Senna stage

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 54, Spring 2018

Page 20

Ayrton Senna was not just a racing driver – he was an artist. Richard Williams remembers a man whose brilliance reached beyond the confines of sport

For more than one generation of Formula One fans, Ayrton Senna remains the perfect Grand Prix driver. His shocking death in 1994, in a mid-race crash, was televised to the world. He was 34 years old and at the height of his powers, which ensured that the image of perfection remains untarnished by the decline that would, one day, inevitably have blunted the edge of his gifts.

First among those gifts was sheer speed. He was fast, of course. The fastest of his own time, and perhaps the equal in speed to the very greatest of his predecessors. And he looked like everyone's idea of a Grand Prix driver. He was handsome, with the kind of looks that transfer seamlessly from the victory podium to the nightclub dancefloor or the deck of a superyacht. The camera loved him, wherever he was.

But he was also a complicated man, and that was what really made him stand out from his rivals as soon as he emerged from the bosom of a loving, supportive and well-to-do family in São Paulo. Even his gift of speed was not entirely straightforward, being based on the kind of virtuosity that might be more easily compared to that of a great violinist than to the normal attributes of a racing driver.

Many violinists can play a Bach partita at the correct speed and with all the notes in the proper order, but only the very best can find an extra shot of feeling to make the experience transcend the score.

Senna's driving was imbued with a degree of emotion that spectators could not miss. They could see it in the attitude of his car as he turned it into a 150mph bend, and sometimes they could hear it in the sound of his engine as he juggled between the throttle and the brake, using rapid shifts between the two to keep the car balanced through the corner with an unearthly sensitivity beyond the capacity of his competitors. It could be seen in the way he overtook opponents, sometimes with sudden stealth but on occasion shouldering his way past with a brusque and even brutal thrust, testing the limits all the way and at times, on purpose, exceeding them.

The parallel with musicians extends into the area known as 'the zone'. Improvisers know it well. They enter the zone at the point where all their years of accumulated experience and acquired skills disappear from their conscious mind, leaving them free to exploit the highest form of applied intuition, allowing the music to flow as if under supernatural guidance.

That phenomenon occurs in sport, too. Most famously, it happened to Senna in practice for the Monaco Grand Prix in 1988, when he posted
a lap time almost two seconds faster than his nearest competitor. In a sport measuring margins in hundredths of a second, two seconds is an eternity. Senna might have been in the same race as the rest of the field, but he was in a different league – and his subsequent description of the experience added a layer of mystery to the feat.

"I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously," he told the Canadian journalist Gerald Donaldson. "I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel. I was just going and going, more and more and more and more. I was way over the limit but still able to find even more."

The tight little circuit around the streets of Monaco provided him – as it did those other great virtuosi, Tazio Nuvolari and Stirling Moss – with the finest of settings for the expression of his art. In 1993, Senna swept into motoring history when he won an unprecedented sixth Monaco Grand Prix in the McLaren-Ford MP4/8A that Bonhams will offer in the principality in May. The onboard film of his feats as he skimmed the guard rails at the famous corners of Sainte Dévote, Massenet, Mirabeau, Portier and the Tabac on each 3.3km lap provides the best possible evidence for claims that he was examining the outer edge of human capability.

The spiritual side of Senna's personality went beyond the ritual genuflections that Latin sportsmen often make before entering the contest. So many photographs, even at the race track, show him in reflective mode, his brown eyes seemingly turned inwards, away from the gaudy bustle of the paddock. His spirituality was not easily pinned down and defined, but he was one of the few racing drivers of his era – any era, come to that – unafraid to discuss his feelings publicly. Whatever it was he believed in, he believed it so deeply that he was unafraid of the potential for embarrassment that can deter others from opening themselves up to the world.

"I am able to experience God's presence here on earth," he once said. But there was never any danger that he would be mocked for his beliefs, even when he spoke in 1988, after winning his first world championship in the final race in Japan, of having a vision of God before him as he accelerated out of the last corner towards the chequered flag.

Although he read the Bible on long-haul flights, he gave his loyalty to no specific denomination. "If I go to church," he once said, "I go on my own and I like to be there alone. I find more peace that way."

That tantalisingly opaque mentality, as much as the three World Championships, the 41 Grand Prix wins, the 80 pole positions and the continuing good works performed among Brazil's poorest children by the Senna Foundation, is what allows this complex, even contradictory man to live on. Almost a quarter of a century after that tragic afternoon at Imola, wherever Formula One cars are raced, Ayrton Senna's name will be spoken.

Richard Williams has written several books on motor racing, including The Death of Ayrton Senna and Enzo Ferrari: A Life.

Sale: The Monaco Sale
'Les Grandes Marques à Monaco'
Friday 11 May
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Monaco '93 was one of Ayrton's greatest tests. Doug Nye gets the inside story from the designer of Senna's car

This year's Bonhams Monaco sale falls on the 25th anniversary of one of Ayrton Senna's greatest exploits: with his 1993 win, Senna broke Graham Hill's long-standing career record of five Monaco GP victories. Neil Oatley, chief designer of the MP4/8A that Senna drove, sits in his library-quiet office at the space-age McLaren Technology Centre in Surrey, and recalls that year's unusually hectic race programme.

"After four years of supplying our F1 engines, Honda withdrew from racing too late in '92 for us immediately to find another engine supplier. It was October before a stopgap deal was struck with a reluctant Ford Motor Company. They were already committed to the Benetton team, but agreed to rent engines to us. These had to be run with strict conditions, enforced by Ford's specialists, Cosworth Engineering.

"In early testing, they were paranoid about our drivers inadvertently over-revving their engines. If the limit was 12,000rpm and the driver came in with 12,019 on the data record, Cosworth's guys would insist that we change the engine. Their concern was understandable: they owned them – and they had to repair them."

Team principal Ron Dennis had been trying desperately to persuade three-time World Champion Ayrton Senna to stay with McLaren despite losing Honda's resources. The intense Brazilian was suspicious of these 'second string' Ford V8 engines that had replaced the dominant Honda V12, but he was contracted to McLaren for the year. He instead negotiated a race-by-race contract for a rumoured fee of $1,000,000 per start.

Dennis teamed American IndyCar Champion Michael Andretti with Ayrton, and signed young Finnish hope Mika Häkkinen as test driver. That year's man to beat? Former McLaren driver – and Senna's arch rival – Alain Prost.

"When the engine decision was made in October '92, the new car's design was quite advanced, even though we had no idea of the size and shape of the engine we would be using. Until we knew the demands of the fresh engine, there was much we couldn't finalise. Then, once we finally knew that we would be using the Ford, it was a race against time to get ready for first tests at Silverstone in February '93.

"As Formula One cars go, ours was quite simple, but – even 25 years ago – every F1 car was complex. Each was a subtle balance of the latest technology against the absolute limits of what regulations would permit. Although we wound up with one of the simplest contemporary engines, our technology was among the most advanced.

"Ayrton's race engineer Giorgio Ascanelli developed the active suspension with Pat Fry, and this Monaco-winning MP4/8 retains the active system today.

"In those days, the design team was based in Woking. It was an intimate, informal and formidably efficient operation. In initial testing, the drivers (including Senna) were happy because the Ford V8 – though shy on maximum horsepower – was lighter and more efficient than its opposition. First time out, in the South African GP, we were very competitive: although Prost won, Ayrton finished second. In Brazil, Ayrton scored McLaren's 100th Grand Prix win. At Donington Park – in the wet – he drove a wonderful race, and won again."

The Brazilian superstar first drove the car that is offered by Bonhams at Monaco – chassis '6 – in the Spanish GP at Barcelona, again finishing second behind Prost. And so to Monte Carlo...

"Late in Thursday practice, Ayrton crashed approaching Sainte Dévote corner – tweaking his thumb painfully against the steering wheel. We first suspected a suspension breakage had caused the accident, but investigation revealed it was something more elusive. The active suspension received an input that had not been allowed for in the programming, a bump and kerb touch dropped the rear ride height, pitching the car into the barriers.'

Happily, chassis '6 was easily repaired during the Friday rest day, and Ayrton drove it throughout qualifying and the race. Benetton had the latest Ford engine, but McLaren had to run the old mechanical-valve units. Ayrton moaned – his bandaged thumb hurt. He wasn't happy but still qualified third despite another incident, right at the end of qualifying.

"On race day, Prost jumped the start, and finally – after ten laps – he was ordered into the pits for a stop-go penalty. He then stalled, losing more time. This left Schumacher leading for Benetton, with Ayrton second, just keeping up the pressure. After 33 of the 78 laps, Schumacher dropped out with hydraulic failure. Ayrton kept charging round in chassis '6 – and we won!" D.C.N.

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