My Sporting Heroes - Ayrton Senna
After a little while away, we're continuing on with another in-depth piece on one of my all-time sporting idols - the late, great Ayrton Senna.
I've always been a great fan of Formula One, ever since I was a small child and even though it was a little bit before my time, I found myself growing up watching the battles in the eighties between Senna and Alain Prost, whom I share my birthday with. Senna was unlike any other at the time and very few drivers have equalled his legendary status. He had this great work-ethic and an absolute drive to succeed, right from his time in karting to his untimely death in May 1994 at the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola.
Senna's work-ethic is truly evident when you take a look at one of his first notable performances at a torrential downpour at Monaco in 1984 when driving for Toleman. It was his first full season in Formula One and as any rookie should, Senna was determined to prove himself. His first race with Toleman at his home Brazilian Grand Prix, then held at the Jacarepaguá Circuit in Rio de Janeiro, ended in disaster after he was forced to retire after just eight laps with a turbo failure. Toleman's weekend was dismal, after teammate Johnny Cecotto retired from the same ailment ten laps later. Round Six and the Monaco Grand Prix came around and Senna finished in a miraculous second place behind future teammate Alain Prost in his McLaren.
Over the course of the rain-riddled race, Prost would suffer a worsening brake balance issue and as a result, the brakes were receiving little to no heat, causing increasingly frequent lock-ups. The torrential rain and Prost's brake problem meant that Senna was catching the struggling Prost at an alarming rate and the conditions caused the clerk of the course (former F1 driver Jacky Ickx) to halt the race after 31 of the scheduled 78 laps. It was a remarkable performance and marked Toleman's best finish in their five years in Formula One history.
After leaving Toleman in 1985 and collecting two more career podiums, Senna would move to Lotus for two years until 1987. His time at Lotus would see him pick up the first 'Grand Slam' of his career, picking up the race victory, fastest lap and pole position at that year's second round, the Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril. In wet conditions yet again, Senna managed to win the GP by a margin of over one minute, lapping all but second place over the race's duration. The relationship between him and teammate Elio De Angelis would sour over the course of the season, as both drivers would demand a higher status than the other. De Angelis would leave at the end of 1985 to Brabham, convinced that his former team had been prioritising the Brazilian over him.
1986 saw the dawn of one of Lotus' most infamous Formula One cars in the 98T, featuring well in excess of 1000BHP in qualifying trim, but as race teams didn't publish their power figures, it is largely speculation on power output. It was a rather large handful for any driver and this was in no way helped by the 4 BAR pressure turbo present that also came with an insane amount of 'lag' - 4 BAR is equivalent to around 58 PSI. It would be the mental 98T that would propel Senna to finish fourth in the Driver's Championship for the second year in a row, with him winning two of the sixteen rounds and also gain six podiums, excluding race wins. It would be the last season that Senna would race with a Renault engine until his time with Williams from 1994 until his death later that season. The Honda powertrains in the Lotus 99T were of the previous season due to the exclusive deal that Williams had with Honda at the time, allowing them to use the newer engines.
Senna started the 1987 season off strongly, with a podium and his first race win of the season in five rounds, coming at Monaco - it was his first of six wins in the independent state. He would go on to claim another win in the race following Monaco, the Detroit Grand Prix, giving him his second race win in two years at the circuit, along with the first win there by a car with active suspension. Despite the strong start from Lotus that year, as the season progressed, it was evident that the Williams FW11B that was being piloted by Nelson Piquet was a superior car, now with its own active suspension and year-younger engine. Piquet, in the 1987 season, would go on to win his third and final World Drivers Title and Senna would be left in third that season, with six race victories and one pole position, his worst run of poles since his debut season with Toleman.
Senna's time in Formula One is mostly known for his dominating five year stint with McLaren, alongside Alain Prost, who he would develop a famous rivalry with. The 1988 season would see Senna win his first World Drivers Championship with the Woking-based team. The MP4/4 would prove to arguably be the most dominant car in modern F1 history, with a win percentage of 93.8% that season - this has not been equalled for the last thirty-one years.
Over the course of the season, it would take all race wins bar one and all pole positions bar one and would see Senna drive at his very best and feel connected to the machine. He took eight race wins over the course of the season, including an inspiring performance at Suzuka in Japan, the championship's penultimate round. Senna qualified on pole, some 1.7 seconds faster than teammate Prost. The race started with Senna stalling on the grid, putting him rather far down the order in 14th place, whilst Prost battled up front and would lead the first fifteen laps of the Grand Prix. Rain starting pouring down on lap fourteen and this benefitted the Brazilian greatly and he ended up finishing an entire thirteen seconds ahead of his teammate by the end of the race. Senna rewrote the record books over the course of the 1988 season. His eight wins beat the old record of seven jointly held by both Alain Prost and Jim Clark. Meanwhile, his thirteen pole positions would smash the record of nine held by Nelson Piquet.
Prost was to go on to take the 1989 World Title, whilst the off-track battles between the two drivers would become more heated than ever. Despite starting the season off strongly once again, reliability problems in France, Phoenix, Canada, Britain and Italy, along with collisions at both his home grand prix in Brazil and Portugal would heavily swing the title in the Frenchman's favour. Senna would win consecutive titles over the next two seasons, winning the ding-dong battle with teammate Prost. He became Formula One's youngest ever three-time World Champion in 1991. The following season would see the arrival of prodigy Michael Schumacher and the rise of Benetton. The pair had frosty relations between them and as Senna's contract was up at the end of the '92 season, it was unclear as to what Senna's intentions were. He felt that McLaren's cars were becoming less competitive year-on-year and as Honda had abandoned the sport in 1992, McLaren's dominance had come to an end, which saw the resurgence of Williams, with Nigel Mansell winning the World Title that year, in the all-conquering Williams FW14B.
In 1993, Ron Dennis' pursuit for Renault V10 engines had failed and so McLaren, for that season were lumbered with Ford V8s that were much less competitive than the previous Honda powertrains. Williams continued their domination in the latter half of the season, whilst Senna suffered mechanical failures at five races. The last race of the '93 season in Adelaide would be both Senna's last race for McLaren and his 41st and last career victory.
The 1994 season would see Senna move to the dominant Williams, although with the banning of active suspension the season prior, Williams would see themselves suppressed as a team. Senna took two consecutive poles in his home Grand Prix at Interlagos and also at the inaugural Pacific Grand Prix in Aida. Michael Schumacher would take two victories in those two races. It was Senna's worst start to a Formula one season as he failed to score points in his opening two races, despite taking pole in both.
Of course, Senna would meet his tragic end at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix after a collision at Tamburello corner at Imola. That weekend also saw the death of rookie Roland Ratzenberger and a life-threatening injury to Rubens Barrichello. His death is twenty-five years ago this year and it's only right that this article should act as an eternal tribute to one of the best and most-loved Formula One drivers in history.