It was June 3, 1984: The sixth race of the 1984 Formula One World Championship was on the calendar – the 42nd Grand Prix Automobile de Monaco attracted thousands of spectators to the principality. Ayrton Senna had by then joined the Toleman team in Formula One. The Monaco circuit has always been one of the highlights of any racing season – Nelson Piquet described the Monaco Grand Prix in the following words:
“Driving in Monte Carlo is like flying a helicopter in your living-room.“
The narrow streets of Monaco
It was Senna’s first Formula One season. Spectators expected Alain Prost, Niki Lauda or Nigel Mansell, whose favorite track it was, to win. One can’t afford to make a mistake on the Monaco track – the corners are tight, strong downforce is mandatory.
Ayrton qualified in 13th place in his Toleman: his prospects of getting to the front were not particularly bright. Especially not on a track like Monaco, where overtaking maneuvers are extremely demanding.
Race in the rain
On race day, Alain Prost started on pole position, Nigel Mansell on second and René Arnoux on third. But the race took an unexpected turn: It had been raining cats and dogs since dawn.
Immediately after the first turn there was the first accident, in which Derek Warwick and Patrick Tambay crashed out. Both Renault race cars were thus eliminated.
Prost and Mansell were in the lead, followed by two Ferraris and behind them Niki Lauda in the McLaren. There was still no sign of Senna.
But in the meantime, Senna was getting closer and closer to Keke Rosberg – after the 13th lap, Senna overtook Rosberg and was now chasing Lauda. In the meantime, six drivers had dropped out: The ceaseless rain was troubling the drivers and the race cars.
On lap 13, Nigel Mansell drove the fastest lap, only to crash backwards into the guard rails three laps later: This eliminated one of the favorites for the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix.
Senna versus Prost
Several drivers were lapped, and there was also a prominent drop out: on lap 24, Lauda’s McLaren spun and stopped after a pirouette with the engine stalled: Senna was second, behind Alain Prost.
Senna proved once again that he could drive in adverse conditions: On lap 27, Senna was 18 seconds behind Prost. On the 31st lap, his gap was reduced to seven seconds.
As if the victory was his…
Senna was well on his way to winning his first race: But then came the race director’s momentous decision – due to heavy rain, the race was stopped on lap 32. Prost stopped in front of the FIA officials with the flags – Senna roared past him across the finish line and celebrated as if the victory was his.
But Alain Prost was the official winner: the regulations stated that the position from the lap before the race was stopped would be counted – so Senna finished second and stood on a Formula One podium for the first time. But Senna was not satisfied with second places.
The 1984 Monaco Grand Prix is considered Senna’s breakthrough: To this day, people debate whether Senna would have won the Grand Prix had the race not been stopped.
But at the time of the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix, Senna’s name was no longer an unknown name in the world of motorsport…
Race of Champions
A few months earlier, in May 1984, Senna took part in the inaugural race at the Nürburgring. The race was entitled Race of Champions. The title was no accident: racing legends such as Carlos Reutemann, Jack Brabham and Jacques Laffite took part in the race itself. It was extremely unusual that Ayrton Senna, who had just arrived in Formula One, took part in the race at all.
Many of the participants did not take the race very seriously, as it had no championship character. Senna’s biggest rival was Alain Prost – it was a preview of a rivalry that kept Formula One enthusiasts on their toes in the eighties.
The weather was bad, the road was wet: Senna qualified third on the grid and finished the race as the winner – more than a second ahead of Niki Lauda. Senna’s victory was a sensation: he had outperformed numerous Formula One legends who saw the race as nice fun. What’s more, his race car was exhibited in the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, where it still can be seen today.
Switch to Lotus
All this seemed like the perfect basis for taking another career leap in the next Formula One season in 1985: Senna switched to the Lotus Formula One team. Lotus was the team in which Jim Clark had been successful in the sixties. World champions Graham Hill and Emerson Fittipaldi both won the world championship in Lotus racing cars. Although Lotus had passed the zenith of success in the mid-eighties (founder Colin Chapman had died four years earlier), Senna still got everything out of the Lotus racing cars…
A lead without end – in the rain
At the 1985 Portuguese Grand Prix, Senna managed to secure a pole position for the first time in his career: Senna drove the race course in 1:21.007 in qualifying, Prost was right behind him with a time of 1:21.42.
On race day it was – again – raining cats and dogs: the start of the race was delayed in the hope that the rain would stop – the hope was in vain.
When the traffic lights opened the race, nothing and no one could stop Ayrton Senna: After ten laps, he had a twelve-second lead. After 20 laps, the lead was 30 seconds. After the 40th lap, Senna led by 45 seconds.
As the race progressed, countless drivers dropped out, Ayrton Senna lapped everyone except Michele Alboreto, who was driving a Ferrari.
Senna won his first Grand Prix in Portugal with a lead of over a minute over Michele Alboreto.
It was Ayrton Senna’s first real sense of achievement in Formula One – he was not satisfied with second and third places.
Victory at the Portuguese Grand Prix remained Senna’s only sense of achievement in the 1985 season: his car broke down too often, and the Renault engines caused problems. At the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Senna took the second pole of his career: However, he ran out of fuel three laps before the end of the race and his rival, Michele Alboreto, won.
Solving the engine problem
Senna was eager to solve the problem with the engines: During the 1986 season, the Brazilian watched as the Williams team celebrated victory after victory with Honda engines.
When the 1986 World Championship was in full swing, Senna decided to visit Honda: He managed to get his Lotus team to use a Honda engine in the next season.
The head of Honda’s Formula One program at the time, Yoshitoshi Sakurai, said of Senna:
“Ayrton’s brain could simulate all operations on the track, such as engine revs, gear-change points, braking points, steering inputs with an error of less than a hundredth of a second. He could even adjust himself in line with his analysis to run 0.6s faster per lap if he said he was going to go 0.6s faster.“
In the 1986 season, Senna briefly led the championship after winning twice – but then he failed to win a single race in the 1986 championship, leaving him third in the world championship standings. The fact that Senna had changed engines made a difference. Senna proved in the 1986 Formula One season that he had the potential to become world champion.
However, decisive steps still separated Senna from the world championship…
Main sources: Rubython, Tom: “Ayrton Senna: The Life of Senna“, 2004 BusinessF1 Books & Jones, Bruce: “Ayrton Senna – Portrait of a racing legend“, 2019 Carlton Books.