Nineteen eighty-four saw the changing of the guard in Formula 1. Turbocharged cars had come to dominate the sport by the end of 1983, a sudden rise to prominence since their faltering arrival at the British Grand Prix in 1977.
More importantly, new talent flooded into the sport on the crest of a wave of new teams, sponsors and money. The driver situation was changing, too – and although, at the end of 1983, Niki Lauda remained the sport’s highest-paid star, the young hotshoes, led by Alain Prost and Nelson Piquet, had joined him to become F1’s principal players.
But it was the rung below that promised the most spectacular fireworks going into 1984. Toleman had signed Brazilian rising star Ayrton Senna, fresh out of Formula 3, to replace Derek Warwick as its lead driver for what promised to be an extremely exciting season. Why Senna? Everyone in the sport already knew he was good, and after a Titanic battle with Martin Brundle to take the British F3 title in ’83, many suspected he was great.
Before making the leap to F1, Senna tested for Williams and McLaren, with Ron Dennis offering a long-term contract, starting out with the role of test driver alongside Alain Prost and Niki Lauda for the 1984 season. But Senna wanted to race on his own terms, and plumped instead for a seat at Toleman. It was a risk for both team and driver, but the synergy of the partnership allowed both to shine.
Toleman was actually the perfect berth for Senna. It was an ambitious and young team – and, unlike the other grandees and garagistes along the paddock, had never run a naturally aspirated car in F1 since joining the grid in 1981.
The Toleman team was the brainchild of Ted Toleman – a keen adventurer with a love of offshore power boating and the Paris-Dakar rally – and Alex Hawkridge. Both were keen motor sport fans who harboured ambitions to run their own team. They joined forces to create Toleman Motorsport and in 1977 fielded a team ?in Formula Ford 2000. They soon moved into Formula 2, and even at this stage Toleman was talking about entering F1 by 1981.
Two more pieces of the Toleman jigsaw slotted into place in 1979. The team hired designer Rory Byrne, and chose to work with Brian Hart on the engine side. Toleman dominated European F2 in 1980, with Brian Henton and Derek Warwick taking first and second places respectively.
The transition into F1 was looking effortless, and the team’s entry was confirmed in November 1980. From the beginning, Toleman wanted to run turbocharged cars – at a time when the top UK teams McLaren, Williams and Lotus were still powered by Cosworth DFVs – and an aborted deal with Lancia led the team to work on a blown version of Brian Hart’s F2 engine.
But F1 was a sterner challenge, and the Byrne-designed TG181 was overweight, with Warwick and Henton struggling to qualify. The team continued to improve, however, and in 1983 made a breakthrough when Derek Warwick scored points finishes in the final four races of the season.
Senna’s rise in European open-wheeled motor sport had been no less meteoric. He learned his art in karts, driving them quickly from before the age of seven. By ten he was in higher-powered karts, though he couldn’t race legally until he was 13. Then the wins came easily: the 1977 South American Kart Championship; Karting World Championship runner-up in ’79 and ’80. Like Toleman, he took a huge step forward in ’81.
Senna moved to England to begin single-seater racing, taking the Formula Ford 1600 and 2000 championships in quick succession. And that led to his famous F3 battle with Martin Brundle in 1983 as the leader of Dick Bennett’s West Surrey Racing team. The championship looked as if it would be Senna’s in the first half of the season, but Brundle staged an impressive comeback in ?the second half of the year – and the title went down to the wire. Senna took it, but both drivers were on their way to F1.
Senna was soon testing F1 cars with a view to racing in 1984. Toleman’s commercial director Chris Witty recalled in 1990: ‘Ayrton had the TG183, the thing Warwick had been driving. He was instantly on the pace and ended up about a second quicker than Warwick had done in the Grand Prix. Rory Byrne the designer said “This is the guy.” He had the ability to know what a car was doing, know what he wanted a car to do and converse with an engineer. Rory said: “We’ve just got to have him.”’
That Senna was going to make it into F1 was beyond doubt, but who he was going to drive for was still uncertain during the 1983 closed season. Conversations were going on all over the place.
Beyond McLaren’s offer of a testing contract, there were potential race deals from both Lotus-Renault and Brabham-BMW. The Hethel team’s offer was serious too, with team manager Peter Warr keen for Senna to replace Nigel Mansell for the 1984 season. But strong performances from the British driver at the end of the ’83 season and pressure exerted by British sponsor John Player Special combined to leave Mansell in place, and no chance of signing Senna for the next season.
Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team also closed the door when its lead driver (and 1981 and ’83 F1 World Champion) Nelson Piquet vetoed Senna’s move into the team.
Toleman planned to sign either Senna or Brundle for 1984. ‘We couldn’t hire a superstar [too expensive] or even a current experienced driver on a minimum retainer – our cars wouldn’t get a fair showing in the hands of an average Formula 1 driver,’ said Hawkridge in 1990. ‘We had to go for young talent. We had to have someone good enough to progress the car, and we knew that Ayrton was capable of doing that.’
Negotiations between Senna and Hawkridge followed – it was now Senna’s only serious option for an F1 drive in 1984. Hawkridge again: ‘Senna said “If the car isn’t good enough, and if you stop me changing to another team, I will leave racing.” What do you say to a guy who says that to you?’
Despite Hawkridge having what should have been the winning hand, negotiations were all in Senna’s favour. They went on into the early hours of the morning: Senna would drive for Toleman in 1984, with the option to leave in 1985 should an offer be forthcoming from an outfit more capable of offering him a winning car. If that sounds like arrogance on Senna’s part, it shoudn’t – he simply had unshakeable belief in his own abilities.
Senna himself later said of the move: ‘Toleman was coming up, it was a new team. They really believed I could learn with them and do a good job. They were prepared to commit themselves a lot with me, so I felt it was the right thing.’
Yet Toleman was far from ready to introduce ?a new car for its new pairing of Senna and the Venezuelan former Theodore team driver Johnny Cecotto. Rory Byrne, who went on to design championship-winning F1 cars for Michael Schumacher at both Benetton and Ferrari, wasn’t about to rush his 1984 challenger.
The main issue was that the supply of engines – a fundamental part of packaging any F1 car – wasn’t settled until well into the TG184’s development. At one point it seemed BMW would supply the remarkable Paul Roche-designed M12/13 turbocharged four-cylinder that had taken Brabham to its 1983 championship. That deal foundered, leaving the team to continue its F1 arrangement with Brian Hart – and the Holset-turbocharged 415T was a very effective engine, given its limited development budget and Formula 2 roots. Over the closed season, it had been tweaked to give 600bhp at 10,750rpm, placing Toleman at a disadvantage of 80-100bhp compared with the McLaren, Lotus and Ferrari front-runners. It was reliable, though.
When it finally appeared the TG184 looked radically different to the TG183B, its predecessor. Although based on a similar carbonfibre monocoque, Byrne’s new baby boasted a totally different aerodynamic package, thanks to considerable wind-tunnel work. A 4in longer wheelbase meant the striking double rear wing could be revised with a cleaner style, while at the front was a much sleeker nose section. The result was a 25% improvement in downforce, with no additional drag. It was good-looking too, far more convincing than Toleman’s previous boxy efforts.
In the meantime Senna had been delivering his promise to wring 100% from the old car – and although he retired at his season-opening home race in Brazil, he followed that with points finishes in the next two races, ending up sixth in both South Africa and Belgium. He had already established himself – and Toleman – as serious players. Failure to qualify in San Marino (tied to the team’s decision to switch from Pirelli to Michelin tyres mid-season) and a retirement due to a blown turbo at the new car’s debut in France were a comedown, but things were looking bright for the team. And then came Monaco…
Racing in the Principality was becoming an increasingly difficult challenge in the 1980s, its impossibly tight bends and cramped pit and paddock at odds with the ever-expanding circus and cars running 800bhp and more in qualifying trim. Piquet once compared racing there with riding around his flat on a motorcycle.
But during an era in which being in the best car meant so much, here was a circuit where the driver really could make the difference. And Senna knew this. Practice and qualifying days were blessed with the best weather the Côte d’Azur had to offer and Senna placed his car 13th on the grid, with a time of 1.25.009 – 2.4sec behind pole-sitter Alain Prost in the McLaren-TAG MP4/2. Clearly there was still some work to do. Cecotto was five places and 0.8sec further back.
But come race day, the storm clouds blew in and turned the glamorous Principality into a water-park – and that tortuous 2.0-mile ribbon of tarmac is difficult to overtake on even when it’s dry. Yet amid the spray thrown up by 20 determined racers, Senna sensed an opportunity.
At the green Prost kept the lead, but as the drivers bedded themselves into the changing conditons, some started probing and pushing. Ever the opportunist, Mansell grabbed the lead from Prost on lap 10, but pushed too hard – possibly from the excitement of leading his first ever race – and crashed hard into the barrier five laps later, after losing control on a white line. He was not alone. Warwick, Tambay, De Cesaris, Fabi, Piquet, Patrese and Lauda were all big names claimed by the Monaco storm. Senna, though, was gaining confidence with every passing lap, and Alex Hawkridge acknowledged that the tyres played a part in this.
‘We were supposed to be running on year-old Michelins, but they didn’t have year-old rain tyres.’ That put Toleman on rubber parity with the front-running McLaren team. And this helped Senna in his pursuit of a car that only the day before had been 2.4sec per lap quicker. In truth, its driver was making all ?the difference.
At the end of lap one, he had picked his way though the first-corner carnage and found himself in ninth position. And as a result, the driver with an other-worldly ability to feel his way around ?a wet track was beginning to press on.
Remember that Monaco – even in perfect conditions – is near-impossible to pass on, and the scale of what came next from Senna in the churning spray is all the more remarkable. On lap three, he passed Jacques Laffite; on lap seven, he overtook Manfred Winkelhock; and on lap nine, he was into the points and sixth position, when Ferrari driver Michele Alboreto spun.
So the Senna tidal wave continued. After rapidly catching the 1982 World Champion ?Keke Rosberg in the Williams-Honda, Senna audaciously overtook the more powerful car, outbraking it while clattering into the chicane after the tunnel. And that was fifth place. On lap 14, he passed René Arnoux to take fourth, which became third when Mansell crashed out.
That left only the two McLarens ahead.
On lap 19, Senna passed Niki Lauda and, as he crossed the line, now classified in second place, ?only Prost remained ahead, some 34.355sec up the road.
What happened next was remarkable. Senna set about catching Prost, and in the worsening conditions, did just that. With every lap he slashed into what should have been an insurmountable lead – sometimes by more than four seconds per lap. Prost knew that Senna was coming, and coming fast. By lap 29, with the weather visibly worsening, and his lead now down to just over ?15sec, the Frenchman began gesticulating wildly (not for the race to be stopped, as many people think, but to tell his mechanics that his brakes were vibrating) as he crossed the line.
And it’s here that one of Formula 1’s greatest-ever controversies – and might-have-beens – was born. Without consulting with the FISA officials present, Clerk of the Course Jacky Ickx ordered the race to be stopped, believing that the conditions were too dangerous for it to continue. As Prost arrived at the start/finish line at the end of lap 32 to be greeted by the red and black flags, Senna came sweeping by into what he thought was the lead.
Prost, of course, was quickly made aware of the true situation – that the result would be taken from the end of lap 31, when Senna was still three seconds behind. The Brazilian, in the meantime, punched the air as he completed his slowing-down lap – thinking he’d won in Monaco.
But he hadn’t, and his face – a mixture of anger, confusion and elation – revealed his inner feelings as he took his trophy on the winner’s podium. ?‘I was very, very angry because we were almost leading after a very hard race, and suddenly it was stopped,’ he said the following weekend. ?‘I believe we could have won. After some time reflecting, I thought it was a fantastic result because of the way the thing developed. I probably got more publicity than if I had won.’
And that’s exactly what happened. Senna had arrived, he’d made his mark and, along with Toleman, he was now a force in Formula 1. Senna and Toleman never came close to winning together again, although podium places in the British and Portuguese Grand Prix races were remarkable achievements, given where the team started out at the beginning of the season.
Senna went on to win three championships in 1988, ’90 and ’91 with McLaren; Toleman ?became Benetton F1, and eventually scored two championships in 1994 and ’95 with Michael Schumacher. But we’ll never know whether the F1 guard could have been changed a whole lot sooner, had the red flags not come out, and had Senna won in that Monaco storm.
source: © classicandperformancecar.com