Ask any driver, past or present, team owner or hardcore fan who is the greatest Formula One driver of all time, you would be brave to put money against them saying Ayrton Senna.
Since his tragic death at the San Marino Grand Prix on 1 May 1994, the Brazilian has galvanised a legacy that will last forever. 65 pole positions, 41 Grand Prix wins and World Champion in 1988, 1990 and 1991 had already established his ranking as one of the all time greats by the time of his death.
But at just 34 years of age, and driving for the Williams team which had won the last two drivers and constructors championships, and also would go on to win three out of the coming four up to the end of 1997, it is feasible that Senna could have added much, much more success to his already superb record.
Granted, Williams started 1994 slowly and Senna experienced difficulties in finding a set up which he was comfortable with at all three races of his cut short season. The off-season banning of electronic aid devices had hampered Williams, but nevertheless Senna had overcome these problems to qualify on pole position in those first three races. Then came lap 7 of the San Marino Grand Prix, when Senna’s car slammed into a concrete wall, the Brazilian suffering a fatal skull fracture. His funeral brought Brazil to a stand still, and Formula One’s darkest weekend brought a flurry of safety changes for the coming races, with more in store for the 1995 season.
But lets take the 1994 season and Williams performance into consideration, the team fought back with development on the troublesome FW16. Moreover, Damon Hill rejuvenated the entire squad by taking the drivers championship right down to the wire in a tense battle with Benetton’s Michael Schumacher. Sadly for Hill it was not to be, but Williams won the constructors championship for the third consecutive year. Now, Senna throughout his time Lotus and especially at McLaren was known for his successful collaboration with his mechanics regarding the cars set up and performance, and given time, plus the already effective development undertaken by Williams and Damon Hill, Senna’s expertise may have helped Williams claw back their disadvantage even quicker.
Before the San Marino Grand Prix, Senna was quoted “We are here at the third round, and our championship starts here. 14 races, not 16.” A victory at Imola, with Schumacher following him home in second place being the most likely product, would have already seen the Brazilian take 4 points out of the German’s lead in the points, well that would do for a start. After Imola, the next round was Monaco, Senna had won six out of the last seven races held on the streets of the principality, surely the smart money would have been on him adding another to add to his tally.
Another point to take into account is the controversy regarding the Benetton team and Michael Schumacher in 1994, the German’s disqualification from the British and Belgian Grands Prix, plus his two race suspension from Italy and Portugal would have certainly helped the Brazilian’s cause in his quest for a fourth title. When Schumacher returned for the European Grand Prix, his lead had been reduced to just 1 point. Taking nothing away from Damon Hill who had done a brilliant job in his own right, but Senna was certainly capable of doing this and capitalising on Schumacher’s exclusion.
Furthermore, the 1994 Japanese Grand Prix (arguably Damon Hill’s finest performance of the year) was one of the wettest Grands Prix ever. However that would not have been a problem for Senna, historically his skill in the wet had been sensational; Monaco 1984, Portugal 1985 and Donington 1993 serve as fine examples. By that stage in the season Williams had caught up to match the performance of the Benetton and as previously mentioned, had they not suffered the agony of losing Senna early in the year, they may have done this sooner.
That, coupled with Senna’s sublime talent in the wet conditions would have put a great amount of pressure on the 25-year-old Michael Schumacher, which may have been too much for the German to handle at that stage in his still young career. Senna would only have used that to his advantage. In fact all of the above may have been enough to help the Brazilian secure the 1994 title before the final round in Adelaide, but lets say Senna and Schumacher went head to head for the championship with one race to go. In the real world, against Damon Hill, Schumacher showed signs of pressure all weekend, he suffered a heavy crash in Friday’s qualifying session. Then on lap 36 came the infamous collision which signalled the conclusion to the 1994 championship, details of this are lengthy but one interesting point is this, can you imagine trying a stunt like that against the no nonsense Brazilian hard man?
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and none of us will ever know exactly how the great man would have fared against Michael Schumacher, but it is great to imagine. Senna certainly had the experience, the talent and would later have the machinery to recover from his terrible start and overhaul Schumacher en route to a fourth World Championship.
With the 1994 championship victory going in Senna’s favour, it would have meant the Brazilian was firmly settled in to the Williams team. That would have paved the way for a brighter future. In 1995, the Williams FW17 was the best package on the grid, the team’s ’95 campaign was hampered by their drivers, Damon Hill and the inexperienced David Coulthard overdriving on more than one occasion, giving away vital championship points to Schumacher and Benetton. But a championship triumph for Senna and Williams in ’94 would have resulted in a major confidence boost going into 1995, that would be a great advantage at their disposal.
The Brazilian would have undoubtedly being the bookies favourite for the title, and a fifth championship would equal the record of the man whom Senna regarded as his own hero, Juan Manuel Fangio. 1996 was the year that Damon Hill finally achieved his dream of becoming World Champion, again the Williams was the car to beat, the all-conquering Williams FW18 won 12 of the 16 races that season. 1997, and more of the same, Williams Renault again the class of the field. Jacques Villeneuve took the title while Williams took their fifth constructors title in six years.
It is safe to assume Senna would have stayed at Williams up to that point, Renault were to pull out of F1 at the end of the 1997 season, which may have been a sign that it was time to move on for the Brazilian, but four seasons at the team could so easily have resulted in four successive drivers championships, bringing his total to seven. Who knows, we may have even become increasingly bored of Senna and Williams domination! Much like the Schumacher and Ferrari combination in the early 2000’s.
There is another interesting factor to contribute to how the remainder of Senna’s career would have turned out. The Brazilian believed Ferrari was the soul of Formula 1. Legend has it that Senna had held talks with Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo could have been the closing chapter of Senna’s career with Williams. For 1998, the Brazilian would be reaching 38 years of age and entering the final years of his career, though Senna had always maintained high levels of fitness. Furthermore, Nigel Mansell became champion at 39, so Senna would probably still of had a couple of years left in him. 1998 was also the period when Ferrari were just beginning to emerge as title contenders again, with the partnership of driver, Michael Schumacher and technical director, Ross Brawn. Had Senna joined Ferrari at that time, Ferrari would have had the greatest ever driver in Formula One, with a very strong package to offer.
Personally, I have no doubt that Ayrton Senna, who was approaching 40, would still have been at the top of his game even at that time. It would have been the perfect place to end his career, and the greatest driver of all time becoming World Champion with most iconic team in Formula One would surely have been a fairytale. Moreover by the time he retired, he would have won more World Championships than anyone else, won more Grands Prix than anyone else, scored more points than anyone else and may have even started more races than anyone else.