McLaren-Honda MP4/8 1993
Ayrton Senna’s Formula One career witnessed a meteoric rise to prominence, first with Team Lotus in the early 1980s and then with McLaren F1 from 1988-93, where he waged several epic battles with Alain Prost. Senna won the Monaco Grand Prix a record six times and was clearly the best qualifying F1 driver of all time, with 65 pole positions (although second on a percentage basis to Jim Clark). His uncompromising driving style led to extreme reactions among F1 aficionados — either adulation or hatred — but his skill and bravery were unmatched.
In 1991, driving a plainly inferior McLaren-Honda MP4/6, Senna amazingly recorded four pole positions and four wins in the first four races, includung an emotional win at the Brazilian GP where the exhausted driver, carried from his car, could barely hoist his first-place trophy on the podium. No one had ever begun a Formula One World Championship campaign with four straight victories, and for the rest it was more than demoralizing. With an increase in the points for a win from 9 to 10 (and all races counting for the championship for the first time in F1) Senna had 40 points, his nearest challenger 11, and Nigel Mansell of Williams just six. After holding off Mansell’s late-season charge, 1991 was to be Senna’s third and last World Championship, but by no means the end of his influence in Formula One.
In 1993 Senna put on another spectacular show, once again in an outmatched McLaren MP 4/8, to win five GPs. The most memorable of these, and perhaps the finest victory of his career, was at the European GP at Donnington Park, where Senna won after picking up five places in the wet on the first lap, cementing his place in history as the rainmeister. The most impressive was a 5th consecutive victory at Monaco. And so, with a final win from the pole at Adelaide in the last race of the 1993 season, Ayrton Senna prepared to move on to Team Williams, at long last striking a $20 million per-year deal to drive the next iteration of the dominant Adrian Newy designed cars with the team, and owner, who had given him his first test ride in an F1 car more than a decade before. But as all F1 enthusiasts know all too well, that was not to be. With new rules declaring the “active cars” unlawful, Senna did not post a single point for Williams — despite three consecutive poles — in 1994.
Racing, competing, it’s in my blood. It’s part of me, it’s part of my life; I have been doing it all my life and it stands out above everything else.
— Ayrton Senna (1990) —
Senna had a magnetic charisma married to a formidable intellect, a poetic eloquence in several languages and a rare willingness to confront and discuss the risks of his chosen profession. Even the most jaded members of the Formula One fraternity were mesmerized by his passionate soliloquies and in his press conferences you could hear a pin drop as Senna spoke with almost hypnotic effect. His command performances were captured by the media and the new technology, as was the case in qualifying for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix where, watched by an in-board cockpit camera, he became a passenger on a surreal ride into the unknown. Already on pole, Senna went faster and faster and was eventually more than two seconds quicker than Prost in an identical McLaren. “Suddenly, it frightened me,” Ayrton said, “because I realized I was in a different dimmension, well beyond my conscious understanding.” Beyond his driving genius Senna was one of the sport’s most compelling personalities. All this came together in a man who changed the face of his sport — for the worse, by expanded forever what was acceptable in terms of on-track behavior, and for the better by taking F1 to an entirely new audience.
Over the last years of his life, Senna seemed to mellow a bit, becoming almost philosophical about the relationship between Grand Prix racing and personal growth. Many who had despised him when he was younger had, with the passage of time, come to understand that Senna’s brilliance as a driver was matched by a depth of character and compassion uncommon among the elite of F1. Senna’s last race was the 1994 San Marino GP, where he crashed violently and perished — after taking his final pole — while leading the race on lap seven. Senna’s untimely death (one of only two in F1 since the late 1970s) left Formula One without its shining star and ushered in a renewed concern for safety.
Senna’s unexpected and inexplicable death came with millions watching live on television as he drove the finest car in F1 towards a highly anticipated win in yet another Grand Prix. It came at a time when he was close to being crowned prince of racing, and made a myth of the only driver capable of living his own legend. Among the several drivers carrying Senna’s coffin to the grave in São Paulo was Alain Prost. Among the mourners was Frank Williams, who said simply, “Ayrton was no ordinary person. He was actually a greater man out of the car than in it.” A highly religious man, Senna ironically had a premonition on the evening before the race that he would be killed. It was later revealed that a furled Austrian flag was found in his car — a flag Senna had intended to raise in honour of Roland Ratzenberger, who was killed in qualfying on the Saturday of that black weekend, after the race. This painting is based on his final win at the Australian GP in 1993.
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