People always look at me odd when I go all starry-eyed while talking about Ayrton Senna. People who are not motorsports fans, I mean.
I always find it difficult to explain, to count the number of reasons why. There are just so many.
For how do I describe that race, the one where Ayrton cut through heavy rains on a slippery Donington Park circuit.
How do I describe that immensely underpowered McLaren, slower than the others, as it shimmied past them, climbing from 5th to 1st?
How do I explain to them how he always knew, just knew every racing line on a turn?
How do I tell them that it wasn’t how his car danced across the circuit, or even how he moved, one with the machine?
Because it wasn’t just about Ayrton the person, but that it was also about the races. You just knew who he was, because of the way he raced.
That’s when I realized that the best way to commemorate Ayrton…the only way to commemorate Ayrton, the man, was by paying homage to his races – the ones he won, the ones he lost, the good, the bad, and yes…even the ugly.
After all, Ayrton was many things, many good things. But when he was on the track, focused on the road ahead, waiting for the lights to go off…he was legend – the sort we have never seen since.
What follows is a series of 20 posts spanning 20 days remembering Ayrton Senna, featuring 20 races – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
“Senna is the guy. He’s brilliant. We’ve just got to have him.”
— Rory Byrne, legendary engineer and car designer with Toleman, 1984
South African Grand Prix
Kyalami, South Africa
The South African circuit of Kyalami played host to the second round of the 1984 Formula 1 season. It was a race that promised drama. Qualifying had Nelson Piquet on pole, determined to put the disastrous retirement at his home race behind him. Keke Rosberg and Nigel Mansell were placed at second and third. Alain Prost and Niki Lauda, racing the McLaren TAG had taken 5th and 8th. Ayrton Senna, readying for his second F1 race, only managed a 13th on the grid. But that didn’t matter. Senna wasn’t worried. He knew he could go faster.
Race Day dawned with a scary crash during morning warm-up that left the Italian Piercarlo Ghinzani with moderate burns, and a car split in half. The race began with Prost having to switch to a spare car and starting from the pitlane. Mansell and Patrick Tambay fell back soon enough, despite a great start. Meanwhile Niki Lauda and Piquet battled for position. But the winners were clear that hot, sweltering Sunday. The Austrian master took the win and podium while his teammate Prost took second and Derek Warwick in the Renault took third. Mansell, Piquet, Rosberg – all retired.
But the surprise that day was Senna, the young Brazilian in the not-so-fast Toleman. He ended up 6th on the grid, a great achievement for a driver on his second outing.
The Ayrton Moment
While all eyes were focused on the great battle up front, there was another that was being fought at the back. Senna was driving the white and blue TG184. The car lost a part of its nose cone early in the race. But pitting meant losing precious time. It was not an option. Ayrton carried on racing, driving as best as he could, right till the very end. His determination paid off. Senna took 6th place, and scored his first Grand Prix point. But this came at a price thanks to the immense heat and altitude. The Brazilian was exhausted, to the point of collapse.
This wouldn’t be the last time Ayrton pushed himself. There would be several such occasions when he would race till the very end – surprising not just himself but his team and his fans. It was this determination that made him a rockstar, a true legend.
TOMORROW Racing With Ayrton Senna: 1984 Monaco Grand Prix
[Quotes are taken either from the commentators while watching race footage, Ayrton Senna – Memories and Mementoes from a life lived at full speed: An interactive voyage by Christopher Hilton, and The Life of Senna by Tom Rubython]