Ayrton Senna was more than just a racing driver. To many, he was the greatest Formula 1 driver to have ever lived.
And while the twentieth anniversary of his death draws near, he remains a legend, an icon, and a hero to millions around the world.
His rise to fame came on the cusp of the sport truly becoming the technological wonder it is today. His early years were spent driving fire-spitting turbocharged cars with unbelievable amounts of horsepower and next to no aerodynamics. Many of his peers felt that some of these machines were simply undriveable, but Senna’s car control and speed was often unparalleled.
The stats say it all: three World Championship titles, 41 career wins, 81 podiums, 65 pole positions. Of his genuine contemporaries, only Alain Prost achieved better in a similar period.
Twenty years or more on, his on-track exploits still remain the stuff of legend. It’s fair to say that at every moment behind the wheel, we were witnessing true greatness at work. Here are ten of the Brazilian’s finest drives…
10. 1986 Spanish Grand Prix, Jerez
The Spanish Grand Prix of 1986 witnessed one of the closest finishes in Formula 1 history, with Ayrton Senna beating Nigel Mansell in a sprint to the finish line by just 0.011 seconds!
At the series’ inaugural visit to the Jerez circuit, Senna dominated qualifying in his Lotus 87T, and he led the Williams’ into Turn 1 when the race got underway.
The race itself was hardly a classic. For much of it, Ayrton led a train of cars around the twisty circuit, driving to his fuel consumption read-out rather than chasing pace. After dropping back to conserve some fuel, Mansell subsequently turned up the whick and passed Senna for the lead on Lap 39.
Attrition gradually saw the number of chasing cars dwindle, to the point that it became a two-horse race between Senna and Mansell, before Prost began to close with less than ten laps to go.
On Lap 68, Mansell inexplicably dove into the pits – a slow puncture, it would turn out – and he emerged in a seemingly distant third, almost 20 seconds behind Senna.
He passed Prost in just half a lap and sliced into Senna’s lead. With two laps to go, he was 5.3 seconds behind, which became 1.5 seconds as the final tour started.
Having run non-stop, Senna’s tyres were completely shot by that point, but he had just enough rubber left to put his foot down exiting the final corner. Mansell had better traction and the pair raced side-by-side for the finish line, crossing the line just 93 centimetres apart.
9. 1984 Mercedes Exhibition Race, Nürburgring
Having been struck off the Formula 1 calendar following Niki Lauda’s near-fatal accident in 1976, the Nürburgring returned to the motorsport landscape in a much safer – although very emasculated – guise in 1984.
To celebrate the event, the circuit owners decided to put on a race featuring a fleet of identical Mercedes 190E 2.3-litre saloons. That sounds pretty tame…
That was until you took a look at the roster of drivers who’d been brought out for this little dozen-lap dash around the new track: Jack Brabham (three-time Formula One world champion in 1959, 1960 and 1966), Phil Hill (1961 F1 world champion), John Surtees (1964 F1 champion), Denny Hulme (1967 F1 world champion), James Hunt (1976 F1 champ), Alan Jones (1980), Niki Lauda (1975, 1977, 1984), Alain Prost (1985, 1986, 1989, 1993), Keke Rosberg (1982), Jody Scheckter (1979), Le Mans winner Klaus Ludwig, and Stirling Moss (greatest driver never to win a world championship)…
Emerson Fittipaldi was also meant to be a part of this driving roster, but he had to pull out at the last minute.
And so the organisers opted to pick a certain young Brazilian who’d just started his F1 career with Toleman. Yes, he was the reigning British F3 Champion, but few expected him to seriously mix it with the kind of World Championship-winning drivers on display.
How wrong they were. Sure, a few of the drivers were just there for a big pay cheque and a bit of a steer and a giggle, but there were plenty who took the race very seriously.
As is so often the case with Senna, his finest drives came on rain-hit surfaces, and it proved to be once again. Senna simply blew the doors off the entire field, winning against world-class competition in equal machinery. There wasn’t any Adrian Newey tinkering or special engines – it was a straight battle of driving talent.
At the end of the race, a beaming Senna said: “Now I know I can do it”. We all know how the story ends.
8. 1987 Detroit Grand Prix, Detroit
Senna’s victory on the streets of Detroit maked a successful defence of the race he’d won the year prior and sparked hopes of a resurgence in the battle for Drivers’ Championship honours.
Following this win, he had a slender two-point lead in the points standings, but it would prove a false dawn. Neither Senna nor Lotus would win again that year, with Lotus (at least in its Chapman/Collins era guise) not returning to the winners’ circle ever again.
Nonetheless, the victory itself was a hugely impressive achievement. This was the first ever victory for a car fitted with active suspension. The bright yellow Lotus 99T rode Detroit’s norotious bumps far better than any other car, and Senna used that and his street circuit nous to win by over half a minute from Nelson Piquet.
Coincidentally, the last win to be won by an active suspension car is our very next Grand Prix on our countdown…
7. 1993 Australian Grand Prix, Adelaide
The curtain-closing race of the 1993 season also brought down the curtain on Ayrton Senna’s long and hugely successful time as a McLaren driver.
In qualifying, Senna was simply scintillating. He took the 62nd pole position of his career, marking his first since the 1992 race at Canada and ending a run of 24 successive pole positions for Williams. The performance was all the more impressive considering Senna’s Ford-powered McLaren was some 15km/h slower than the Williams’ along the circuit’s fastest section, the 300km/h Brabham Straight.
Despite three attempts to start the race, Senna blasted off into the lead and kept the Williams’ at bay until the first round of pit stops, and resumed in the lead after his second and final visit to the pits on Lap 55.
His 41st and final Grand Prix victory marked the end of the Senna-Prost era, with the Brazilian set to take the retiring Frenchman’s seat at Williams in the off-season. It was a brilliant win by Senna, and overcome with the emotion of the moment, he finally embraced his long-time enemy on the podium and the two made their peace. Less than seven months later, Senna would be killed.
6. 1992 Monaco Grand Prix, Monte Carlo
With Nigel Mansell having won the first fives races of the 1992 season in his Williams, everyone – well, bar the championship leading driver and team – arrived at Monaco hoping that something could break the Briton’s dominant run.
Qualifying produced another all-Williams front row – Senna was third – but the Brazilian managed a brilliant start to slot into second behind Mansell at Ste Devote.
Unable to live with Mansell’s pace up front, Senna concentrated on keeping Patrese at bay and avoiding the accidents of others – all the while lying in hope that something would go wrong for Mansell.
On Lap 71 of 78, Mansell felt something wrong with the back of his car. He thought it was a puncture – it turned out later to be nothing more than a slowly loosening wheelnut – but a slow in-lap and pit stop ensured Mansell emerged from the pits behind Senna, the new race leader.
On far fresher tyres, Mansell smashed the lap record in his attempts to close the gap, and spent the final four laps of the race up the McLaren’s exhaust, trying and failing to find a way past the Brazilian’s very wide car.
They crossed the line two-tenths apart, with Senna delivering the ultimate rearguard drive to claim his fifth victory on the streets of Monaco, equalling the record of Graham Hill. He would go one better the following year, and it’s a tally that remains unbeaten.
5. 1988 Japanese Grand Prix, Suzuka
The 1988 Japanese Grand Prix saw Senna clinch the first of his three World Championship crowns. Given the sheer dominance of the McLaren MP4/8s that year – which won 15 of the 16 races that year – one would have thought Senna would have cakewalked the race.
It was anything but easy…
Having done all the hard work in qualifying to get on pole position, Ayrton seemingly threw away his shot at World Championship glory by stalling just as the lights turned green.
By some miracle, the chasing field missed his stricken McLaren, and the downhill slope of the Suzuka start/finish straight allowed him to bump-start his car. He got going, but was down in fourteenth position, needing to win the race to take the title.
Then came one of his customary charges as he scythed his way through the field. At half-distance, he was already in second place, and on Lap 28 he blasted by teammate and championship rival Alain Prost to take the lead, win the race and the World Championship crown he so coveted.
4. 1984 Monaco Grand Prix, Monte Carlo
Senna’s first year of F1 racing should not – on paper at least – have been destined as a competitive one, but evidently the young Brazilian never read that memo.
Signed to the hitherto uncompetitive Toleman team, little was expected of the reigning British Formula 3 champion given the limitations of the package at his disposal.
His first few Grands Prix proved relatively uneventful, but it was his first outing on the streets of Monaco where his star was truly born.
Qualifying 13th-fastest of the 20 starters was a ‘neither here nor there’ performance, and few would have expected a decent result from that grid slot, particularly given how difficult a circuit Monaco is to pass on at the best of times.
But the weather closed in before the race started, and Senna duly showed exactly what kind of superhuman skills he possessed in the wet. He passed drivers like they were in a second-class league – often in the most impossible of places – and before long he was up to second and rapidly catching the leader, Alain Prost.
Right as Senna was about to take the lead from the Frenchman, out came the red flag. Race officials decided to stop the race, deeming conditions too dangerous to continue. Conspiracy theorists suggested that the (French) governing body wanted to ensure France’s favourite driver a win.
Senna was understandably furious at being robbed of what he felt was a certain win. But truth be told, his rear suspension would have failed within a lap or two more running (courtesy of clobbering a kerb too hard) and third-placed Stefan Bellof was catching both Prost and Senna in his Tyrrell and could well have claimed victory for himself.
But it’s the stuff upon which legends are most certainly made. And Senna undoubtedly stamped his mark with the first of his 81 Grand Prix career podiums.
3. 1985 Portuguese Grand Prix, Estoril
Senna’s very first Grand Prix was always destined to be something special.
Less than a year on from his heroics at Monaco, Senna was strapped in the JPS Lotus Renault on pole (his first) at the Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril.
Conditions were so appalling that several drivers went off on their reconnaissance laps – most notably Nigel Mansell and Eddie Cheever, who had to start from the pit lane.
But Senna was absolutely in his element. He blasted off the line and was never headed, lapping the entire field but for second-placed Michele Alboreto in the Ferrari. It was one of the most single-handedly dominant drives seen in years, and a portent of the kind of drives one could expect from the future three-time World Champion.
2. 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix, Interlagos
Ayrton Senna’s home race proved something of a bogey event for the first seven years of his Formula 1 career, but he finally broke his ‘duck’ in 1991 and in the most dramatic fashion.
Starting from pole position – where else, you might ask? – he carried his lead throughout the race, although he found that diminished substantially courtesy of a fast-closing Williams of Nigel Mansell.
But the Englishman suffered a spin – courtesy of his semi-automatic gearbox locking the rears after one too many downshifts – and he was out. That left Mansell’s teammate, Riccardo Patrese, to lead the charge, but his gearbox was also playing up.
Unbeknownst to those at Williams, Senna’s McLaren was also beset with a dodgy gearbox. His third, fourth and then fifth gears all broke, leaving him with no choice but to jam the ‘box in sixth gear. For the last few laps, Senna drove one-handed, hanging onto the gear lever lest it dare shift itself out of sixth gear.
Adding to his woes, the rain was starting to fall in the closing laps as well, although fortunately there wasn’t enough time for it to cause result in a disastrous spin for Senna.
He took the chequered flag, much to the jubilation of the thousands of fans crammed into Interlagos’ rickety grandstands, and to the ecstasy of Senna, who screamed down the radio on his slowdown lap and had to be lifted from the car and helped to the podium.
1. 1993 European Grand Prix, Donington
If you were to ask any Formula 1 fan who followed the sport during Ayrton Senna’s career, this race would almost universally be nominated as the Brazilian’s greatest ever race.
The story is the stuff of legend. Waking to find the historic circuit awash on race day, Senna knew that the conditions would negate the enormous advantage enjoyed by the all-singing, all-dancing Williams Renault FW15Cs of Alain Prost and Damon Hill, which were blessed with the latest in active suspension, automatic gearshift, ABS brakes and traction control.
The start saw Senna squeezed off the second row and he dropped to fifth by the first turn, but in what few wouldn’t dub as the greatest single lap of his life, Ayrton overtook Michael Schumacher, Karl Wendlinger, Hill and Prost before the end of the first lap.
With the Williams’ chassis settings all at sea in the changeable conditions – Prost had a mammoth seven pit stops as he alternated between wet and dry tyres! – Senna was imperious, lapping everyone except second-placed Hill, who finished almost a-minute-and-a-half adrift.
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