Ayrton Senna: the forgotten great drives


So many great drives that many have been forgotten: we look back at some of Ayrton Senna's stunning performances that have slipped into obscurity

Ayrton Senna leads Alain Prost through the Loews hairpin during the 1989 Monaco Grand Prix

Senna in qualifying mode at Monaco 1989, as he fends off Prost despite a gearbox problem


Ayrton Senna’s great drives trip off the tongue. Monaco 1984; Portugal ’85; Japan ’88; Brazil ’91; Donington ’93; qualifying for Monaco in ’88; holding off Nigel Mansell in those scintillating late laps at the same venue in ‘92.

All are well-documented and celebrated. Easily lost amid the accolades, however, are a string of performances that were just as remarkable but — for a number of reasons — less well known.

On what would have been the late, great Brazilian’s 60th birthday, we outline five of Senna’s still stunning, but somewhat forgotten, F1 performances.


1985 Detroit Grand Prix

Ayrton Senna, Grand Prix Of Detroit

Lap record pace but no fairytale ending for Senna in the 1985 Detroit GP

Ayrton Senna won three times on Detroit’s torturous downtown street track, then-host of Formula 1’s US stop-off. But perhaps his Detroit run that preceded his trio of wins, that in 1985, out-did them all.


From the archive

Senna led from pole in his Lotus-Renault but quickly was hounded by Keke Rosberg’s softer-tyred Williams. Roberg passed on lap eight of 63 and Senna immediately pitted to match Rosberg’s tyre choice. But the best laid plans… “The Lotus pit made a nonsense of things and slapped another set of A-Goodyears on instead of [Rosberg’s] Bs,” noted the Motor Sport report.

Senna therefore stopped again before half distance, finally getting the tyres he wanted, leaving him almost a minute-and-a-half shy of leader Rosberg.

“When he rejoined the race we saw a touch of the Stirling Moss or Jim Clark, for he went like the wind, and made a row of new lap records,” we observed. And after Rosberg pitted to remove paper from his radiators even a Senna victory looked on; he was now just 12sec off first and still closing rapidly. The exacting race, though, took a toll on Senna’s brakes, which needed pumping before every turn. When attacking Michele Alboreto’s Ferrari for third, Senna forgot to pump accordingly and understeered into a wall, ending his scintillating race 12 laps early.


1987 German Grand Prix

Ayrton Senna in the 1987 Lotus Honda during the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim

Senna made the podium despite an active suspension failure

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“When you see Senna unable to keep up it must be the car which is at fault,” Denis Jenkinson wrote of observing the early stages of the 1987 German Grand Prix. One wonders if he had what followed, somewhere, in his mind.

From the archive

Lotus, that season an early adopter of computer-controlled ‘active’ suspension, included small coil-springs on its 99T nevertheless, the idea being that they “merely hold the car up when the engine and hydraulic pump are not working,” explained Jenks.

Senna at Hockenheim used them to get a podium finish. As from around half distance he had a hydraulic leak which meant, as Jenks described it, “his Lotus suspension had stopped being ‘active’ and had become embarrassingly ‘passive’. The car was sitting down on its support springs, and his lap times were down from 1min 49sec to 2min 05sec;” all the while his Lotus would “virtually rub along the ground”. It all even necessitated an extra pitstop to change his front wing which had scraped away.

Senna refused to jack it in though and a dogged third place was his reward, aided by an attritional race wherein only six were classified. Still, Lotus boss Peter Warr reckoned it was among Senna’s very best drives.


1989 Monaco Grand Prix

Ayrton Senna looks exhausted on the podium after winning the 1989 Monaco Grand Prix

Senna shows the strain of keeping Prost at bay

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This victory came from a devastating combination of Senna’s skill and brain power. Plus it was in the most testing circumstances – at Monaco, and one year on from Senna’s 1988 nadir, plus amid maximum tension as Senna and Alain Prost had freshly started their cold war.

From the archive

Senna built a good lead, helped by Prost being delayed by a typically-obtrusive René Arnoux then getting stuck behind Andrea de Cesaris’s Dallara and Nelson Piquet’s Lotus locked together at Loews hairpin. “The delay was to have a crucial effect,” said David Tremayne for Motor Sport. “All was not well with his [Senna’s] MP4/5. First gear had begun to jump out occasionally, as it had in qualifying. Then second stripped under the strain of negotiating the hairpins.”

“I could get by without first, but no second was a big problem,” Senna recalled. “I had to adapt my style so Alain wouldn’t get a clue I was in trouble.” So with his crippled car he drove every lap like a qualifier.

“He shaved barriers, slid through the tighter corners in a heart-warming display,” Tremayne continued. “It was enough to stabilise the gap, and Prost was led to believe there was no point in risking an out-and-out challenge. That was when Senna really won his second Monaco.”


1993 Australian Grand Prix

Ayrton Senna raises Alain Prost's arm in the air after winnin his final race at the 1993 Australian Grand Prix

Senna makes peace with Prost after his final Grand Prix victory

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Senna’s final win, and appropriately it was an archetype. Taking pole, then dominating from the front. Appropriately too it was his final race for McLaren, and his last battle with Prost.

From the archive

And just as he did throughout that campaign, Senna did it in a car outclassed by Williams. Underlining as much this pole – taken by almost half a second indeed – was Senna’s only one that year and spoiled a Williams 1993 clean sweep.

Given everything, there was plenty emotion around. But there wasn’t a hint of distraction in Senna’s driving. He was 1.3sec clear of second-placed Prost after one lap, and then his advantage grew almost inexorably. There was only going to be one winner.

Tremayne called it “another convincing triumph in which he didn’t put a wheel wrong. As he stepped from the cockpit, he embraced Ron Dennis and the ever-loyal Jo Ramirez. ‘He [Dennis] told me it’s never too late to change your mind!’ said Ayrton.”

Senna and Prost then laid down their arms to share the top step of Adelaide’s podium. No-one knew that for Senna – just like the retiring Prost – this would be the final one.


1994 Brazilian Grand Prix

Ayrton Senna in a Williams renault at the 1994 Brazilian Grand Prix

The car was unsettled on the Interlagos bumps. Senna was sublime

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This may strike as an odd inclusion. It was Senna’s final F1 race of significant length, wherein he spun out ignominiously in front his home crowd after seeking desperately to catch the dominant Michael Schumacher’s Benetton. Some have gone further and said this was a ‘passing of the baton’ moment.

From the archive

But that conclusion is simplistic. We should not lose sight of Senna’s miracles that day in a disastrously under-cooked Williams, prone to snap oversteer over Interlagos’s many bumps. Underlining as much Senna lapped his team-mate Damon Hill that race, who himself would later become world champion.

Eddie Irvine, recalling being lapped by Schumacher and Senna in the race, outlined the point afterwards. “I tell you, when the Benetton passed me, it was as if it was stuck to the track. Absolutely nailed. And Jesus did it have some grunt,” Irvine said.

“When I saw Senna behind I moved off line to let him through in the long left-hander, and watched as he went by. His car was absolutely all over the place by comparison. How that bloke was where he was I just don’t know. In a race he’s just something else. I mean, look where Hill was.”