Senna's dirty weekend

It was the kind of thing a team would nowadays doubtless suppress – an F1 star sneaking away to try his hand at rallying. But such things were possible in 1986, even when the driver was Ayrton Senna. He relished every second
Writer Steve Bennett

Ayrton Senna – rally driver. Now there’s a cover line any magazine editor would covet. It happened too, on a blustery, grey Welsh hillside in 1986. Ayrton Senna and five rally cars in a top-secret test, organised by the late Russell Bulgin for Cars and Car Conversions magazine, with the help of his Welsh rallying mates. There was no PR element, no prima donna Formula 1 antics, no catering for the stars, just the world’s fastest F1 driver curious to understand the dark art of going sideways.

Fast-forward to the present and through technical advancement which would now render such a top-secret test impossible, tap in ‘Ayrton Senna – rally driver’ into your good old Google search engine, as I did last year. You will find, pretty close to the top, a grainy, flickering 3min 57sec piece of video footage. It opens with Senna posing for the camera in front of the assembled machinery. The Brazilian is the star and he’s both patient and gracious to the demands of the photographers. The voices are familiar (Norman Hodson and Tony Butler), but even more spookily familiar is my own voice asking Ayrton to deliver the corny helmet on raised knee routine. It came as something of a shock.

Yes, I was there, and it all came rushing back when I heard my somewhat dull-sounding vocal cords. I was but a bit player in the whole production and, at just 20 years old, a young one at that. I was just one month into my first publishing job on Cars and Car Conversions (CCC or Triple C to its regular readers), straight out of college and helped along the way by a bit of work experience on CCC’s sister mag, Custom Car. My role was that of designer-cum-editorial assistant and my job was to direct the front cover shoot and generally hang around being slightly overwhelmed and star-struck.

Without a doubt that September day in Wales was one of the most incredible of my career but, as is so often the way, I didn’t realise as much at the time. OK, I didn’t imagine that every day would involve superstar F1 drivers, but I didn’t appreciate the unique and bespoke nature of this story, or how it would resonate over the years. But how could any of us have known?

Russell might have understood a bit more. He was editor of CCC, but in reality was just passing through after Motor magazine decided it didn’t need him any more as its F1 correspondent – or more accurately decided it couldn’t afford to have him jetting all over the world. Russell – as well as being the world’s tallest motoring journo at 6ft 7in – brought a whole new style to the often stuffy world of motoring journalism.

His copy fizzed with the style of the NME and Elmore Leonard crime novels, and influenced a generation of modern car scribblers. Russell and I started on CCC in the same week and he very much took me under his wing, though I didn’t really appreciate that at the time. He didn’t really need me for the Senna story but wanted me to share the experience. But that was Russell. One week it was Senna, the next it was the Formula Ford Festival at Brands, the next it would be Motörhead at the Brixton Academy. And so it went on, at 100mph-plus.

Russell and Ayrton were mates. They arrived in F1 at the same time and clicked in the way that journos and F1 stars rarely do these days. Without that connection this extraordinary story would never have happened. Equally, without rallying’s huge popularity at the time, there wouldn’t have been the desire and curiosity from Senna’s side. This was the pinnacle of the Group B era, when rallying was a worthy challenger to F1 and Röhrl, Toivonen, Blomqvist, Alén, Mikkola and Mouton were household names. Group B cars blazed a trail through the forests before the whole thing got out of hand. This story was supposed to be about Ayrton Senna, GpB rally driver, but it didn’t quite turn out that way. And that, in many ways, adds to its charm.

Which kind of brings us to CCC. Long gone now, it was a mag that punched well above its weight. Its editorial strategy was very much ‘bits of this and bits of that’, but revolving in the main around club motor sport and rallying, with some fast road car stuff thrown in as well. Put it this way, a typical issue of CCC from 1986 could easily combine a feature on jetting Weber carbs with the technical challenges faced by Lancia in developing the turbo/supercharger installation on the Delta S4. CCC had thrown itself into the GpB era with gusto. It was the go-to mag for all things turbocharged and four-wheel drive, but not necessarily ‘F1 stars go rallying’.

Perhaps that’s why, at the very last minute Ford, Peugeot and Lancia pulled out, leaving just Austin Rover to provide a GpB Metro 6R4 in basic 250bhp Clubman spec. Maybe they just didn’t quite believe that the world’s fastest F1 driver really was going to Wales to drive their rally cars, or maybe they just didn’t need the aggro of getting service crews and wagons from Italy, France and Boreham to South Wales. Whatever, with a day to go we had the Metro and that was it.

Being a Shropshire lad, not so far from the Welsh borders, Russell was soon on the blower to his rallying contacts and in no time had assembled Phil Collins with his GpN Sierra Cosworth, Harry Hockly and his works GpA Vauxhall Nova, Allan Edwards’ home-brewed Ford V6 GA-powered four-wheel-drive Escort and a David Sutton-prepared GpA VW Golf 16-valve. Not the full gamut of GpB machinery Senna had been expecting, but a rather more progressive learning curve.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, we had to get Ayrton to Wales. His grasp of UK geography was understandably a little sketchy, despite living in Esher at the time. He knew how to get to all the UK race tracks, but that was about it. Russell and I arranged to meet him at the Slough Holiday Inn (probably for its close proximity to the M4) on the Friday afternoon before the Saturday test, from where we would travel to Newtown, Powys and Jan Churchill’s Welsh Forest Rally School.

And so we waited for the emerging legend – an F1 driver devoid of minders, managers, PRs and all that other stuff that goes hand-in-hand with contemporary F1 stars. This was Senna, on his only available day outside racing and sponsorship gigs, expanding his horizons with a little rally driving. Oh, and he’d neglected to inform his team – Lotus – of his ‘dirty weekend’ because such activities were excluded in his contract. That will be Senna the maverick, then.

Our budding rally driver arrived solo in his Mercedes 500 SEL coupé (Mercedes knocked them out at a good discount to F1 drivers) and I fell strangely mute – never have been good at meeting my heroes. It was late afternoon and we had a long way to go. “You follow me, Ayrton,” said Russell. “Steve, you go with Ayrton and here’s a map just in case.” OK, this wasn’t what I’d been expecting. Russell was being generous to a fault, but frankly Senna could probably have done without entertaining the office boy en route to Wales. In retrospect I don’t suppose many people have been privileged to spend such one-to-one time with Senna, but I sensed that this wasn’t the time and place to try and go for the in-depth interview. After all, that isn’t why he was there. Besides, he could sense my nerves and was kind enough to do the talking, and so I tried to appear as knowledgeable about rallying as possible while questions about what he was going to be driving came thick and fast. I tried also to block out the fact that he clearly liked Phil Collins quite a lot (that’s the crooner, not the aforementioned rally driver), judging by the cassettes on display. But then I also remembered that – according to Bulgin – most F1 drivers had diabolical music taste and we shouldn’t hold it against them. I should point out that we were a couple of tedious music snobs and our trip to see Motörhead had been slightly ironic.

Russell had devised a cunning cross-country route and was driving the more suitable machine for the job: CCC’s project Golf GTI. This was Russell’s pride and joy. Modded by GTI Engineering at Silverstone it was born for B-roads and quite useful in town too, and so even an F1 driver of Senna’s prodigious talent was occasionally struggling through the lumpier traffic hot-spots as Russell found the gaps or just beat the amber going to red at the lights.

We’ve all read about F1 drivers antics on the road. Well, I was about to find out first-hand the exhilaration and frankly sheer terror of another person’s absolute faith in their ability, not to mention trust in other road users to comply with the fact that they are travelling towards them on the wrong side of the road, overtaking a stationary line of traffic about 30 cars long. This happened quite often and, for some reason, even more frequently when careering through Woodstock in Oxfordshire. Bulgin reported the Merc’s tank-like presence in his rear view mirror as it bludgeoned its way through Friday traffic, Senna laughing and me looking decidedly unsettled. Every time I thought he’d run out of road and luck, and that the oncoming Metro with a petrified OAP at the wheel was going to end up in the engine bay, a gap miraculously opened up and Senna forced his way back in.

After a fuel stop, I opted to ride with Russell. Our next port of call was Russell’s mum and dad in Ludlow. Why not? Russell wanted to introduce his mate to his folks, and Ayrton was the perfect guest. Later, Russell’s Senna obituary stood out in many ways, not least because it opened with, “And there he was, leaning against the wall in my parents’ kitchen, talking about this and that with my mum.” Wonderful.

And so, lightly refreshed, we carried on. By now it was dark and the roads were twisty and Russell was in his element, charging hard in his ’80s hatch of choice. I should add here that Russell was a pretty handy driver, if obviously less so than Ayrton Senna. Despite being saddled with a wallowing luxo barge with the handling characteristics of a small ocean liner, and with a three-speed auto box, there was no shaking the man from Brazil or the grin from his face.

I spent more time looking back at the sideways Merc than I did at the road ahead. “You’ll never get rid of him, Russ,” I said confidently. And then a slow-moving tractor appeared, with just enough of a gap for a Golf, and we were past and away. Russell called on all 130bhp and made a run for it. He was going pretty well, too, until a very fast bend tightened without warning and the Golf ran out of grip and we found ourselves going backwards on the wrong side of the road. And then through came Senna in a glorious slide, laughing his head off and making a gesture with his hand that suggested we both enjoyed sex of a singular nature.

That night we dined around the large table in Jan Churchill’s warm farmhouse kitchen. A large pot of chilli con carne and a few bottles of red wine were consumed (I can’t remember if Senna partook or not). It was convivial and Senna was happy to shoot the breeze, crack a few jokes and generally not be a superstar. He was also spectacularly indiscreet about his team-mate’s ability to break gearboxes, something that he now fully understood having watched some in-car Monaco footage. Accommodation was in the B&B annexe next to the farmhouse, where Senna signed the guest book and took to bed with him a 1970 issue of CCC that Russell had bought along: it featured Emerson Fittipaldi testing a rally-prepped Hillman Imp.

And so the next day Senna donned his Lotus JPS overalls and went rallying in front of a hard-bitten, slightly dubious bunch of clubmen. And what happened on that Welsh rally stage stayed on that Welsh rally stage until the magazine hit the newsstands. No one texted, no one Tweeted, no one Facebooked.

No information leaked into the atmosphere. Pictures were committed to film, quotes were gathered on magnetic tape and shaky video was shot on VHS. And Senna won over the rallyists with his charm and obvious talent.

I’m not going to go into the blow-by-blow details of how Senna got to grips with the sideways art: that was Russell’s (award-winning) story, but to give you an idea of what Senna felt about the whole experience, the driving and the day itself, this quote will suffice: “Those people there, with the cars, they were curious to see what was going to happen. As much as I was. I felt that everybody was curious to see where I was going to go off the road and, you know, what was going to happen. That was the fun. Because it was so unknown. Everything was so new there was a big question mark. That feeling was the excitement.

“Apart from the races that I did, testing or anything, this was probably the best day I ever had in Britain. Believe me or not. Outside the races that I did, for fun this was the best day.”

Twenty-eight years ago? Seems like yesterday and an eternity all at the same time, and the three main protagonists are all gone: Ayrton at Imola in 1994, Russell, tragically young, from cancer in 2002 and CCC one year later as a result of management neglect.

Me? I still mess around with cars for a living and treasure my two days on the periphery of Senna’s incredible life. I still have a signed, framed in-car picture from that day. In gold it says: ‘To Steve, best wishes and thanks, Ayrton Senna’. It’s my most treasured possession.