Ayrton Senna Da Silva was born on the 21st March 1960 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He was the son of an affluent landowner, and it was this wealth which allowed him to pursue his passion for motor racing from an early age. At the age of just four Senna was given his first kart by father Milton, the rest as they say is history.
Senna’s earliest sporting accolade was in 1977 when he won the South American Kart championship. He then moved onto the Karting world championship, finishing runner up in both 1979 and 1980. For 1981, Senna moved to England to take part in the Formula Ford championship. His talent was immediately obvious and he accepted £10,000 deal to remain in the category in 1982, with the majority of drivers actually paying for drives. In brilliant fashion he won the 1982 British and European championships before moving on to British F3 in 1983. He dealt with stiff competition from the better equipped Jordan team with their lead driver Martin Brundle in typically robust fashion to secure the championship at the end of the year as well as winning the prestigious Macau grand prix.
Senna quickly came to the attention of F1 teams, with Williams first to pounce offering Senna the opportunity to test their car at Donnington in order to better assess his talent. Within a couple of laps Senna took the Williams Ford around the East Midlands circuit quicker than it had even gone around before. Williams and Mclaren both offered him long term contracts starting in time for the 1984 season, but Senna didn’t want to be committed to one team so as to ensure he got the fastest car. This resulted in him signing for the underachieving Toleman team for 1984.
As with previous Toleman cars, the TG184 chassis struggled for pace. However, Senna managed to score a championship point at just his second attempt in South Africa. He followed this up with another point two weeks later in Belgium. However, it wasn’t until the sixth round in Monaco that Senna caught the world’s attention. In atrocious conditions drivers such as Mansell and Piquet crashed out on the winding street track but Senna stormed through the field to take second place from Niki Lauda on lap 19 having started 13th at a circuit not famous for its overtaking opportunities. He started to catch race leader Prost very quickly before the race was eventually stopped on lap 31. Senna was livid, feeling that he had a real chance of winning the race. However, his race engineer Pat Symonds recently revealed that Senna was very close to retirement with suspension issues at the time. Senna took two more podiums in the un-fancied Toleman that season at Brands Hatch and Estoril to seal his reputation as a star of the future.
However, Senna knew that in order to succeed he had to move to a more competitive team and he eventually signed for Lotus for the 1985 season. This led to deterioration in his relationship with Toleman management and he was eventually suspended by the team prior to the Italian grand prix in Monza.
Senna joined the highly rated Elio De Angelis at Lotus for the 1985 season at a Lotus team that was finally beginning to find its feet again follow the death of its founder Colin Chapman in 1982. The first race in Brazil ended with mechanical problems. This was to be a sign of things to come as the 97T chassis was hideously unreliable. However, at the second race in Portugal Senna mastered the wet conditions to win by over a minute from his nearest competitors. Even though the car rarely made the finish, Senna demonstrated his undoubted speed with seven pole position and took another victory later in the year at another wet Belgian grand prix. He finished the year five points ahead of De Angelis who decided to leave to join Brabham for 1986.
The 1986 Lotus was basically an updated 97T with much improved reliability. This allowed Senna to start the year well taking five podiums and two wins in the first seven races of the season; making him a championship favourite. However, Lotus’s efforts to out-develop the better funded Williams and Mclaren teams led to a return to the unreliability which blighted their 1985 season and Senna would score just four more finishes in the next nine races which eventually resulted in him dropping out of the championship race. However, as in 1985 Senna once again proved his racing prowess with an incredible eight pole positions.
For 1987, Lotus parted ways with Renault and signed a contract to use the highly rated Honda engines which have powered Williams to the constructor’s championship in 1986. Senna believed that this would be the missing piece of the puzzle which would finally allow him to challenge for the championship. However, on a much reduced budget Lotus had fallen back from the leading teams with only the performance on the Honda engine keeping them in contention for victories. This meant Senna could only manage one pole position and two victories throughout the year. Senna realised that Lotus no longer had the resources to compete with Mclaren and Williams and he therefore decided to join Mclaren for 1988. However, Senna had been very impressed with the Honda engine and persuaded the Japanese manufacturer to switch to Mclaren with him for the 1988 season.
The 1988 Mclaren Honda MP4/4 car was one of the most dominant in the sports history. The benchmark setting Honda engine combined with the Gordon Murray designed Mclaren chassis saw the team win fifteen out of sixteen races that season. Prost was already well established within the team having won two championships for them in 1985 and 1986, however Senna quickly impressed team boss Ron Dennis with his abilities. The result was intense competition between two of the worlds fastest drivers which almost ended in disaster at the Portugese grand prix when Senna shoved Prost towards the pit wall at over 200 mph. However, in the end Senna achieved his target and won the championship by three points from the Frenchman. A deeply religious man, Senna claimed to have seen god as he crossed the line to win the championship in Japan.
Relations between Prost and Senna deteriorated further in 1989 as Mclaren Honda once again dominated the championship. The pair disagreed at Imola when Senna passed Prost against team orders and then with the championship in sight at the Japanese grand prix the pair finally collided. This sealed the championship for Prost and Senna was convinced that he had done it on purpose. It simply wasn’t possible for the pair to continue working together and Prost left the team to join Ferrari for 1990.
The 1990 Ferrari was competitive enough to allow Prost to challenge Senna and Mclaren for the championship. The result was once again another titanic battle between the two men as Ferrari and Mclaren both held the upper hand in terms of pace at different stages in the championship. One year on from the Japanese grand prix incident the two drivers once again started first and second on the grid with the championship within grasp. Senna had campaigned throughout the weekend to get the pole position place moved to the cleaner side of the track but no one was listening. He therefore swore that if Prost got ahead at the start he would take out the Frenchman as revenge for the 1989 incident. The result was an almighty crash between the two drivers at the first corner from which they were both lucky to survive, but it secured Senna his second championship.
Hostilities between Prost and Senna took a break in 1991 as Ferrari struggled with its 642 chassis. This allowed Senna and Mclaren to dominate the early stages of the championship winning the first four races of the championship matching the record of Senna’s hero from the 1960s. However, Williams Renault were improving quickly and it became the car to beat in the second half of the championship. Senna fought back and somehow managed to take three wins from the remaining twelve races to secure the championship from the Williams driver Nigel Mansell (before he went on to become a TV star in Moneysupermarket advertisements).
However, Williams made another step forward for 1992 with one of the most technically advanced cars ever produced. Mclaren couldn’t keep up and Senna became disillusioned as he attempted to persuade Williams to sign him for 1993. However, Prost had been signed by the team due to the demands of Williams French engine partner Renault and he insisted in his contract that Senna would not be allowed to drive in the same team as him. Senna therefore had to make do with Mclaren again in 1993.
In the opinion of many this was his greatest season as he took the championship fight to Prost despite driving a much slower car, taking five victories. Prost eventually took the championship, but it was Senna who had staked his claim for the accolade of being considered to be the greatest driver who ever lived.
Senna had offered to drive for Williams for nothing in 1993, however the team offered him a $6 million contract for 1994 to replace the retiring Alain Prost. Everyone thought that the combination of the best driver and the best team would result in a dominant fourth championship for the Brazilian. However, the new regulations neutered Williams technological advantages over the other teams as active suspension and traction control was no banned. This badly affected the performance of the new Williams Renault FW16 and Senna privately admitted concerns about the car prior to the start of the season.
When the season started, Senna’s concerns were confirmed as Benetton proved that they had got the new regulations right as Schumacher won the two first races. Senna somehow managed to man handle the car to pole at both events, but spun in Brazil when trying to hard to keep in touch with Schumacher’s Benetton and was taken out at the first corner in round two by Mclaren’s new lead driver Mika Hakkinen. Round three was in San Marino and Williams had an updated aerodynamic package which they hoped would allow Senna to finally beat Schumacher. The weekend started badly with Barrichello hospitalised by an accident on Friday and the Austrian rookie Roland Ratzenberger tragically losing his life in qualifying on Saturday. Senna started the race from pole with an Austrian flag tucked under his sleeve which he planned to wave when he won the race. The race started with Pedro Lamy hitting the back of JJ Lehto who had stalled. The debris flew into the crowd and injured a number of spectators. The drivers cued behind the safety car as the track was cleared but once racing got back underway Senna sprung into an immediate lead over Schumacher. On lap seven, Senna entered the high speed Tamburello corner and his car suddenly veered towards the wall resulting in a 135 mph impact which caused Senna massive head injures. He died five hours later in hospital.
Senna’s legacy- 1994-present
Much has been said about the cause of Senna’s accident which has never been identified with track, car and tyre deficiencies all having been mooted as potential causes. However, one certainty was that safety had to be improved and the FIA introduced a number of new crash tests for cars in time for the 1995 season. Teams were also instructed to fit their cars with better head protection. This quest for improved safety has been relentless ever since and countless drivers lives have been saved by the safety improvements made following Senna’s accident. This new generation of drivers who owe Senna so much were also inspired by him in their childhood, with Lewis Hamilton in particular marking Senna out as his inspiration to go racing. The inspirational and tragic events of Senna’s life have therefore had a lasting impact on the sport with his presence still felt to this day.