was denied the spectacle of one of these two young geniuses clinching his first victory in only his sixth Grand Prix, when red flags were produced, stopping the race.
Jacky Ickx who was the clerk of the course and a renowned wet-weather expert in his days in Formula One, found himself in the midst of a political storm as he was accused of deliberately stopping the race to ensure Prost won. In fact he did stop the race upon his own decision and did not consult the race stewards before doing so. Adding fuel to the controversy was the fact that Ickx drove for Porsche in sports car racing, and so it was insinuated that he wanted Prost, who was powered by a Porsche-built engine, to win. Ickx was later fined $6000 by FISA and had his clerk’s license suspended. Many people rightfully pointed out that the rain was falling as hard when the race was stopped as at any time in the afternoon.
It would have been truly mesmerizing to witness what would have happened if the race had been allowed to run it’s course, but unfortunately we are left only to speculate. Still this race marked the emergence of the new breed of racers in Formula One. Prost and Senna went on to become the dominant drivers of their era. But Bellof, who surely would have challenged them for that distinction, was killed in a sports car race at Spa-Francorchamps, ironically trying to pass Ickx’s Porsche through Eau Rouge, a little over a year later.
What might have been …