Senna vs Schumacher, a rivalry unfulfilled

It was a tantalising prospect, if a little troubling for Ayrton Senna. How would the proven maestro handle a potential nemesis, fast emerging in the form of Michael Schumacher? Sadly, we’d never see them tussle at their respective peaks
Writer Paul Fearnley

Brother Ralf looked embarrassed and turned away. He didn’t understand. How could he?

Mika Häkkinen had raced Ayrton Senna; had hoped for the best while fearing the worst next to Michael on the Imola 1994 podium. And, six years on, he understood immediately, put an arm around a heaving shoulder and requested a break. Failing to get one – this was Formula 1 after all – he said: “Go to Ralf! Ralf can continue.” Ralf, however, was by this stage consoling his tearful brother. Family had overcome the unfamiliar.

The post-race TV press conference at Monza 2000, indubitably awkward, was touching for some, mawkish for others. Martin Brundle, for one, admits that he didn’t buy it; so out of character was it.

“Michael was more aggressive [than Ayrton],” says the German’s 1992 Benetton team-mate. “Unemotional. Focused. He drove me off the road in Hungary [in ’92]. I tapped him in a corner a bit later and his rear wing fell off; I think Germans call it schadenfreude. We had words afterwards, but that turned out to be more of an opportunity for him to express his anger with me. Two or three years later, he apologised.”

But Brundle, in his role of analytical, compassionate brother in arms rather than wheel-rubbin’ rival, concedes: “If you’re a normal Joe Public – meek, mild, polite and friendly – you’re going to get swept aside.

“As a racing driver you carry emotional shit that normally, to recover, would require three months off work or else a visit to a therapist. Instead, you suck it up and carry it forward. Then, suddenly, out it comes.”

Before it did on this occasion, Schumacher chokingly confirmed that, yes, it meant a lot to him – to equal Senna’s tally of victories.

He had been 25 and ‘immortal’ when Ayrton veered off – noisily, publicly – right in front of him; perhaps he would miss one or two races. Two hours after the finish he was told that things were looking bad for Ayrton. Two weeks later he “had to accept that he was dead”. Two years later – quietly, privately – he visited his grave; he’d not felt able to attend the funeral.

Schumacher’s was an uncomfortable ‘peace’. Now 31, did its lingering suspicion and bitterness prick his eyes, catch his throat? For no amount of hard work – and nobody worked harder than he – nor success, not even 50 more wins, could clear the air. There could be no rapprochement.

“Michael was a bright boy,” says Brundle. “He knew he had the skills to get the job done. There was a Germanic confidence about him and, to begin with, arrogance: in hotels and restaurants, down the gym, in the paddock and debriefs. He got rid of it as he achieved. It disappeared with maturity and success.

“I saw Ayrton as an emotional, great human being. Passion was his energy source. But it became a weakness. He convinced himself that Benetton was cheating. I was in those races in 1994 and I felt he was pushing beyond even his great skill.”

Both men, blinded by their duel’s intensity, had still to see the best of each other when Senna was killed doing what he was born to do. And Schumacher had to live with that.

Brundle: “Michael loved to talk. I’ve seen him chat for hours at a race, and not necessarily with the powerful or famous. But I can’t recall him asking me about Ayrton, even though I had all that experience of racing against him. ‘What’s he like?’ ‘How do I beat this guy?’ There was none of that. I think that would have been perceived as weakness.”

Not that Senna was mining for information or opinion. “No,” says his 1994 Williams team-mate Damon Hill. Eloquent pause. “I don’t think anybody knew how good Michael was going to be. Clearly, he was a coming man, a challenger, but I think the view of him then was tinged with suspicion about his performance. Was it down to his brilliance or was something else going on?

“I never spoke with Ayrton [on this topic either], but I think it is on record that he had doubts – about traction control and God knows what else. There was a bit of conjecture within our team. There was nothing more to it than that. Anyhow, that was Ayrton; I was just the bloke in the other car.”

Surely Senna and Schumacher must have recognised something of each other within themselves. Both registered points at their second and third Grands Prix, podiums within their first 10 starts and a victory within the next 10. Both excelled in the wet, pulled teams tightly around them and were among the precious few to win in inferior equipment. Both used intimidation as though it were a birthright and were dogged by controversy from the start.

And yet: “Yes, they raced with total commitment – but they were poles apart,” says Hill. “Ayrton raced with his heart and soul; Michael raced with his head and was much more calculating.”

Schumacher, the younger by nine years, was certainly more scientific: heart rate monitors, blood samples, electrolyte levels. “In their early days, Michael was more complete; Ayrton didn’t have the same attention to detail and was ridiculously unfit,” says Pat Symonds, engineer to both at Toleman/Benetton.

Senna – more worldly, white collar, better educated – graduated directly from F3, whereas Schumacher stayed on a year to contest the FIA Sportscar World Championship (again) under the tutelage of Mercedes-Benz. Senna thus jumped from nimble 160bhp front-runner to mid-grid turbo monster, whereas Schumacher arrived in F1 with experience of 900bhp and 200mph-plus; manufacturer pressures and processes; tyre and fuel management; strategy and tactics.

Leaner, meaner and more logical, though not necessarily faster, Schumacher’s operating system was tailored for an increasingly regimented, digitised sport controlled by nerd-do-wells.

Senna provided a spark. Schumacher – Senna 2.0, if you like – was plugged in.

Same planet. Different world.

F1 was still Senna’s world in August 1991. Not that he was enraptured by it: Honda’s V12, heavy and thirsty, wasn’t as good as the V10 it replaced, while McLaren had lagged in the technology race. He had, for now, seen off Alain Prost yet was having to drive harder than ever to maintain his rightful position. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. He felt he deserved the best and was distraught to discover at Spa that Williams-Renault had finalised its 1992 line-up without him.

A lone shark, Senna had turned down powerful men – Ron Dennis and Bernie Ecclestone – before signing with Toleman for 1984. Although he was (uncomfortably) familiar with parts of Schumacher’s buzz route – F3 title success, astounding maiden F1 test, and instant overachievement in an under-the-radar team – others were, therefore, lost on him.

Schumacher had jumped at the chance to join Eddie Jordan’s Blarney Army at Spa. Tipped into the Piranha Pool, sensibly he swam in the tow of wiser, bigger fish. Handlers. Benetton’s opportunistic signing of him prior to Monza enraged Senna, who considered Roberto Moreno’s dismissal unethical. His own benching by Toleman at the same track in 1984 – punishment for breaching his contract – was not deemed germane, clearly.

Schumacher’s card was already marked. Not that he seemed to notice. He drove without mistake to fifth.

This Phoney War escalated at Brazil in April 1992. Having been delayed for several laps by Senna’s misfiring McLaren, Schumacher shot from the lip: “He was playing a game with me. He knew he couldn’t finish. He did so to give others the opportunity to overtake me.”

Though unamused by such impudence, Senna kept his counsel – until Schumacher spun him out of July’s French GP. Dressed in casual pastel civvies but looking far from relaxed, he marched onto the grid when the race was suspended because of rain. Though he waved cameras and mics away, Michael’s was a very public dressing down.

There was mischief in it, too, according to McLaren team co-ordinator Jo Ramírez: “Ayrton said, ‘Look at Michael! I’m going to rattle him’.Though I couldn’t hear, I could see his finger close to Michael’s chest and how carefully Michael was listening; he didn’t say a word. And when he crashed for a second time, Ayrton was quite pleased.”

It was a blip. Unrepentant Schumacher could not be intimidated in the main. Senna had created a monster with thick skin. “He massaged my neck,” grinned Michael after McLaren mechanics separated them following a transgression of track etiquette during a Hockenheim test.

“Ayrton was fixated on Michael, not the other way around,” says Brundle. “When he went looking for him was the day I knew he’d realised Michael was the pretender to his crown. The friction carried extra bitterness.”

The Phoney War was over.

It was Ford versus Ford in 1993. Benetton was on the up and up. Finally united under one roof, it was ready to make huge technical strides – semi-auto gearbox, active suspension – and flex its political muscle as the Blue Oval’s official team. Schumacher, already a winner at Spa, was champing at the bit.

Senna, shorn of Honda support and mortified at losing ‘his’ Williams-Renault drive to Prost, faced the uninviting prospect of holding steady, at best, with a customer engine. He threatened to stay away – but couldn’t. Despite playing financial Russian Roulette with Dennis and his sponsors, he was distractingly brilliant. Second in South Africa, with his active rear suspension stuck in the up position, he scored sensational victories in changeable conditions at Interlagos and Donington Park.

Schumacher, his Ford HB boasting pneumatic valves but not yet traction control, spun and stalled when attempting to take second from Senna at Kyalami, outqualified him in the dry at Donington – a feat he repeated at Imola – and set fastest lap giving closing chase in Spain before sliding wide on oil. Finally equipped with TC, he was running away with the Monaco GP when his hydraulics sprung a leak. In Canada, he finished second after Senna, pulling over to retire, almost took him out; a rare apology was forthcoming.

The Benetton was flat, plain better through the mid-season – even when McLaren finally received engine parity. Senna’s patience wore wafer thin. At Spa, emerging from a pitstop, he attempted to block Schumacher, who was recovering from a botched start that ultimately cost him victory.

“As soon as he saw me, he turned left, right across in front of me,” said Schumacher. “It made me angry, but I didn’t lift off and was able to overtake.” Two wheels on the grass, on the plunge to Eau Rouge – Prost (and I write this as a huge fan of his) would have backed out. Senna versus Schumacher was more visceral.

McLaren aero improvements allowed Senna to sign off with two more brilliant victories, in Japan and Australia, but not before new team-mate Häkkinen had outqualified him at the first time of asking; dégagé debutant Eddie Irvine had driven him to violence; and Schumacher had scored his second GP win, a brilliant display of strategic opportunism, judicious use of backmarkers and injudicious weaving on old tyres in Portugal. This ‘robot’ could think for itself.

With Nigel Mansell in Indycars and Prost now retired, the landscape was changing around Senna, and he was struggling to make sense of it. “Ayrton sent his manager Julian Jakobi to fetch me [at Imola in 1993],” says Hill. “It was like being summoned to the headmaster’s office. I went because I was intrigued by what he might have to say. I think he wanted to give me some kindly advice… to calm me down. I didn’t think he had a leg to stand on given what I had seen him do and I must admit I adopted the ‘cheeky tyke’ attitude. It was classic Ayrton: he had a licence to do as he wished, but nobody else did.”

Though he remained the man, with five wins to Schumacher’s (unrepresentative) one – it was eight-all in qualifying in 1993 – still Senna felt he had something to prove.

“Ayrton was unhappy and we knew we couldn’t keep him,” says Ramírez. “But I told him that he had won the most difficult races and proved that he was the best even if he was not world champion. He said it was important for his CV to win races and championships for different teams.”

Williams, at last, was next.

Senna was the overwhelming favourite for 1994. If he concurred with his odds – and there was no obvious reason why he shouldn’t – he received the rudest awakening. Williams, relearning shocks and springs after two seasons of active – now banned – got it wrong: the FW16 was unsettled and unbalanced. When Senna spun from the Brazilian GP, he put his hand up: he’d been trying too hard to catch Schumacher. When he spun during practice for the Pacific GP, he admitted to feeling silly. This was serious.

Outside bets Schumacher and Benetton won both races with unexpected panache. The reintroduction of mid-race refuelling played into the hands of the team’s sports car element and driver’s fitness. In Brazil, a faster first pitstop moved Schumacher ahead of Senna. In Japan, with Senna watching – and listening – intently from the sidelines after a first-corner tangle, Schumacher gave another perfect demonstration of the sport’s new look: three sprints, two stops.

Senna had good reason to be suspicious of Benetton; it was discovered to have left banned software in and taken mandatory hardware out: the Orwellian Option 13 launch control (at Imola) and a filter from its fuel rig (at Hockenheim). But Senna’s dark, doubting mood contributed to his underestimating it: Schumacher, Tom Walkinshaw, Flavio Briatore, Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne and Symonds was a formidable combination, on and off the track.

Williams had spotted it.

“I was with Ligier in 1993 and, more and more, Williams sent new bits to help us because they didn’t want Benetton to get the Renault engine,” says Brundle. “It wasn’t difficult to see how that would pan out.”

If Senna had awarded it the same credit, he might have cut himself some slack, stepped back, waited for his own car to be 100 per cent and then pushed. Instead he was driven by desperation to the end.

“He was one of those drivers who just could not allow for the possibility that anyone could come close to them in terms of performance,” says Hill. But what happens when somebody does? “That’s where the model breaks down. That’s when that mindset becomes a problem. It doesn’t allow room for admitting that you might be wrong or that somebody might be as good as you are. It’s what distinguishes them.

“Michael had the same mindset.”

Albeit with a subtle difference.

Hill: “Ayrton had made himself a rival to the sport’s establishment. He saw himself as a crusader. There were certain vested interests, he felt, swingeing regulations that suited them, and he was the guy who was going to challenge them.”

Schumacher never became so embroiled, enmeshed, entangled. His was a simpler soul. There’d be no ‘It’s not fair!’ monologues against powers-that-be. There would be no moralistic cartoon character in his own image; his large charitable gestures would be low-key. And his first retirement (at the end of 2006) failed not only because it was handled badly, but also because, hand on heart, he wasn’t sure what to do next. Yes, he’d race a superbike – but he’d not put his name to one.

Senna, in contrast, possessed a head for business and a more marketable image: Audi, Ducati, Mont Blanc. But that brought pressures and distractions, too.

“These are just my impressions,” says Hill. “There were a number of issues in Ayrton’s life, personal and sporting, that were coming together: the rise of a new guy, the politics of the sport. It wasn’t one thing. So many factors. He was still settling at Williams.”

Ramírez: “He was unhappy. He didn’t like the atmosphere there. It was me whom he asked to arrange a helicopter for him for after the race at Imola. I think he would have come back to us – or gone to Ferrari. As long as he had a competitive car, I think he would have kept racing. Prost was, at 38.

"I met Ayrton at the drivers’ briefing and told him the registration of the helicopter and the name of the pilot. He told me his car had felt better in warm-up. That was the last time I spoke with him.”

The FW16 had undergone a number of beneficial revisions for this race – new front wishbones, a slightly shorter wheelbase and a reprofiled nose with its wings mounted higher – but even so, Senna’s first lap after the restart, on cool tyres and heavy tanks, was arguably the most committed of his career. (Only Schumacher and Hill would go faster later that day.)

Senna’s next lap, of course, was his last.

Schumacher, who insisted that Senna remained the championship favourite at the time of his death, dedicated his title to Ayrton, who would have been (uncomfortably) familiar with its controversial conclusion.

“It would have been difficult for Ayrton, he was already 20 points behind,” says Ramírez, “but my money would have been on him.”

Brundle: “Williams was getting sorted and I am sure that Adrian [Newey] would have worked his magic [on the FW16] sooner rather than later.”

Hill: “Well, I nearly beat Michael in it; I think Ayrton could have, yes.”

Brundle: “But Michael was in the ascendency. Youth would have come through in the end. [Plus Benetton did get that Renault engine in 1995.] Ayrton, though, was better. We’re talking tiny percentages, but he had a sixth sense for speed and grip that Michael didn’t. Michael achieved great things with all the tools and levers at his disposal, but he didn’t have the competition – all those household names of the 1980s that Ayrton had.”

Fate denied him that.

Suddenly it comes.

Senna would have understood. He’d raced Michael Schumacher. He would have put an arm around Ralf.

Senna, by Sutton...
London gallery pays tribute to a fallen hero, 20 years on from Imola

Keith Sutton has been a trackside ornament at major motor sport events for more than 30 years.

He covered his first Grand Prix – Silverstone 1977 – after convincing marshals that an Oulton Park press armband was a valid credential. Such were his persuasive powers that he was promptly ushered to a better perch. The same trick worked at four more Grands Prix (including Zolder, twice, in 1977 and 1978).

Later, Sutton was frequently to be found squashed into the rear compartment of my Motoring News Mazda RX-7, cadging a free ride to European F2 events and suchlike in northern Europe.

It was parallel resourcefulness that led him to strike a deal to supply promising youngster Ayrton Senna with photographs and press releases during the 1981 season, when the Brazilian arrived in Britain to race in Formula Ford. That sparked an enduring friendship and Keith was on hand to capture Senna’s rise from wide-eyed starlet to triple world champion.

Some of Keith’s finest Senna photos have been selected as basis for an exhibition, which opened on March 6 and runs to May 4 at Proud Chelsea, 161 Kings Road, London, SW3 5XP. Simon Arron