Ayrton Senna: a name that inspires confidence and pride, a tsunami in the deep, sifting ocean of motorsport history, rich in krill-like factoids which we consume daily. Without him, we wouldn’t just have increased concerns over safety, but we wouldn’t be shown man’s skill, pushed to the limit, on a series of lefts, rights, and straights. He is the one many people wish to become, the one that makes people believe that the road from rookie to three-time world champion is one filled with glory, success, and, most importantly, dedication.
Many see he’s the greatest Formula One driver, the greatest driver of the past thirty years, and one of the world’s greatest, if not, the greatest, driver to ever grace the podium, these assertions aren’t without sufficient quantities of information proving it, being evidenced, in just his Formula One career, by 162 race starts, with 65 of those being started in the pole position, 41 Grand Prix victories, and three world championships. His grand, celebrated life, however, ended at 140 MPH during the San Marino Grand Prix.
His work would be the asphalt on which many new drivers from a newer generation would use as a path to launch them into success, one of them being Michael Schumacher. Taking seven world titles, when he reached the amount of wins that Ayrton Senna had, such was his emotion that he teared up at the post-race interview, with his brother Ralf calming him. Another of Senna’s devout followers, Lewis Hamilton, has done well in ensuring that he puts all of his effort into his racing. There are some technological aspects that give him the advantage at Mercedes-AMG Petronas, yes, but his skill is undoubted.
This article chronicles his life, from cradle to carbon fiber grave, and his profound impact on the entirety of motorsport.
Ayrton Senna da Silva was born on the twenty-first of March in 1960 at the Pro-Matre Maternity Hospital in Santana, located in São Paulo, Brazil. His father, a wealthy Brazilian landowner and factory owner, was married to Neide Senna da Silva. He had an older sister, Viviane, and a younger brother, Leonardo. Early in his life, he showed great athletic prowess, mainly in gymnastics, and from an age of four, an interest for motorsport and automobiles was clear. At this age, he also had motor issues, mainly concerning those of his coordination, and whenever he would try to walk up stairs, he would fall.
This didn’t discourage him. At seven, he was able to drive his family’s Jeep, and he also learned how to change gears without the use of a clutch. He graduated from Colegio Rio Branco in Jardins, São Paulo, in 1977, earning a five for a grade in physics, with similar grades in mathematics, chemistry, and English. When he went to college, he went to a place that specialized in business administration, hoping to gain the skills necessary to continue to run his father’s factory. Only three months later, with his average grade plummetting to a 68 percent, did he drop out. Due to this, he was able to chase his passion for racing, beginning with go-karts. His father, who unquestionably supported his son’s decision to race, built his first go-kart, a homemade unit fitted with a lawn mower engine that produced one horsepower. He then began to race at Interlagos, entering a championship at thirteen. Despite being one of the youngest drivers on the grid, he was able to gain pole position and lead the race until one of his rivals collided with him, taking both of them out of the competition. One man, Lucio Pascal Gascon, realized the young Senna’s prodigious talent, offering to be his manager. After this, he was able to win the 1977 South American Kart Championship, and he would race in the Karting World Championship from 1978 to 1982, gaining second place in 1979 and 1980.
1981 would officially begin his single-seater career when he moved to England, piloting a Formula Ford 1600 sponsored by the Van Dieman team to victory in the RAC and Townsend-Thoreson Formula Ford 1600 Championships at 17 years old. Despite these successes, he felt pressured with having to return to Brazil and continue his father’s business. He stated that he would retire to return to Brazil, but he was offered ten thousand pounds to drive with a Formula Ford 2000 team. Upon this offer, he flew back to England, taking “Senna” as his last name in order to differentiate himself from other da Silvas. In 1982, he would win that year’s British and European Formula Ford 2000 championships, with sponsorship from Banerj and Pool financially supporting him.
Next year, he would drive in the British Formula Three Championship. Driving for the West Surrey Racing team, he crushed the competition in the first half of the season, but Martin Brundle, driving for Eddie Jordan Racing with a similar car, continually challenged him throughout the second half of the season. Senna would take the title at the final round, but barely; he would also win at the Macau Formula Three Grand Prix for the Theodore Racing Team through the use of a Toyota engine and Teddy Yip’s funds. Already at a developing level, Senna was showing incredible capabilities that were beyond the average, which would cause him to be recognized at a higher level.
Throughout 1983, Ayrton Senna became a test driver for Williams, McLaren, Brabham, and Toleman. He was made offers for testing in 1984 by Peter Warr, Ron Dennis, and Bernie Ecclestone, with these offers allowing him to eventually reach the driver’s seat, and when he tested for Williams at Donington Park, he was faster than everyone else, including the current World Champion from the same team, Keke Rosberg. He often requested to run a car before anyone else could, mainly because he wanted to use a fresh car for his own purposes. When he tested for Brabham, he was known by Nelson Piquet as a “São Paulo taxi driver” due to being two seconds slower than him. He would’ve gotten into Lotus if their title sponsor, Imperial Tobacco, wanted him, but they only wanted a British driver. A similar incident occurred at the Brabham team; delighted by his performance, Bernie Ecclestone wanted him as a second driver, with this being denied when the main sponsor, Parmalat, wanted an Italian driver. As a result, he would join Toleman for 1984, a relatively new team that used Pirelli tires that weren’t as competent as other teams’ tires. Driving alongside him was Johnny Cecotto, a Venezuelan, who was a world champion in Grand Prix motorcycle racing.
Ayrton debuted at the 1984 Brazilian Grand Prix in Rio de Janeiro. He qualified in seventeenth place, but he had the first retirement of that season when his TG184’s engine, a Hart 415, blew its turbocharger on the eighth lap. In his second race, the South African Grand Prix, he scored his first point for the World Championship, but he had severe muscle spasms, which also occurred at the Belgian Grand Prix, two weeks after the initial spasms.
The one time he failed to qualify was at the San Marino Grand Prix, where issues with the tires and fuel pressure led to this. Both cars from Toleman weren’t run on Friday due to an issue concerning Pirelli, as they were switching tire manufacturers from it to Michelin, and Saturday lead to the issues with fuel pressure. Since he was at Tosa, the furthest point from the pit lane, he didn’t have enough time to make it onto the grid with the issue resolved, leading to another lost chance to show his performance.
He was able to do this at the Monaco Grand Prix, which was the first wet-weather race that year. He qualified in thirteenth place, and from there, he was able to weave and dart throughout the pack, gaining second place when he passed Niki Lauda on the nineteenth lap. He was about to challenge Alain Prost, but the race was stopped on lap 31 due to the rain growing heavier than before. In that race, every lap, he would be four seconds closer to Prost, and he passed him when he stopped in front of the red flag before the thirty-second lap’s end. However, the positions were counted from the last lap completed by every driver, which meant that Prost would win because of his lead on lap thirty-one. This time, Senna would have to settle for second in his first podium victory.
In that season, he would take third place at two Grands Prix – the British and Portuguese, leading to ninth place in the Driver’s Championship, with him amassing thirteen points. Outside of Formula One, he finished eighth in the ADAC 1,000 kilometers of Nürburgring when he co-drove a Joest Racing Porsche 956 with Henri Pescarolo and Stefan Johansson, along with an exhibition race to celebrate the new Nürburgring’s opening, where past and present Formula One drivers drove identical Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16’s, and even though Alain Prost was on pole position, Senna took and maintained the lead on the first corner of the first lap.
Seeing the incredulous amounts of talent and talent that he had, Lotus invited the Brazilian into driving for them, but since he didn’t inform Toleman of his decision to drive in the black and gold cars in 1985, he would be temporarily suspended and wouldn’t take part in the Italian Grand Prix. Interestingly, he is the first driver that wasn’t signed without the personal approval of Colin Chapman, the team’s founder, who died in three years earlier. In his second round of the season, at the Portuguese Grand Prix, he took his first pole position in his career, and he would mold his first victory from it, with a large lead being granted due to very wet conditions that allowed him to lap everyone up to and including third place, which was being held by Patrick Tambay. Further proving his competence, he also set the fastest lap of the race, with the race being known as a “Grand Slam” for Ayrton.
He would finish in second at the Austrian Grand Prix, another time when he gained points, despite having pole position three times in the period between his points victories. He would also gain podium victories in his debut year at Lotus in the Dutch and Italian Grands Prix, and his second win would come at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, where, in rainy conditions, he triumphed. That year, he received fourth place in the Driver’s Championship, but it became apparent that he was alarmingly rapid in qualifying, taking seven pole positons, with their potential victories being taken not by the power of his 97T (which could produce over 1,000 and 1,200 horsepower in qualifying courtesy of a 1.5 liter turbocharged Renault V6), but by its subpar reliability.
The next year, he and his 98T would start his season well with second place in Brazil (behind Nelson Piquet’s Williams-Honda) and first place in Spain, taking victory from Nigel Mansell by a mere 14 milliseconds, but reliability, an ever-present issue with the cars of this era, especially plaguing the likes of Renault’s V6, became an issue in the second half. Ayrton continued to show promise in his eight pole position, with six more podium finishes that year and a victory at the Detroit Grand Prix returning him to fourth place in the driver’s standings with 55 points. After his victory at Detroit, he asked one of his supporters for a Brazilian flag, which he wove during a celebratory lap; this would become a ritual for him, with him waving it whenever he took first place. In this year, he also explored rallying, trying a Vauxhall Nova, an MG Metro 6R4, a Ford Sierra RS Cosworth, and a Ford Escort before the new year.
In 1987, Lotus would swap the Renault for a Honda V6, the kind used by the Williams team to take the Constructor’s Championship; this resulted in the inception of the 99T. While he took a podium victory at the San Marino Grand Prix, he would be ridiculed because of a collision with Nigel Mansell in that year’s Belgian Grand Prix. Afterward, an angered Englishman began to strangle Senna and needed to be restrained by Lotus’s mechanics. Despite this terrifying episode, he would take first place at the next two consecutive races, the Monaco Grand Prix (the first of six of his wins there) and the Detroit Grand Prix (the second victory at the Michigan circuit). The victory there also signified the first victory for a Formula One car with active suspension. The Williams cars, more experienced with the Honda unit than Lotus, then began to gain on the Lotuses, with Mansell and Piquet lapping both cars at the British Grand Prix. With Senna finishing third, he didn’t see a continuing future with the all-gold Lotuses, announcing that he would join McLaren in 1988. In Japan and Australia, he would gain second place twice, but his sweet success turned to sour torment when post-race inspections deemed that his Lotus’s brake ducts were wider than the rules allowed, disqualifying his result at the latter. Ayrton would gain third place in the Driver’s Championship with 57 points, six podium finishes, and one pole position. Throughout his final year with Team Lotus, he began to construct a relationship with Honda and its founder, Soichiro Honda, which would not only help with the creation and marketing of the Honda/Acura NSX, but also because McLaren secured a stockpile of Williams’s Honda engines for 1988.
With the approval of Alain Prost, McLaren’s two-time champion, Senna was allowed to join the McLaren team; this pairing would inspire a fierce rivalry between the two that would last for all of five years. Despite this, they would quickly recognize that in order to stay ahead of the competition, they would have to work together, primarily in testing. At the Monaco Grand Prix, Senna was quicker in qualifying by 1.4 seconds, leading the race until crashing on lap 67; understandably frustrated, he went to his apartment and didn’t speak with the team until he entered the pit garage as the team was packing up. The reason why he crashed isn’t truly known due to a lack of film for the incident, but Prost believes that it was due to clipping the inside barrier at Portiers, throwing his MP4/4 into the outside guard rail.
Prost would make a quicker start than Senna at the Portuguese Grand Prix, but Ayrton went into the first corner, passing him. Prost then tried to pass Senna, but the latter tried to deny it, almost causing the former to go into the pit wall at 180 MPH. Keeping the accelerator pinned, the Frenchman edged the Brazilian into the first corner, and even through he was angered by Senna’s rash behavior, he only received a warning from the FIA. Senna would ultimately apologize for this, but the largest incident would occur in the Italian Grand Prix.
With only two laps to go, Ayrton was five seconds ahead of Ferrari’s cars, with his McLaren being the only one on the grid because of Prost’s engine misfiring. Upon going into the Rettifilo Chicane, Senna got close to Jean-Louis Schlesser’s Williams, which caused the latter to steer wide to allow Senna room for lapping. Senna wouldn’t take the detour, ending with his car being T-boned and beached on a curb with a damaged rear suspension, allowing Ferrari to gain their first one-two finish at the Italian Grand Prix since Enzo Ferrari, the Scuderia’s founder, died. It would be the only race that the MP4/4 never won that year, and the Brazilian’s eight wins and thirteen pole positions would set new records, beating records set by Prost, Piquet, and Jim Clark.
1989 would lead to further conflicts between Prost and Senna in a psychological war of constant one-upmanship, with one incident involving Senna overtaking Prost at a restart of the San Marino Grand Prix, where there was, as Prost claims, a prerace agreement that told that Senna wouldn’t pass him. With victories in San Marino, Monaco, and Mexico, Senna took an early lead over his teammate, and in those races, he lead every lap. Winning also in Germany, Belgium, and Spain, reliability would clash with the Brazilian’s indomitable will, leading to Prost’s chances of taking the 1989 title becoming greater after victories in Phoenix, Canada, France, Britain, Italy, Brazil, and Portugal.
In the penultimate race of the season at Suzuka, Prost would take the 1989 title due to a collision with his teammate. He left the grid faster than the Brazilian through the removal of his MP4/5’s gurney flap, which Senna didn’t know about. Despite decreasing lateral acceleration, it increased Prost’s straight-line speeds, making passing him more difficult, but Senna tried pass him on the inside on lap forty-six. Prost turned right, causing both cars’ wheels to tangle and make both of them slide into the escape road. At this point, the Frenchman left the race, but Senna asked for a push-start from the marshals, which allowed him to take first place after passing the leading Benetton. He was disqualified, however, for the push-start, cutting the chicane, and crossing into he pit lane entry (it wasn’t part of the track). The consequence was a large fine and a temporary suspension of his Super License, and he feuded with the FIA’s president, Jean-Marie Balestre, over potential bias to give the championship to the Frenchman. Senna would finish with second place with six wins and a second-place result, with Prost leaving to drive with Ferrari in 1990.
1990 would give Senna, now driving the MP4/5B, six wins, two second-place finishes, and three third-place finishes, and there would be no intraspecific competition because of Prost’s switch to his former team’s rivals. In the season’s final quarter, Prost would return as a threat to Senna’s title again with five victories, with one of those being a one-two between him and his teammate Nigel Mansell at Spain. In the final two races, because of Senna going out in that race with a damaged radiator, there was only a nine-point gap between Senna and Prost; only two races remained.
At Suzuka, Senna would take pole position, and he asked for the organizers to assure that the pole position would be moved left onto the clean side of the track. After qualifying, however, the president, Balestre, denied the special request, forcing the Brazilian to start on the dirty side, favoring Prost, who, being second, was on the clean side. Senna would be further angered by a warning issued by the FIA that told that crossing the yellow line of the pit exit on the right wouldn’t be allowed. As expected, Prost went ahead of Senna, who then tried to pass the former at the first corner. Mashing the accelerator, Senna would crash into Prost at 170 MPH and spin out of the race, and, by default, the Brazilian became the world champion despite the ensuing controversy.
He would go on to become the youngest three-time world champion in 1991, taking seven wins and recording 60 pole positions from his 127 races. The danger that was the Frenchman retreated due to a downturn in the Scuderia’s performance; Senna would then downplay the MP4/6’s performance with the Honda V12, stating that it wasn’t as powerful as last year’s V10. This would turn out to be a lie as he swiped the first four wins from the competition, with them being astonished by his pace and, in a turn of fortune, the car’s reliability. Nigel Mansell was able to compete with him come the middle of the season, and, due to a jet-skiing accident before the Mexican Grand Prix, made several errors through the season. During the Spanish Grand Prix, Senna and Mansell would drive at 200 MPH down the main straight with mere centimeters separating them; Mansell would win this race.
Senna had the advantage in the beginning because of the Williams’s reliability issues and through his consistency and the car’s performance. Due to requests for a late-season performance upgrade, he was able to win three more championships, securing the championship at Japan once again when Mansell went off at the first corner and landed in the gravel trap. As a gesture of thanks for his support, Senna finished second behind teammate Gerhard Berger. It was at that time that Senna wished to move to Williams for 1992, but Honda’s CEO, Nobuhiko Kawamoto, requested him to stay at McLaren-Honda. He obliged, doing so out of his loyalty to the power of dreams. In 1991, he would also win the International Racing Driver Award, which was granted by the British magazine “Autosport” and awarded by Stirling Moss.
Ayrton would become frustrated with the MP4/7A’s inability to compete against the FW14 in 1992, especially when his determination to win pushed him into further exasperation. Due to a delay in getting the new car to run, it premiered in the Brazilian Grand Prix, and not only did it not feature active suspension, which the Williams had, but reliability began to curse Senna yet again and would be unpredictable in fast corners, with its V12 being underpowered on the circuit. In the Mexico Grand Prix, he hit a bump on the track, lost his downforce, and crashed into a concrete wall. The next day, he was able to race, but retired with a gearbox failure. Despite this, he was able to win in Monaco, Hungary, and Italy.
When Érik Comas crashed during qualifying at the Belgian Grand Prix, Senna would be the first to respond, disregarding his own safety to help his contemporary. Along with this, he would see him in the hospital, with this gesture of kindness gaining praise from his contemporaries, along with making him appear as a more personable driver. He would finish fourth in the championship that year, behind Williams’s drivers Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrease, and Benetton’s Michael Schumacher.
There were several questions that arose about the Brazilian’s plans due to his disappointment in that year. Ferrari offered him a contract, and Senna discussed it with Niki Lauda. However, he declined the offer, feeling that McLaren’s cars were not the benchmarks they were before, what with their powerful, reliable Honda engines being discontinued at the end of that year, and the lack of technological innovation and superiority, with them being overshadowed by the introduction of active suspension. At the end of that year, he secured an IndyCar testing session with his connection to Penske driver, Emerson Fittipaldi. He tested a Penske PC-21, which used a turbocharged Chevrolet-Ilmor V8, had a standard transmission, and was heavier due to its larger size. After familiarizing himself with the car, Senna set a best time of 49.09 seconds at Firebird International Raceway in Chandler, Arizona.
Upon returning to Formula One in 1993, he found that Ron Dennis failed to secure Renault’s V10 engines, and Senna wasn’t able to join Williams due to Prost joining and specifically instructing in a clause of his contract to veto any offer made by the Brazilian to join, even with his free offer to drive for them. Ignited by this tension, he openly called Prost a coward at the Estoril Circuit.
Due to a lack of an engine, McLaren had to settle for Ford’s V8 engines; they were two specifications behind that of Benetton’s. There were hopes to make it up with several technological innovations, including an effective active suspension systen, but even that would prove troublesome for the drivers. With this, Ron was able to convince Senna into staying.
The resulting McLaren MP4/8, while down on power, was, to Dennis, as fast as the Williams; cautiously, the Brazilian used a race-by-race contract for McLaren, staying for the entirety of 1993’s season. There was some promise in testing a Lamborghini-produced V12, but when McLaren signed a deal with Peugeot for the next season, Senna knew that it was impossible to stay. With the MP4/8, Senna was able to get second-place finishes in South Aftrica and Spain and first-place finishes in Brazil, Donington (which has been regarded as one of his greatest victories), Japan and Australia, but his winning streak at Monaco was lost when he received sixth place. His car suffered mechanical failures in Imola, Canada, Britain, Hungary, and Portugal, giving way to the Williams-Renault cars piloted by Alain Prost and Damon Hill. His win in Australia would be his forty-first and final Formula One career win and the last win for a Formula One car with an active suspension. It was a day filled with emotion, the day when he beat Prost one last time and concluded a five year journey to the top of the leaderboards with McLaren. At the podium, Senna allowed Prost to step onto the top with him, symbolizing a cooling of their heated rivalry. Senna would finish in second, with Prost coming first.
As promised, Senna didn’t stay with McLaren, but transitioned to Williams thanks to Prost’s retirement. Because of a lack of a world champion to use the first racing number, Senna was allowed to race with number two. Gone was the traction control, ABS, and active suspension of yore, and as a result, the FW16 was at an immediate disadvantage, seeing that he was close in the standings to Michael Schumacher’s Benetton B194. To quote Ayrton, he states that he has “a very negative feeling about driving the car and driving it on the limit and so on… Some of that is down to the lack of electronic change. Also, the car has its own characteristics which I’m [he’s] not fully confident in yet.”
This can be interpreted as fatal foreshadowing.
That season, Senna took pole position and had an early lead, but Schumacher took the lead for the rest of the race when Senna was pitting. After this, the Brazilian pushed too hard and spun when he was coming out of Junção on the fifty-sixth lap, stalling the car and retiring from the race. The car was on pole again at the Pacific Grand Prix, but after being beaten to the first corner by Schumacher, he was hit by Mika Häkkinen in the rear, with his race ending when a Ferrari driven by Nicola Larini T-Boned the FW16 while the car was spinning backwards into the first corner’s gravel trap. In the first two races, Senna didn’t score any points or finish any races even though he took pole position twice, with it being his worst start to a Formula One season. Desperate, he consulted with former Ferrari president Luca Cordero di Montezemolo on April 27, 1994, to see if Senna could ride a cavallino from the Scuderia.
On the first of May in that year was the San Marino Grand Prix, held on the “Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari” circuit in Imola. Believing that this would be where his season would start, Senna felt confident that it would be where he would win again, with only fourteen races to win his title.