The story of Ayrton Senna's first F1 car – the Toleman TG183B


The Toleman TG183B was the car in which Ayrton Senna made his F1 debut – key players from the team tell the story of that unique machine

Ayrton Senna at Jacarepagua in Toleman for the 1984 F1 Brazilian Grand Prix

Senna making his F1 debut in the TG183B

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

Compared to a modern Formula 1 car, the Toleman TG183B looks simply monstrous while sitting in the Silverstone pitlane.

A 700bhp turbo engine produced by Brian Hart powered a 540kg car with then some of F1’s most adventurous aerodynamic forms – a double-rear wing and a radiator situated in the front wing tapering into an aggressively narrow body.

We’re present to see Pierre Gasly drive this machine – Ayrton Senna’s very first F1 car – for a Sky Sports F1 tribute film to be broadcast over the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix weekend, in recognition of 30 years since his death.

It’s now 40 years since the F1 legend made his debut in this car at the 1984 Brazilian GP, and fans will also have a chance to see the car as part of a Senna demonstration run at this summer’s Silverstone Festival.

19 Pierre Gasly drives Ayrton Senna's T

Gasly gets to grips with the Toleman TG183B

Jakob Ebrey

The car is the clear result of racing guile and engineering creativity, as Toleman’s former team manager Alex Hawkridge and press officer Chris Witty recall, while talking to Motor Sport.

Ted Toleman’s crack squad of Hawkridge, alongside design engineers Rory Byrne and Pat Symonds, headed up a dynamic group which proved that, with a little time, it was more than capable of taking on F1’s big hitters. The two seasons prior to the TG183B’s first races had been a slow build-up to what would be a rousing Toleman crescendo before the team was sold to Benetton in 1985.

It had made a painful debut in 1981, with a TG181 car its driver Derek Warwick dubbed ‘The Belgrano’, and which racked up 14 DNQs. The car made it to the grid just twice – some comedown from being European F2 champions the previous year.

13 Pierre Gasly drives Ayrton Senna's T

Gasly goes full throttle

Jakob Ebrey

“We had to go into F1 because there was a window of opportunity with the FISA-FOCA war,” explains Hawkridge. “They weren’t allowing teams into F1, but we joined because the grandees [FISA: Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo] let us in [wanting more clout against FOCA: Brabham, McLaren, Williams et al.]

“We weren’t ready to go into a season of trying to build and develop an F1 car and engine in our first season.

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“We were turning up at races with no chance of winning. But there was great morale – the team knew what the ambition was.”

They’d need it, as 1982 again delivered just two race finishes. At the end of that year though, there was finally light at the end of the tunnel, and it came in the form of the TG183B.

The car went through the same crisis-management that most other teams faced at the start of ’83 – the FIA banned ground effect on the eve of the season, meaning all participants had to come up with a new design overnight.

With its quirky features, the TG183B was without doubt one of the most creative solutions to this last-minute problem.

“We produced a ground effect car at the end of ’82 called 183 which was going to be our car for the following year – it raced at Monza and Las Vegas [in ’82] – which had sliding skirts and everything,” says Witty.

1982 Las Vegas GP Derek Warwick Toleman

Warwick in the original ground effect TG183

Getty Images

“Pat, Rory and John Gentry had done some really nice work with the 183 – it had a pointed nose, with a little radiator inlet at the front – and then they had to redesign the car.

“It was just: downforce, downforce, downforce, and because the Hart engine was an aluminium monobloc design, it needed a lot of cooling.”

There was early proof that the design team had taken the right re-direction.

“Jenks and Roebuck were almost in tears” Derek Warwick

“We went to the ’83 pre-season Rio test with Warwick and actually were very quick,” says Witty. “There were a lot of magazines saying ‘Is this a real time?'”

Warwick proved it was by qualifying fifth and sixth in the first two races, but struggled to translate the pace into race results – with several reliability issues related to the Hart turbo.

“It was still unreliable,” explained Warwick in 2010. “For cost reasons we were using a Garrett turbo off a Magirus truck, and they kept breaking.

“Then we switched to a Holset turbo, and at once it came right.”

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And in some style. After years of struggle, Warwick suddenly reeled off four points finishes in a row to round off ’83. Toleman had come good at last.

“At Zandvoort we qualified seventh and finished fourth – the team’s first points,” remembered Warwick.

“After the race Jenks and Roebuck were almost in tears. Everybody loved the underdog thing about Toleman.”

Warwick moved on to Renault for 1984, despite the team being on the up. But the vacancy brought an opportunity for a young talent to make their Formula 1 debut. There were two clear names in the hat.

The story of the 1983 British F3 season had been a fierce battle between Senna and Martin Brundle – such was the level each performed at week in, week out, that both made themselves prime candidates to move up to F1. F2? Forget about it.

1983 Italian GP Derek Warwick Toleman

Warwick finally scored points for Toleman in 183B at the end of ’83

Grand Prix Photo

“It was going to be Rory’s decision effectively, and Ayrton tested at Donington with us, after he’d already done so for Williams and McLaren,” says Witty.

“Ayrton and Rory immediately clicked. There was no telemetry then – the only interface to make the car go quicker was driver to engineer — and Rory was able to talk to him like he did with Warwick.

“It was something extra special, his ability to remember minute details for feedback. Rory just said to Alex: ‘You’ve got to do everything you can to sign this guy.'”

So the F1 seat was Senna’s if he wanted it – not that he was exactly starstruck, with some ominous signs.

“The early contracts were quite fun,” says Witty. “Ayrton was living between Reading and Snetterton and I lived in Ealing. Toleman’s head office, which is where I was located, was Brentwood in Essex.

Pat Symonds next to Ayrton Senna in the cockpit of Toleman TG183 at 1984 F1 Brazilian Grand Prix

Pat Symonds next to Senna during testing in Brazil


“One night we had a meeting in a lay-by on Hangar Lane gyratory system. Ayrton drew up in his silver Alfasud. Going through the contract, he was very particular about the release clause…”

Senna signed on the dotted line – and impressed again on the pre-season test at Sao Paulo in the week before the race, unfazed at the step up to F1.

The TG184 – with which Ayrton Senna would announce himself to the world – wasn’t yet ready though, so he would compete in the 183B for the first four races.

“We were not very quick,” said Senna after his first test. “They have to get the car better. But considering the tyres, for me – a new driver – I think it was good.”

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Now they just needed a title sponsor. Candy, which had dictated the Toleman livery for the last few years, was pulling out.

“I called up our secondary sponsor Segafredo, the Italian coffee company, and made an offer to move them up to our main sponsor,” says Witty. “I got the decision on the Monday night. So Tuesday, I looked at the cars and I thought ‘God, I’m gonna have to re-livery these cars!'”

Luckily, having a local driver in the team would prove handy.

“Ayrton said ‘I know a spray shop in the favelas.‘ They said they’d do it if it was simple.

“So I masked off the relevant areas of the car with tape and loaded everything onto a VW flatbed. This kid was at the wheel, Ayrton was in the middle and I was on the outside – driving into Rio with all the bodywork, listening to Lionel Richie.

“Every time I hear his music I always think of that trip. It was ready by Thursday, and we practised [for the 1984 Brazilian GP] on the Friday.”

Side view of Ayrton Senna testing Toleman TG183 at Jacarepagua ahead of the 1984 F1 Brazilian Grand Prix

Senna testing in the original TG183B livery


Toleman team-mates Senna and Johnny Cecotto would qualify 17th and 18th respectively, with the Brazilian’s turbo somewhat inevitably going pop on lap 8.

Things got much better at Kyalami and Zolder though.

In South Africa, Senna scored a point through what Witty describes as “sheer bloody mindedness” after his front wing was smashed to pieces on the opening lap, and he was promoted into the points in Belgium after Tyrrell was later thrown out of the championship due to its trick water refilling system – Stefan Bellof was the driver to lose out.

Senna would then fail to qualify at Imola after the team failed to run in the opening session, with a deluge in the following one putting paid to any chances of the Brazilian making it into the race.

Ayrton Senna in Toleman TG183 at 1984 F1 Belgian Grand Prix

And in the new livery at Zolder

Jean-Yves Ruszniewski/ Getty Images

Next would come the TG184 in Paul Ricard, his famous Monaco podium, his departure for Lotus – the release clause being crucial – and everything else. But it all started with the Toleman TG183B.

In what will be the biggest demonstration parade and display of Ayrton Senna competition cars even seen, the Toleman TG183B and many other of the Brazilian’s renowned racing machines, including McLarens, Lotuses and his pre-F1 examples, will run at this year’s Silverstone Festival (August 23-25) in celebration of the three-time world champion thirty years after his death. Full details and tickets can be found here