Stepping into the big time

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Ayrton Senna’s 1983 F3 tussle with Martin Brundle is part of British racing folklore, but he made his debut in the category at the end of the previous season – a pivotal moment that we can now re-live

Thursday, October 28, 1982: a 22-year-old Brazilian racing driver by the name of Ayrton Senna Da Silva is at the high-speed circuit of Thruxton to test for two days. As the newly crowned British and European FF2000 champion he’s no stranger to cold and breezy circuit paddocks. Indeed his parallel FF2000 title assaults helped him rewrite the record books with a string of results that would remain unbeaten.

His start to the British championship was remarkable, with an immaculate run of six back-to-back victories, taken along with pole position and fastest lap. His European campaign was tougher, but nine wins from the last 10 races secured him both titles, his final tally across the two championships being an extraordinary 22 wins, 18 pole positions and 22 fastest laps from 28 starts.

For most drivers this would have provided more than enough laurels on which to rest until the following season, but as the world would soon come to know, ‘Da Silva’ wasn’t most drivers.

Driven to build his burgeoning reputation still further, he was at Thruxton for his first test in a F3 car, prior to entering a non-championship race to be held at the same track the following month. The car – a West Surrey Racing-prepared Ralt RT3, chassis #291 – was fresh from taking Enrique Mansilla to second place in that year’s British F3 Championship. Just as he had been throughout the year, West Surrey Racing’s Dick Bennetts was at Thruxton to run the car for Ayrton.

Almost 36 years to the day since that momentous test I’m sat with Bennetts at WSR’s impressive HQ. Bennetts’ outfit builds and runs BMW’s BTCC cars these days, but poring over set-up and timing sheets he completed during those two days at Thruxton takes him right back to a time when WSR’s reputation for running F3 cars and nurturing prodigious talent was second to none. If you’re a motor sport fan this folder packed with set-up sheets from ’82 and the famous ’83 season are akin to holding the Dead Sea Scrolls – priceless artefacts that capture a pivotal moment in the nascent career of one of the greatest drivers the world has seen.

“You know it’s funny,” says Bennetts after I’ve asked why Senna should have chosen WSR for his first F3 race, “but even then Ayrton’s clarity of thought was quite something. He was very matter of fact about why he came to us for his first F3 race. In 1981 Mansilla and Senna both did FF1600 together, but in ’82 Mansilla skipped a rung of the ladder and graduated to F3 while Ayrton did FF2000. Ayrton said to me, ‘When I was with Mansilla in FF1600 he was a rock ape. I don’t rate him at all. He’s quick but very erratic. Seeing him finish second in the F3 championship tells me you must have a good car!’ I think he was being a little bit harsh on Enrique, but you can’t fault his logic.”

I’m pretty certain Thruxton hasn’t changed much since Senna was here. A Tilkedrome it most certainly isn’t. Still the low-rise confines of the simple block-built pit garage have a certain charm about them and the Ralt RT3 looks right at home. In fact it’s almost like I’ve stepped into a grainy colour-saturated archive image.

Chassis #291 isn’t quite as it was when Ayrton drove it. The more rounded nosecone is an obvious difference, but it’s the lack of ground effect tunnels that’s the most fundamental deviation. This is because the car is raced by its owner – Mark Martin – in historics, the regs for which preclude ground-effect bodywork. This means I won’t be getting quite the same driving experience as Ayrton, but it does little to suppress my excitement at being offered the chance to lower myself into the car that arguably provided the springboard for Senna to hit The Big Time.

It’s a simple cockpit. Small steering wheel with analogue tacho mounted centrally beneath the point of the forward roll hoop and the stubby gearlever sprouting from the tub on the right-hand side. The pedal box is tight and assorted hard bits of tub and suspension mounting points press against your legs as you thread them through and wriggle your hips into the seat.

The Novamotor-built Toyota engine starts with a rasp or revs before settling into a fast, thrummy idle. It’s not a particularly nice sound, but F3 engines have always been businesslike in their delivery and demeanour, so it’s not a surprise or even a disappointment. To be honest I just want to get out there and enjoy the car.

Doubtless Ayrton felt the same. After all this was the next step on his vertiginous career trajectory, and fresh from his FF2000 double he must have felt invincible. The test sheets show he took to the track at 9:15am. Conditions were dry with no wind and cool ambient temperatures, as you’d expect for late October. He completed seven steady laps before coming in to have the tyres pressured and then heading back out for another seven-lap run – five fliers bookended by his ‘out’ and ‘in’ laps.

His last flier pretty much tells you all you need to know about Senna; a 1min 13.33sec lap putting him almost half a second quicker than Martin Brundle’s pole position time at the final round of the British F3 Championship, held at Thruxton just a few weeks earlier. He would complete another 100 laps during the remainder of the two-day test, but never improved. Though as Bennetts’ detailed records attest, he made countless set-up changes and gained an intimate knowledge of how the Ralt responded.

After the Thruxton test there was a further test at Snetterton, just four days prior to the non-championship F3 finale in Hampshire. To say Senna was ready for his F3 debut would be something of an understatement; a fact underlined by his performance on that mid-November weekend. According to Bennetts it was a masterclass. “He absolutely destroyed everyone. Just romped it, really. He got pole by a mile (interestingly still 0.01sec off his best during the test), led the whole race and set fastest lap. He was rightly chuffed. We didn’t agree a deal for ’83 that day, but we’d done so by the time he headed back to Brazil for the winter. I got a bit worried because we didn’t hear anything from him for months. When I finally got hold of him I asked if he would be coming back to the UK for some early testing, but he said no, he wouldn’t. What I didn’t know was that he was going through his divorce at the time, but when he eventually came back he seemed very happy. At least he was until I told him I’d sold #291 to buy a new car for the ’83 season. He asked me, ‘Why did you sell that car?‘ and I replied ‘Because we’ve got you a new car. A better one with some fresh tweaks.’ I thought that would appease him, but he just carried on saying ‘But I liked that car!’ He was funny like that.”

AS AN INTERESTING FOOTNOTE, the buyer of #291 was Helmut Marko, who acquired it for Gerhard Berger; the young Austrian racer arriving at WSR in the depths of winter to collect the car on an open trailer. According to Bennetts, Gerhard was most put out when he refused to let him take the car away, but Bennetts wouldn’t allow the car to be towed back to Austria and become caked in road salt. Berger eventually left a day later, but only after #291 was swaddled in protective covers for the long journey home.

Like most obsolete single-seaters, the car passed from owner to owner, before its present custodian – keen historic racer Martin – acquired the car (through the online classified site Pistonheads) and now occasionally competes at its helm. For Martin it is the jewel in his garage: “I’m very fortunate to have some fantastic racing cars, but acquiring an ex-Senna F3 car was an extraordinary opportunity. It draws so much attention whenever I take it anywhere, which speaks volumes about Senna’s lasting legacy. He was an incredible human being. More than just a driver. That’s why #291 will always be more than just a car. It’s a part of one of the most remarkable stories in the history of motor sport.”

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