“But I refuse to walk away from a fight. That is my nature. I will fight to the end and whatever happens, whatever the cost so that for once we can bring justice to our sport.“ Ayrton Senna said this in the wake of the press scandal that erupted after the incident at the 1989 Suzuka Grand Prix.
Fight for the super licence
In early 1990, the battle for Ayrton Senna’s super licence continued: Senna had announced that he would not pay the fine. FISA boss Balestre threatened to withhold Senna’s super licence and also demanded a public apology for Senna’s accusations to FISA.
At the last moment, McLaren team boss Ron Dennis intervened: he addressed the public with a statement from Senna that revised his accusations but was not an apology. The statement was enough for Balestre: He approved Senna’s super licence for 1990.
The 1990 season was Ayrton Senna’s first Formula One season that he was not looking forward to.
Alain Prost, his rival from the previous year, was now in a Ferrari and the Williams team had developed its car considerably: Williams’ race cars had electronics that McLaren could not match.
But the fact that Prost was now driving a Ferrari did not mean that Senna no longer had any competition in his own team: Gerhard Berger, who had previously driven for Ferrari, had become Senna’s new team mate.
The very first race in Phoenix (USA) was a wake-up call for Senna: his new team-mate Berger took pole position.
The James Bond Years
Gerhard Berger was to remain Senna’s team-mate for the next two seasons: Gerhard Berger later christened their years together the James Bond Years. Between 1990 and 1992, their only trouble concerned the races themselves. Everything else was taken care of: Their place at McLaren was secure and they were far away from material hardship. The only snag in their carefree relationship was that they were both fighting each other for the world championship.
The battle for the 1990 World Championship title dragged on until the penultimate Grand Prix in Japan: defending champion Alain Prost was hot on Ayrton Senna’s heels. After 14 races, Ayrton Senna had won six races, Alain Prost five. The championship would be decided in Suzuka, just like one year before in 1991.
Ayrton Senna secured pole. But there was a problem: the starting place for the driver on pole was on the inside of the track – not on the outside, where the racing line ran. Senna and his teammate went to the officials to move it to the clean outside spot. Shortly before the race, officials told him that the grid would not be moved.
As Alain Prost started directly behind Senna – on the clean outside spot of the track – the situation was explosive. Alain Prost passed Ayrton Senna because of his starting position on the racing line.
When Prost turned into the first corner, Senna wanted to take back his first place: Prost closed the door. Senna didn’t want to give in. The inevitable happened: A collision. Just like one year ago. This put both cars out of the race – and Senna had decided the 1990 world championship in his favour, as no one could catch up with his lead.
Senna was blamed for the collision. Ayrton pointed to FISA’s decision not to move the grid for the driver on pole position. Again he saw the influence of Jean-Marie Balestre behind the decision.
But that did not change the fact that Ayrton Senna became Formula One World Champion for the second time.
The 1991 Formula One World Championship made it seem as if winning the Formula One World Championship was a routine job for Senna: From the first race, Senna led the drivers’ championship and did not relinquish the lead until the end of the season.
Nigel Mansell in the Williams became Senna’s biggest rival during the 1991 season. His rival Alain Prost took far fewer race wins.
Once again, the world championship was decided in Japan: Nigel Mansell retired due to a driving error. This eliminated Senna’s only World Championship rival – Ayrton Senna became the youngest three-time Formula One World Champion in history.
McLaren team boss Ron Dennis asked Senna over the radio if he would give the win to his team-mate Gerhard Berger, who was driving directly behind Senna. Senna made it exciting: he led the last few laps and only allowed Gerhard Berger to overtake him on the last few metres.
Dominance by Williams
Nigel Mansell in the Williams-Renault won the first five races – breaking Senna’s record from the previous year when he had won the first four races.
Senna’s only moment of glory in the 1992 season took place in Monaco: Already in qualifying there was a close head-to-head race between Mansell and Senna.
Mansell’s Williams was so far ahead of the McLaren that Senna had to hope that Mansell would have an incident during the race. And so it was to come: Six laps before the race was over, Mansell had to pit: There was a problem with his tyres. But assuming Mansell would go through to the end without a pit stop, his team had already packed up the equipment and was completely unprepared. So Mansell’s pit stop would take longer than usual.
Senna seized the opportunity: when Mansell turned back onto the track, Senna had overtaken him and lead by 5.1 seconds. What followed was a race to catch up: Senna was driving on worn tyres – Mansell had just received some fresh ones. In addition, the Williams was technically far ahead of the McLaren.
After three laps, Senna’s lead shrank to 2.1 seconds. But it wasn’t just any driver Mansell was trying to catch: it was Ayrton Senna. In lapping traffic, a chance opened up for Mansell – but Senna wouldn’t let him pass. He won the 1992 Monaco Grand Prix. Gerhard Berger said of his performance:
“Nobody but Senna could have won this race under these circumstances. Anybody else would have made a mistake.”
A year off?
Ayrton Senna finished the 1992 World Championship in fourth place. Although he had won more races than third-placed Michael Schumacher, he could not collect enough points for a higher classification. Senna failed to finish seven races, Schumacher had only four retirements.
A disappointment for Senna: it was clear to him that he couldn’t win another championship with McLaren. The heart of the team, the Honda engine, was a thing of the past. It was suspected that Senna would take a year off – but that was not in his interest…
Simon von Ludwig
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.
Cover picture: © Instituto Ayrton Senna (CC BY 2.0), taken from Wikimedia Commons