You can use all kinds of measures to assess greatness in a driver. If you prize raw speed above all else, who could you pick as greatest of greats other than Ayrton Senna. 162 Grand Prix presences, 65 pole positions. This in a time when the outright fastest lap got pole position.
Many of these were poles earned against quick drivers in identical cars. Like Alain Prost in 1988, who took two poles to Senna’s (then record) 13. At Monaco Senna claimed pole by 1.427 seconds – from his team mate in an identical car. He stopped posting laps well before the end of the session, frightening himself with the intensity with which he could drive the car.
Since his untimely death in 1994 the proliferation of Senna biographies have made the highlights of his career universally known by F1 devotees: compatriot Nelson Piquet’s refusal to have him at Brabham in 1984 before Senna had even done one Grand Prix; his second place in the wet in Monaco in his debut season with Toleman, poised to pass Prost for the lead when the race was controversially red-flagged; three years and six wins with declining Lotus during which time he vetoed Derek Warwick’s attempt to drive for the team in 1986.
The McLaren years: he hammered Prost into submission in 1988, raw speed trumping speed by stealth in a year when the championship points prized wins above finishes. The feud began in 1989, Senna crossing Prost in Imola, dropping behind in the title battle due to unreliability, then being taken out by Prost in Suzuka.
In 1990 he replied in kind, taking Prost (now with Ferrari) out at the first opportunity. A third and final championship came in 1991 by which time it was clear that Williams had the upper hand. Nigel Mansell dominated 1992, Prost 1993 after vetoing Senna’s attempts to sign for Williams. Senna finally got the Williams seat for 1994 after Prost had retired.
But the electronic aids that Williams exploited so well had been banned. The FW15 was a crude tool that only Senna could tame – even so it got away from him at home in Interlagos and he was punted out at Aida. In Imola, desperate to regain lost ground on Michael Schumacher, he crashed to his death on lap seven.
Senna versus Schumacher might have been an even greater battle than Senna versus Prost. His death punched a gaping hole in Formula One, robbed of a driver of enormous talent and immense charisma. And the public outcry over the deaths of Senna and Roland Ratzenberger in the same weekend permanently changed the face of the sport.
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Books on Ayrton Senna
- “The Death of Ayrton Senna” (Richard Williams, 1999)
- “The Life of Senna” (Tom Rubython, 2004)
- “Ayrton Senna: As time goes by” (Christopher Hilton, 1999)
- “Ayrton Senna: The whole story” (Christopher Hilton, 2003)
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