May 2004

Eleven-and-a-half laps to go, over half-a-minute in the lead, and the world’s fastest driver makes an elementary mistake at Portier, shaves maybe an inch too much apex. His right-front wheel clangs the barrier, jolts the steeling wheel from his hands. Shocked, Ayrton Senna stands on the brakes as hard as he can as he heads inevitably towards the exit barrier. He hits it Hard. Suspension bent, engine stalled, he climbs out, vaults the barrier, removes his helmet and balaclava. He stands there fora few seconds, taking in the enormity of his mistake. And then the tidal wave of emotion hits him. Hard. He turns on his heels and, head down, holding back the tears, makes quickly for his nearby flat in the Avenue Princess Grace.

Ayrton Senna at Monaco in 1988

Given the magnitude and depth of the battle he much later alluded to fighting that day, a psychologist might wonder about the significance of him making the most critical, high-profile mistake of his career within walking distance of his home, his sanctuary. Why, given all the circuits he raced on throughout the world, did it happen on that very corner? Was there, the psychologist might ask, an element of subconscious self-sabotage about Monaco 1988? And if so, why?

Don’t dismiss the idea out of hand. Nothing about Ayrton Senna was simple. In his world, spirituality and motor racing blended into the same thing: an intensely vivid experience where doors to other places became apparent, where worldly ambitions argued with higher forces. Never was it more apparent than at Monaco. In qualifying for that 1988 race, he had lapped at an extraordinary pace, got himself into a groove that was 2sec faster than Alain Prost in an identical car and he in turn was way faster than the rest. Ayrton later said that in those laps he’d found himself at a gateway where his driving had reached a higher plane, and he knew that if he went through it he would be yet faster. He didn’t understand the feeling, had never experienced it before, and suddenly had an uncomfortably vulnerable feeling. Rather than accept the invitation, he withdrew, backed off, returned to the pits.

Of course, Senna’s natural talent was of a rare strain. But more than that, he became the driver he was because of the force within him that stretched his every faculty to a mind-boggling extent. He was even greater than his natural talent. Monaco was the perfect track, maybe the only track, for showing this distinction. His unreal performances unfolded here in 1988, ’89 and ’90 — with Prost as the target, the enemy to be conquered. His wins of ’87, ’92 and ’93 were handed him by the problems of others.

The distinction between his routine brilliance and his inspired days was clearer here than anywhere else. Because Monaco demands a unique rhythm, if a driver can tune into it, it allows him to do extraordinary things: Stirling Moss in 1961, Jochen Rindt in 70. Learning the track is only the beginning. Beyond that, it allows a favoured few to form a relationship with it where normal rules are suspended. If any driver was ever going to exploit that, it was Senna — the shaman driver.

It began, of course, in 1984, with a guy in his fifth GP, a thunderous sky, a no-hope car and an impossible dream coming to life before your eyes.He was going to win that one, should have won that one; the rain had actually been heavier before they stopped the race on the very lap that he’d taken his Toleman past Prost’s McLaren for the lead. They backdated the result and so, officially, Ayrton was second. We all knew he had ‘won’, of course.

Yet he was driving with routine brilliance that day, not at the level he would discover in qualifying four years later. It had been a stunning drive, but actually it could be rationalised.

“Ayrton had an incredible feel for a car,” says Pat Symonds, his Toleman race engineer, “but the thing about Monaco was that we had tyre parity with McLaren for the first time. We weren’t being allowed the latest Michelins, but because it was wet there was no older-spec available.”

It was symbolic that Prost was the man Senna found himself hunting down through the spray. As the number one in the sport, the Frenchman was the obvious measuring gauge. Prost has said that this was the race when he realised Ayrton was more than ordinarily promising. But even he cannot have realised the scale of the challenge that he would come to represent, the precipices he would vault as Main found himself pulling up short.

But that was in the future, because for the next three years Lotus would not be able to provide Senna with the equipment to consistently take on the best. In 1985, he set pole in its 97T, 0.1sec up on Nigel Mansell’s ostensibly faster Williams. He led for a time, but was later passed by the Ferrari of an inspired Michele Alboreto. Shortly after, Senna’s engine blew. In ’86, he qualified his 98T only third, 0.5sec off Prost’s pole. He did Mansell at the start, ran a distant second but was leapfrogged at the pitstops by Keke Rosberg’s McLaren and finished third. His first Monaco victory came in the active-ride 99T of ’87, but only after Mansell retired from the lead.

Then came McLaren, the fastest car and Prost as a team-mate. Now Ayrton’s obsession was triggered.

“It’s true, he was obsessed by Alain,” says Jo Ramirez, then McLaren’s team co-ordinator and a close friend of Senna’s. “They actually had a mutual admiration of each other, but Ayrton came to McLaren and he knew he had to beat Alain.

“Alain was better at set-up than Ayrton, and when Main managed to get the car perfect he was unbeatable, even by Ayrton. But how many times do you get the perfect car in racing? One in 10, if you’re lucky? With a car that was not perfect Ayrton could change his style. And so more often than not he had the edge on Alain.”

Monaco was only the third race for this pairing: the perfect opportunity for Senna to stamp his dominance, a driver’s track where there are too many compromises for a car ever to be perfect There were stories that he was intent on lapping Prost, then a three-time Monaco winner. The humiliation would begin in qualifying.

“He approached qualifying like it was a religious experience,” says Jo. “I’d never seen concentration like it before. He got into a trance.” In the Thursday qualifying session Senna was fastest from Prost by 1,5 sec. Early on Saturday he recorded a 1 min 25.592sec when Prost was still in the 27s. Prost squeezed into the high 26s, and Senna circulating the track and in touch with the team by radio — responded with a lmin 24.439sec. This was beyond ensuring he was on pole. The enormous importance he set by not merely beating Prost but destroying him in this crucial early stage of their relationship seemed to trigger supernatural levels of performance from him. This was when those doors he didn’t quite understand began to open in front of him.

He came in, Prost continued lapping in the 27s. But, intrigued, Senna wanted one last run. “Ron [Dennis] said, ‘What’s the point? No-one can do it better than that’,” relates Ramirez. “And Ayrton said, ‘I can do it better’. There was some pleading and eventually Ron let him do it.” A couple of laps to find that groove again (there were no qualifying tyres at this time), then a lap of lmin 23.998sec and then the feeling of discomfort from forces he didn’t understand.

In the race Senna got away in the lead. Prost missed the shift into second, thereby sentencing himself to 53 laps behind Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari while Senna escaped. He led by 41sec at the 40-lap mark and then eased off, the back of the race broken. It’s conceivable he could have lapped Prost had he stayed on it, but if that ever had been his aim, for some reason he seemed to have reconsidered. Had his experiences in qualifying been life-changing? Had his race focus been disturbed by it? Did he believe, as some close to him claimed, that he was having a conversation with God about it all?

Whatever, the devastating error was triggered when Prost finally got by Berger and began setting new lap records. Alerted to this — and despite having no cause to respond — Senna went yet faster. “Ron was yelling into the radio. ‘Slow down, slow down! There’s no way he can catch you’,”says Ramirez. “Finally, he slowed. But going slow, quick, and then slow again disturbed his rhythm…

“He went [to the apartment] and wouldn’t speak to anyone. I kept calling and the Portuguese girl who looked after the place kept saying that he wasn’t there. I said I knew that he was there and told her to tell him that it was Jo on the phone. Eventually, at about 9pm, he came to the phone. He was still crying. He couldn’t believe it. He punished himself so hard.”

It was three years before he spoke about the accident, and his qualifying experiences, in public. He did so in an interview with Denis Jenkinson in Autocourse 1990-91: “I was doing it almost in a subconscious way. I could not really cope with that in a manner that I could find easy… I stopped. I never said anything to anybody, not until months later.” Jenks then asked Senna if he’d ever experienced the feeling since. ‘To that intensity, no. But in a lower level… There’s no need to go there any more. I know some of the reasons I went to that limit, because I wanted to do more and more, and better and better, which pushed me further and further. The desire to go further was so big…”

If he didn’t push his psychological limits quite so hard thereafter, it was not so noticeable to the naked eye in 1989 qualifying. His pole lap of lmin 22.308sec was 1.1sec quicker than Prost This was the first year Senna had raced a normally aspirated Fl car. His jabbing throttle technique — so effective in keeping up boost pressure in the turbo days — translated brilliantly.

“The normal technique on corner entry is to keep as smooth as possible,” explains Takeo Kiuchi, Senna ‘s Honda race engineer of 1990-92. “But Ayrton would use the throttle to put more torque through the tyre and change the yaw, a little bit each time. This way he could get a better trajectory before the apex without as much steering. When we did our simulations, usually the actual time a driver set was slightly slower than the simulation; with Ayrton, he was nearly always slightly quicker. That was because we couldn’t model what he was doing with the throttle and how it affected the car.”

Senna obliterated memories of the 1988 race with a brilliant win over Prost. He disguised the critical loss of second gear with 38 laps still to go by driving extra hard through the fast sections, thereby keeping his times level and not alerting Prost to his problem. As Senna relayed this in the press conference, Prost suddenly realised he could have won. His face dropped. This was one race on from their infamous Imola disagreement, and the relationship was distinctly frosty.

They had parted by 1990, with Prost now at Ferrari. But still he was the target, the man Senna continued to obsess about. They monopolised the Monaco front row, Senna 0.7sec quicker and going on to another start-to-finish demonstration. It was a similar story in ’91, Senna becoming the first man to win three consecutive Monacos from pole. In each of these early ’90s races he had nursed a sick engine home with around 15 laps to go — not that anyone outside the team knew it, so dominant was he. “I’ve never seen anyone so good at nursing a car,” says Ramirez.

In 1992, Mansell’s Williams FW14B was too dominant even for Senna to do anything about. But at Monaco Nigel picked up a puncture eight laps from home, pitted and rejoined just behind Senna. Even with the further grip advantage of new tyres, there was no way he was going to find a way by the McLaren as Senna defended perfectly for win number five.

Senna’s final Monaco win, 1993, was gifted him too. Prost’s superior FW15 was awarded a stop-go for a jumped start, and that left Michael Schumacher’s Benetton-Ford leading by 14sec from Senna’s similarly powered McLaren. Senna was driving with a painfully injured thumb, courtesy of a shunt at Ste Devote in untimed practice. Ramirez gives some background on this: “Ayrton was fantastic with the gizmos. With the active-ride car of ’93 he would raise its rear for less drag, then lower it again for the corners. Gerhard [Berger, his team-mate] said he didn’t even have time to see the road properly, let alone play with the settings. Anyway, as he came to Ste Devote, Ayrton went to lower it and the car stayed up — it was an engineer’s mistake.”

It looked like Schuey was going to take his first Monaco win and the echoes of 1984, the turning of the generations, were loud. But on lap 33 he suffered hydraulics failure, leaving Ayrton — unknowingly — to a victorious Monaco sign-off.

“Ayrton was extremely aware of Schumacher,” says Ramirez. “For Michael, Ayrton was the one to beat like Alain had been for Ayrton.” One race before Monaco ’94, that upcoming struggle came to a tragic, truncated end. “Michael was running away with the points. Ayrton was desperate, was driving the car [F W16] quicker than it was able to go. Michael knew Ayrton wouldn’t be able to keep that up for the whole race, and knew all he had to do was stay behind him and wait”

If you think back to Imola 1994, Senna’s words of his ’88 Monaco qualifying experience — “I know some of the reasons I went to that limit… The desire to go further was so big” — now have a haunting theme.