Not until the Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna’s eighth season in Formula One, after he had twice been crowned world champion and started five times in pole position in his home race, did he finally win the Brazilian Grand Prix. That victory came in 1991 and it was achieved in such difficult circumstances at the Interlagos track in São Paulo that Senna, a deeply religious man, claimed it was accomplished thanks to God.
In fact, Senna won the race thanks mostly to his nearly superhuman effort to defy what nature inflicted upon him and his McLaren Honda, especially in the final, excruciating laps.
For that reason, it is considered one of his greatest victories, as well as his most heroic moment, and remains one of the most memorable Brazilian Grands Prix ever. It started out looking as if Senna was going to have the easiest race of his career in Brazil. Leading from pole, he started ahead of Riccardo Patrese and Nigel Mansell in Williams-Renaults, Gerhard Berger in the other McLaren and Jean Alesi and Alain Prost in Ferraris.
As Ron Dennis, the McLaren team owner and director, said, at that point it should have been an easy victory. But Senna was more cautious. He had turned 31 three days earlier, on March 21, but had refused to celebrate, maintaining that he didn’t want to do anything that might compromise his chance to receive the best gift he could imagine: a victory in his home country. He had repeatedly encountered bad luck at the race in the past.
In 1986 he had finished second to his compatriot Nelson Piquet, in a Williams. In 1988 he had been disqualified for changing his chassis after the formation lap, and in 1989 he had been involved in a collision on the first lap. In 1990, while leading the race, he had an accident with a car he was lapping.
Not long after the start of the 1991 race, behind Senna one driver after another was having problems, starting with his teammate, Berger, whose car caught fire. Berger had to make a pit stop, where the fire was put out and he rejoined the race. Just as Mansell was furiously catching up to Senna, the British driver’s tires were wearing out and he had to make a pit stop on Lap 22. During the stop, he had a problem with the gearbox, and it seemed that his threat to Senna was dissipating.
But when Patrese, Berger and Alesi made pit stops, Mansell began to gain on Senna. But the Briton had to make another pit stop, on Lap 50 of the 67-lap race, after he had hit debris that punctured a tire. Upon returning to the track, Mansell again tried to catch up but spun off. He got back on the track but failed to catch Senna.
It now looked as if everything was in place for Senna to capture his first home victory. With seven laps left, though, he began having problems with his gearbox. Lap by lap, he lost gears, eventually being stuck in sixth for the final laps. As he managed the Herculean task of driving in only sixth gear, another trial was thrust upon him: It had begun to rain, and the track had become extremely slippery. Behind him, Patrese was gaining several seconds a lap. There seemed no hope for Senna. But then Patrese, too, had problems with his gearbox, while behind him, Berger, in third, was having throttle problems.
While all of this might have seemed enough to hand the victory to Senna, there was a final challenge, literally from the heavens. With two laps remaining, the sky opened up and the rain now came pouring down, making the track even more precarious. And then Senna crossed the finish line. He screamed like a trapped animal in his car as he realized that he had finally won his home race. He stopped to pick up the Brazilian flag from a track marshal, intending to wave it as he drove around the track. But he could not drive the car anymore, and he didn’t have the strength to carry the flag.
He was suffering muscle spasms in his arms and shoulders from the effort and the stress and needed assistance from the medical car to get out of his McLaren. When he was greeted by his father, who wanted to hug him, Senna said, “Touch me very gently.” As he made his way to the victory podium, he told several people not to touch him, as he was in such pain.
The Brazilian fans went wild over their hero’s first success on home soil in such apocalyptic conditions.On the podium, Senna managed to muster the strength to lift the winner’s trophy over his head briefly, powered, he said, by the energy and enthusiasm of the crowd.
“I only returned to reality when I saw the finish line,” he said. “Then I felt happy to be alive, to be in Interlagos, in my homeland and with my happy compatriots. It wasn’t the greatest victory of my life, but one where I gave everything I had.”
He went on to win his third and last drivers’ title that year. And having broken the jinx, he would again win his home race, in 1993. But the following year, on May 1, 1994, Senna died in an accident at the San Marino Grand Prix in Italy while driving for the Williams team.