Part one here
Senna followed his father’s wishes: He enrolled at the University of São Paulo to study economics. His studies lasted three months, then he dropped out.
Twenty-year-old Senna didn’t like university – he knew he was born to race.
Ayrton made a new resolve: He wanted to finally get into a race car, like the Formula One drivers did. The kart alone was no longer enough for him.
In November 1980, Senna traveled to the UK to join Formula Ford for the following season. At the time, Formula Ford was the premier destination for young racing talents looking to pave a path to Formula One.
Senna’s goal was to get into a Van Diemen race car in the upcoming Formula Ford season: Anyone who drove Van Diemen was automatically considered a championship favourite in Formula Ford.
Van Diemen boss Ralph Firman gave Senna a chance – Senna became a Van Diemen driver for the 1981 Formula Ford season.
9.4 seconds ahead – in the pouring rain
Early on in his first racing season, Senna realised that it wasn’t just the driving itself that mattered: he hired professional photographer Keith Sutton to accompany him every step of the way in the future. Press releases and photos of Senna’s racing successes were sent to press agencies to raise his profile.
On March 15, 1981, Ayrton Senna gave a taste of what became characteristic of him in Formula One: In a Formula Ford 1600 race at Brands Hatch, Senna won by 9.4 seconds – in pouring rain.
Looking back on Ayrton’s early successes in Formula Ford, Ralph Firman, head of Van Diemen, said:
“By the middle of the 1981 Formula Ford 1600 season, I was convinced that Ayrton would one day become World Champion. It was his driving force and dedication to succeed that dit it, and the way that he won races on the opening lap. The lights went out and bang he was away. In a few more laps, the others would be going as quickly, but by that time it was all over.“
Offers from Formula One
During his time in Formula Ford 1600 and Formula Ford 2000, Senna received various offers from Formula One racing teams: Senna received offers from Toleman and McLaren to drive a season in Formula 3 with a following option to Formula One.
Senna declined: It wasn’t his style to sign the first contract he was offered. Besides, he didn’t feel he had gained enough experience for Formula One.
Apprenticeship in Formula 3
By the end of 1982, Senna was still looking for a Formula One contract that would suit him: In his first two years of racing, he had won four championships and taken victory in 37 of a total of 47 races. Senna wanted to avoid being made a “team slave,” as he himself often put it. So the time for Formula One had not yet come for Senna in 1982.
What followed for the young Senna were important training years in British Formula 3: from 1983, Ayrton Senna drove for the West Surrey Racing team in British Formula 3. These were the years that laid the foundations for his later Formula One career.
Senna wanted to win: Anything else meant failure for him. He won his first nine races in Formula 3 – breaking Nelson Piquet’s record of seven consecutive victories.
Initially, it looked as if Senna would win the 1983 British Formula 3 Championship – but after the first nine races, his winning streak came to an abrupt end. His biggest rival, race driver Martin Brundle, won race after race and Senna’s lead in the championship standings became smaller and smaller.
Finally, shortly before the finale, Brundle was in first place and Senna in second: Suddenly, Senna’s car had a problem, but no one knew which one.
Then Dick Bennetts, the boss of Senna’s team, had a flash of genius: both Senna and his competitor Brundle were using Toyota engines. Brundle’s engines were modified in Italy, Senna’s in England: Senna’s engines had simply missed a development stage. Senna’s race car lacked speed on the straights. Furthermore, his car lacked downforce, which meant the car was hard to control in the corners. Before the Formula 3 championship finale, Senna’s team sent the engine to Italy, where Senna spent days working on its optimisation.
The result was overwhelming: Senna won the final race of the 1983 British Formula 3 Championship and became champion.
Rise to Formula One
After his success in Formula 3, the time had come for Senna to move on to Formula One. For him, the most important thing was to find a team where he would exceed the expectations: So Senna didn’t consider the leading teams, because the pressure there would have been too high at the beginning. Although formula racing was no longer an undiscovered country for Senna, Formula One represented a greater dimension in many respects.
Eventually, Senna decided to race at Toleman for the 1984 season.
Toleman was not a typical winning team at the time, but Senna knew what he was in and did his best …
Simon von Ludwig
Main sources: Rubython, Tom: “The Life of Senna”, 2004 Myrtle Press & Jones, Bruce: “Ayrton Senna – Portrait of a racing legend”, 2019 Carlton Books.