Ayrton Senna at McLaren


The great Brazilian spent six seasons with the Woking team, winning 35 Grands Prix and three world titles. Twenty years on from Senna’s passing, McLaren boss Ron Dennis reflects on their successful alliance… and how his drivers once tried to feed him to the sharks.

Bahrain, 2004. The Middle East’s first World Championship Grand Prix takes place almost a month before the 10th anniversary of Ayrton Senna’s death, so Ron Dennis sets aside 20 minutes to discuss the Brazilian with those preparing commemorative features. When the allotted time is up, a well-meaning aide steps forward to conclude things. Ron is in full flow, though, and wants to carry on – which he does for at least as long again.

Fast-forward to the present and McLaren allocates more than two hours for the 20th anniversary edition. Many of the stories have been told before, but repetition doesn’t dilute their intrigue. “When this idea was bounced off me,” Dennis says, “I was quite hesitant to say ‘yes’. When you get one year’s notice to do something, you agree and then when the time comes you think it’s going to be painful. This doesn’t fall into that category.”

The pair first met in 1982, when Senna was en route to annexing the British and European Formula Ford 2000 titles. “I can’t recall whether he was asking for an option, a test drive or whatever,” Dennis says, “but if he signed an option with us I said I’d pay for his F3 season [in 1983]. He wanted to be independent and declined. I respected that, but it’s probably why, when he first drove our F1 car, I wasn’t going to tell him I was too impressed, whatever I thought…”

That came to pass at Silverstone, at the end of ’83, once Senna had added the British F3 title to his CV. “Back then he came across arrogantly,” Dennis says. “He was very keen to get an advantage and was making quite sure none of the other youngsters damaged the car. He was clearly impressive, no question, but he was still young. At Silverstone you could see in him a very principled ‘I’m always right’ individual, so he didn’t appeal very much. He was quick, but I felt he was too young to drive for our team – and besides we had two great drivers in Alain Prost and Niki Lauda. Things were going well and we didn’t need anyone else.”

McLaren won three world titles over the next four seasons, Senna spending one with Toleman and three with Lotus before resuming negotiations with Dennis during the last of those. “One of the differentiators between the great and the good,” Dennis says, “is that the best realise the importance of the team and implement actions that will get them the drive. They don’t just wait. Ayrton put out feelers and made it very apparent that he wanted to join us. He was in his third year at Lotus and it was very clear that the team’s Honda engine was becoming more and more attractive: the company clearly had domination on its mind.”

Simultaneously, Dennis was becoming increasingly irritated by the kudos Porsche was getting for its successful F1 turbo – first used by McLaren in the 1983 Dutch GP – while all the funding was provided by team partner TAG. “I went to see them every year and said, ‘Look, this is ridiculous. It might say TAG on the side, but you’re getting all this great publicity and not paying a penny’.” Attempts to persuade Porsche’s board to finance an engine programme proved fruitless… and meanwhile Senna had started dropping hints.

“He thought he could convince Honda to come on board,” Dennis says, “and I realised Ayrton could be a useful ally. He was politically astute and more than capable of grasping that, if we worked together, we could optimise our relationship with Honda. There were several clandestine meetings and we signed the deal in a basement bar at a hotel where we stayed during the Austrian GP.” The grand plan – Senna and Prost to race McLaren-Hondas – was confirmed at Monza.

First, though, there had been negotiations in a small office at the Brazilian’s house in Esher. “During our early meetings there was a point at which Ayrton switched to talking about material things,” Dennis says. “We spoke endlessly about the car and everything, but once those boxes were ticked we talked about money – for which he had a healthy appetite.

“We started to head-butt on the numbers. There was no way he wasn’t going to drive the car and there was no way we weren’t going to contract him to drive the car, but we couldn’t agree about the money. Things got really tense. I love negotiating and was quite happy to play the long game, but it was starting to become relationship-threatening.

“We were half a million dollars out. For him, everything had to be as black and white as possible and the concept of chance wasn’t really part of his psyche. I suggested we flick a coin, but he didn’t know what that meant. When I said ‘heads or tails’ he had this blank look on his face, so I explained that coins had a head and a tail… but we then had a five-minute conversation about it. How could a tail look like a portcullis? I then had to draw pictures on a piece of paper, ‘This is Ayrton, this is Ron – d’you get it?’ Then he saw it might be fun and lightened up, but by then I didn’t really care: I just wanted to find a way forward.

“I spun the coin into the air – after we’d had a bit of a debate about who should do that – and, talk about lack of attention to detail, he had this dark-brown shag-pile carpet that was trendy at the time. The coin was never likely to land flat, which we should have realised, and I said, ‘Stop, it has to be on its side’. That led to another debate about what ‘on its side’ meant…”

Dennis eventually won the toss and, as it was a three-year contract, it had effectively been a $1.5 million coin flick. “I know over the years that people have seen this as total disrespect for money,” he says, “but it was the only way to break that logjam.”

More than a quarter century has passed since, although what followed – McLaren winning 15 out of 16 races during the first Senna-Prost campaign in ’88, the increasingly fractious relationship between drivers, the feud continuing after Prost decamped to Ferrari – all seems remarkably fresh. Here, though, is Dennis’s take on a few of the headline events.

Monaco 1988
Senna takes pole by 1.148sec

“When Ayrton was explaining that lap, he claimed he was almost oblivious, that everything was intuitive, in his subconscious. It was about then that Alain started to form the opinion that Ayrton’s approach was perhaps a bit dangerous, because he thought God would protect him. In reality, though, he was just a phenomenal racer. All drivers want to feel part of the car and it’s not at all surprising to me that Sebastian Vettel names his cars – it underscores the fact that drivers try to create a relationship with them.”

Imola 1989
The Prost/Senna feud boils over after Senna breaks an alleged pre-race agreement that the first man to the first corner should lead…

“They were both to blame. They broke confidences to each other several times, but this was the one that came into the public domain. There was great tension and anger. Afterwards they were testing at Pembrey and I helicoptered in. A head of steam was building and drivers will say one thing to all the media, then something more selective to their national press.

Two days later it was picked up and fed back through the system to refuel all the problems, so I went to Pembrey, sat with them in a VW Kombi bus and reduced both to tears. The psychology was to make myself the bad guy, to make them hostile towards me and force them together against me. I thought that was a good way to handle them.

“It’s a delicate thing, not easy to get right. It was much easier with Alain and Niki, because Niki was less devious. Alain and Ayrton were equally matched in terms of deviousness – they’d go to Honda, their national press, lots of things… It was very challenging. In the end there was a kiss and make up at Pembrey – I don’t think any driver is bigger than the team, no matter what they do.”

Suzuka 1989
The drivers collide, Prost retires… but takes the title after Senna is excluded for short-cutting the chicane. McLaren appeals, effectively against one of its own drivers

“It was more an appeal against [then FIA president] Jean-Marie Balestre – it was just the French hooked up, simple as that. Ayrton was waved through the chicane, did a lap with the nose hanging off, came in to change it and then went on to set lap record after lap record. His exclusion was such a stitch-up.

“We had footage of so many incidents where cars had left the circuit and rejoined successfully, as Ayrton had – Max Mosley was there, stoking me, telling me he’d help all he could if we supported him in the FIA presidential election – what do they say about being careful what you wish for? How naïve was I? Anyway, at the time Jean-Marie wasn’t a great option. It was a complete Monty Python sketch – Balestre was politically motivated and had very little knowledge of the sport.

“At the end of the season Ayrton festered away for a month or two, then called and said he wasn’t going to continue, because the motor racing world was unjust. I told him to calm down and that to stop would be to concede. Eventually it got to the point where he said, ‘Yes, you’re right’ – that was probably a phone call in the middle of the night.”

A fresh dawn

“The signing of Gerhard Berger gave me the perfect weapon to deal with Ayrton, because he brought humour to the team. The concept of telling a joke and Ayrton laughing simply wasn’t possible before Gerhard joined. It was a massive ice-breaker. If any of it had been seen or reported, it would have undermined any respect people had for us. Gerhard simply had no limits – and I mean no limits.

“He’d go to a point that was positively dangerous. Once, we were all diving off Hamilton Island, Australia, and Gerhard turned off my air at quite a good depth – he thought that was absolutely hilarious. They also threw me in to the water at one point and started chumming [throwing in fish bait], to see whether they could attract sharks…”

Suzuka 1990
Officials refuse to move pole position to the clean side of the track. Prost beats Senna away… and the Brazilian takes them both off at the first turn, securing a second title in the process

“We could see all the steering and throttle traces, so you didn’t need to be Einstein to realise what had happened. When Ayrton came back I said, ‘I’m disappointed in you’. I didn’t have to say any more because he got it. That was one of his rare moments of weakness. I don’t think he was particularly proud of it, but it was the finishing touch after all the arguments about pole position being on the wrong side of the grid. He had very few lapses in his life, though.”

Mexico City 1991
Senna rolls in practice

“Ayrton made a rare mistake, inverting himself into a gravel trap. The car was upside down and nobody really knew how he was. He was taken to the medical centre and I could hear him screaming with pain and thought, ‘He’s not going to be able to race’. That’s the way you think as a team manager. You don’t ask yourself whether he might be hurt.

Sid Watkins came out of the medical centre with a smile on his face and I asked how Ayrton was. Sid replied, ‘He’s a bit shaken up but otherwise fine’. I wondered about the screams and Sid said, ‘Oh, he had a big stone stuck in his ear from where the gravel got into his helmet…’ Pain tolerance was an interesting part of his make-up, because he had a degree of it when driving but less so out of the car…”

The Cosworth season – Senna scores five wins against the dominant Williams-Renaults

“There were rumours about paying him one million dollars per race. I was rattling sponsors’ cages, but they were nervous about our competitiveness. We made a great car and I kept asking him to come and drive it, but he wanted a factory engine and didn’t want to race with a Cosworth. It was all the usual backwards and forwards stuff, but he eventually came to a Silverstone test.

“After one flying lap he stopped. We were about to plug in the radio when he unfastened the seat belts and jumped out. We went to the motorhome and he said, ‘The engine’s amazing, we can win with this car’ and I thought, ‘Great, it’s not going to be a million dollars a race, I can get him for $600,000…’

“Ayrton told me not to worry if we couldn’t quite make a million dollars a race – but I told him not to let anyone think he was driving for less, because that’s what I’d told all the sponsors. We acted it out very well and his management thought it was real.”

Adelaide 1993
The Senna/McLaren swansong

“At the final Grand Prix, we had a variety of people all over the place in emotional terms. I was trying to get him to stay and asking everyone to be calm. He was really hovering, but kept telling me he’d signed a contract, that he was consequently committed.

“I said I’d underwrite any losses [if he pulled out of his Williams deal]. I could see Ayrton wrestling with loyalty. As disastrous as our relationship with Peugeot turned out to be, Ayrton told me that he’d have stayed if we’d signed that deal two months beforehand. He hadn’t been able to see a way to win without a factory engine.”

Imola 1994

“Much earlier in my career we lost lots of drivers – it so contrasts with what the sport is now. On the pitwall that day I just decided to shut down. There’s no way you can share those moments. Ayrton was unbelievably competitive and suddenly, boom, he’s not there. But you remember him as he was when it all came to an abrupt end. He had great principles and great human values.”

And finally, a favourite memory…

“Ayrton once handed me an envelope containing $10,000, betting me I couldn’t eat a container of Mexican chilli. Before he could withdraw the bet, I’d wolfed the lot. It was the fourth time he’d lost a big bet with me and, after giving me the envelope, he said he’d never gamble with me again. I’m fond of that incident for two reasons: it wasn’t easy to put a smile on his face and even less so when he was parting with money. Mind you, I paid for it for a couple of days afterwards…”

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