McLaren’s fifth world champion is considered by many, the greatest Formula One driver of all time. McLaren’s resident blogger Alan Henry ranked Ayrton Senna #1 when he counted down McLaren’s top 50 drivers on their website last year. He was with the team from 1988 until 1993 before moving onto Williams, winning three world championships.
Brazilian driver Senna took a traditional route to Formula One, starting in karting before progressing into single seaters. He quickly impressed – winning five titles in just three years – and was soon testing for Williams, McLaren, Brabham and Toleman. It was Toleman with whom he made his Formula One debut, taking up a race seat for 1984. During that year he finished an impressive second to Alain Prost’s first at a wet Monaco Grand Prix. He displayed speed and a talent in the wet for which he would be remembered for years to come. Two further podiums in Britain and Portugal cemented him ninth in the championship. He bought himself out of his Toleman contract and a new one was drawn up, this time with Lotus.
Senna stayed at Lotus for three seasons and he really came alive. His first Formula One victory was not far away when he won the second race of the year in 1985 – the Portuguese Grand Prix – going on to win in Belgium as well. Over the course of his time with Lotus he would take 16 pole positions, six wins, and 16 further podiums. He built up a relationship with Honda through the year and, when they struck up a partnership with McLaren he moved to join Alain Prost which led to one of the most iconic rivalries of all time.
Senna continued to go from strength to strength following his move to McLaren. Eight wins in 1988 was enough for him to clinch the title, despite having less points than team-mate Prost. Due to the “11 best results rule” Prost lost more points meaning Senna became champion. Prost got his revenge in 1989 when he won the championship surrounded by controversy. At the penultimate race of the season in Suzuka, Senna needed a win to take the fight to the last round. He lined up second on the grid with Prost on pole position and, during the race as he lined up a move, the pair touched. Both went off the track and Prost’s race was over. Senna went on to win the race but was disqualified meaning Prost won the championship. The Frenchman had already made the decision to leave McLaren midway through the year and so Senna had a new partner for 1990 – Gerhard Berger, with whom he built up a friendship.
1990 and 1991 saw Senna soar to new heights of domination. From 32 races he took 18 pole positions, 13 victories, ten further podiums and 25 finishes in the points. He beat rival Prost by seven points in 1990. In 1991 it was far more commanding as he finished 24 points clear of second placed Nigel Mansell. Senna dropped to fourth in the 1992 standings with a car not quite up to scratch. His last season with McLaren was 1993 when he won five more races and took two further podiums. It was not enough, however, to beat Prost who won his final championship before retiring.
Senna moved to Williams in 1994 but was tragically killed during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. His legacy lives on, however, and he was the last driver fatality in Formula One. His good friend, Dr Sid Watkins, was amongst many people who campaigned tirelessly for safety improvements in the sport. His life was immortalised in the 2010 docu-film Senna, which won a number of awards including a BAFTA for best documentary. His iconic yellow helmet has had variations raced through the years, by Rubens Barrichello, Lewis Hamilton and nephew Bruno Senna to name but a few. When he died he left behind an incredible Formula One record.
41 wins, 80 podiums, and 65 pole positions. He won a record 19 lights to flag races and is the Monaco master – six wins, with five in a row between 1989 and 1993 (inclusive). He also holds the record of most wins for McLaren, of which he has 35 out of 95 races for them. He finished on the podium more times (55) than he was off it/not finishing races. In Brazil he was a national hero and the Instituto Ayrton Senna was set up following his death to continue his work with poverty and children. He also campaigned for improved safety in Formula One.
Senna once said: “If you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver”. He lived by this philosophy himself, and that it part of what made him such an incredible driver.
Honda released this video in honour of Senna earlier this year: