A Prague art studio uses incredible technology and obsessive attention to detail to illustrate Senna’s legendary pass at Imola in 1988.

Jan Rambousek finally found the moment: Ayrton Senna’s McLaren MP4/4, screaming down the back straight at Imola, passing Nelson Piquet in a flash through the Alta curves.

The year was 1988. Piquet, then Formula 1’s reigning champion, had a front-row seat to history. Those seconds at the San Marino Grand Prix, where his third-place Lotus was lapped by Senna’s McLaren, foreshadowed one of the most dominant seasons in F1 history. Just one problem: Few saw the pass, and even fewer documented it. “There’s not a lot of pictures, and there’s just one really sh**ty YouTube video capturing the moment,” says Rambousek, founder of Unique & Limited, an art studio in Prague.
“We talked to the people at McLaren, to Senna’s main mechanic, and we were not able to identify the exact place the pass happened.”

Ayrton Senna in Tosa 88

Driven by the challenge of recapturing motorsport’s bygone zeniths in high detail, Rambousek and his design partner, Petr Milerski, left their jobs in advertising to pursue the passion project that is Unique & Limited. The images they create blend traditional photography with hyperdetailed 3-D renderings to explore an old moment from unseen angles. The final product is dreamlike, straddling an uncanny valley between photorealism and fantasy, as if painted by a gearhead Norman Rockwell. Each picture is printed in large format and in limited number, commissioned by manufacturers or simply sprung from ideas in Rambousek’s head and sold to clients.

With the San Marino Senna project, it was McLaren who approached Rambousek with cause to celebrate: 2018 marks anniversaries for the marque’s 1988, 1998, and 2008 F1 drivers’ championships. Rambousek and McLaren whittled down potential milestones to arrive at that moment in 1988.

“It turns out quite well with Senna because of the composition and the angle, because it’s not something you see with pictures from the era, even though there’s hundreds of photos from the race itself,” Rambousek says.

With the “hero car”—one of the most successful ever to compete in F1—and its heroic moment chosen, Rambousek and Milerski set about collecting period references of the MP4/4 at Imola. They sifted through photos, videos, race reports, and their own conversations with McLaren staff to pinpoint the car’s precise position on-track. Imola’s layout has changed over the years, further complicating things.

Animation Senna

The MP4/4’s bones, and the track around it, were built from the reams of research. Here’s where the magic starts to happen. Proprietary software selects the same point on multiple photos—say, a sponsor sticker or the wheel of a car—and uses it as a reference point to stitch together an accurate model of the MP4/4, bringing the McLaren into three dimensions. Milerski tweaks the digital model throughout the process. Visually, the results are like the hand-sculpted clay models automakers use to prototype cars—all faceless shapes and smooth, broad edges. And the process is just as painstaking: The initial form takes Milerski up to eight weeks.

The Senna project in particular demanded an extra level of detail. “The car is basically covering the entire picture,” Rambousek explains, whereas every other print in the firm’s catalog features the car at a further distance. “This was trickier in terms of the texturing and rendering, because it’s so large.”

Ayrton Senna helmet

Fortunately, Unique & Limited had special access to the MP4/4 at the McLaren Technology Center. The team shot thousands of photos of the car for reference.

“We sent the model to McLaren for the final checks,” Rambousek says. “They sent it to [McLaren designer] Neil Oatley, who found a few mistakes on the bolts and wheels of the car, which you can’t even see.”

The fussing continued. Digital layers of texture and grime were added. Bolts were weathered, as if clashed with virtual wrenches. A 3-D model of Senna’s torso was created, down to the torn threads on his driving gloves. The obsessiveness becomes more evident in the way Rambousek and team anchor their virtual work in reality. In a different photo shoot, set in an Italian village, fans lining cobbled streets were actors on location, dressed in period garb. In another, a fire hose created puddles and mist. Each of these scenes was captured in detailed photos and layered into digital images.

For the McLaren project, Ayrton’s nephew, Bruno Senna, sat on a stool in Unique & Limited’s Prague studio. His face was lit to re-create the bright Italian sun, then photographed to capture a hallmark of F1’s turbo era: His uncle Ayrton’s ferocious gaze. Bruno’s eyes were then digitally placed inside Ayrton’s Day-Glo helmet—a haunting, perfect match. The cinematic quality and real-life-or-fantasy vibe of U&L’s work are due in part to Isabell Mayrhofer. The third member of Unique & Limited’s creative triumvirate, she previously was a casting agent and producer for films and commercials. Melding reality, photography, fantasy, and cinema is tricky, she says, noting that it’s tempting to lean more toward fantasy or reality for the sake of convenience. So why make the effort? “We ask ourselves that question every day,” Mayrhofer laughs.

Bruno Senna and Ayrton Animation

It’s a quest to create something new from limited resources, such as black-and-white images of Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows, cars seldom captured on film. “We decided to tell stories in a way never seen before,” Milerski says.

For Rambousek, it’s about the challenge. Of creating the most accurate historic models that don’t exist in reality. Of pursuing beauty as an end unto itself. Of pushing into undiscovered territory for its own sake, he says.

“The creation process is some kind of signature for what we do, so that’s the reason we should stick with it,” he says. “If we have a guy who wants his 911, a road-legal car you can take into the street and shoot, then that’s not really a project for us. Anyone else can do that.”