Ayrton Senna: the last V12-powered F1 champion


30 years ago, Ayrton Senna clinched what would be his final World Championship at Suzuka. It was also the last time a V12 engine would power a driver to the title

Ayrton Senna pours champagne over his head at Suzuka 1991

Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP via Getty Images

Can it really be 30 years ago today? Unfortunately, it can! On October 20 1991 Ayrton Senna became Formula 1 world champion for a third and what turned out to be final time in a McLaren powered by a V12 engine, marking something of a full-stop for this most celebrated of powerplant configurations.

As Motor Sport’s current issue reminds us, the V12 still had plenty of racing life left in it in sports prototypes, particularly though the turbo-diesel era from 2006. But in F1 terms the V12 story was almost done. Ferrari persevered – inevitably – with his 12-cylinder love affair through to 1995, but although Michael Schumacher tested the last of the breed and liked what he found, he’d only ever race V10 Ferraris. Three decades on, 1991 was a seminal season in more ways than one. Just to add to the mix, it was also the last F1 title earned with a manual gearshift.

In the context of what Senna achieved that year, winning what was arguably the finest of his F1 titles without a significant car advantage and against the gathering force that was Williams-Renault, Suzuka should have been a moment of wonder. But it didn’t turn out like that. Nigel Mansell’s lame capitulation, understeering off into the Turn 2 gravel as early as lap 10, created a sense of anti-climax after what had been an increasingly tense and fascinating season-long duel, between two drivers who regarded each other with a wary, grudging respect at best, and between Britain’s two finest and most successful F1 teams (even if Lotus remains the most cherished among those old enough to remember it in Colin Chapman’s pomp). But what really took the shine off was Senna himself and the way he chose to conduct himself in the midst of one of his finest achievements.

The patronising gift to team-mate Gerhard Berger, lifting off on the run to the line to allow the Austrian to claim a hollow race win, was cringe-inducing enough. Worse, he chose the moment of supposed glory to launch a tirade against outgoing (and never to be missed) FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre, dredging up the dark events that occurred at the same circuit 12 months before. Raking back over his reprehensible professional foul on Alain Prost, the only driver he really cared about beating, showed a lack of class too often forgotten in Senna’s subsequent deification in the years following his tragic death at Imola in 1994. Yes, of course this was a great racing driver, certainly among the most vibrant and impactful in history – but it was times like these, at Suzuka 1990 and also a year on, why for some of us Ayrton can never be considered the greatest.

From the archive

Having said all that, one can’t help but admire the sheer relentless competitive fury of Senna and how he instinctively refused to accept weakness in the teams he drove for. It’s quite clear the Brazilian was a pain in the neck to Honda through this period, because it was as clear as day to him what was coming. Propelled by the increasingly potent Renault V10, he knew the nascent Patrick Head-Adrian Newey partnership at Williams would likely spell the end of McLaren-Honda’s period of technical domination. The Marlboro World Championship Team was beginning to creak and Senna knew he needed to work ever harder, on and off the track, to keep their run of success going. Equal to his pure speed over one lap, it is here where Senna’s true greatness could be found.

Honda’s entirely new 60-degree V12 was a direct response to the growing storm brewing in Viry-Châtillon. The RA121E was the Japanese manufacturer’s third F1 engine configuration in as many years and at 720bhp, it had plenty of punch – but it was also longer, heavier and thirstier than the previous RA100E V10. That would cause problems down the line, but in Neil Oatley’s latest MP4/6 the combination remained the benchmark – for now.

But having sampled the new engine in the MP4/5 test mule, Senna was unconvinced – and harangued Honda accordingly. Naturally conservative project leader Akimasa Yasuoka pushed back, insisting on detuning the engines in the early races of the season to preserve reliability. He was right to do so, the new Williams FW14 proving unreliable, specifically concerning elements within its new semi-automatic gearbox – and with hindsight that was at the core of Senna and McLaren’s championship wins. Ayrton won the first four races, while Mansell struggled even to get off the mark.

Rear view of Gerhard Berger and Ayrton Senna McLarens

Senna gifted the Suzuka win to Berger

Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

At this point it’s perhaps important to remember that McLaren more than lived up to its side of the bargain. Outwardly an evolution of its predecessor, the arrival of Henri Durand from Ferrari mid-1990 proved a significant aid to Oatley and his design team on the MP4/6. The chassis was significantly different to accommodate not only the longer engine but also the larger fuel cell it demanded. The suspension too was a departure, thanks to new a installation positioning of the pushrod-activated coil springs and dampers. As always in F1, change one thing and that has a knock-on to the dimensions, shapes and sizes of everything else. McLaren was still cutting edge on chassis design, even if Honda appeared to be losing its mojo in what turned out to be its penultimate season before pulling the plug on F1 – and even if the Woking team was about to fall behind its rivals in Didcot when it came to the brewing electronics war that would change the game entirely in 1992.

The heavy fuel consumption almost fatally undermined all that good work from the early races in 1991. By mid-summer Mansell was shrugging off the surprising threat from his team-mate Riccardo Patrese and FW14 was finding its groove – just as Senna suffered two embarrassing retirements in consecutive races at Silverstone and Hockenheim. His car had run out of fuel and the team worked frantically on the fuel metering issue – imagine what Senna must have been like to live with in those weeks! But then Honda reminded Renault and everyone else that it was far from a spent force.

Nigel Mansell shakes hands with Ayrton Senna at Suzuka 1991

Mansell congratulates the champion: his moment would come in ’92

Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

Already on its third spec of V12 by Silverstone, in Hungary the RA121E could now rev to 14,800rpm in short bursts and in combination with a lightened chassis and a bevy of new bits – Newey recalls McLaren personnel weighed down on arrival at the Hungaroring by bubble-wrap packages – Senna hit back with a vital victory. He did it again at Spa, despite nursing a gearbox problem and helped in large part by both Ferrari and Williams unreliability. By hook or by crook, his lead was back to a comfortable 22 points after Belgium – only for Williams to strike back with three wins on the bounce, albeit with mechanic finger trouble at an Estoril pitstop robbing Mansell of a wheel and a vital hat-trick. Still, after Spain and the first grand prix on the new Circuit de Catalunya, Senna was back under pressure with two rounds to go – only for Mansell to let him off the hook with that journey into the gravel at Suzuka, as more Honda engine development kicked in.

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The title secured, Senna added an odd seventh win of the season in Adelaide, in a race that lasted all of 14 laps and 25 minutes because of horrendous rain. He’d beat Mansell by 24 points, which sounds more comfortable than the reality, with McLaren earning another constructors’ crown – but only 14 points clear of Williams. The F1 landscape was shifting.

Thirty years later the 1991 season should stand out as a beacon to Red Bull and Mercedes-AMG that unquenching ambition to extract more from engines, chassis and even drivers can make all the difference to title outcomes. Although that’s easier said than done, especially in a new era of budget caps.

So was it Senna’s greatest championship? He was certainly flawless behind the wheel – mostly, although Spain was an off-key performance even if his struggles were tyre-related. But it was the energy and sheer grit he brought to McLaren and Honda that year that made the difference. And as Patrick Head told us recently, even now he views that season as a missed opportunity for a Williams team not quite firing on all (10) cylinders. Nevertheless, without the brilliance of Senna Mansell would have become world champion a year earlier than history records. What a time it was.