Thirty years ago, a bright spark — called Ayrton Senna talked his way into a test in this Williams. That first historic run in an F1 car revealed all the traces of genius that would make him a Grand Prix superstar
writer Simon Arron, photographer Matthew Howell
Purity of line is the first thing that strikes you. Every time the Formula 1 rules shift, it takes only a matter of laps to accept a new look as convention. In the modern era, though, normality translates as a cocktail of turning vanes, winglets and other aerodynamic clutter. In contrast the Williams FW08C looks a paragon of neat elegance.
This is the chassis Williams adapted from the ground-effect FW08 that carried Keke Rosberg to the 1982 world championship. Rosberg and Jacques Laffite used Cosworth-powered FW08Cs throughout the ’83 season, while test driver Jonathan Palmer made a one-off appearance in the Grand Prix of Europe at Brands Hatch, the final event before Williams joined the turbocharged exodus and introduced the FW09-Honda. Rosberg took pole in Brazil that year – the DFV’s last in a World Championship F1 race – and won in Monte Carlo, a weekend I recall for the organising Automobile Club de Monaco’s precision. I was there to cover the F3 race, on Saturday afternoon, and when the chequered flag dropped my media credential expired. Consequently, I had to buy a ticket to watch the main event and did so from the rocky escarpment in front of the principality’s palace, a lofty perch that seemed to reduce the circuit to almost Scalextric proportions.
The weather forecast predicts a dry day for the East Midlands, but the reality is very different on the other side of Donington Park’s roll-up garage doors. We’re here to look at FW08C/9, the chassis Rosberg raced in the GP of Europe… and that Ayrton Senna tested at Donington earlier that year – on Tuesday July 19, to be precise. It now forms part of The Donington Collection, following a complex swap deal with a reclusive enthusiast who was previously the car’s co-owner. Following the exchange, it was given a quick tickle by restoration specialist Hall & Hall. “We didn’t have to do much,” says Rob Hall, chauffeur for our photo session. “It was already in very good order.”
Three decades ago, Donington was the stage for 23-year-old Senna’s maiden run in an F1 car, the by-product of his persistent phone calls to the team. He’d first met Frank Williams little more than a year beforehand, when providence placed the pair in adjacent seats during a flight to Holland. Williams was en route to the Dutch Grand Prix, at Zandvoort, where Senna would compete in a supporting round of the EFDA Formula Ford 2000 Championship. He won – a repetitive theme in most of his 29 races that season, including one-offs in a Talbot Sunbeam at Oulton Park and the traditional non-championship F3 finale at Thruxton.
By the time of the test, he was leading Martin Brundle in the British F3 Championship and Palmer – on course to win the European F2 title – was summoned to set a benchmark time.
“I don’t remember much about the day,” Palmer says. “I certainly spoke to Ayrton, but the details are a bit fuzzy. I do recall there was already a bit of an aura about him and that he was immediately very quick. He beat my time, too, which obviously wasn’t ideal from my perspective, but I had to give him credit for jumping straight in and getting on with the job. That was impressive.”
Palmer posted a 61.7sec, Senna a 60.1sec.
Alan Challis was among the Williams mechanics on duty that day. “Frank Williams was due to run the test,” he says, “because Patrick Head was busy at the factory. Frank’s car broke down en route, though, so we just got on with things until he finally got there. Ayrton climbed in and within only a few laps it was obvious he was very fast, hugely committed and knew what he was talking about. I phoned Patrick with the lap times and he told me to stick more fuel in, to slow him down! We’d been running quite light, but certainly hadn’t been in qualifying spec.
“I was lucky enough to have been around during Jackie Stewart’s early days in F1 and came away from this test feeling I’d just seen another star. I definitely thought he was something special. For the next few weeks I kept asking Frank whether he’d signed him…”
Nowadays a driver would doubtless be bombarded with contracts after a performance of that calibre, but Williams had no space the following season – Rosberg and Laffite were already signed – and other front-running teams spurned the Brazilian, too, at least in terms of an immediate race contract.
That left the door open for Toleman – but by the following summer the major players would be aware of their collective myopia.
Donington celebrates Senna
The life of Ayrton Senna will be a central motif at the 2013 Donington Historic Festival, which takes place from May 3-5 at the Leicestershire circuit
The Brazilian’s glittering career will be commemorated with a mixture of on-track demonstrations and paddock displays – and the Williams FW08C pictured here will feature strongly, alongside the Toleman TG184 Senna took to second place in the 1984 Monaco GP and the Lotus 98T with which he won in Detroit two years later.
There are some unusual exhibits, too, including an MG Metro 6R4 and a Ford Sierra RS Cosworth – two of the five rally cars Senna drove in a test for Cars & Car Conversions magazine at the end of 1986. The Sierra is scheduled to take part in a historic rally demonstration on the circuit’s Melbourne Loop.
More than 400 cars are expected to participate in a variety of events catering for a wide range of machinery, including Pre 1940 Grand Prix cars, Group C sports racers, the Jaguar E-type Challenge, Historic Formula 2 and Pre-1966 touring cars up to two litres.
Advance ticket prices start at £12 for the Friday, £20 for Saturday/Sunday and £36 for a three-day pass. On-the-gate prices will be £15 (Friday), £25 (Saturday/Sunday) and £45 (all three). Under 16s are admitted free of charge.
Tickets can be purchased via www.doningtonhistoric.com or a 24-hour hotline: 0844 873 7355.