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Racing With Ayrton Senna: 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix

Frozen in Time: 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix


Brazilian Grand Prix


Sao Paulo, Brazil


March 1991

“He was so exhausted, and in such pain from cramp in his shoulders that he could not get out of the car. When he finally made it to the podium, he could barely stand, and he was in agony as he tried to lift the trophy. But he managed it, using all the noise and energy from his adoring fans to raise the cup briefly above his aching shoulders. It’s not often you can feel such strong emotion through a TV screen, but I defy anyone to watch it and not feel what it meant to a nation – and its favourite son – that day.”

— BBC F1 reporter Lee McKenzie On Ayrton Senna’s performance at the Brazilian Grand Prix

Race Brief

The F1 circus had finally found its way back to Interlagos after a long, long time. It was a windy day, hot, but with a hint of rain. Things could get interesting. There was a buzz at the circuit, packed to the brim with Brazilians, cheering for their son Ayrton Senna. Would he finally stand on the top step of the podium? Would he finally be granted the win that had eluded him for so long? These weren’t easy questions to answer.

Senna had taken the pole yet again, a matter of routine now, with his rivals Riccardo Patrese and Nigel Mansell at second and third place in the Williams-Renault. Senna’s teammate and friend Gerhard Berger was in 4th place, with Jean Alesi and Alain Prost in the next row.

Senna took off as the lights went off, trying to put distance between him and the charging pack. Behind, Berger faced some unusual problems for a brief moment with a little fire and smoke streaming from the car; but things started settling down soon after. Mansell was busy chipping away at Senna’s lead, shaving off time slowly but gradually. By lap 20, the gap was down to .7 seconds. But things changed soon after. Mansell pitted on lap 26, the longest ever at over 14 seconds. It cost him the race, practically, as the British driver fell back to 4th place, and was forced to restart his chase for podium. He made up some time when Senna and Patrese pitted, but was forced to pit yet again to change tyres because of a puncture. Thankfully, the pitstop didn’t take as much time as the previous one. But the fight for podium and a win ended on lap 61 when Mansell’s gearbox failed and the Williams driver was forced to retire.

Senna was still not in the clear. Mansell’s teammate Patrese took over the battle and began his charge afresh slicing through the gap. It looked like Senna would be denied victory at his home race yet again. But Patrese was having gearbox issues of his own and was unable to pass the Brazilian. It seemed heaven sent, because Senna was in trouble as well…had been in fact for a while. Then came the final straw: rain. It had always seemed that Senna was born to drive in the rain. But on that day, with failing gears, it seemed like a curse. The race finally ended as Senna crossed the finish line in first place, to the sounds of cheers and singing. Brazil’s son had finally won a home race. Patrese and Berger took the second and third place on the podium.


Nothing could have stopped Ayrton from waving the Brazilian flag that day. Screengrab from coverage of the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix in Sao Paulo (editorial use only)


An exhausted Ayrton tries to lift his trophy. Screengrab from coverage of the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix in Sao Paulo (editorial use only)

The Ayrton Moment

1991 was going to prove to be a challenging year, and Ayrton Senna knew that the championship was not going to be an easy target. The Williams seemed to promise everlasting dominance with their semi-automatic gearbox. McLaren though had the MP4/6 with a new V12 engine in their arsenal. The stage was set at Sao Paulo, Senna’s home, and a place where he had never won, despite seven attempts. The Brazilian had just turned 31 and the pressure was intense, as was his determination. But it wasn’t an easy race to win. Senna started the race in the lead but faced tyre issues in the beginning. He then had to hold off a charging Nigel Mansell.

Amidst all of this, the MP4/6 started having gearbox issues, as Senna found it difficult to shift into 4th gear. With 20 laps to go, he lost the 4th gear completely. Driving without the gear took a toll on his neck, shoulders and arms, as the Brazilian struggled to control the car, and stay ahead of the pack. Then, with about 7 laps to go, Senna lost use of the 5th and 3rd gear. The only gear that worked properly was the 6th. The pouring rain made matters worse as Senna struggled to control the wild car. He crossed the finish line screaming in joy – ecstatic but exhausted. He sat in his car on the track, as the marshals danced around him, listening to the cheers and the clapping. He couldn’t move. The cramps were excruciating, and Senna was lifted out of the car, and driven to the podium. The agony was intense; he could barely lift the trophy, but lift it he did to the tune of intense cheering.

It was a formidable victory; one the world champion had waited a long, long time for. It was a home win that had come at a cost. But it was also a win that was a testament to Senna’s determination and sheer willpower. It would take more than gearbox issues to stop him. There was no way that he would give up.

“…I thought that I won’t win because of the gear’s problems on the last 7 laps. But when there were 3…2 laps to go, I said to myself, if it works I will be screaming. I thought I have fought so much for many years to get here, and today I fought hard. So it must be. It must be, and must be in 1st because He is greater than all and He’ll give this victory after all. And it was like this. God gave me this victory and I’m very happy…”

– Ayrton Senna in a post-race interview (translated)

NEXT: 1991 British Grand Prix

PREVIOUS: 1990 Japanese Grand Prix

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Categorised in: Ayrton Senna, F1

2 Responses

  1. Thanks so much for the story! It really lift my spirits up and a wonderful way to start the day!

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