Ayrton Senna was a Brazilian racing driver who won three Formula One World Championship titles in 1988, 1990 and 1991. He recorded 161 Formula One Grand Prix starts with 41 victories, 80 podiums, and 65 pole positions.
Those numbers made him one of the most successful drivers in the history of F1. Unfortunately, his career was violently stopped in an accident at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. He crashed while leading the race and died immediately.
The racing hero missed by everybody
If you want to properly understand the amazing career of Ayrton Senna, there are two ways to approach it. First, you can look at his career stats, his three Formula One championship titles and all those wins, podiums, pole positions and fastest laps during his ten years in F1.
Those are impressive numbers but they will tell you just half of the story. The other half is Senna’s talent, ambition, strength and fantastic personality which made these numbers possible and made him one of the most loved and most respected drivers in motorsport. One of those people that are always going to be missed.
Victory in the first ever karting race
Ayrton Senna da Silva was born in Sao Paolo, Brasil, on March 21, 1960, into a wealthy Brazilian family where he enjoyed a privileged upbringing. The defining moment of his life happened when his father gave him a go-cart which Ayrton immediately started driving across the large family estate. At the age of 13, Senna participated in his first race and won. In that moment, it was obvious that he is not just another talented kid but that he was a champion in the making. After the success in karting, clinching South American title and two second places in the world championship, Senna moved to Europe.
Two years of domination in the Formula Ford
He started racing with open-wheelers in various Formula Ford 1600 series, winning not one but two titles in his debuting season, driving for the Van Diemen team. Despite this success, Ayrton was under the pressure from his parents to take up a role in the family business, so he returned to Brazil.
He considered the offer to compete in the Formula Ford 2000 and finally made the decision to be a racing driver instead of a businessman. In 1982, he raced in the European and British Formula Ford 2000 and he won both championships. His performances were impressive: he won 15 of 17 races in the European championship and 6 of 8 races in the British championship.
Formula 3 success attracted F1 team bosses
The next step was the British Formula 3 Championship, driving Ralt RT3 (Toyota) for West Surrey Racing. Senna was again dominant, winning 13 of 18 races. Apart from winning the 1983 F3 title, he also won the non-championship Formula 3 Macau Grand Prix.
His performances attracted the attention of F1 managers. In 1983, he tested F1 cars for Toleman, Williams, Brabham, and McLaren. He was in negotiations with all of them and finally, he landed a contract with the Toleman team for the 1984 Formula One season. His teammate was Johnny Cecotto.
Fantastic performance at the rainy Monte-Carlo
Senna debuted in the F1 at his home event, at the 1984 Brazilian Grand Prix. He qualified 17th but retired after 1.5L Hart 415T engine blew up on lap 8. He proved that a rookie driver in a small team can be competitive taking points in the next two races, finishing sixth at the South African Grand Prix and Belgian Grand Prix. After the problematic San Marino Grand Prix where he didn't qualify because of technical issues, Senna surprised all Formula One fans with a fantastic race on the streets of Monte-Carlo.
He started 13th but quickly improved through the field in rainy conditions. On lap 19, he passed Niki Lauda for the second place and continued to hunt Alain Prost. Weather conditions worsened and the race was stopped on lap 32, so Senna finished second. Ayrton took two more podium finishes at the British and Portuguese Grands Prix, finishing third in both races, and he finished 9th in the drivers' standings.
Senna moved to Lotus
During 1984, Senna participated in two non-F1 races. He joined Joest Racing to race with Porsche 956 alongside Henri Pescarolo and Stefan Johansson at the 1000-km Nürburgring. They finished 8th. Senna also participated in the exhibition race to celebrate the opening of the new Nürburgring before the European Grand Prix. All drivers drove the identical Mercedes 190E 2.3-16, and Senna won ahead of Niki Lauda and Carlos Reutemann.
In his debuting F1 season he missed the race at Monza because he was suspended by Toleman for breaching his contract. Senna signed for Lotus without informing the Toleman team first. However, he joined the British team for the 1985 season and immediately became a driver capable to win F1 races. He scored his first pole, and first victory, at the 1985 Portuguese Grand Prix. He dominated in wet conditions and also scored the fastest lap. Later in the season, he took one more victory (Belgium) and four more podiums, finishing 4th in the final classification.
His teammate Elio de Angelis finished 5th and left Lotus at the end of the season, accusing the team that they favourited Senna. During 1985, Senna took seven pole positions, more than any other driver, proving that 1000-hp Renault engine was the quickest in the field.
Three seasons with Lotus
Lotus and Senna continued with the same engine in 1986. Senna's new teammate was Johnny Dumfries. Ayrton was again the top qualifier, with eight pole positions in 16 races. Because of engine's unreliability, he won only two races and added six more podiums, to finish again 4th in the drivers' championship standings.
In 1987, a new engine and new co-driver came, both from Japan. Team Lotus had a new engine deal, running the same turbocharged Honda V6 engines as Williams. The new teammate was Satoru Nakajima. Honda-powered Williams FW11B was a dominant car that year and only Senna was able to fight against Nigel Mansell (6 wins) and Nelson Piquet (3 wins). Senna scored two wins (Monaco and Detroit) and finished third in the championship classification.
During his three seasons with Lotus, Senna displayed fantastic skills and determination which could be mistaken for fanaticism. He was not just fast, he was capable of pushing the limits of the car. Only one piece of the puzzle was missing - a car capable of winning a championship. That car he found in McLaren's garage.
Senna won his first F1 title in 1988
However, when he moved to McLaren in 1988, it was obvious that McLaren team was the last piece of the puzzle which Senna needed to win the championship title. Despite his rivalry with Alain Prost, which became one of the greatest rivalries in the history of motorsport, Senna managed to win the 1988 Formula One championship, crowning his burning ambition for the first time.
McLaren absolutely dominated through the season, with Honda-powered MP4/4 taking 15 victories in 16 races. Senna won eight times, Prost seven times. Senna's eight wins in one season broke the record of Jim Clark and Alain Prost, who each won seven races in 1963 and 1984. Senna also broke the record with 13 pole positions in one season, previously held by Nelson Piquet (nine poles in 1984).
Controversial collision at the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix
In 1989, the rivalry between Senna and Prost intensified. After numerous battles, the peak of the season was the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix, the penultimate race of the season. Senna needed a win to remain in contention for the title. Prost was leading the race and Senna attacked him in lap 46, but Prost 'shut the door' and they crashed. Prost retired, Senna received the push-start from marshals and continued to race.
He crossed the finish line as a winner, but he was disqualified for receiving a push start, cutting the chicane after the collision and for crossing into the pit lane entry which was not part of the track. Senna accused the FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre that he ordered the disqualification to help his French compatriot Prost to win the championship. Prost indeed won the title, Senna was second with six wins.
Ayrton Senna again on the top in 1990
Prost left to Ferrari in 1990 and Senna got Gerhard Berger as a new teammate. They were driving McLaren MP4/5B with a 3.5L V10 Honda engine. Senna was the dominant driver throughout the season and he scored six wins and five podiums. Prost won five times and they came to Japan with a 9 points gap, with two races remaining. Japanese Grand Prix was the penultimate race of the championship and it again finished with a crash and controversy. Senna crashed into Prost in the first turn and they were out of the race, which meant that Senna was the champion.
In 1991, McLaren switched to Honda's V12 engine instead of V10. Senna won six races against Mansell's five, and again the decisive race was the Japanese Grand Prix. This time there was no crash, but Mansel went off the road and Senna comfortably finished second behind his teammate Berger. Senna sealed his third title with one more win at the last race in Australia.
Ayrton Senna was planning to leave McLaren and move to the Williams team for the 1992 season, but Honda's CEO, Nobuhiko Kawamoto, personally asked Senna to stay with them. It was a season of Nigel Mansell and Williams FW14B. McLaren's new car was late and suffered from unreliability, so Senna wasn't competitive in the title fight. He won three races (Monaco, Hungary and Italy) and finished fourth in the championship, behind Williams' duo Mansell and Patrese, and the rising star Michael Schumacher.
Ayrton wasn't satisfied with Indy test
At the end of 1992, Senna didn't have a contract with any team and he negotiated with many. He even went to the United States to participate in the IndyCar testing session, backed by a fellow Brazilian racer Emerson Fittipaldi. He drove Penske PC-21 car but he wasn't impressed enough to make a move to the American racing series. He decided to stay one more year with McLaren after Ron Dennis made a deal with Ford to use their V8 engine.
The Ford-powered McLaren MP4/8 proved to be competitive and Senna scored five victories, but it wasn't enough to beat his biggest rival Alain Prost, who won the title driving Renault-powered Williams FW15C.
The 1993 season was concluded with Senna's victory at the Australian Grand Prix, his 41st and last GP victory. As Alain Prost announced the retirement, Senna warmly welcomed the Frenchman on the podium.
Bad start of the 1994 season
In 1994, Senna finally moved to Williams. The technical rules were changed for 1994 and the new Williams FW16 wasn't so dominant as its predecessors. Despite that, Senna took pole positions at the Brazilian and Pacific Grand Prix races. In Brazil, he spun off to the gravel and retired after 55 laps, while at Pacific GP he retired after a crash on the opening lap. And then San Marino Grand Prix followed, on May 1st, 1994.
Senna again qualified on pole position during Saturday's qualifying session in which Roland Ratzenberger crashed and died. The race also started with a crash and had to be re-started after cleaning the debris. Soon after the green flag was shown, Senna went off at the Tamburello corner. With a speed of approximately 210 km/h, the car hit the concrete wall. Senna was dead immediately.
Senna's death changed the sport
That day in San Marino, the racing world lost its most popular driver and millions of fans across the world lost their hero. Senna's death and black weekend at Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari changed the Formula One in terms of safety. It was too late for Senna, but after his accident safety improvements were made and resulted with a total reduction of fatal consequences in the next 20 years, until Jules Bianchi's crash in 2004.
The essence of Senna’s driving was his unique approach to racing. One of his quotes states: "Being second is to be the first of the ones who lose," and Senna lived up to it, clawing his way to the first spot whenever he could. He was born wealthy, so he did not do it for the money or the fame. He did it because he was totally devoted to racing and concentrated only on how to be fastest and how to be the first. Sometimes, he went too far and drove so aggressively that it looked like he was possessed. As a devoted Catholic he was fully aware of his mortality and dangers of his driving style. However, his passion and his talent pushed him even further and that is why he is one of the biggest legends that Formula One ever had.