Ayrton Senna spent six seasons racing for McLaren, during which time he won each three of his world championships and most of his 41 grand prix victories.
During that time McLaren team principal Ron Dennis became one of his closest confidantes and allies. Senna was killed three races after he left McLaren to join Williams.
Ahead of the twentieth anniversary of Senna’s death, Dennis spoke to a group of media at the McLaren Technology Centre and gave a candid account of the most famous driver who ever sat in one of his cars.
Go ad-free for just £1 per month
The first McLaren test
He made his mark immediately, demanding an extra run in the car after a problem on his original flying lap, then setting a scorching lap time. But Dennis had misgivings about his performance outside the cockpit.
“When he tested he came across very arrogant because he was very keen to get an advantage and was making quite sure the car wasn’t damaged by the other youngsters,” he recalled.
“I think we tested some other guys at the time [Martin Brundle and Stefan Bellof]. ‘Am I going to have fresh tyres’, etc… And he was – I mean he was clearly impressive there was no question he was impressive – he was still young.
To Dennis “he didn’t appeal very much” initially. “He’s quick and everything, but actually I’m not that interested, he’s too young to drive in our team so it doesn’t really matter, let him go and cut his teeth somewhere else.”
Senna ended up driving for Alex Hawkridge’s Toleman team. “I think he probably bought into Toleman,” said Dennis, “I doubt whether he was driving there not having any financial contribution.”
But Senna was soon back on Dennis’s radar during a famous, rain-soaked race at Monaco where he passed one McLaren belonging to Niki Lauda and was soon catching the other which was leading the race. But the race was red-flagged before Senna could make his bid for victory.
“Ironically, of course, there was those people who thought Monte-Carlo was stopped for the benefit of Alain [Prost] , but that created that very unusual half-point situation – the points were halved because the race wasn’t completed – only to see Prost lose by half a point in Estoril at the end of the season.
“I don’t know that if the race had finished, who knows whether Prost would have let Ayrton past. But what he was doing was spectacular, in such a rubbish car too – or I saw it that way.”
The Prost partnership
It took four years for Dennis to get Senna into a McLaren race seat. A complicated deal saw him arrive along with the powerful Honda engines he had used at Lotus. But when the time came to announce it, on the weekend of the 1987 Italian Grand Prix, Bernie Ecclestone insisted it should be done outside of the Monza paddock.
“We all had to decamp to the Philip Morris facility that was just adjacent to the paddock, quite interesting because of course it was quite clinical, neither driver could have their team clothes on – if you look at the pictures I think I’m in civilian clothes, as it were.”
But even at this early stage in Senna and Prost’s relationships doubts were forming over the viability of having two two drivers in the team.
“I could look at the people’s faces and it was the first time I could see Alain tensing up – ‘is this going to work?’,” said Dennis.
“Because he’d achieved number one status in the team, and suddenly he had this young guy who I’m sure had every knowledge of the competition.”
Go ad-free for just £1 per month
Ahead of their first full season together in 1988 Dennis was eager to assuage the fears of both drivers that the other would somehow get preferential treatment or equipment from part of the McLaren-Honda operation.
“I can remember looking at their faces and thinking ‘these guys, they’re not listening, they’re not with it’. And so I ramped the pressure and I could see [Honda F1 boss Yoshitoshi] Sakurai was tensing and they still didn’t get it.”
Dennis addressed them directly, telling Senna and Prost: “You have both in different ways communicated your concerns about having such strong team mates. And the only way this is going to work is if the team comes first.”
“We will give you equality. I will ensure, Alain, that you will get equality from Honda, because that is one of your concerns, and Ayrton you’ll get equality of car and everything. But your behaviour is critical, I’m a great believer in what is the behaviour of people, how do they think they should perform inside the team.”
Dennis said the pair had a “degree of an obsession” over engine preparation, as the Honda V6 turbo was F1’s class-leading power unit at the time. Careful steps were taken to ensure neither driver had cause for concern.
“There would be three engines, the Honda engineers would say ‘these are the two engines we think we should race’. And then it was again a good old coin [toss] who got the engine.
“Two people had to witness it, it was an internal drama in engine selection but it was clearly the easiest way to make sure there was no favouritism on engines.”
The relationship breaks down
Other arrangements were put in place to guard relations between the two drivers, including agreements not to contest each other in certain circumstances. This practice continued in 1989 after Senna won his first championship, but broke down spectacularly at Imola when Prost accused him of reneging on one of their ‘non-agression pacts’ after the race was restarted.
“They broke each other’s confidence,” Dennis recalled, “They were both to blame.”
“One was they both made commitments to each other several times. That was just the one that came into the public domain.”
Dennis resorted to tougher tactics in his attempt to impose order on his drivers. “There was tremendous tension and anger” after Imola, he said.
“And I suppose I can remember – and I’m not proud of this story at all – but they were testing in Pembrey and I flew up in a helicopter and the team had hired or owned at that time a Mercedes combi-bus, two bench seats facing each other.”
“I’m no pussycat as you know. And I resorted both of them to tears. The psychology was if I can be the bad guy and if I can make them hostile to me then they wouldn’t be hostile to each other. They would join up and say ‘isn’t Ron being tough?’ ‘Yeah, he’s being tough.’ That was a good way to handle them, to force them together by making me the point of focus.
“It’s a delicate thing, it’s not easy to get it right. It was much easier with Alain and Niki because really the deviousness was less with Niki than Alain. But these two were perfectly matched in deviousness, they played every game, they played the national press, go to Honda, lots of things. It’s challenging. But it was the way to handle it.”
His intervention was not enough to keep Prost in the team, and he arranged to join Ferrari in 1990. Nor was it enough to prevent Dennis’s nightmare situation from unfolding – at Suzuka that year his two drivers collided.
Prost cannot have failed to have known that he stood to claim the championship by taking out his team mate. But once Senna disentangled his car from his team mate’s he motored off the claim the victory and keep his championship hopes alive. Or so he thought – meanwhile Prost was lobbying FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre to intervene.
“Alain is trying to convince Jean-Marie and you could see it all taking place,” said Dennis. “I think Jean-Marie had probably said ‘find me something, find me a rule’. And the rule was that you had to enter the circuit at the point at which you exited it.”
Senna was excluded from the result of the race, and Dennis’s protest was in vain. “I was obviously emotional because it was such a stitch-up,” he said.
“We had footage of so many incidents where cars had left the circuit and rejoined the circuit successfully.
“I remember, I don’t mind saying it, Max [Mosley] was there and Max was at the time campaigning for election against Balestre, he was stoking me up big time, yeah yeah, ‘I’ll do everything I can, vote for me, help me win my election’. How naive was I? What do they say, ‘careful what you wish for’? At that point Jean-Marie wasn’t a great option to say the least.
“The sequence in the Senna film, every time I see it I laugh, where he’s talking about the chicane somewhere, of course the drivers are putting him under pressure, and it’s just complete Monty Python sketch that so typified the way he was and how un-knowledgeable he was about the sport. That was the frustration, he was un-knowledgeable about the sport and so politically motivated.”
Twelve months later, Senna extracted his revenge by taking Prost out of the same race at the first opportunity, sealing his second world championship by doing so. Dennis saw this as a rare moral lapse by Senna.
“I remember of course the race in Suzuka where he and Prost collided at the first corner. Me looking at all the traces, brake and throttle pedal, you didn’t need to be Einstein to work out what happened.
“And he came back and I said ‘I’m disappointed in you’. He got it. Didn’t have to say any more.
“It was one of his rare moments of weakness. I don’t think it’s anything he was particularly proud of. But it was the finishing touch when pole position was on the wrong side of the road. And he said ‘there’s no way I’m able to get to that first corner first. And if I don’t get to the first corner and I’m not let through I won’t be exiting it’. So it wasn’t a great moment.”
Senna stays – then quits
Facing the might of the Williams cars at the end of 1992, Dennis needed all of his negotiating skill to persuade Senna to return to the cockpit – particularly in the knowledge that Honda’s withdrawal had left them using customer Ford-Cosworth engines.
Eventually Dennis succeeded in getting Senna behind the wheel of the team’s new MP4-8. “He arrives at Silverstone, got in the car, went out and did one lap, warm-up lap, come in, check the car.”
“Said ‘OK’, do a couple of flying laps. Went out and did one flying lap. Stopped. I’m thinking, ‘OK…’. It was plug-in radios. Pulled back the car, about to plug into the car, seatbelts off, jumped out of the car. What’s going on?
“We go in the motorhome. He looked and said ‘I get it’. I said ‘what?’ he said ‘this engine’s amazing!'”
Senna took five victories that year but Prost clinched the title easily in his Williams. But as his nemesis headed for retirement, Senna prepared to take his place – unless Dennis could convince him to stay. At the season finale in Adelaide, he believes he almost did.
“At the last grand prix of course that was, we had a variety of people all over the place emotionally – I won’t use names, but people that just so far over their skis in emotion, goodness sake you guys I’m trying to get him to stay here, I don’t need anyone… just be calm!
“And he was hovering. He was really hovering. He said ‘but I signed a contract’. I said ‘look, the one thing about a contract, you’ve got to prove loss. And anyway I’ll underwrite anything if there’s a problem.’
He said ‘I have committed, I’ve made a commitment.’ I had him on the hover on the night of the race.”
Dennis drew a revealing comparison with Lewis Hamilton’s recent defection from the team to join Mercedes, which he decided after retiring from the 2012 Singapore Grand Prix.
“I know exactly how drivers – the absolute moment that Lewis decided not to drive for McLaren was the night of the Singaporean race. And Niki was in there like a rocket.
“Again I’m quite fascinated by the fact that when Niki recounts Singapore race he says ‘and I was so happy when the gearbox broke, blah blah blah’. There’ll be a moment where I can just point out that in fact in the Singaporean Grand Prix the gearbox didn’t break, it was a Mercedes mechanical fuel pump that broke at the Singaporean Grand Prix, the outcome being of course that the driver becomes emotionally prepared to effect a change.
“Don’t get me wrong, everything I said about it and this wasn’t a negotiation I was conducting, everything I said about drivers being having to respect the fact that they’re part of a team is true and has always been true. On the other hand I thought, going to Singapore, I was firmly of the opinion that Lewis would stay with us and that was an opinion held for various reasons.”
Dennis eventually secured the one thing that could have kept at McLaren – but by then it was too late:
“Exactly as I approached that last race I could see Ayrton was wrestling with loyalty, he was leaving the team.
“And in fact, as disastrous as our Peugeot experience was, the moment that we said we’ve got factory engines from Peugeot – this was after, of course, he left – he said ‘if you’d done that two months early I’d’ve stayed’. Because he just couldn’t see a way to win without a factory engine.”
Frustrations in 1994
“When it came to that period with Ayrton there was this respect and the respect was heightened by one common view which was we were racing against an illegal car.”
Senna had grown suspicious that Michael Schumacher’s Benetton was using an illegal traction control system. Another team, Ferrari, avoided a punishment for running a similar system on their car at the second race of the season.
“It was absolutely black-and-white illegal in the sense of traction control. And the politics of Formula One just didn’t react fast enough to address something that had no real relevance, suffice to say that the technology that had made Williams very attractive to him had subsequently been banned.
“So he went from one team to another on the basis of Williams technology, it was banned – so they were wrestling with the regulations in those first races – and I think that just heightened his frustration and I think the only thing that was discussed between us was more along the lines of ‘some things don’t change’ – effectively the politics and the behind-the-scenes issues would frustrate both of us greatly.”
However Dennis was adamant Senna’s beliefs about his rival’s car was not a factor in his fatal crash, insisting it would be “completely inaccurate” to suggest otherwise.
“It had no relevance to the accident, no relevance to how he drove,” Dennis stated.
“I want to stress so you are under no misconception, it had nothing to do with Ayrton’s life. He would get in a car and he’d do what he had to do to do the best job he can.
“This was a structural failure, full stop. If he hadn’t had the structural failure he’d have finished the race in whatever place. Down the road they would have improved the car and it might have been a world championship, who knows?”
“He was a great guy”
“He was so good for the period he was on the planet. I can see no positive-ness in the fact that he had an accident and lost his life. But what you didn’t see, you didn’t see any decline.
“And I think there’s lots of drivers that stay in the sport too long, and they tarnish their greatness. So maybe, and again it’s just the thought occurred it’s not something I’ve had in my head but you remember it’s just that he was unbelievably competitive and boom, he’s not there.
“So what do you remember? I never thought ‘I wonder what Ayrton would look like if he was here today?’ but of course one thing he would look, he would look a hell of a lot older. And he would have other things in his life that would have affected his reputation. He might have had a failed marriage, all sorts of things, but he didn’t, it just came to an abrupt end, so you remember that greatness.”
But he singled out the the fun of spending time with Senna as his most cherished memory of working with the three=times champion. Especially the notorious practice jokes he, Senna and Gerhard Berger played on each other in the nineties.
“At the Villa D’Este, one of the most sophisticated hotels in Italy, putting aside all the detail I just think about the scale of it – wallpapering a room with pornographic pictures.
“And coming back to the room and just looking and think ‘my goodness…’ You can imagine actually finding a solution to that was not that easy because of cause it wasn’t done without damaging the fabric of the room.”
“This was what lightened him up,” Dennis explained. “He didn’t have it in his childhood, he didn’t have the concept, they don’t have the types of practical joke.”
“Inevitably for some time it’s ‘I can’t, I can’t do it’ like a child. And then suddenly some opportunity, almost certainly provoked by ‘why don’t you do this…’ from me. ‘Why don’t you get even by doing this’. Then he got into it, that was good fun.”
And of course, there was that unparalleled driving talent. “Ayrton’s qualifying laps were always breathtaking,” he remembered.
“But he was so awesome that it was hard to distinguish one bit of awesome from another. He was a great guy.”
- In pictures: McLaren’s ten greatest ‘MP4’ cars
- Overtaking is overrated: F1’s top ten ‘processions’
- Manor memories: Their seven F1 seasons in pictures
- The seven F1 deals which made Ecclestone rich and powerful
- 2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix team radio transcript
Browse all history articles
Images © Honda, Ford.com