25 years since Ayrton Senna’s first F1 win at Estoril

1985 Portuguese Grand Prix flashback

Senna became a Grand Prix winner for Lotus on this day 25 years ago

Senna became a Grand Prix winner for Lotus on this day 25 years ago

Today is the 25th anniversary of Ayrton Senna’s first win in Formula 1.

Despite atrocious conditions, which F1 cars would not be allowed to race in today, the Brazilian dominated and won by more than a minute.

Senna on pole

Senna’ first race for Lotus at home in Brazil ended in retirement with an engine problem.

The fault continued to dog the team when they arrived at Estoril in Portugal for the second round of the championship. Senna had to switch to the spare car during practice until that one stopped with a clutch problem, further hindering his preparations for the race.

He shrugged off these problem to top both qualifying sessions, beating Alain Prost to pole position and out-qualifying team mate Elio de Angelis by 1.1 seconds. It was the first time Senna had ever started a race from pole position – another 64 would soon follow:

1985 Portuguese Grand Prix grid

Row 1 1. Ayrton Senna 1’21.007
Lotus-Renault
2. Alain Prost 1’21.420
McLaren-TAG
Row 2 3. Keke Rosberg 1’21.904
Williams-Honda
4. Elio de Angelis 1’22.159
Lotus-Renault
Row 3 5. Michele Alboreto 1’22.577
Ferrari
6. Derek Warwick 1’23.084
Renault
Row 4 7. Niki Lauda 1’23.288
McLaren-TAG
8. Andrea de Cesaris 1’23.302
Ligier-Renault
Row 5 9. Nigel Mansell* 1’23.594
Williams-Honda
10. Nelson Piquet 1’23.618
Brabham-BMW
Row 6 11. Stefan Johansson 1’23.652
Ferrari
12. Patrick Tambay 1’24.111
Renault
Row 7 13. Riccardo Patrese 1’24.230
Alfa Romeo
14. Eddie Cheever* 1’24.563
Alfa Romeo
Row 8 15. Manfred Winkelhock 1’24.721
RAM-Hart
16. Thierry Boutsen 1’24.747
Arrows-BMW
Row 9 17. Gerhard Berger 1’24.842
Arrows-BMW
18. Jacques Laffite 1’24.943
Ligier-Renault
Row 10 19. Francois Hesnault 1’25.717
Brabham-BMW
20. Philippe Alliot 1’26.187
RAM-Hart
Row 11 21. Stefan Bellof 1’27.284
Tyrrell-Cosworth
22. Martin Brundle 1’27.602
Tyrrell-Cosworth
Row 12 23. Jonathan Palmer 1’28.166
Zakspeed
24. Mauro Baldi 1’28.473
Spirit-Hart
Row 13 25. Pierluigi Martini* 1’28.596
Minardi-Cosworth
26. Piercarlo Ghinzani 1’30.855
Osella-Alfa Romeo

*Started from the pit lane

Turmoil at Toleman – and Ferrari

For the second race in a row Toleman were absent from the paddock. The team, which Senna had driven for in 1984, had not been able to find a tyre supplier for the new season.

That left Stefan Johansson and John Watson without drives. Fortunately one had just become available – at Ferrari. Enzo Ferrari had dropped Rene Arnoux just one race into the Frenchman’s third season with the team.

Rumours abounded over whether this was a consequence from Arnoux’s poor performance throughout much of 1984, or something more salacious. The official line – that Arnoux had not fully recovered from leg surgery over the winter – was widely ignored.

Toleman agreed to release Johansson from his contract and Ferrari has its first ever Swedish F1 driver.

Crashes and spins

As rain began to fall before to race started Brian Hart, who had built engines for Toleman the year before, told anyone who would listen that Senna was going to run away with the race.

Sure enough, Senna led the field away on a damp track. No-one threatened him for the lead in the opening laps and behind him there was chaos.

Keke Rosberg stalled his Williams on the grid and one by one the cars dodged around him. Jonathan Palmer failed to swerve quickly enough and clipped the FW10 with his Zakspeed. Palmer was out with broken suspension, but Rosberg managed to get going and re-join the race.

Ferrari newcomer Stefan Johansson had a baptism of fire. Riccardo Patrese knocked him into a spin just a few laps into the race. Then Johansson spun on his own, damaging his front wing. Later he pitted to have his sticking front-left brake un-jammed.

For some drivers the abject conditions were too much – particularly those on Pirellis. Both Ligier drivers and Nelson Piquet all retired because their Pirelli wet weather tyres were hopelessly uncompetitive. Piquet made so many pit stops he even changed into a dry pair of overalls during one of them.

Too wet to race – but they did

Patrick Tambay charges through the spray in Estoril

Patrick Tambay charges through the spray in Estoril

As the rain started to fall more heavily, Senna pulled further away from the chasing de Angelis and Prost. Occasionally the McLaren driver moved to pass the Lotus, but de Angelis kept him at bay.

By half-race distance the rain was at its worst, forming deep pools on the track. The drivers struggled to keep their cars under control on the straights. But 25 years ago there were no safety cars and the race carried on – in spite of danger to drivers and marshals that would be completely unacceptable today.

By now Rosberg’s race was over. The lumpy power delivery of his Honda turbo engine caught him out at the Parabolica, his Williams snapped out of control and hit the barrier. The steering wheel spun in his hands, breaking his thumb. The car finally came to a halt at the exit of the fast turn that led the cars onto the main straight.

A team of marshals worked to push the stricken car from the racing line clear. With another car parked up at the inside of the turn from another accident, oncoming drivers had to weave through the wreckage with very poor visibility.

On lap 30, while chasing de Angelis down the main straight, Prost’s McLaren snapped out of control. It spun down the straight and rear-ended the barrier. Prost climbed out of his cockpit and retired.

While this was going on Senna had his hands out of the cockpit, waving at the race organisers and urging them to stop the race because of the atrocious conditions.

This had more than a hint of irony about it – Prost had done the exact same thing at Monaco the year before in similar conditions while Senna was bearing down on him. On that occasions the organisers took a controversial decision to stop the race and thereby hand victory to Prost.

This time the race kept going. But still Senna pulled away inexorably, drawing further ahead of the chasing pack with every lap.

Perfect win

Senna’s drive was relentless. Only in the closing stages did he ease up the pace, by which time he had lapped almost everybody. De Angelis wasn’t able to make it a one-two for the team – he was passed by Michele Alboreto and Patrick Tambay and finished fourth.

Nigel Mansell took fifth after an eventful race. Like Rosberg, he’d been caught out by the Honda’s power delivery, hitting a barrier on his way to the grid. This was his second crash of the weekend having been hit by Eddie Cheever in a bizarre incident during practice.

He had to start from the pit lane after repairs to his car, but battled through the field to take two points for fifth place. He was busy fighting off Stefan Bellof’s Tyrrell as they crossed the line, and lost control of his car on the straight, hitting the barriers once again.

Fortunately he missed the crowd of Lotus mechanics who had broken onto the track to celebrate with Senna while cars charged past in plumes of spray.

His maiden victory could not have been more emphatic. He took pole position, set fastest lap, led every lap and won the race. Alboreto was the only other driver to complete the race distance of 67 laps – shortened from 70 under the two-hour time limit – and even Mansell in fifth place was two laps behind.

While commentators rushed to heap praise on Senna, the man himself insisted it had not been a perfect drive. But years later he described it as being more special than even one of his most celebrated victories:

The big danger was that the conditions changed all the time. Sometimes the rain was very heavy, sometimes not.

I couldn’t see anything behind me. It was difficult even to keep the car in a straight line sometimes, and for sure the race should have been stopped.

Once I nearly spun in front of the pits, like Prost, and I was lucky to stay on the road. People think I made no mistakes but that’s not true – I’ve no idea how many times I went off! Once I had all four wheels on the grass, totally out of control, but the car came back onto the circuit.

People later said that my win in the wet at Donington in ’93 was my greatest performance. No way! I had traction control OK, I didn’t make any real mistakes, but the car was so much easier to drive. It was a good win, sure, but compared with Estoril ’85 it was nothing, really.
Ayrton Senna

1985 Portuguese Grand Prix result

Pos Num Driver Car Laps Difference
1 12 Ayrton Senna Lotus-Renault 67 2hrs 00’28.006
2 27 Michele Alboreto Ferrari 67 1’02.978
3 15 Patrick Tambay Renault 66 1 Lap
4 11 Elio de Angelis Lotus-Renault 66 1 Lap
5 5 Nigel Mansell Williams-Honda 65 2 Laps
6 4 Stefan Bellof Tyrrell-Cosworth 65 2 Laps
7 16 Derek Warwick Renault 65 2 Laps
8 28 Stefan Johansson Ferrari 62 5 Laps
9 24 Piercarlo Ghinzani Osella-Alfa Romeo 61 6 Laps
Not classified
9 Manfred Winkelhock RAM-Hart 50
1 Niki Lauda McLaren-TAG 49 Engine
23 Eddie Cheever Alfa Romeo 36 Engine
2 Alain Prost McLaren-TAG 30 Spun
25 Andrea de Cesaris Ligier-Renault 29 Tyres
18 Thierry Boutsen Arrows-BMW 28 Electrics
7 Nelson Piquet Brabham-BMW 28 Tyres
3 Martin Brundle Tyrrell-Cosworth 20 Transmission
21 Mauro Baldi Spirit-Hart 19 Spun
6 Keke Rosberg Williams-Honda 16 Spun
26 Jacques Laffite Ligier-Renault 15 Tyres
17 Gerhard Berger Arrows-BMW 12 Spun
29 Pierluigi Martini Minardi-Ford 12 Spun
22 Riccardo Patrese Alfa Romeo 4 Spun
10 Philippe Alliot RAM-Hart 3 Spun
8 Francois Hesnault Brabham-BMW 3 Electrics
30 Jonathan Palmer Zakspeed 2 Suspension

Did you see this race?

Were you at the 1985 Portuguese Grand Prix? Did you watch it live? If so, please tell us about it in the comments.

Video: 1985 Portuguese Grand Prix highlights

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Images (C) Lotus Racing, Renault

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62 comments on 25 years since Ayrton Senna’s first F1 win at Estoril

  1. Those were the days senna the fastest ever master in the rain and the king of monaco a brilliant driver in is own right a long with prost,piquet,rosberg,lauda.He’s a legend just like schumacher he would have won more titles if he was’nt killed r.i.p senna the king

  2. Jackie Stewart has never argued for the elimination of all risk in motor racing, but rather for the elimination of needless risk.

    Stewart’s views on safety are understandably coloured by his accident at Spa in 1966. He found himself trapped in the upturned BRM with fuel leaking into the cockpit and next to no help from the nearest marshalls, who didn’t have so much as a spanner to undo the steering wheel to release him from his car. A single spark could have added Stewart to the long list of drivers killed in the 1960s and made him a footnote rather than a three time champion. When Stewart was eventually released from his car (by two fellow drivers) the ambulance promptly got lost on the way to the nearest hospital. A non-serious, non-fatal accident could have so easily become a fatal one.

    It wasn’t the inherent risk of crashing a racing car that got to Stewart, it was the fact that so much life was being lost because of a casual disregard for safety.

    Look at Roger Williamson’s death at Zandvoort in 1973. A tyre failure put Williamson’s March off the circuit and into an unsecured barrier that acted as a launching ramp. The car landed upside-down and burst into flames. Williamson was trapped and none of the marshalls had flameproof clothing or sufficient firefighting equipment. One driver (David Purley) tried desperately to right the car, but couldn’t. Williamson survived the crash relatively unscathed and died from smoke inhalation.

    Motor racing will always be dangerous – look at what happened to Henry Surtees just last year. But there is a distinction to be made between inherent risk in an activity and the risks that don’t need to be taken. I don’t think anyone seriously wants to go back to the days when talented drivers died for the most futile and pointless reasons.

    • Joey-Poey said on 22nd April 2010, 3:49

      I think this expresses my sentiment pretty spot on. Let the cars go fast. The the barriers punish mistakes. We’ll do all we can to keep it from being deadly, but let the cars race, for goodness sake.

  3. Nuno said on 21st April 2010, 17:19

    I live 7 miles away from Autodromo do Estoril and I was there in 1985.

    By then I already knew Ayrton quite well. I started following his career in the 70`s when he was racing in karts. He raced an international kart competition here in Estoril in the 70’s and that was the first time I watched him racing. I was stunned with his kart drive. He was incredibly quick, and spectacular. He always started in the middle of the grid because he had several technical issues, and I had the chance of seeing him overtaking everybody. Finally he didn´t win due to those technical problems but what a great show. The big guns were racing there, and you didn´t need to be a specialist to apreciate his drive. He was so much better than the other stars… And by far and large.

    Since then I just tried to read everything about him, and in 1984 I had the chance of talking to him in the pits of Estoril GP. He drove a Toleman in that year.

    In 1985 he drove a Lotus in Estoril. I was siting just in front of his pit box. Some minutes before he came out, he was sitting inside his Lotus (inside the box), and the sky was very cloudy. In the pit lane I could see Gerard Ducarouge looking at the sky. As soon as the first drops of rain started to fall, Ducarouge pointed to the sky and looked at Ayrton, who immediately understood that it was coming, and reacted to that message with a happy thumb up.

    Some minutes after that he started his engine, came out from his box and came to the grid. From that moment I was almost sure that we could have a boring race. And that´s what happened. The race began, and he immeditely started to pull away from everyone else. After three laps his advantage was too large, in fact so large that everybody understood that the race could finish there. The guy succeeded to kill the race in just three laps.

    Usually I love wet races but that one was different. It was just too boring. He just kept pulling away, and away, and he just desapeared.

  4. Great post Keith.

    Big thanks to you and to Kowalsky and Nuno also for sharing with us their experience (live) in this GP.

  5. DamionShadows said on 21st April 2010, 22:58

    I don’t know about the rest of you, but that has got to be the greatest, most legendary race car livery ever.

  6. claudioff said on 22nd April 2010, 13:12

    “By now Rosberg’s race was over. The lumpy power delivery of his Honda turbo engine caught him out at the Parabolica, his Williams snapped out of control and hit the barrier”

    A great driver isn´t only the one who is the first to accelerate and the last to brake. A great driver is pursuing at every corner the optimum condition.

    The lumpy power is due the turbo lag. One of the best stories about Senna I know is the one of a Monaco Grand Prix (I don´t remember the year). It was rainning and he realize that he was going much faster simply turning off the turbo…

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 22nd April 2010, 14:34

      1984. Probably not an option at a quicker track like Estoril though.

      • claudioff said on 22nd April 2010, 19:54

        That´s exactly my point. Probably he didn´t it in Estoril, but, the question is: how many drivers turned off their turbos in Monaco in 1984? Schumacher usualy modified his car setup many times during a single lap.

  7. Chaz said on 24th April 2010, 13:25

    It’s amazing what a high regard Senna is still held in. After all these years, so many remember and still aspire to be as good as him. He really was something special…

  8. luisfernando- rio de janeiro said on 30th April 2010, 16:57

    senna the best.

  9. NIma said on 12th August 2011, 9:10

    @ GeeMac… since you did watch F1 back then and I didn’t.. did you know the drivers back then had ABS and Traction control? there are NO driver aids NOW not back then they were banned in 1994 or 93. the modern F1 driver has like 15 buttons and switches which he uses every race more than 25 different setting modes that they have to play with at 190 MPH while overtaking and or defending… you’re telling me thats not skill? NO ONE can ever be like Senna don’t even bother bringing Senna in comparison to any driver not even Prost.. or Schuewy( Ferrari’s dominance like Redbull now) even Ayrton Senna spun after TC got banned… the drivers now are talented and are fast the only things that changed is that they aren’t crazy for doing it anymore cuz its safe and the gear changes are easier

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