Ayrton Senna - The Formula 1 Years Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Ayrton Senna - The Formula 1 Years

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A painting of Ayrton Senna

Ayrton Senna entered the world of Formula 1 in the year of 1984. He wanted to go to Brabham and was possibly too keen, as their lead driver, Nelson Piquet, vetoed Senna's move into the team. This left it too late for him to negotiate with other top teams. The Toleman F1 team became his only option and secured Senna to a three-year contract. Their choice of driver would see Senna thrown into the limelight over the next ten years.

Toleman 1984

This team was small compared to other teams of that season, such as the McLaren, Brabham or Williams F1 cars, but they possessed a strong engine supplied by Hart Turbo Engines. Senna didn't actually win a race that year - however, his driving skills were outstanding. He won his first championship points at Kylami, the South African Grand Prix on 7 April of that year, when he crossed the line in sixth place. Senna did make mistakes, some of them costly, some of them not so much: driving the car into the wall outside the pits at Detroit wrecked the car, yet a similar mistake at the Monaco Grand Prix1 wasn't as bad, still giving him the chance to carry on and drive to the end of the race. At the end of the year, Senna was ranked ninth place in the standings, which was also the same position as Nigel Mansell. Senna later bought himself out of the contract with the Toleman team to enable him to move to a more competitive team.

Lotus 1985 - 1987

In 1985, Senna moved to Lotus. A much more competitive team, with more money to be able to build up a competitive car, which was powered by the Renault engine. Already Senna had begun to be disliked by some in the pit lane. He was seen to be arrogant and self absorbed. His driving partner was Elio De Angelis and both drove the 97T car. That year Senna set the first of 65 career pole positions at the Brazilian Grand Prix2. His pole position record stood for many years, until Michael Schumacher beat this in 2006.

Senna's first championship points of that year came from the second round race in Estoril on 21 April, 1985. Starting from pole position, during treacherous driving conditions which saw Alain Prost go off the track and into the wall, Senna won his first race. Senna's wet weather driving techniques were impressive to watch. Unfortunately, many mechanical failures happened during that year and he only managed to win one more Grand Prix3. The overall results for Senna that season were: two wins, two second places and two third places. He finished the season with 38 championship points.

1986 was Senna's second year with the Lotus Team. It proved to be better year than the last, as the car was more a reliable and consistent package. The car did, however, still have some mechanical failures and these ruined the chances of Senna fighting for the championship alongside Alain Prost and Piquet and Mansell. He did manage to lead the World Championship for the first time in his career after holding off Nigel Mansell at the Spanish Grand Prix - he won the race by some 0.014 of a second. His second victory of the year was in Detroit4. After this Senna came second in four further races and third in two more. He finished the season with some 55 points.

1987 saw Lotus part company with Renault after they decided to leave Formula 1. They now had the Honda engine. Senna seemed to become one with the car after a slow start to the year, and managed to win his first Monaco Grand Prix. This was his first win out of six that he would achieve at the principality during his career. This record still stands today5.

The following race at Detroit was also won by Senna and this gave him the lead in the World Championship. The car was good underneath him and he managed to keep up with Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell in the Williams-Honda cars. A faulty clutch at Mexico was his undoing - as he was unable to finish the race, the Championship slipped away from his grasp. Senna was then racing for third place in the Drivers Championship. It was not until the Japanese Grand Prix, which saw Mansell badly bruise his back in practice, that Senna realised he could still fight for second place. In the last two races of the season, Senna came second which meant he had second place in the championship. Unfortunately, after the car was scrutinised at the end of the last race, it came about that Senna had illegal brake ducts: they were too big. This was his last race with Lotus and it ended sadly, but Senna had built a strong relationship with the Honda manufacturers.

McLaren 1988 - 1993

McLaren came knocking on Senna's door for the 1988 season. He would partner Alain Prost and the ferocious competition between the two teammates saw the start of many racing incidents. Between the two drivers, they managed to win 15 of the 16 races that year6, with Senna earning more points than Prost. He had won his first drivers World Championship.

In 1989 the battles on the race track also saw a psychological war off track. The rivalry between Senna and Prost had intensified greatly. The most famous of that year was at Suzuka. The two cars tangled as Senna made an attempt to overtake Prost. Prost knew that if neither of the McLaren cars finished, Prost would win the championship. Prost came off the track with Senna, but Senna managed to limp back to the pits for a new nose cone. He then went on to re-take the lead to win the race, and a second championship. He was then disqualified from the race for illegally cutting the chicane. Prost won the championship by default.

With pole position at the Suzuka circuit in 1990 being on the dirtier right-hand side, Senna had asked for the pole position to be moved to the other side of the track. Senna maintained that this was agreed. He then went on to take pole position, only to find that the officials had reversed their decision. The start of the race saw Senna drive into the car of Prost. Telemetry from Senna's car showed that he had not even attempted to brake as they reached the corner. Both drivers went off the track and out of the race. Senna won the championship for the second time. Later on, Senna admitted that he took Prost out as payback for Suzuka the previous year. Some accused Senna of bringing in a video game attitude of winning at all costs into the sport. Some years later Michael Schumacher was to have the same accusation levied at him.

1991 saw the introduction of semi-automatic gearboxes and traction control in the Williams car, which was powered by the Renault V10 engine. Senna was still driving the McLaren car with the Honda V12 engine, which was obviously inferior to the Williams. However, Williams had reliability problems at the start of the season. This was also the year that Gerhard Berger joined McLaren as Senna's driving partner. The first four races saw Senna get four pole positions and four race wins. No one had ever done it before. That year also saw an increase in points for a win - it was now 10 points instead of 9. Senna now had 40 championship points.

The Williams car began to improve at Monaco. Mansell took second place as Senna won. The Canadian Grand Prix looked like it was all going Mansell's way. He was more than a minute in the lead. Mansell began waving to the crowd, then as he took the final hairpin his engine died. Nelson Piquet went on to win that race. The Williams driver attempted to catch Senna during the rest of the season, but Mansell had a disqualification in Estoril and then came off the track into the sand trap in Suzuka. Aryton Senna won his 3rd Formula 1 Drivers Championship.

As the 1992 season began, Senna never gave up trying to catch and keep the Williams FW 14Bs in view. At Monaco that year, Senna and Mansell harried each other in a race that saw Mansell driving all over the back of Senna in his attempt to pass him. After a gruelling final three laps, Senna managed to win by only 0.215 seconds from Mansell, with Patresse a further 31 seconds behind them both. During the slow-down lap and later at the trophy presentation, a deep respect could be seen between both drivers. Sometimes Senna drove too hard. He crashed heavily at Mexico City where, fortunately, his only injuries were severely bruised legs. At Imola Senna tried so hard to improve on his third place in the race, he began to suffer from upper body cramps. So exhausted was Senna, that at the end of the race he remained slumped in his cockpit for some 20 minutes before attempting to get out of the car.

1993 looked like it would be a grid without Senna. The McLaren cars were not good, and he could not join Williams as Prost possessed a veto stopping Senna from moving to them. Considering a sabbatical from Formula 1, Senna did a test drive for Marlboro Team Penske of Indycar racing. The consideration of two F1 champions, Senna and Mansell, racing together in Indycar was a great scenario, but this never came about.

Senna swallowed his pride and drove for one final year with the McLaren team. Yet again, his car was inferior to the Williams car of Prost, but now he had the Benetton Team to contend with. The drivers for the Benetton Team were Michael Schumacher and Riccardo Patrese.

All was not lost though. Senna had huge experience by now and the 1993 European Grand Prix was a wet race - something only he was happy about, as he was the best in the wet. Senna was in fifth position going into the first corner. He had to avoid Michael Schumacher moving across the track at him. By the end of the first lap, Senna was leading the race. Such skill did Senna have in the wet, he went on to lap every car on the track which gave him the title of 'the Rain Master'7.

Another wet race in which Senna proved he was the 'Rain Master' was at the Donnington Park race track. Again, he was to trounce all other drivers by taking a completely different driving line around the track. The only person to not be overtaken by Senna was Damon Hill, but he was still some 80 seconds down the track by the time Senna took the chequered flag.

Williams 1994

1994 saw Senna finally get into a Williams Car. They were considered the best team to drive for, with the best car, and certainly a lot of money and a good engine underneath. The season's opening race was at Adelaide, Australia. Starting eighth on the grid, Senna won the first race of the season. A retirement in the second race, and a racing incident in the third, meant Senna was entering the fourth race of the season with just 10 points earned from the season's opener.

On Thursday, 28 April 1994, the Formula 1 entourage arrived at the San Marino Grand Prix based at Imola. The FIA had banned electronic driver aids. The drivers and teams were already apprehensive about the race. No one could have foreseen how disastrous the whole weekend would turn out to be. Rubens Barrichello suffered an extremely horrific accident which saw his car being launched into the air by the rumble strips. He hit the top of the barrier before being thrown back onto the track upside down. The medical teams rushed to his aid quickly. He had swallowed his tongue and was unconscious. Although Barrichello survived the accident, he would be out of the whole weekend's proceedings.

The next day saw even more unprecedented events take place. During qualifying, Roland Ratzenberger's front wing fell off and underneath the car. The car was launched up off the ground at some 200mph before hitting the wall at a reduced speed of around 180mph. As the car came to a slow stop, Ratzenberger could be seen slumped over inside the car. He was flown to hospital at Bologna, but a few minutes after arrival he was certified dead.

Sunday, 1 May 1994

The cars were lined up ready for the start of the race, having already done the 'warm-up' lap. What was to happen next would set in motion a series of catastrophic events that would plague the entire race.

J J Lehto stalled at the start of the race. All the other cars missed the Benetton, but Pedro Lamy didn't see it. He ran into the back of Lehto's car. The right-hand wheels of the Lotus car were thrown into the air, along with other parts off the cars. Most of it entered the Grandstand and four spectators were hurt. This triggered the safety car to come out whilst the track was cleared of debris. For four laps, the Formula 1 cars were line astern following the safety car around the track. The race restarted as a rolling start on lap five, with Senna in the lead.

The Accident

Lap six began with Senna still in the lead. At Tamburello Corner, his car went straight on. From onboard camera footage, it appeared that Senna did attempt to turn the steering wheel, but the car went straight into the wall, before spinning and coming to rest at the side of the circuit. The medics went to the aid of Senna who could be seen slumped to one side. Once the medics saw Senna, the race was immediately red flagged to enable them to work on him without the threat of another accident. For some time Senna lay still in the car, before they removed him from the cockpit and laid him on the ground. He would stay there for some 20 minutes being furiously attended to, before a helicopter arrived on the track to take him directly to hospital. While the helicopter was stationary there, someone had managed to remain on the track. The car could be heard revving up, then driving at speed, turning the blind corner and racing towards the helicopter. Marshals ran onto track, furiously waving their flags to prevent the car from driving directly into the helicopter. Who had let the car onto the track in the first place is unknown. Bearing Senna, the helicopter took off to the hospital.

Nobody in the paddock was aware of Senna's condition and the race was restarted. During the second round of pit stops, there was a pit lane accident. Michele Alboreto's Minardi lost a wheel and ran into the Ferrari mechanics. Debris from the incident also hurt a Lotus mechanic. Fortunately, nobody was killed.

The race was eventually won by Michael Schumacher, with Nicola Larini in second place.

That evening, the news came through that Senna had lost his life.

1This race was cut short due to bad weather.2Although he retired from this race due to electrical problems.3The Belgian GP.4The United States GP.5At the time of writing (June 2006).6The only race they didn't win was the Italian Grand Prix, which was won by the Ferrari team.7Again, this title was also given to Michael Schumacher.

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