A stone-cold Silverstone masterclass: Senna's greatest F1 performance?


Ayrton Senna's racing legacy is intertwined with Silverstone's own, despite him only having scored one grand prix victory at the historic British circuit. But Damien Smith sat trackside that day, and recalls what he says was the Brazilian's greatest F1 performance

Senna Silverstone 1988

"He was on another planet that day"

Grand Prix Photo

The search is on. The organisers behind the Silverstone Festival are on the hunt to assemble the “biggest and best” collection of racing cars associated with the life of Ayrton Senna to create a memorable tribute to the great Brazilian at the historic racing extravaganza on August 23-25. This promises to be special, in the 30th anniversary year since his death and 40 years on from his first Formula 1 season with Toleman – and probably only Interlagos would be a more fitting venue for such a gathering.

Why? Because Senna was a prolific winner at Silverstone. Not in F1 terms. Somehow he only won the British Grand Prix once. But there were plenty of earlier successes at the old flat-out airfield circuit on his climb to the pinnacle.

He made his Silverstone debut in June 1981. On that occasion, Ayrton Senna da Silva (as he was known then) was out-fumbled at the Woodcote chicane by his arch Formula Ford 1600 rival Rick Morris. But a year later he won at each of his three appearances in Formula Ford 2000. Then in 1983, no less than six of his 12 British Formula 3 victories (out of 20 races) fell at Silverstone, although his nine-race winning streak also ended at the track in June when he crashed chasing Martin Brundle.

Ayrton Senna celebrates winning the 1983 British F3 championship at Silverstone next to Martin Brundle

Despite the crash with Brundle, Senna would eventually claim the ultimate prize, becoming British F3 champion of 1983

Mike Powell/Getty Images

It’s an understatement to say Silverstone has changed a bit since Senna’s last appearance in 1993, when he battled early on with old nemesis Alain Prost and ran out of fuel on the last lap. What would he think of the place today? Were he still with us, how would he have engaged with the sport he bestrode? As a racing father perhaps, returning to his old haunts in proud support? What about as a team owner? Somehow that’s harder to imagine – but maybe. It’s often been said he’d have become president of Brazil, driven by the same deep-seated sincerity and conviction for justice that made him so magnetic in F1. Whatever, you’d like to think he’d maintain some affection for Silverstone and the UK in general, given so much of his formative experience came in what for a time and by necessity was his home far away from home. We’ve lost so much having Senna snatched away at just 34, haven’t we?

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Do you remember the single British GP win? Actually, you might well be too young. Hard to believe that day on July 10 1988 was nearly 36 years ago. Thinking back, I have snatches of images in my head, because yes, I was there, aged 13 – and sodden to the bone from sitting in a fold-up chair on a soggy grass and mud bank all bleedin’ day, on the entry to Stowe corner… God, it was miserable!

As was the way back then, we’d left home when it was still dark to be at the gate for the crack of dawn, to ensure a decent spot by the fence. Then we sat there, all morning and into the afternoon. For me, 1980s British GP build-ups were a beloved tradition akin to FA Cup Final Saturdays (although the latter tended to be warmer and more comfy given they were experienced from the sofa). The support races, demos, Red Arrows displays and accelerating sense of anticipation were as essential, and sometimes better, than the races themselves. But for ’88 it’s hard to recall much apart from the rain. Still, what could you do? There was no shelter, no choice. Just sit – and wait.

It was a shame because the anticipation had been for a full-throttle battle on a ‘proper’ circuit between new McLaren team-mates Senna and Prost. As usual, Denis Jenkinson captured the mood in Motor Sport. “With the two red-and-white cars at the front of the grid, we were going to see a good clean battle between the most successful driver of today and the fastest driver of today,” he said. In a season of Honda-powered domination, optimism remained high we’d be in for something special.

And we were. Just not in the way any of us had hoped. “While the crowd wallowed in mud and water and the supporting events and demonstrations did their best to keep the fun of the fair going, the whole scene was a pretty gloomy and soggy affair,” wrote Jenks.

1988 British Grand Prix

“A bleak affair”: dark skies cover Silverstone but did little to mask Senna’s brilliance

Grand Prix Photo

Instead of a duel for the ages, we witnessed a stone-cold (mostly cold!) Senna masterclass. The win in Portugal 1985 and that perfect first lap at Donington ’93 tend to pop up first in the lists of his greatest performances, but Silverstone ’88 for me is right up there. He was simply on a different planet that day. At 13, I had only a grudging respect for the talent of a man who seemed arrogant, petulant and a little too ‘Maradona’ for my liking. But I had a different perspective by the end of that day. It was obvious we were witnessing a special performance. That sense cut through the gloom, just like the Dayglo-and-white of his McLaren (which was always so much brighter in the metal than it appeared on telly).

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The race itself had its moments, but largely because of Nigel Mansell’s drive to second in the Judd V8-powered Williams – a rare ray of light for ‘Red Five’ in what was largely a wasted year now Senna and Prost had ‘his’ Honda engine. Frustrated by the team’s troublesome active ride that would, four years later, deliver him so much, Mansell had just signed for Ferrari for ’89 and now found inspiration in an FW12 back in passive mode. The rain, as usual was a leveller – for all but Senna.

The Ferraris had ramped up the optimism by locking out the front row. But from the start Senna split Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto, chasing the Austrian until lap 13 when he swept into the lead. Meanwhile, Prost just… disappeared. From fourth on the grid he was 11th by the end of lap one, and 15th by lap six. What on earth was going on?

The consensus was that Prost simply ‘gave up’. There’s added context here. The horror of Hockenheim 1982, when poor Didier Pironi’s F1 career came to an abrupt halt when he rear-ended Prost’s Renault in the spray during practice and endured terrible leg injuries, should always be kept in mind whenever it’s suggested that Alain was ‘spooked’ by heavy rain and a lack of visibility. Even Jenks showed a modicum of understanding for a driver he held in obvious respect. “The championship leader headed for the pits and openly gave up, making no complicated or pathetic excuses, for Prost is not like that. You cannot admire a driver for giving up in foul conditions, but you have to respect him.”

Prost 1988

Prost tumbled down the running order before pulling into the pits

Grand Prix Photo

Only a car failure could stop Senna now – but not on this day as the rain turned on and off. “We now settled down in the intermittent rain to watch a real artist at work, Senna’s delicate touch on steering and throttle being a joy to see,” writes Jenks, in confirmation of my impressionable childhood memories. “He was completely unchallenged and in total command of the conditions, the race situation and strategy.”

I remember consciously trying to freeze-frame images in my mind of Senna swinging into Stowe. I was young, but even then I understood the privilege of witnessing one of the greats in a state of serene harmony with his car. For a while, the rain was forgotten.

That didn’t last. It swept back across the bleak old airfield as the British Touring Car Championship coda to the day kicked off. Traditions be damned, just this once. Against our usual pattern of ingrained behaviour, we headed back to the car just after the race started and couldn’t face sticking around to see yet another Andy Rouse win in his RS500. I must admit, for once I no longer cared. Still, soaked and beaten, Senna had made it worth it. Not coming down with pneumonia was just an added bonus.