Remembering Ayrton Senna: Simply the best


Life happens. Sometimes you have to pack up and move on. In the process, things get lost.

This happened to a short little newspaper clip I once read about Ayrton Senna. At the time, I cut it out for future reference. I knew I would have to quote names and figures from it at some point. 

That moment has now arrived, but alas. The newspaper clipping might be in a box, somewhere, or it might not be. For all practical purposes, then, it is as good as gone.

READ: 'The dangerous times are over' - How Senna's death made F1 safer

All I have left is my memory and this is the gist from what I recall from that article, that Senna had the best reflexes of anybody who has ever been tested by a certain American university professor who specialized in this kind of thing and who, in the course of his research, has tested thousands of athletes.

I was not surprised.

Ayrton Senna da Silva, after all, was a guy who once took a McLaren-Honda racing car by the scruff of the neck and blasted it round the streets of Monte Carlo, during qualifying, to end up 2.7 seconds faster than the guy in third. 

Gerhard Berger was that guy in third. And Gerhard, in a Ferrari at the time, was no slouch.

Ayrton Senna

                                                                     Image: AFP / Jerome Delay

Monaco front row, 1988

So, a-ha, therein lies the secret: the 1988 Ferrari must then have been a second-rate car, compared to the McLaren MP4/4. And to a degree it was. McLaren won 15 of 16 races that year, the Italian GP at Monza having gone to Ferrari after Jean-Louis Schlesser knocked Senna out of the lead, and out of the race, when Senna passed Schlesser for a second time. 

This prompted a classic full-page newspaper ad by McLaren’s engine supplier, Honda, in which the winning mills of all 16 races were listed – Honda, Honda, Honda, etcetera, up to Italy, where the victorious power plant came from Ferrari, and then Honda, Honda, Honda again until season’s end – with the caption: Ferrari clearly knows how to build a great engine as well. 

So yes, the McLaren-Honda was faster than the Maranellian stallion. Ergo: Senna would be quicker than Berger in quali; nothing out of the ordinary on that front.

But what about the guy who was sandwiched by Senna and Berger? What about Alain Prost, who lagged in second place, 1.4 seconds adrift of Senna?Was he driving a Ferrari, too?

Later in his career the Professor, as Prost was known, did pilot a Prancing Horse, of course.

But in 1988 he was the guy in the other McLaren. Prost, by his own admission, was quite chaffed with his own lap which had sliced 1.3 seconds out of Berger’s effort.

Then Senna banged in a 1:23.998. 

It was as though the planets had been re-aligned.

In a sense, they had been, of course. Senna had established a new order in F1. Many experts saw Prost as possibly the greatest driver up to that point, along with Fangio.

Yet, Senna was in a league beyond.

ayrton senna

                                                    Image: Image: JEAN-LOUP GAUTREAU / AFP

Analysing Senna’s speed

This was the thing about Senna. He routinely did things that not only bordered on the metaphysical, but actually lived in the domain of disbelief.

Half a dozen years ago, Ivan Capelli – acting as brand ambassador for Maserati at the time – told me a couple of Senna stories over supper, just outside Siena, in Tuscany, Italy. Capelli was born three years after Senna and competed against him, not only in F1, but in karting, too.

“He was supernatural,” Capelli enthused. “The way he set the kart up on corner entry, the way he threw it sideways, steering with one hand and using the other to manipulate the carburettor to advantage himself . . .”

The awe in which the Italian held Senna was palpable. The same goes for Jonathan Palmer. When the time came for Senna’s maiden outing in a F1 car, in mid-1983, Palmer had been testing for Williams for a year and a half. Eleven laps into the Brazilian’s virgin F1 test he equalled Palmer’s best time. Another 11 laps and he was a second quicker.

Palmer raced in F1 for six more years until he again slotted into a testing role, for McLaren, in 1990.

“It wasn’t until that moment that I realized exactly how fast he was, and exactly how he did it,” regales Palmer. “In those days we’d go to Monza or Estoril for a three-day test. Normally, I’d do the first day or two, pounding around and getting down to what I thought was a very respectable time, before Senna came along. And within ten laps, he’d be a second faster.”

Using telemetric evidence, Palmer went on to explain how Senna, using far less braking than himself, carried a lot more speed into corners, and how Senna would, on exit, stab at the throttle to keep the revs up and then floor the pedal so much sooner. 

ayrton senna_alain prost

       The greatest rivals: Artyon Senna and Alain Prost during 'better days' - Image: JEAN-LOUP GAUTREAU / AFP

Brilliant in all cars and conditions

This jabbing style, some said, helped Senna to swipe Prost aside in their first season together, precisely because Senna could keep the turbo boost going. By the same logic, the Senna detractors argued, Prost would be quicker in 1989’s normally aspirated cars, as Alain’s deficit of not being able to keep the turbo boosting would evaporate.

Instead, Senna’s margin of superiority over Prost increased – from 0.4 seconds in quali to 0.85 seconds – proving that the Brazilian was in a class of his own, no matter the car or conditions.

“He was super-fast on fast circuits, slow circuits, street circuits, in the dry, in the wet, in turbo cars, in non-turbo cars . . . He had no weaknesses.”

That’s how Gerhard Berger summed it up.

The Austrian should know. From 1990 to 1992 he was Senna’s team mate at McLaren. I asked Berger about this after a meeting with him and Dr. Mario Theissen in Munich, in 2001. At the time, Berger and Theissen were co-directors of BMW Motorsport.

“What would Senna’s record have been, if not for Imola, 1994?”

“Oh, my goodness,” Berger answered. “We all know: 200 poles, 100 race wins and 10 titles.”

ayrton senna

                                                                Image: JEAN-LOUP GAUTREAU / AFP

The greatest ever

I didn’t ask Berger if he viewed Senna as the greatest driver ever. The answer was obvious. Niki Lauda shared Gerhard’s view, and not because they’re both Austrian. “Senna was the best driver who ever lived,” Lauda pronounced in his blunt, no-nonsense manner.

Every seven years or so, F1 Racing Magazine does a survey, precisely to rank the best drivers ever, by polling a host of team managers, engineers, drivers, ex-drivers, journalists and other experts. Senna ranks first, every single time.

Yet, many people duck out of the “who’s the best driver ever?” question, arguing that “it is impossible to say, the eras and cars are too different”.So, here’s how to tackle the issue. Frame the question slightly differently: “If you are a F1 team manager with one car on the grid, and you can choose any driver in history to drive that car, who would it be?”

“Senna,” Ivan Capelli said. “Senna,” Jacky Ickx said. “Senna,” David Coulthard said. “Senna,” John Watson said. “Senna,” a host of others said, too many to mention and all personally interviewed.

But here’s the one that counts, and it comes from one of the three greatest drivers still around. “Senna, for sure,” Alain Prost said.

That’s big. Prost has seen Schumacher come and go and he didn’t even hesitate to nominate Senna.

Just the other day, though, Gerhard Berger reckoned that Lewis Hamilton is the only driver since Senna to have matched the Brazilian’s level. Hamilton, of course, has far more off-days, off-races, off-weekends and even off-spells than Senna ever had.

So, let’s leave the question to Lewis himself. Who would he pick to drive for him? Bet’ya he says Senna, without even blinking.The third of the three greatest drivers still with us would surely also nominate the Brazilian. “I had one hero,” Michael Schumacher once said. “His name is Ayrton Senna.”

No wonder the German broke down in tears after victory in the Italian GP of 2000, when he equalled Senna’s tally of wins.

ayrton senna

                                                                          Image: JEAN-LOUP GAUTREAU / AFP


Multitasking whilst managing 1000 kW

Watson gives eloquent body to these beliefs.

“Senna did things with a racing car that I’ve seen no other driver do, before or since,” says Watty, “and there was an obscene level of horsepower in those days. There is one snapshot that is seared on my memory for life, even though it lasted only two or three seconds.”

Watty has often told the story of Senna blasting past him, into Dingle Dell, whilst he himself was on a slow-down lap around Brands Hatch, in 1985.

To fully understand his story, it is best to visit Dingle Dell yourself, just as it is a holy pilgrimage to visit the infield at Donington to experience Redgate and the Craner Curves, from where Senna launched his transcendental first lap attack in 1993.

But back to Watty and Dingle Dell, as he described “a blur of motion in the cockpit” to Paul Weaver. 

“Senna was absolutely mesmerising. It was not only the speed he was carrying, but the way he controlled the car, changing gear, turning the steering wheel and using the throttle to keep the turbo boost from dropping away. And we had conventional gears, clutch, brake and throttle in those days. 

"To do one thing at the speed he was going would have been something, but to multitask the way he did was remarkable. To this day I don’t know how he did it. He had this wonderful mental capacity to put a number of inputs into the car at the same time, and a fantastic instinct to drive the wheels off a car. And he was frighteningly quick . . . certainly the fastest and most exciting.”

Once back in the pits, Watson jumped out of his McLaren to pay a visit to Lotus. “I’ve just seen something . . .” he blurted out, upon which Peter Warr and the rest of the Lotus crew went: “We know. We know.”

Ayrton Senna

                                                           Image: JEAN-LOUP GAUTREAU / AFP

Senna, the driver

Yes. And so do we. 

We know, because of laps like Senna’s qualifier at Monaco, in 1988.

We know because of 64 other pole laps, most of them spectacular, like the one at Jerez in 1986 when he beat second man Piquet – in the all-conquering Williams-Honda – by 0.8 seconds, whilst controlling the race masterfully on worn tyres to win by 0.014 seconds from Mansell in the other Williams-Honda. 

We know, because of laps like Senna’s opening tour at Donington, in 1993, when he passed Schumacher, Wendlinger, Hill and Prost. It was soakingly wet and Senna made mince-meat of three drivers who ended up as world champions, with 11 titles between two of them. 

We know, because of the full Donington race when Prost, in the vastly superior Williams-Renault, couldn’t come to grips with the weather and pitted seven times, compared to Senna’s four.

We know, because of so many other astounding on-track feats, like Senna’s five victories in 1993 in a car that was only third best on the grid – a McLaren with which he could only notch up one single pole compared to 13 by Prost in a Williams. And we know what Ayrton did to Alain, when they were driving the same cars in 1988 and 1989. In 32 outings, Prost qualified faster than Senna twice in ’88, and twice in ’89.

We know, because of Monaco 1984, when Senna started 13th and nearly won. In a Toleman. In the rain.

We know, because of Estoril 1985, scene of Senna’s first F1 victory, when he finished more than a minute ahead of second man Alboreto and lapped the entire rest of the field. In the rain.

We know, because of Brazil 1991, when Senna won after having lost fourth gear, and then third and fifth as well, so that he had to negotiate Interlagos in sixth, only, nearly stalling a couple of times in slow and medium corners, especially as it started to rain toward the end of the race.

We know, because, well . . . on and on and on the list of superhuman performances go.
ayrton senna
                                                                    Image: JEAN-LOUP GAUTREAU / AFP

Senna, the man

Yet, we also know it because of who he was.

“Senna was a unique man and highly intelligent,” Watson concludes.

And great as he was in the car, Frank Williams said, he was even greater out of the car.

Charismatic, for sure. Charming. Committed. Calculating. Uncompromising. Intense. Hard. Honest. Sincere. Dedicated. Analytical. Mystical. Religious. Compassionate. Fit. Focussed. And blisteringly fast, yet with foibles that generated a fair share of controversy, like the accident with Prost at Suzuka, in 1990. 

What Senna did though, was not to drive into Prost, on purpose. What he did was to put his car to the extreme right of the circuit, wheels on the kerbs, to go for the gap.

It was Prost’s choice to turn in or not, unlike the incident a year earlier, when Prost elected to take Senna off, on purpose, in the chicane.

Senna didn’t have a choice in the 1989 Suzuka accident; Prost was left the option of not having an accident in 1990.

Senna also didn’t have the choice of an accident or not on 1 May 1994, when the steering column on his Williams snapped in Imola’s super-fast Tamburello curve and he barely had time to reduce speed from over 300 km/h to just over 200 km/h before smashing into a wall.

Accidents happen. This one was particularly galling. In the prime of his life, the greatest driver ever had been plucked from our midst.


                                                   Image: JEAN-LOUP GAUTREAU / AFP

In the year before, Ayrton had performed miracles in a McLaren far below par. More magic lay in store when Senna opened 1994 with three consecutive poles in a car that should not have been close. In Brazil, he outqualified team mate Damon Hill by 1.6 seconds and lapped him two-thirds into the race.

That’s the level on which Ayrton Senna da Silva performed, right to the end.

Yet, death also happens. Sometimes you have to pack up and move on. In the process, things get lost.

On 1 May 1994, the world lost the biggest racing talent this planet has yet seen. A quarter of a century later and nothing has dimmed the pain, except the joy delivered by Ayrton Senna in his 34 years on this mortal coil.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Lockdown For
Brought to you by
Voting Booth
Who do you feel was at fault for Verstappen and Hamilton's Italian GP crash?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
26% - 1542 votes
43% - 2579 votes
They were both at fault
31% - 1859 votes