The 1984 Monaco Grand Prix has become synonymous with the legend of Ayrton Senna, who finished second, and with the Brazilian’s rivalry with Alain Prost, who won the race.
But a few twists of fate might have made for a different story and hero. During the race, as Senna fought his way up the pack on the slippery, narrow track from 13th on the grid, it looked to some that a future star was born.
“I think we are watching the arrival of Ayrton Senna as a truly outstanding talent in Grand Prix racing,” said James Hunt, the 1976 world champion, while covering the race for the BBC.
It was Senna’s first year in Formula One, it was the sixth race of the season, and the Brazilian was driving for the young, poorly funded Toleman team. Prost, on the other hand, was already a race winner. It was his first season back at McLaren, the team where he had begun his Formula One career in 1980 before moving to Renault for the following three seasons. He and his McLaren teammate Niki Lauda had dominated the season so far, with four victories in the first five races. In Monaco, Prost scored the pole position, his first with McLaren. Lauda had qualified only eighth.
On race day, it rained all morning and the start was delayed 45 minutes because of dangerous conditions. But rain and poor visibility on a track where engine power is less important made conditions perfect for the best drivers to show their talent, whatever the quality of their cars. Senna moved from 13th place to ninth on the first lap. Now mostly forgotten is that Stefan Bellof, a German rookie who started in last position in a Tyrrell, jumped from 20th to 11th on the first lap.
Bellof had the only car with a normally aspirated engine; all the others were turbo-powered. On the wet track, this had its advantages, as the throttle control was more direct. But he also had 200 horsepower less than the turbos. By Lap 6, Lauda had passed both of the Ferraris and was in third place. Soon, the Porsche engine in Prost’s McLaren began to misfire, and he ended up losing the lead to Nigel Mansell on Lap 10. Five laps later, Mansell bounced off the barriers heading up to the casino and dropped out.
Prost was back in the lead, Lauda was now second, and Senna was up to third. Then Lauda crashed out on Lap 24, and by Lap 27, Bellof had moved past René Arnoux into third. As Senna began quickly gaining on Prost, Bellof was catching Senna.
By Lap 29, Prost began waving at the race directors as he drove down the main straight, complaining that the track conditions were undriveable, calling for the race to stop. By Lap 31, Senna was only seven seconds behind Prost, who was now also having problems with his brakes, and continuing to protest. Then Jacky Ickx, the clerk of the course, or race director, brought the race to a premature close on Lap 32, waving both the red flag and the checkered flag at the finish line.
Prost slowed down on the final straight, and Senna sped off past him, crossing the finish line ahead of the Frenchman and waving to the crowd, thinking he had won the race. In fact, when a race is halted prematurely, the final classification is taken from the previous lap completed by all contestants, which meant that it was the order from Lap 31 that counted.
Prost had won. Senna was outraged, feeling cheated of the victory. The Brazilian racing federation applied pressure. Ickx, who drove for the Porsche team in sports-car racing, was accused of giving Porsche, and Prost’s McLaren team, the victory. And because Ickx had failed to consult with the stewards over ending the race, his race clerk license was suspended. Moreover, Prost was close to Jean-Marie Balestre, a fellow Frenchman who was president of the International Automobile Federation, or F.I.A., the sport’s governing body. So it was also claimed that the F.I.A. had assisted in Prost’s victory.
And yet Bellof’s drive was not only possibly more phenomenal than Senna’s — he had started 20th and finished third — but had the race continued for several more laps, Bellof might easily have won. Senna’s Toleman had an overheating engine, as well as suspension damage that his mechanics said would have ended his race within a few laps. And with Prost’s problems with his brakes, he was not certain to have finished either.
Then, in what many considered a political move against the normally aspirated engine used by Tyrrell, Bellof’s car was disqualified from the race over weight accusations. Arnoux was thus promoted to third. Tyrrell would later successfully fight the weight accusations, but the disqualification stood.
The next year, Bellof, who might have seen his career go in a different direction had he returned to Formula One, was killed in a sports-car racing accident. Although he didn’t win, Senna saw his star rise thanks to his performance in the race in Monaco. And, paradoxically, the shortened race cost Prost, the winner, his first drivers’ title. Because the race was ended before 75 percent of it had been completed, instead of earning the full 9 points for the victory, Prost got only 4.5 points. And he went on to lose the drivers’ title to Lauda by half a point.