As McLaren team principal, Ron Dennis worked with Ayrton Senna for six of the most fruitful seasons in the Brazilian’s illustrious F1 racing career. Under Dennis’ watchful eye, Senna won 35 races, claimed 46 pole positions and achieved all three of his world championship crowns.
Twenty years on from Senna’s untimely death, Dennis – now the McLaren Group CEO – reveals some of his favourite stories of working with one of Formula One racing’s most beloved drivers…
On Senna turning down McLaren’s support in 1982
“I can’t remember what he was asking for, whether he was asking for an option, or for an F1 test drive, but I said to him if you give me an option, I’ll pay for your Formula Three season. But he made it very apparent, although not rudely, that he was not interested.
“He had the ability and he wanted to be independent. I liked that – well, I didn’t exactly like it, but I did respect it. When he tested for us in 1983 I thought to myself, ‘I might just give you a bit of a comeuppance, so I won’t be too impressed with what you do in the car. Even if I think it, I will not tell you.’ Anyway, we didn’t actually have a seat available at the time, so playing it down (his test performance) was much better than playing it up.
“When he tested he came across as very arrogant because he was very keen to get an advantage, and he was making quite sure that the car wasn’t damaged by the other youngsters, and was he going to have fresh tyres etc. He was clearly impressive, no question, but he was still young.”
On Senna instigating joining McLaren…
“All great drivers realise the importance of the team, and don’t just wait but facilitate securing the drive. Ayrton put out the feelers: he saw the team was very competitive and made it very clear that he wanted to join. He reached out and said maybe he could convince Honda to come, and of course that opened the door and I engaged with Honda. Niki (Lauda) had pretty much decided to stop, so there was an attraction for the driver and for the engine. That was when I realised Ayrton as an ally was very useful – he was very politically astute.”
…and Prost’s reaction
“We had to do the announcement in the Phillip Morris facility outside the paddock at Monza, and I had the chance to look at people’s faces. It was the first time I could see Alain was pensive about whether it would work. He had achieved ‘number one’ status in the team and suddenly had this young guy whom I am sure he had every knowledge of. Alain was fine with the competition, but deeply suspicious too. He said, ‘Let’s just wait and see – this is going to be difficult’.”
On initial dealings with Senna and Prost
“I knew we would have a handful with these two drivers, and that we needed to be explicit about what we expected of them. I remember thinking, as I started to explain this to them, ‘these guys are not listening’. But on the third time of telling there was absolutely no doubt and they went into shock and went away to talk about it. They came back and ganged up on me and said I had been unfair and aggressive – that this was not the behaviour they expected. And I said, ‘no, you have both communicated your concerns about having such strong team mates, and the only way this will work is if the team comes first. We will give you equality: Alain, I will ensure you get equality from Honda, and Ayrton, you will get equality of the car and everything, but your behaviour is critical.”
On a million dollar coin flip
“Ayrton had a pretty healthy appetite for money. We started to butt heads on money, half a million, and couldn’t agree, and this got really tense – it was becoming relationship-threatening. Everything had to be black and white for him and the concept of chance didn’t enter his psyche, so I said let’s flip a coin. He completely lightened up; this was fun. After a bit of a debate about who would do it, I flipped the coin and won the bet. What neither of us had twigged at the time was that it was a three-year contract, so it was a $1.5 million flip. I know it has been seen as a total disrespect for money, but in fact it was a great respect because it was the only way to break our log jam. After that, everything cascaded and off we went.”
On Senna’s stunning qualifying lap at Monaco in 1988 when he finished 1.4s faster than team mate Prost…
“When Ayrton explained that lap to me, he went into the surreal: he would claim, possibly accurately, that he was almost oblivious to everything, that everything he did was intuitive and unconscious. It was at that point, when he was trying to explain how he did it, that Prost started to infer that he was only achieving these things with great danger, and that he accepted that danger because he felt God was protecting him. But in reality he was just a phenomenal racing driver.”
…and on Senna subsequently crashing out of a dominant lead on race day
“It was a lapse in concentration. We were trying to slow him down, and effectively when you back off in a racing car you lose focus. It was just a lapse, nothing else. He was so angry that he did something really uncharacteristic: he didn’t come back to the pits, but went to his flat. He just walked through the circuit and went and sat in his flat. He didn’t appear again until later that evening. He was so angry with himself.”
On Senna and Prost’s intra-team battles to have the best engine
“There was a degree of obsession with Ayrton and Alain over engine selection. In the end there were three engines, Honda would recommend two they thought we should race, and then it came down to a coin flip. Two people had to witness it; it was an internal drama, but it was clearly the easiest way to make sure there was no favouritism.”
On Senna and Prost’s rivalry igniting at Imola in 1989 when the Frenchman claimed the Brazilian broke a pre-race agreement not to overtake at Tosa on the first lap
“They broke each other’s confidences: they were both to blame. They made commitments to each other several times – it was just this came into the public domain. There was tremendous tension and anger.
“I’m not proud of this story, but they were testing at Pembery [in the aftermath] and I flew up. I’m no pussycat, and I reduced both of them to tears. Psychology-wise, if I could force them together by making me the bad guy, then they wouldn’t be hostile to each other – they would join up and say, ‘isn’t Ron being tough?’ It is a delicate thing to get right. Of course it was much easier with Alain and Niki, because the deviousness was less with Niki and Alain. These two were perfectly matched in deviousness. They played every game: they played the national press, they would go to Honda, lots of things. It was challenging.”
On appealing for Senna, and against Prost, at Suzuka in 1989. After surviving a mid-race tangle with Prost, Senna won the race only to be controversially disqualified for using an escape road to re-join the track
“I was appealing more against (FIA president) Jean-Marie Balestre (than for Senna), because that was just the French hooking up, as simple as that. Ayrton was stationary for so long, and then did a lap with the nose hanging off, that there was no gain on the competition. He was waved through the road by a marshal with a yellow flag – that was one of the things I pointed out. He set lap record after lap record and ended up winning, and all the while Alain is trying to convince Jean-Marie. The rule was you had to enter the circuit at the point you exited it. Consequently that was the debate: there were a few other things but they were thrown by the wayside. I was obviously emotional because it was such a stitch up. We had footage of so many incidents where cars had left the circuit and re-joined successfully.”
On Senna wanting to retire at the end of 1989 as a result of his Japanese Grand Prix disqualification
“He retired – he wrote a note that he wasn’t going to race next year. He festered away for a month or two after the last race, and phoned me up and said he wasn’t going to race anymore; that this motor racing world was unjust, not fair, amoral. I told him to calm down. His sister was always extremely influential in guiding Ayrton. I obviously spoke to her and his father and really the key was in the end I kept saying to him, ‘if you stop, they’ve won. This is exactly what they want. You are not winning if you stop, you are losing.'”
On Senna’s relationship with Prost improving in 1990, after Prost left McLaren for Ferrari
“In many ways when drivers find themselves out of conflict within months they are best friends, because they are not in each other’s immediate vicinity or competing in the same team. It makes sense not to be in conflict with drivers when you are going wheel to wheel – it is much better if there is mutual respect when you are racing closely.
“I don’t know if people realise that it is only possible for drivers to be close to each other, to be racing aggressively, when there is mutual respect. When you are racing against someone you don’t have respect for you give them wide berths because you don’t have any trust for their judgement. So there was always respect, but he was more than happy for Alain to leave the team.”
On Senna’s infamous first-corner crash with title rival Prost at Suzuka in 1990
“I looked at the traces (from Senna’s car), the brake and the throttle pedals, and you didn’t need to be Einstein to work out what had happened.
“He came back to the pits, and I said, ‘I’m disappointed in you.’ He got it. I didn’t have to say any more. It was one of his rare moments of weakness. I don’t think it was anything that he was particularly proud of, but it was the finishing touch when pole position was on the wrong side of the road.
“He said, ‘there’s no way I’m able to get to that first corner first. If I get to that first corner and I’m not able to get through, I won’t be exiting it.’ It wasn’t a great moment, but he had very few lapses in his life and he was an incredibly principled person – a great human being.”
On Senna finally scoring a home victory in Brazil in 1991…
“As a Brazilian there was a degree of ‘mechanism’ about it – he understood that winning in Brazil would be good for him; it would optimise his commercial position and make him an even greater hero. He had a very strong sense of value, but he was passionate as well. Of course, the crowd went berserk and everybody got caught up in it – but to me it was just another race, it just happened to be in Brazil. You know, people very often ask, ‘what’s your favourite race?’ and I always answer, ‘the last one we won’. So it was very important to him, but it was just another race to me.”
…and then struggling physically on the podium
“All racing drivers want to feel part of the car, to such an extent that they don’t want to move; they try to lock themselves in. In Brazil (in 1991) Ayrton cut his circulation to his upper body by tightening the seat belts so much, and that is why he subsequently was in a lot of pain on the podium.”
On Senna’s tolerance for pain
“I remember in Mexico (in 1991), Ayrton made a rare mistake and inverted himself into the gravel trap and the car was upside down and no one really knew how he was. He was taken to the medical centre and I could hear him screaming with pain.
“Sid (Watkins, F1 doctor) came out of the medical centre with a smile on his face. I said, ‘how is he?’ and he said, ‘he’s fine, he’s not hurt. He’s just a little shaken up’. I said I had heard him scream, and he said he had a big stone stuffed in his ear, where gravel had gone right up his helmet and into his ear and was giving him a lot of pain.
“His pain tolerance was an interesting part of his make-up. He had a degree of tolerance when he was driving, but less so when he wasn’t. He was very conscious of pain outside the car.”
On Senna’s dedication to physical fitness
“Niki Lauda started realising post-accident how important fitness was, but Ayrton took it to another level. He knew very well that if he was super fit he would be a better racing driver.”
On team mate Gerhard Berger’s influence on Senna
“Gerhard gave me the perfect weapon to deal with Ayrton because he brought humour into the team. I would say the concept of telling a joke and Ayrton laughing was not even possible before Gerhard arrived, but then that created a massive ice breaker.”
On managing Senna as the competitive advantage ebbed away from McLaren and towards Williams at the end of 1991
“If you’re experienced and you know your driver, you know what levers to pull, what to say, how to say it, when to say it etc. If you do a lot of winning together you’ve got to be prepared to do a bit of losing together. Ayrton won 40 percent of all the races he started for McLaren, better than one in three, which is a tremendous statistic. But at the same time he would always wrestle with not being competitive.
“There was a menu of things I would say to him. If I got really frustrated I’d say, ‘If we weren’t paying you so much we could spend more money on the car – Frank (Williams) is not paying his drivers a lot of money.’ And then he would say, ‘Yeah but you don’t have to be paid a lot of money if you’ve got a competitive car.’ Then I’d say, ‘Hold on a second, let’s go back to the fact that this is how much I’ve paid you over the last three years – if I was spending that on the car…’ We’d go round and round. There were lots of levers you pulled.”
On his fondest memory of Senna
“He gave me an envelope once – his own personal stationary – and I’ve still got it at home. When he gave it to me it had $10,000 in it for a bet that I couldn’t eat a container of chilli in Mexico. Before he could pull the bet back, I wolfed it down. It was the fourth time that he’d lost a bet, and a big one at that. I can remember him giving me the envelope and saying, ‘I’m never going to bet with you ever again. You have got me into betting, and it’s not a good thing to do!’
“It’s my fondest memory for two reasons: To get a smile across Ayrton’s face wasn’t easy, but to get him to part with money with a smile on his face was even more difficult! It was great moment – but I paid for it a couple of days afterwards!”
On Senna having second thoughts about moving to Williams in 1994 towards the end of the 1993 season
“He was hovering, he was really hovering. But he said, ‘I’ve signed a contract.’ I said the one thing about (breaking) a contract is you’ve got to prove loss, and anyway I’ll underwrite anything if there’s a problem. And he said, ‘Well, I’ve made a commitment.’ But I had him on the hover on the night of the race (Australia 1993, the final round of the season).
“As we approached our last race together I could see Ayrton was wrestling with loyalty because he was leaving the team. And as disastrous as our Peugeot experience was (in 1994), the moment we had factory engines from Peugeot – which was after he left – he phoned up and said, ‘If you’d done that two months earlier, I’d have stayed’. He just could not see a way to win without having a factory engine.”
On why Senna is considered by so many to be the greatest F1 driver of all time
“I think it’s because he was so good for all of the period he was on the planet. I can see no positives in the fact that he had an accident and lost his life, but what you didn’t see is any decline. You remember he was just unbelievably competitive and then, boom, he’s not there.”
On what he misses most about Senna
“The fun we used to have. Most of the time it was only Gerhard (Berger), Ayrton and myself (involved in practical jokes), but occasionally a trainer would get roped in. Most people would think I’d remember the winning. But no – that was just doing our job. It wasn’t the thing it was all about.
“It wasn’t just that we were having fun, it was the sophistication of the fun. What do I mean? Well these practical jokes used to get to such fever pitch.
“I remember after dinner (during a Grand Prix weekend), when one of our group got back to his hotel room, there was nothing in it. Literally nothing – no furniture, no clothes. Nothing. These kind of things are the things I remember the most – the laughter and the fun.”
On Senna’s enduring influence
“I raised my game because I could see the commitment he brought to his driving. Like any team situation, if someone demonstrates that you can try even harder, then you do. He showed what he was prepared to do to achieve his objectives.
“He raised my game because I think that you try to be as good as the person you are with. I liked his principles – they played to my strengths. He changed Formula One because he raised everybody’s game.”