F1 driver... for a day

Browse pages
Current page

1

Current page

2

Current page

3

Current page

4

Current page

5

Current page

6

Current page

7

Current page

8

Current page

9

Current page

10

Current page

11

Current page

12

Current page

13

Current page

14

Current page

15

Current page

16

Current page

17

Current page

18

Current page

19

Current page

20

Current page

21

Current page

22

Current page

23

Current page

24

Current page

25

Current page

26

Current page

27

Current page

28

Current page

29

Current page

30

Current page

31

Current page

32

Current page

33

Current page

34

Current page

35

Current page

36

Current page

37

Current page

38

Current page

39

Current page

40

Current page

41

Current page

42

Current page

43

Current page

44

Current page

45

Current page

46

Current page

47

Current page

48

Current page

49

Current page

50

Current page

51

Current page

52

Current page

53

Current page

54

Current page

55

Current page

56

Current page

57

Current page

58

Current page

59

Current page

60

Current page

61

Current page

62

Current page

63

Current page

64

Current page

65

Current page

66

Current page

67

Current page

68

Current page

69

Current page

70

Current page

71

Current page

72

Current page

73

Current page

74

Current page

75

Current page

76

Current page

77

Current page

78

Current page

79

Current page

80

Current page

81

Current page

82

Current page

83

Current page

84

Current page

85

Current page

86

Current page

87

Current page

88

Current page

89

Current page

90

Current page

91

Current page

92

Current page

93

Current page

94

Current page

95

Current page

96

Current page

97

Current page

98

Current page

99

Current page

100

Current page

101

Current page

102

Current page

103

Current page

104

Current page

105

Current page

106

Current page

107

Current page

108

Current page

109

Current page

110

Current page

111

Current page

112

Current page

113

Current page

114

Current page

115

Current page

116

Current page

117

Current page

118

Current page

119

Current page

120

Current page

121

Current page

122

Current page

123

Current page

124

Current page

125

Current page

126

Current page

127

Current page

128

Current page

129

Current page

130

Current page

131

Current page

132

Current page

133

Current page

134

Current page

135

Current page

136

Current page

137

Current page

138

Current page

139

Current page

140

Current page

141

Current page

142

Current page

143

Current page

144

Current page

145

Current page

146

Current page

147

Current page

148

Current page

149

Current page

150

Current page

151

Current page

152

Current page

153

Current page

154

Current page

155

Current page

156

Current page

157

Current page

158

Current page

159

Current page

160

Current page

161

Current page

162

Current page

163

Current page

164

Current page

165

Current page

166

Current page

167

Current page

168

Current page

169

Current page

170

Current page

171

Current page

172

Current page

173

Current page

174

Current page

175

Current page

176

Current page

177

Current page

178

Current page

179

Current page

180

Current page

181

Current page

182

Current page

183

Current page

184

Current page

185

Current page

186

Current page

187

Current page

188

Current page

189

Current page

190

Current page

191

Current page

192

Current page

193

Current page

194

Current page

195

Current page

196

Current page

197

Current page

198

Current page

199

Current page

200

Current page

201

Current page

202

Current page

203

Current page

204

Current page

205

Current page

206

Current page

207

Current page

208

Current page

209

Current page

210

Current page

211

Current page

212

Current page

213

Current page

214

Current page

215

Current page

216

Current page

217

Current page

218

Current page

219

Current page

220

Senna began his 1983 British F3 campaign with nine straight victories. F1 powerhouse Williams soon invited him to test an FW08C and Motor Sport completes the trilogy by testing one of those, too

Fast-forward to Tuesday, July 19, 1983. Just eight months after his debut F3 win at Thruxton at the previous season’s conclusion, Ayrton Senna is at Donington Park for his first taste of a Formula 1 car. The circumstances are slightly different in that he has been invited purely to test, but Senna knew the opportunity to try a state-of-the-art Grand Prix car was the biggest moment of his brief but brilliant career thus far.

That day has since become the stuff of legend, but until I began researching this story I’d never seen any film footage from the test. Until I found an absolute gem on YouTube. All the informality seen in still photography is present and correct, as is the fresh-faced Senna. What those photographs don’t portray is the way in which he grabbed that Williams by the scruff of its neck and wrestled every last tenth out of it as though he’d been driving 500bhp F1 cars for years rather than literally just minutes.

The sight of him piling into the braking area for the final chicane is remarkable; every inch of track (and a few of rumble strip) used as the car writhes and bucks beneath him, brakes just the right side of locking as he fights to make the first apex. Then, with the nose pinned he flicks right, then left before hammering onto the start-finish straight, tail of the FW08C snapping wide as the right rear wheel smears rubber across the exit kerb.

What Williams and his colleagues were thinking at the time is anyone’s guess, though Sir Frank has since shed some light on what the feeling was as their stopwatches told them just how quick the skinny kid in the yellow crash helmet was. “He was totally confident,” says Williams, “really giving it one. By the end of the test he had done a 60.9sec, even though he wasn’t comfortable in Keke Rosberg’s seat. Obviously he was different. It was all a bit easy for him, getting down to our previous best time in just 10 laps.”

Preparing to climb into the Williams Heritage FW08C brings back vivid memories of the very first time I drove an F1 car. It was an AGS, a little newer than this Williams, but still running V8 Cosworth power and a stick-shift transmission. Suffice to say I was completely overwhelmed and more than a little terrified.

Once in the car my nerves settled a little, but my system was still fizzing in that slightly nauseous, over-adrenalised way in which your body responds to the stimuli of fear and excitement. I’m pretty sure Senna would have been similarly supercharged as he slid himself into Rosberg’s FW08C for his first F1 test, but his innate genius ensured he harnessed it rather better!

Sadly we’re not at Donington to drive the Williams, but at Thruxton on the same day that I tried the Ralt RT3 he once raced, but the informality and modest charm of the Hampshire circuit mirrors that of Donington in the early summer of 1983. It seems funny to think that this was how things were done back then; a current F1 car and a handful of personnel to test the mettle of one of the brightest up-and-coming stars.

The performance step from F3 to F1 is startling. Where the F3 car’s throttle was something to be chased with insistence and ultimately kept pinned for as long as you can summon the skill, even pressing the F1 car’s loud pedal in the pit lane is like poking a fierce dog with a stick. Hearing its bark is one thing, feeling its bite quite another. Powering out onto the circuit is a proper fairground ride sensation, eyes wide, heart thudding, left hand gripping the small steering wheel while your right darts back and forth to the beautifully tactile lever as you punch each gear home.

If the energy from the Cosworth DFV amplifies the performance, the physical size of the car and the grip from the much larger slicks makes it much heftier to drive. The Ralt was surprisingly physical, but only in so much as the steering loadings are high and you spend much of your time steering with your left arm. In every respect the Williams is a bigger boy’s toy.

What’s telling is how the Williams demands more of everything; more courage, more focus, more forward thinking, more aggression. Even held with my ham fists it was clear the Ralt required a certain discipline and precision, for its balance of grip over grunt meant any over-driving led to wasted momentum, which at Thruxton means prolonged punishment against the clock.

The Williams is a much ballsier machine, so while it too rewards precision it also encourages a more attacking style. The acceleration is hugely, endlessly exciting, especially out of the final chicane and past the pits where you feel the full might of its catapult-like force before peeling into the first turn, Allard, and feeling the wings and slicks support neck-straining lateral g.

You notice the extra speed in the braking areas, both because you rely more heavily on your depth perception to spot your braking points, and because you get to wap-wap-wap down through the deliciously tight and precise H-pattern gearbox with snappy wrist movements and satisfying blips of the ultra-responsive throttle. It’s not that you’re doing anything fundamentally different to the F3 car, but the intensity of the experience and the demands on your senses are both considerably increased.

I love every single lap, especially when reeling in F3 cars on the mad charge through Church and up the rise back towards the chicane, DFV yelping as only it can and my head bobbling around in the slipstream. Even so, when the ‘IN’ board is shown I’m happy to ease off a little, for in the last few laps I’ve sensed I’m driving harder but going slower, small mistakes beginning to creep in as my spindly arms tire and my brain begins to buffer.

Entering the pits I kill the engine and coast to a halt, stones flicking noisily from the sticky slicks as I stop next to a relieved-looking Jonathan Williams, who kindly extended the invitation to test the car. Hot and very happy I clamber out, gratefully shake JW’s hand and wander off for a restorative cuppa in the Thruxton diner and a chance to let the day’s driving sink in.

THE QUESTION THAT burns in my mind is why, given that he tested with Williams, McLaren, Toleman and Brabham during his championship-winning year in F3, did he end up driving for the smallest and least well-funded of them for his first year in F1?

It seems inconceivable that any team today would miss the opportunity to sign anyone who could apparently outpace each team’s incumbent drivers, yet it would appear that to a man Frank Williams, Ron Dennis and Bernie Ecclestone all let him slip through their fingers.

I put this to Sir Frank. He suggests a drive for 1984 was discussed, but having Rosberg and Laffite already signed was a major limiting factor. That figures, but knowing how ruthless F1 can be I’m not sure it would have been insurmountable. It also occurred to me that F1 was entering a transitional phase from atmo to turbo – Williams from Cosworth DFV to Honda – and that perhaps teams and engine suppliers wanted experienced drivers to help develop this fierce new breed of car. Still a driver of Senna’s calibre would surely have adapted? Especially as he already had something of a reputation for his meticulous approach to achieving a perfect set-up.

Aptly it falls to F3 guru Dick Bennetts to shed more light on Ayrton’s unique outlook and how he applied it at a time when he literally had the world at his feet.

“I was at Donington when he tested the Williams. Not directly involved of course, but just floating around in the background as he was WSR’s driver in F3 and I was interested in how he got on. It was amazing how he seemed to take it all in his stride, but Ayrton always had a very clear sense of his own talent, and of how he saw his career progressing. He didn’t have lots of people round him; he tended to handle his own affairs, but he did have support from one of his father’s advisors. He was a shrewd operator.

“My take on the F1 tests and why he took the drive with Toleman is that one or more of the big teams offered him a seat for ’84, but wanted to lock him in for too long. Being as canny and confident as he was, Ayrton reckoned it was better to go with Toleman for a season, trust in his ability to deliver results that outperformed the car, use the year further to hone his craft and get himself in a position where he would have far more control over his career.” That Senna would renege on his Toleman contract before the end of his first season, having secured a seat with Lotus for the following year, indicates just how calculating he could be. Yet again he would be proved correct.

Thanks to reflective insight from Bennetts and Williams on those formative, pivotal days, I can clearly see where those pieces fit in the bigger picture.

Senna sempre.

Related articles

Related products