It was during the 1984 season that my friend and colleague Alan Henry introduced me to a newcomer to Formula 1. He was from Brazil and had won a Formula 3 championship and was now in Formula One with the Toleman team. His name was Ayrton Senna da Silva, though for racing purposes he was using the abbreviated name Ayrton Senna. In conversation we told this newcomer that we had a general parameter for drivers who we considered good Grand Prix drivers, and it was quite simple. With a look of keen intensity he enquired what it was, and we said, “You have to win at least 10% of all your races”. We explained that we did not expect a newcomer to win a Grand Prix in his first ten races, nor did we really expect him to win two races by the time he had competed in twenty events, but by the time he had done thirty events he should have won three. He looked at us very thoughtfully and you read in his deep brown eyes that he was summing it all up before saying “Yes”.
By the end of that season he had finished second to Alain Prost at Monaco and third behind Prost and Lauda in the Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril. He was driving for the Toleman team in their TG183B powered by a Hart turbocharged 4-cylinder engine. Prost and Lauda were in the all-conquering Porsche turbocharged V6-powered McLarens. In conversation with Brian Hart he gave his honest opinion that this lad Senna was something out of the ordinary and should go a long way.
In those days turbocharging was still a bit primitive and if you let the engine rpm drop too low the turbocharger lost speed and instantly lost boost pressure. It then took time for the exhaust gases to get the turbocharger spinning up to high revs again and bring the boost pressure up again. The excuse of “turbo lag” was given by anyone who could not cope with the situation, as though it was part of the business of driving a Formula One car. My reaction at the time was that some of the drivers should try racing a highly tuned 2-stroke motorcycle, or a single-cylinder Norton with a big megaphone, then they might learn something about engines. Brian Hart said that one of the first things that Senna asked him and the Toleman engineer Rory Byrne, was whether it would be alright to take slow corners and hairpin bends free-wheeling with the clutch pedal depressed. He explained that if he did that he could keep the engine running at high rpm and thus keep the turbo boost up. Once round the hairpin he could then drop the clutch at near maximum rpm and full boost, thus being completely untroubled by “turbo lag”. When I heard this my reaction was “that’s exactly what Gilles Villeneuve used to do with the early turbocharged Ferrari”. I will always remember the bright-eyed little Canadian grinning when someone asked him about “turbo lag” on the Ferrari. He replied “if you keep the engine rpm around 12,000 there is no turbo lag”. It was only after the enquirer had gone away, not really understanding the answer that Villeneuve had given him, that I got the little Canadian to enlarge on what he had said. He explained that he went into corners with the clutch pedal depressed with his left foot and doing a “heel and toe” with his right foot on the brake pedal and the throttle pedal. He did admit that it called for a lot of judgement and dexterity for you had to judge your braking without the full advantage of the engine on the over-run, you had to judge your free-wheeling speed to a nicety, and above all you had to be very precise in judging when you took your left foot off the clutch pedal, because the car really took off in a big way.
In 1985 Senna joined Team Lotus when they were running the Lotus 97T with turbocharged Renault power and he retired from his first race with this frontrunning team due to an electrical fault. He had been fourth fastest in qualifying, a mere three tenths of a second slower than his team-mate Elio de Angelis. He was running a pretty secure third behind Alain Prost (McLaren-Porsche) and Michele Alboreto (Ferrari) when his ignition system went wrong.
The next race was the Portuguese Grand Prix on the interesting little circuit at Estoril. Senna was on pole position and in pouring rain he led the race from start to finish. It really appeared as simple as that, but to anyone watching out on the circuit it was a virtuoso display of a natural talent that was clearly going to go a long way. I had flown out to Lisbon for the event, and not being in a hurry to return home I took a day’s holiday in the sun to dry out from the soaking of race day. My return flight to London was late in the afternoon on Tuesday and there did not seem to be any familiar motor racing faces on the plane, everyone having returned on Sunday night or during the day on Monday. Imagine my surprise when I looked over the mop of black hair of the young man sitting in front of me and noticed he was reading a motor racing magazine. It was even more of a surprise when he got up to get something from the luggage rack and I saw it was Ayrton Senna. For the next two hours we had a most interesting conversation, completely uninterrupted because the rest of the passengers were holiday makers who probably had no idea who had won the Portuguese Grand Prix the previous Sunday.
He explained that he had taken a brief holiday after the race as Portugal was the only European country on the racing calendar where his native language was spoken, so he could feel relaxed and “at home”. We talked about the race and I explained where I had been watching, just after a flat-out downhill right-hand swerve behind the pits and he said, “Where I had a beeg moment?” I had watched enthralled as he went off on the grass with all four wheels on the left of the circuit, missed hitting the Armco, by mere inches, speared back across the track at 45-degrees, caught the car in the middle of the track and accelerated down the hill as if nothing had happened. He said, “After the race everyone said I had good car control; but that is bullsheet, I had no control. When all four wheels broke free on the water that was running across the track I was completely out of control. It was luck that I did not hit the barrier and that the car came back onto the road. In racing you need some luck”. I suggested that it was not luck that he regained control as the car reached the middle of the road, that was skill and judgement. He may have been out of control a moment before that, but he hadn’t given up and the moment he felt the tyres gripping again he was in full control. “Of course,” he replied, “You must never give up”.
As he sat down to read his magazine again I thought, “This is a very intelligent and introspective young man”. Then he was standing up again and saying, “You have seen all the great drivers for many years, what are the requirements, in your view, that are needed to make a good Grand Prix driver?” I replied, “Firstly, good drivers are not made, they are born. You must have superb eyesight, a first-class central nervous system to analyse the information fed to it by the eyes, and a good effector-system to make use of the analysis. Add to that simple and obvious things like good judgement, good anticipation, a good sense of balance and the ability to supplement everything with experience, and you can’t go wrong.” His eyes looked down the length of the aeroplane as he took this in, and then sat down to analyse himself.
Soon he was up again, this time asking about the drivers of the day. “I have been reading some racing statistics about drivers,” he said, “and some drivers have competed in more than one hundred races, yet they have only won one, why is that?” I knew who he was referring to, but I did not mention any names and replied, “If you look closely you will find that they did not win that race, they finished first, thanks to the default of others.” He thought for a moment and then said, “Ah! Yes. But don’t they want to win any more races?” he asked, to which there was no real reply. “You have just won your first Grand Prix. It won’t be the last, will it?” Instantly the reply came clear and firm, “No, of course not.”
We talked about the philosophy of racing and the racing driver and all his questions were very thought-provoking, and when we parted company at London Airport I went on my way very impressed by the brain that was behind those brown eyes that are so deep.
Since then I have been lucky to meet Ayrton Senna on a number of occasions when he has been away from the hurly-burly of the pits or paddock, away from the world of the Press and Public Relations, or sponsors or team management, and he has had time to stop and talk motor racing and the art of high-speed driving. I get enormous pleasure from listening to him, he is so intelligently analytical, but he needs the stimulus of an intelligent question or observation. He lives in an unreal world, for motor racing and Formula One in particular is totally unreal, but necessary if you have the passion for high-speed driving, racing and competition. You need to appreciate this and keep a sense of proportion. He said once, “Some drivers think the real world is Formula One, but they are wrong, you know. The real world is being at home and waking up in the morning to meet your family and your friends.”
It is now five and a half seasons since Ayrton Senna won his first Grand Prix, and he has now won 26 Grand Prix races, many of them like his first one, leading from start to finish. He has a total of over 100 races to his credit. When Alan Henry and I put forward our parameter of 1 in 10 back in 1984, he did not think we were being unreasonable! Winning 26 Grand Prix races is not any sort of a record, but it does deserve a little appreciation. DSJ