Senna at Monaco


Motor racing was spiritual for Ayrton Senna and Monaco was his cathedral: a special race in a special place for a special driver.

He was ‘baptised’ there (in 1984). Explored the depth of his faith there. Confirmed his otherworldly talent there.

And 20 years ago – 20! – his stricken rivals observed a minute’s silence there.

Five-time winner Graham Hill was the life and soul of this Mediterranean principality and, therefore, will forever be Mr Monaco.

Six-time winner Senna was its Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Looking into the cockpit as Ayrton Senna drives his McLaren Honda in the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix

Subconscious speed in 1988

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This was never more so than in defeat in 1988.

Qualifying was beatific.

That his McLaren-Honda team-mate Alain Prost was almost 1.5 seconds slower became secondary to Senna’s revelations: “I felt that the circuit was no longer really a circuit, just a tunnel of Armco. But in such a way that suddenly I realised that I was over the level that I considered… reasonable.

“There was no margin whatsoever, in anything.

“When I was doing it, it was a wonderful feeling, because I had experienced something I had never experienced before. The desire to go further was so big.

From the archive

“When I had that feeling, I immediately lifted. I said to myself, ‘Today, that is special. Don’t go out any more. You are vulnerable. For whatever reason, you are putting yourself in a situation where you are almost doing it more in a subconscious way.

“I didn’t fully understand that level – and I still don’t.” (Senna was breaking his silence on the matter to Denis Jenkinson of Motor Sport in 1990.)

The race was an epiphany.

Of all the barriers in all the world Senna had to hit that one – within walking distance of the sanctuary of his apartment.

Had it been anyone else, anywhere else, this possibly self-destructive act of the unconscious mind would have been filed benignly but firmly under ‘Blip in Concentration’.

Senna cried away his disappointment as his Portuguese housemaid fielded the inevitable calls.

But also he used that private time to reflect, to try to make sense of it and take decisions on that basis.

These were: he would not talk publically about his transcendental qualifying because, if he didn’t understand, he couldn’t expect others to; and, until he did understand, there was “no need to go in ‘there’ anymore”.

He never did.

Alain Prost rides the kerbs in his McLaren Honda at the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix

Pressure from Prost forced Senna into an error that he wouldn’t make again


There were baser realities to be dealt with. Not only had he squandered nine points but also – and most tellingly – he had been panicked by Prost.

Senna had planned to get under the Frenchman’s skin. There was even talk of his attempting to lap him. Yet the reverse happened when Prost, having been bottled for 53 laps behind Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari, uncorked some fast laps.

Senna, though serenely distant, felt compelled to respond.

Senna slowed. Eventually. And, rhythm – or trance – broken, crashed.

This must not be allowed to happen again.

It’s no surprise that Prost, a four-time winner, never again won the Monaco GP.


Why was Senna so good at Monaco?

Ayrton Senna on the seafront in his Lotus during the 1985 Monaco Grand Prix

Senna blasts along the seafront in the 1985 race


Being a cynic, I am inclined to believe that that was due mainly to Senna’s apparently superior hand-to-eye co-ordination and seat-of-the-pants feel.

The subtle adaptations of torque generated by his keynote throttle-jabbing technique and the changes in yaw they brought – which no software could model – allowed him a flexibility denied others.

Nowhere was this more obvious than at Monaco.


Senna’s record at Monaco


Qualifying position

Finishing position

1984 13 2
1985 1 retired (engine)
1986 3 3
1987 2 1
1988 1 retired (accident)
1989 1 1
1990 1 1
1991 1 1
1992 3 1
1993 3 1

Prost was only a match when his set-up was perfect – and Monaco demands too many compromises for mechanical perfection to be attained.

Thus the year’s most glamorous race provided the perfect shop window for Senna to display his gifts, be they God-given or otherwise.

I will happily concede, however, that his experiences at Monaco 1988 made him better. He realised how good he could be – and that even his ‘reasonable’ was far beyond the capabilities of his rivals.

Being the fastest was still what motivated him but, once that had been achieved in qualifying, he could win ‘like Prost’.

That was proved at Monaco in 1989 when he brilliantly disguised his lack of first and second gears for 25 laps. How Prost’s face fell when he realised that he had been hoodwinked.

In 1990, 20 laps with an engine gone flat couldn’t prevent Senna from winning.

And in 1991, he secured his hat-trick – all three secured from pole position – despite 20 laps managing fading oil pressure.

Monaco’s quirks brought out the best in others, too – Stirling Moss (1961) and Jochen Rindt (1970) scored startling victories impossible to imagine elsewhere – but Senna made this phenomenon appear almost routine.

And when he wasn’t doing so, he enjoyed divine luck.

In 1987, Nigel Mansell’s Williams lost boost because of a fractured pipe weld. In 1992, a loose rear wheel nut caused the same combination to pit with seven laps to go. And in 1993, not only was Prost gonged for a jumped start from pole (and stalled his Williams during the ensuing stop-go) but also Michael Schumacher’s Benetton suffered a flash fire caused by a hydraulics leak.

Flames burst from the back of Ayrton Senna's McLaren Honda at the 1991 Monaco Grand Prix

Toasting the opposition in 1991

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Ayrton Senna defends from Nigel Mansell at the 1992 Monaco Grand Prix

Senna fends off Mansell for the 1992 win


On each occasion Senna, outperforming his outgunned machinery, was right on hand to accept these offerings.

He was indeed blessed – but never took it for granted.

Indeed, he counted – analysed and assessed – them every day and did his utmost to make them count at every opportunity.

Such fervour within claustrophobic confines is what made Senna at Monaco so compelling. Other contenders – Rudi Caracciola at (old) Nürburgring, Jim Clark at (old) Spa, etc – do not possess the same magic, mysticism, majesty or whatever it was.

All bar a fundamental sceptic would consider that an inviolable truth.