F1 driver... for a day

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.