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.
Schumacher announced himself with a scintillating debut qualifying performance
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.
“I could see his finger and how carefully Michael was listening” Jo Ramirez
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.”
Germany ’93: Schumacher celebrates reaching the podium, Senna watches on
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.
Senna’s on track dicing and off track plus altercations with Irvine and others was indicative of his temperament at the time
“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.
“Ayrton sent his manager to fetch me. It was like being summoned to the headmaster’s office” Damon Hill
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 finally joined Williams for the 1994 season, partnering Damon Hill
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.