Well, that is a great question. I was fortunate enough to watch Ayrton as far back as 1983 during his Formula Three days and even then his talent was obvious. He had blinding speed, unbelievable commitment and a real tenacity going wheel to wheel with anyone. He truly was fearless, regardless of the opponent and that was in Formula Three when he went up against Martin Brundle who was running in the much more fancied Eddie Jordan car at the time.
I followed Ayrton’s career in F1 from the very first race and watched in awe as he nearly came through to win in Monaco in 1984 in a Toleman. At this point you could see not only his raw speed, but his driving style begin to develop fully. He had everything a top driver needed, but lacked experience and this of course led to a few mistakes early on, but on that murky, rain sodden day in Monte Carlo, but for an early red flag, he would have won and done so very easily.
Rain became a theme for him too, just a year later he would win in ridiculous conditions in Portugal to take his first ever F1 win in a Lotus, a car that probably didn’t belong on the top step of the podium and whilst others around him fell off the road (including Prost and Rosberg) Ayrton not only kept his head, but made the car dance around the track with ease.
During 1985 he also developed something I noticed other drivers avoided which meant his driving style made him stand out. It had nothing to do with how he would take the racing line, although he wasn’t perhaps as conventional as say Alain Prost was with his classic lines. What separated Ayrton was the way he would stab at the throttle repeatedly through a corner, yet others would feed the power in gradually, it was as if Ayrton was forcing the rear wheels to step out helping him turn through the corner and get better traction at the apex and out of it. Consistently I would see him do this, particularly on street tracks where he seemed to benefit most from this unique way of applying power.
Most drivers appeared pretty even leading in to a corner, entry speeds and breaking distances all pretty much as you’d expect, but Ayrton could take huge chunks of time out of others on the exit and I believe a lot of this was down to his application of the throttle. This was mildly disturbing to the other drivers too as we shouldnt forget that the cars were turbo charged in the mid eighties and had something of a reputation for causing turbo lag upon throttle depression, which often caught out the other drivers.
Ayrton’s driving in the rain became legendary and rightly so, it showed off his deft feel for a car, as if he were somehow connected through his finger tips to each of the tyres, brakes and engine, he also had impeccable judgment heading in to a corner, wet or dry and had a sixth sense of exactly how much grip would be there when he arrived. Sometimes he appeared to gamble on a particular grip level and if it didn’t pay off, would still, somehow dance the car through the corner and learn for next time around.
Changeable conditions were another speciality for him and he would thrive on the indecision of others and perhaps this wasn’t so much car control as mind control. I don’t for a second buy the belief in god story he once told, at least not in terms of helping him drive the car, but his belief certainly helped his confidence and focus and I doubt there has ever been or ever will be someone with such ferocious intensity that will sit in an F1 car.
Summing this up I would say watching Ayrton attack a race track, particularly a street circuit is something that will live with me forever. It was borderline genius and almost certainly magical.
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