Autocourse back in time: Ayrton Senna, profile of a champion

David Tremayne from Autocourse looks back on the legend Ayrton Senna after claiming the World Championship in 1988 in his first year with McLaren in this classic piece.

Autocourse back in time: Ayrton Senna, profile of a champion
Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna
Podium: race winner Alain Prost with Ayrton Senna and Michele Alboreto
Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna takes the checkered flag
Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna
The podium: race winner Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Thierry Boutsen
After the race: Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Thierry Boutsen
The podium: race winner Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost
Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna
Podium: race winner Ayrton Senna with Alain Prost and Gerhard Berger
Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna
Winner Ayrton Senna with Patrick Tambay on the podium
Ayrton Senna in his Toleman TG183B
Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna

“He's a scientist, that's what he is. I've never seen a driver you could compare so easily to those types who walk around looking miserable because they're so wrapped up in what they're doing.” 

Patrick Tambay, besides being one of the sport's gentlemen, is also an acute observer. 

“I was on the second row of a grid in 1984 and just before the start I watched Senna walk to the front and then slowly back to his own midfield position, memorizing what compound tyres every-one in front was using. It was uncanny, I knew then that he was going to be somebody.”

The Frenchman was one of the first in the F1 world to appreciate just how painstaking Ayrton Senna is, but he certainly wasn't the last to be exposed to his ruthless obsession to succeed. Back in the 30s Achille Varzi was reckoned, calculating and aloof, but Senna would have made him look like an ingenuous sycophant. 

I had to carry on, I knew I was on a good lap.

Ayrton Senna, after blowing an engine at early test with McLaren

At the start of 1988 he faced his greatest challenge. After blazing through Formula Ford and F3, he had amazed at Toleman, walked out and gone on to win his first Grand Prix with Lotus, and then become mired. In 1986 the 98T was fast everywhere, but lacked reliability and that final edge. 

In 1987 the 99T was good for only two wins as he patiently struggled with its active suspension. The move to McLaren was as inevitable as the sunrise, albeit ironic. 

In the F1 test that was his prize for winning Marlboro's F3 championship, he was blindingly fast in a McLaren MP4/1, but incurred Ron Dennis's wrath by grenading a failing engine. Senna's response was typical: 'I had to carry on, I knew I was on a good lap . . .' 

The fact that the deal was cemented at the 1987 Monaco Grand Prix, which he won in the Lotus, doubled that irony, and meant that he finally faced Prost, the recognized F1 yardstick, in equal equipment. 

Arrival at McLaren

The Young Pretender had reached the court of the king. Observers rubbed their hands and wondered how a man who had once vetoed Derek Warwick as a team-mate because he felt the Englishman would be fast enough to command too much attention from the team, thus interfering with his own ambitions, would be able to fit into a new atmosphere where Prost was already well established. McLaren was his team. 

The team had reservations, based on his controversial veto of Warwick. “We were a bit worried he might come in and start trying to dictate,” admits his race engineer Steve Nichols. 

”The last thing we needed was a guy keeping secrets, or two drivers getting on as well as Mansell and Piquet.”

The scientist himself was under no illusions. Behind the frequently dour exterior lies a finely honed intelligence and, having assessed his opportunities as carefully as any surgeon examines a patient before operating, he knew two things. If he couldn't make it work at McLaren, he had virtually run out of places worth trying. More positively, if he beat the recognized Number One, there was only one conclusion that could be drawn about his own ability. 

“Coming to a new organization, especially one like McLaren with which Alain already had such a strong working relationship, meant I had to make some big changes. That became a big challenge for me. Logically I knew that fitting in was going to be vital, and that I had to do it as soon as I possibly could. I put my biggest effort into getting to know about everything as soon as I got there — the company's system, the people, the car itself.”

The effort paid off handsomely. Nichols felt it would take him the best part of the year, but now concedes: “He integrated much quicker than that, and did so amazingly well. He's been open, very honest and always honourable.” 

If the experience of sharing information took some getting used to after a career of expecting —and receiving — priority treatment, Senna had a major consolation from day one. He'd been uncomfortable in the interim Honda-engined MP4/3 prototype when he drove it in Japan, but as soon as he went out in his MP4T4 he proved to himself that he was faster than Prost. He also proved it to his adoring countrymen in Rio, only for that gear linkage drama to tilt the balance in Prost's favour right from the start. 

I'd driven almost the perfect race - probably the best I'd ever done in terms of qualifying, race performance, car set-up - until the end.

Ayrton Senna

Thereafter, compounded by his error at Monaco, he was to chase the Frenchman for the title rather than lead him. In his F3 days his impetuosity got the better of him as Martin Brundle began beating him. 

"The shunts were simply a result of his refusal to accept second place,' says his entrant in F3, Dick Bennetts. Monaco, however, his most publicized error in a Grand Prix, had nothing to do with trying too hard. In fact it was the opposite, as he clipped the inside barrier at Portier while easing off to nurse a 53-second lead. 

“It was a very particular situation, when you ask how it affected my confidence,” he insists, analytically, “because it wasn't a question of confidence. I'd driven almost the perfect race - probably the best I'd ever done in terms of qualifying, race performance, car set-up - until the end. There were some reasons behind it all, of which I was aware but to which I wasn't reacting. They'd already been in effect for some time. The shunt woke me up, changed a few things in my mind. After that I had the right mental approach.”

That read that he'd let Prost psyche him. 

I think my relationship with Alain is better than I expected, better than either of us expected.

Ayrton Senna

“The trouble is when you've been going ten-tenths it becomes very difficult to do as well at nine tenths. How do you learn to do that? Only by doing it! You have to react as conditions come to you.’”

Television missed the Monaco incident, but at Monza his tangle with Jean-Louis Schlesser was captured for ever. He accepted the Frenchman's explanations with icy calm and, as a team player, still refuses to admit he was in a tight fuel situation. 

Teammates go head to head

Nichols is more open. “Consider the scenario. He and Alain had raced each other too much early on, and after Alain retired Ayrton had to run the least efficient set-up - rich mixture, low boost - and the Ferraris began closing. He had enough fuel to get home at the same pace, but probably not enough if he had to speed up. He had to get the maximum from the car. He saw Schlesser try to let him through, go wide and lock up, and had a split second to react. He followed the only course open to him, but how could he figure the guy would attack him part-way through the corner?”

That, and the controversial manoeuvre he pulled on Prost on the first lap in Portugal, were the only times his ruthlessness didn't work for him all year, and he remains tight-lipped about the words his team-mate had with him after the Estoril incident. 

“I think my relationship with Alain is better than I expected, better than either of us expected. I think we've both dealt with the pressures very well, and we are always making it more solid. Portugal? I say nothing about that. Portugal is over.”

So too are some of his other ruthless exploits, but their memory hasn't been erased, Alex Hawkridge of Toleman taking with Dennis offered him an F1 deal when he was still racing FF2000. 

Socially he can be schoolboyish, almost giggly.

Alex Hawkridge

Hawkridge has had time to mellow since Senna's defection from the team at the end of 1984, but hasn't forgotten the brusque manner in which the Brazilian jumped ship. 

“He was absolutely, totally right. He wanted the best and he went about getting it. In 1983 we knew we were signing the best driver in F1 and that it would be difficult to meet his standards. But he is able to isolate himself from the feelings of others to achieve his objective, and a contract was no barrier to that.” 

Hawkridge admits he never had a better driver in one of his cars but describes him as a sterile individual - “or maybe he can just control his emotions so he seems that way.” He occasionally saw another facet, though. “When he signed our contract, he read it over the phone to his Brazilian lawyer and kept objecting to our best English legalese - and we all agreed with him! Then we went down the road for a drink and it was as if he switched off and became a different character. There was no outward sign, but he began telling jokes. Socially he can be schoolboyish, almost giggly.” 

Total commitment

To those who do not understand Ayrton Senna’s awesome commitment to winning the World Championship he remains an enigma, but he is probably one of the least complicated drivers on the scene. 

All he wants to do is race and win. His early mentors, Ralph Firman, Denis Rushen and Dick Bennetts, all noticed the same thing in his formative stages: the ability to concentrate on a goal, to the exclusion of all else. He used to sit at home doing mental laps in an armchair. Just before he left Toleman, he was suspended for the Italian GP at Monza. 

“Stopping him racing was what would hurt him most,” says Hawkridge, “but I wanted him to leave us knowing there is a price to pay for everything you do in life. It shook him rigid' It's not so much the man that is hard to comprehend, more his unique level of intensity. 

“I’m usually intense about anything I do,” he admits. “My attitude has always been to go deep, to concentrate and do a thing properly.” 

Besides flying radio-controlled model aero-planes, his great relaxation comes from visits home, and it is clear how important his family-father Milton da Silva, mother Neycle, elder sister Viviane and younger brother Leonardo-is to him. Probe a little and he will reveal: relax by going home to Brazil? 

“I love to see my family, friends. my girlfriend. I like life in Europe now, I’m used to it. It was difficult at first, and I hated the weather,” he used to have his gloves warmed in his Formula Ford days before he would go testing, “but now I'm better settled. I have a fantastic family, and there is an incredible atmosphere at home. My parents' educational principles were strong and I was brought up in a very healthy environment. My father is also intense, especially about being polite and having good manners. I'm intensely Brazilian and part of me will always feel I'm just in Europe for a short stay.”

Perhaps he has constructed a shell around himself, to ward off anything that might deflect him from his goal, but there is room for emotion. 

When he clinched the Formula Ford 2000 title at  Jyllandsringen in 1982 he cried, and winning the British GP meant a lot after all the time he spent racing in the UK. Then there is revenge, and taking the crown this year from countryman Nelson Piquet was a doubly sweet success. 

At Golder in 1982, as a young FF2000 star. he had gone to introduce himself to the Brabham team leader, only to be rebuffed. 

“He’ll be sorry. One day I'm going to beat him,” had been his crestfallen, but prophetic, comment, and then there was Piquet's personal attack in March. 

Perhaps now Ayrton Senna, World Champion, will become less intense. Nichols detects a lot of progress on that front already in 1988. 

It's difficult to think of him driving any other way than flat-out, especially in qualifying, but whether he will emerge as a warmer character or simply step up the pressure on himself to beat history's greats remains to be seen. Having finally manoeuvred himself into a position where he can win consistently, the scientist isn't prepared to look too far ahead, but allows: “Alain's records are important. I will wait to see how I develop, whether I keep my motivation at the same level and aim for more wins and more championships. All I say now is that if the conditions are right, that will all come, the records, everything.”

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