It was 18 years ago today that the world lost Ayrton Senna. He was one of the most naturally gifted racing drivers in the history of motorsport and is right near the top (in many people’s opinion, he is at the very top) of the illustrious pantheon of F1 greats. Above everything else, Senna was a racer.
"Racing, competing, it's in my blood. It's part of me, it's part of my life; I have been doing it all my life and it stands out above everything else."
So I decided to give myself the near impossible task of coming up with my top 5 Senna F1 races. Trawling through the annals of my F1 memories (which do get progressively more hazy with time), my initial short-list comprised 12 races with at least four being in Monaco (to be fair, he did win it 6 times!). After a lot of thought and deliberation and afternoon coffee, I have finally settled upon my Top Five. So here goes…in the following order.
1. European GP (1993)
At the very top of the pile, it has to be Donington in 1993.
Donington Park was hosting its first Grand Prix in 55 years. Even before the race it had been raining very heavily. Way back in 1993 when the Williams marque reigned supreme, their two drivers, Alain Prost and Damon Hill, were dominating the field. Their state of the art cars had traction control, active suspension and a phenomenal Renault engine. Michael Schumacher had qualified third in the up and coming Benetton and we all know now what he can do in the rain. Senna qualified 4th on the grid in a struggling McLaren underpowered by a Ford Cosworth.
After a bit of a tussle at the start between Schumacher and Senna, Karl Wendlinger (remember him?) sneaked past into 3rd and Senna was down into 5th place.
But that was all before The Greatest First Lap Ever in F1 history.
Ayrton Senna showed his unbelievable car control and bravery to overtake four cars (three of which driven by future world champions) in the space of A Single Lap to lead the European GP.
Senna eventually won the race in appalling and constantly changing weather conditions. He finished 1:23.199 ahead of Damon Hill who was in 2nd place (which in Formula 1 terms is akin to around 6 or 7 hours) and had lapped everyone else, including his ultimate arch-nemesis, Alain Prost! His sublime driving skill and prowess in the rain meant he led 71 of the 76 laps on that day.
2. Portugal GP (1985)
This was Senna’s first race win and one which set a ridiculously high benchmark for the rest. He had qualified his Lotus on pole for the very first time, with Prost and De Angelis right behind him. In atrocious wet weather conditions and in a car with no traction control and a manual gearbox, he opened up a commanding lead. As Senna drove imperiously around Estoril in the most treacherous of conditions, there was utter carnage on the track behind him. Among the many who crashed out were Rosberg the Elder, Lauda and Prost. There is no way F1 cars would be allowed to race in such conditions today. And in a way that is a big shame.
Senna would win by over a minute from the second placed Alboreto in the Ferrari and lapped every single other driver (up to and including Tambay in 3rd place). In fact he was so dominant that day that he recorded his first grand slam as well – he won from pole, led every lap, and set the fastest lap of the race. What a way to open your race-winning account.
3. Monaco GP (1984)
Apologies, another appallingly wet race (but they’re always the fun ones!). Senna in a totally rubbish Toleman, in his first season in F1, managed to qualify 13th on the grid. Basically at Monaco, where you qualify is where you usually finish, barring multiple pile-ups at the Loews hairpin (just checked out race weekend packages to stay in the hotel that’s right there and they are a mere snip at €4,850) or indeed a bucketload of rain. Guess what happened next?
By lap 19, Senna was in 2nd place and hunting down Prost like a man possessed. On lap 32, Prost slowed as he approached the start/finish line and Senna went past him. But moments later the race was red-flagged so the track positions as at the end of the previous lap were taken. When Alain Prost was still leading the Grand Prix. The race was ostensibly stopped due to ‘safety concerns’ (like anyone gave a flying toss about that back in the 80s) and the cynical among us might think that The Powerful and Mighty of F1 (some of whom were French) wanted Prost, a Frenchman, to have the race win. It sounds like a dumb cliché but Senna was the real winner that day. This race marked the arrival of a genius on the grand stage of Formula 1.
4. Brazilian GP (1991)
Unbelievably by 1991, with two world championships under his belt, Senna had never won his home Grand Prix. It cannot be overstated just how adored Senna was in his native country. He was a global icon, a national hero and their greatest ambassador all rolled into one.
It all should have been so easy. Senna started from pole and was comfortably leading for most of the race. Until disaster struck. On lap 60, in the rain (always, the rain), Senna’s car broke. It jammed into 6th gear. No other gear was available, just 6th gear. This would make most F1 cars totally undriveable unless they were being driven by Ayrton Senna. Senna pushed himself through and beyond any physical limits known to man to keep his car on course. This was the victory he had dreamt of for years and wanted more than any other. He sealed the win and was so physically and emotionally overcome, he could barely stand or lift the trophy on the podium.
5. Monaco GP (1992)
This was the Year of Our Nige. He had blown away the rest of field and had won the first five races by a country mile. Next up was Monaco and in the childhood ranch, there was great excitement that Mansell was going to win in Monaco for the very first time. Okay Senna was pretty good in Monaco (ie. he had won it every year bar one since 1987) but this year he was in a unreliable and fairly dismal McLaren. And our Nige had plonked his Williams on pole. What could possibly go wrong?
Mansell zoomed off into the lead and it looked like Senna had settled for 2nd place until on lap 68, Mansell made an unexpected pitstop. Senna moved into the lead and then as Mansell caught him, there was an almighty battle between the two as Mansell tried literally everything to get past the McLaren. Their duel on the narrow, twisting streets of Monaco was utterly thrilling and compelling but, in the end, Senna of course triumphed with Mansell finishing 0.2 seconds behind him.
That's not a bad top five but I'm sure (in fact I know!) that I have missed off some sensational races. There were so many brilliant, sublime drives by Senna. So thank you, Ayrton.