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30 things you might not know about Ayrton Senna

Senna defined his generation and stands as one of the all-time greats. Think you’ve read everything about him?

Published: 22 May 2024

Words: Jason Barlow and Ollie Kew/main image: Getty

1

Senna tested for Williams, McLaren, Brabham and Toleman during 1983. On one run in the McLaren-Ford MP4/1 he kept the throttle pinned even as the engine lunched itself behind him. Team principal Ron Dennis was not very impressed but he let him have another go. Senna duly set the fastest time of the day and signed for Toleman, the lowliest of the four teams, but he figured it would give him time and space to learn.

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2

After wiping out of the 1984 Dallas GP, a distraught Senna insisted to Toleman technical boss Pat Symonds that the wall at the offending corner had ‘moved’. Amused, Symonds went to check it out, and found concrete scrape marks on the ground. A car ahead had tapped the concrete blocks forming the track boundary. Senna was driving to such tight tolerances that shifting this block a few mm lap-to-lap was enough to cause him to clip the edge and retire.

3

Senna was a vaunted Monaco master, but why was he so quick in a turbo F1 car around the principality? The answer comes in detailed study of his throttle use. Through corner entry and apex, Senna would blip the revs to keep the turbo in the boost sweet spot, while slipping the clutch to maintain control. By precisely judging when the biting point re-engaged he could keep his car on the boil and shave huge chunks of time from his laps. Team members were astonished at his delicacy, managing to maintain boost pressure without wearing out the clutch, lunching the engine, missing a gearshift, or losing control of the car around the notoriously unforgiving twisting road track.

4

Ayrton Senna announced his talent to the world at the 1984 Race of Champions, a 12-lap novelty event featuring nine F1 world champions and various other greats at the newly opened Nürburgring Grand Prix circuit. Fangio declined to race citing his age, Jackie Stewart had vowed never to race again and Nelson Piquet simply refused, so the 24-year-old Brazilian took his place. And won, beating 19 pedigree drivers in identical Mercedes 190E 2.3-16s.

Ayrton Senna

Image: Mercedes-Benz

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5

He was quite a sickly child, diagnosed with poor motor function and limb coordination in his youth. Early in his F1 career he had Bell’s palsy, suffering temporary facial paralysis.

6

Senna was not immune to the lure of Ferrari. “He wanted to come to Ferrari and I wanted him in the team,” revealed ex-Ferrari president Luca Montezemolo in 2014.

7

Senna was hugely thoughtful and mindful of the media as his career took off. But he gave great quotes, including: “If you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver.”

8

He helped save Érik Comas's life after a practice crash at the 1992 Belgian GP. Senna stopped and ran to his Ligier, cut the still-revving engine and stabilised Comas’s head until help arrived.

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9

Ayrton's actual surname was da Silva, but as that was Brazil’s most common second name, he instead chose to adopt his maternal family name of ‘Senna’ for his career.

10

Senna qualified on pole seven times in his second F1 season in 1985, his debut with the Lotus team. He out-qualified teammate Elio de Angelis seven to one. In fact, he scored more poles that year than any other driver, including future nemesis Alain Prost.

11

After Senna's fatal crash at the 1994 San Marino GP, a furled Austrian flag was found in the cockpit of his stricken Williams. The Brazilian had planned to fly it in tribute at the end of the race.

12

A lot of the Senna myth comes from his trance-like state while driving. In Monaco ’88 he was 2.0secs faster than Prost in quali: “I realised I was no longer driving the car consciously.”

Ayrton Senna

Image: McLaren Racing

13

Senna's win in the McLaren MP4/6 in the 1991 Australian GP was the last to be scored in an F1 car fitted with a conventional manual gearbox. It was also the only V12- engined car to win a world title.

14

Among the mass of stats now skewed by the ballooning race calendar and longer driver careers, Senna has the most consecutive top 10 qualifying positions, managing it 137 times.

15

Senna's iconic helmet design wasn’t just a bright scheme to make him stand out. The colours came from Brazil’s flag, the stripes symbolising focus and determination.

16

One of F1's most infamous title deciding moments was the Prost/Senna first corner collision at Suzuka in 1990, a year after the two had come to grief when both at McLaren, leading to Senna’s disqualification and Prost taking the drivers’ title. The following year Senna took pole, which was on the dirty side of the track, and after his protest to have pole swapped to the other side of the grid was denied, Prost predictably took the lead before Senna dived up the inside, collected the Frenchman’s Ferrari and took them both out of the race, guaranteeing Senna a second title. McLaren later analysed the car’s telemetry and discovered that not only did Senna fail to brake for the first corner, he didn’t even lift as he closed in on the Ferrari, proving the crash was entirely deliberate on Senna’s part.

17

Senna's latter McLaren teammate Gerhard Berger found his opposite number’s seriousness amusing, and played multiple pranks on him during the early Nineties to try to get him to relax. One was changing Senna’s passport picture to a photo of male genitals, causing him to be detained at border control on his way into Argentina. Senna returned fire by stealing all of the Austrian F1 driver’s credit cards and supergluing them together. Another Berger escapade involved him throwing Senna’s brand new ‘indestructible’ carbon fibre briefcase out of the side of a helicopter. The cheeky trickster also released 12 frogs into Senna’s hotel room at the Australian Grand Prix. When furiously confronted by his angry teammate, he coolly asked Ayrton, “Did you find the snake?”

Ayrton Senna

Image: Classic Team Lotus

18

In 1986, Senna agreed to test drive a variety of rally cars in the Welsh forests for a mag story set up by his friend, the late great automotive journalist, Russell Bulgin. “Before the corner you have to commit,” Senna noted, after a tricky immersion in a Sierra Cosworth. “Now I understand why you have to use opposite lock and use the traction a bit – to keep the car really biting on the ground. If you try to just go round, you don’t go round. You just go straight on...”

19

Lots of car bores will lazily tell you that Ayrton Senna helped to develop the Honda NSX. Next time you hear that, you can scoff loudly and correct them. Yes, Honda supplied engines for Senna’s F1 car during NSX development, so there was PR value in getting him into the car, but he was by no means an integral part of the car’s early gestation. There were two known occasions when he tested pre-production prototypes (at the Nürburgring and Suzuka), commenting at first that the car felt “a little fragile” – which prompted Honda to stiffen the chassis. His feedback also led to revisions of the suspension settings. So the NSX had Senna’s blessing (he ended up owning three) but it wasn’t exactly the out-of-hours side project some would have you believe.

20

With Ford replacing Honda in 1993, Senna thought that year’s McLaren was unlikely to be a front runner. He was expert at ratcheting up the negotiating pressure, so there may have been an ulterior motive in December 1992 when he arrived at Firebird Raceway with Marlboro sponsorship legend John Hogan to test Penske’s PC22 IndyCar. Also present was double F1 champion and fellow Brazilian, Emerson Fittipaldi, racing for Penske at the time. “You’d be foolish not to put Senna in your book right away if he was available,” Roger Penske admitted. “We would have probably tried to figure something out.” In the morning Fittipaldi set a time of 49.7secs. Senna drove 14 laps of the short (1.1-mile) course, before asking for the car to be softened off. By all accounts he enjoyed being able to slide it around, and in a second stint of 10 laps on the same tyres he set a time of 49.09secs.

21

The 1984 Monaco GP was halted after 31 laps with a desperate Senna hunting down Alain Prost for the win. He would have won if it had gone the distance is the common take on the eventful race, but that might not have been the case. Having clattered a high kerb hard early in the race, he’d cracked a cast aluminium suspension upright, which Toleman engineers suspected may not have lasted the full distance.

22

From Monaco ’84 to Donington ’93, Senna was a famed wet weather master. But he wasn’t born with stellar skills for the wet conditions. After spinning three times in his first wet kart race, the young Brazilian used to sit and wait for the heavens to open and would then feverishly practice karting in torrential downpours to hone his weakness into a strength.

Ayrton Senna

Image: Mick Walker

23

Senna won the chaotic 1991 Brazilian GP, his first home victory, despite serious challenges. Hunted by Nigel Mansell, the Briton’s Ferrari gearbox gave up. “Finally I had some relief, but only for three or four laps,” said Senna. “Then the gearbox went crazy. I decided to leave it in sixth, and drive around the circuit completely differently.” He was so physically broken he struggled to lift the trophy above his head on the podium.

24

In a 1990 interview with Brazilian Playboy, Senna opened up on his religious beliefs. He admitted talking to God while racing, and that the crash in the 1988 Monaco GP wasn’t driver error. “There was such a big fight going on inside of me that it numbed me and made me vulnerable. I was open to God, but also to the devil.” He also claimed Jesus appeared floating in front of him when he scored his first title at the 1988 Japanese GP.

25

Four-year-old Ayrton's first pedal kart was built for him by his father Milton. It was numbered 007 with “licence to win” painted on the body. Diamonds might be forever, but Ayrton quickly outgrew this.

26

Keep an eye out if you find yourself in Tilehurst, Reading. Ayrton Senna Road is named in his honour after he lived with friends in the area at the start of his single-seater career in the early Eighties.

Ayrton Senna Road

27

Senna's racing heroes were Jackie Stewart, Gilles Villeneuve, Niki Lauda and Emerson Fittipaldi.

28

Ayrton Senna was multilingual, and in addition to his Portuguese tongue he could speak English, Italian and Spanish, which further endeared him to his adoring fans, fellow racers and the global media.

29

Senna competed in the 1984 Nürburgring 1000km in a Joest Racing Porsche 956 with four-time Le Mans winner Henri Pescarolo and Stefan Johansson. A broken clutch robbed them of a podium.

30

Netflix series Senna is due later this year. Delayed two years by the pandemic, the six- part miniseries will star Brazilian actor Gabriel Leone, charting Senna’s arrival in England in 1981 and rise through the ranks from Formula Ford to the top of F1.

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