Part seven (final part)
Senna originally planned to move to Williams for the 1993 season. Williams driver Mansell retired from Formula One after his world championship title in 1992.
But Senna was surprised by a former rival: Alain Prost, who re-entered Formula One with Williams after a year out, had made arrangements. Prost’s contract stipulated that Ayrton Senna could not become his team-mate. This meant that Senna’s Williams option for 1993 was off. He had no choice but to stay at McLaren if he did not want to take a sabbatical.
New constructor – with a big catch
Team boss Ron Dennis had landed a new constructor: Ford, who were also the constructors of the Benetton team with Michael Schumacher as driver. But there was a big catch: Ford had contractually agreed with Benetton that Ford could only provide a second team with engines from the penultimate generation. Senna was anything but happy with this. McLaren no longer had a factory engine.
Rumours arose that Senna would not drive for McLaren in 1993 and would instead take a year off.
In February 1993 McLaren appointed Michael Andretti and Mika Häkkinen as drivers for the coming season – no mention of Ayrton Senna.
But Senna found himself in a quandary: he had just built up his own business empire, Ayrton Senna Promotions, which he wanted to maintain and further expand. To do this, he needed a financial base.
Senna in an IndyCar
Senna’s dissatisfaction with the McLaren car for 1993 even went so far as to consider moving to America: His friend and two-time world champion Emerson Fittipaldi had joined the American IndyCar Series and was enjoying great success.
The Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi was of great importance for Ayrton Senna’s career: it was he who introduced Senna to the world of Formula One in the early eighties. Fittipaldi had been trying to persuade Senna to test in IndyCar for some time: now that Senna was unhappy in Formula One, this test offer came in handy…
On 20 December 1992, Ayrton Senna’s secret IndyCar test took place in Phoenix. Senna was testing for the Penske Racing Team, one of the most successful and influential teams in the IndyCar Series. It was agreed to keep the test secret – nevertheless, some journalists found out about the test and reported extensively in the new year.
After 28 laps on the Firebird West track, he had beaten Emerson Fittipaldi’s time by half a second: there was no doubt that Senna could handle the IndyCar race car. Did he find the IndyCar too easy to handle? Did it not challenge him?
Senna remembered that he had to learn the handling of a Formula One car with great difficulty. He preferred to sit in a Formula One car, which was only competitive in a limited way, but offered him a challenge.
Besides, IndyCar races do not enjoy the same reputation as Formula One races. The American IndyCar Series is a national championship and primarily gathers supporters in the USA. Formula One, on the other hand, travels around the world and gathers supporters almost everywhere. This may also have played a role in Ayrton’s considerations.
However, the “secret” test showed the public and especially McLaren team boss Ron Dennis that Senna was ready to look for an alternative to Formula One…
Return of a rival
Senna negotiated with Ron Dennis and both came to an agreement. Unlike in previous years, Senna was paid on a race-to-race base: he thus left it open to himself to retire at any time if he realised that his car was not competitive.
Marlboro marketing boss John Hogan, one of the McLaren team’s biggest sponsors, urged Ron Dennis to let Ayrton Senna drive for McLaren.
McLaren’s inferior engines were just one of many challenges in 1993: Alain Prost returned to Formula One after a sabbatical. He drove for Williams: the team that had dominated the championship the previous year.
But already at the first Grand Prix of the season in South Africa it became clear that Williams’ dominance was crumbling: Although Alain Prost took pole, Senna was only 0.088 seconds behind him.
Prost won the race. Only five cars crossed the finish line at this Grand Prix – all the others crashed or the car broke down.
Performance despite an inferior car
The Brazilian Grand Prix two weeks later put an end to the Williams team’s dominance: Ayrton Senna won his home Grand Prix. The local audience in São Paulo celebrated his victory with applause: it was only his second home victory.
At the following European Grand Prix in rainy Donington, Ayrton Senna achieved a masterstroke: he set a track record of 1:18.029 on the Donington Park Circuit, which remains unbroken to this day. To this day, this lap is considered the greatest lap ever driven: On Sunday, April 11 1993, it was raining cats and dogs. Not only did the Williams team have a technical advantage over the McLaren. Michael Schumacher’s Benetton was a big rival: Schumacher’s engine managed 1,500 rpm more. It was the latest development stage of the Ford engine, which was reserved for Benetton.
In qualifying, Senna could only manage fourth place on the grid. On the first lap, Ayrton Senna managed to overtake all the cars in front of him – he did not relinquish the lead until the end of the race.
This made Senna the world championship leader: given McLaren’s technical inferiority, this was anything but self-evident. Since Senna proved that he could keep up in the fight for the world championship even with an inferior engine, there were discussions with Ford: McLaren wanted to install Ford’s factory engine, which had been reserved for Benetton until then. But Benetton knew how to prevent this: Benetton team boss Flavio Briatore insisted on the contract with Ford, which stated that only Benetton had access to the Ford factory engine.
This was a blow for Senna – he had hoped to drive the rest of the season with the Ford factory engine. Again, Senna considered dropping out: This was possible because he was paid on a race-to-race basis and had no fixed contract with McLaren.
However, his desire to race was stronger: he was to drive for McLaren for the entire 1993 season.
No fourth title for Senna
Without the Ford factory engine, it seemed a hopeless battle for Ayrton Senna: Alain Prost caught up with him in the world championship battle. But Ayrton Senna was able to take the world championship lead again: After the Monaco Grand Prix, which he won for the sixth time in his career, he and Alain Prost had won three races each. But he knew it would not last. From race 7 in Canada, Alain Prost did not relinquish the lead until the end of the season and became world champion. After his third title, Prost decided to end his Formula One career.
For the 1994 Formula One season the time had finally come: Ayrton Senna was able to get a place in the Williams team. The official announcement was made on 11 October 1993. His team mate: Michael Schumacher.
At the first race in his home country Brazil, Senna managed to get the pole position, but Schumacher won. Likewise at the Pacific Grand Prix.
But it was at the San Marino Grand Prix that the accident occurred, which many motor sports enthusiasts still remember as if it was yesterday…
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: Ayrton Senna in 1989 at Imola, © Gabriele, taken from Wikimedia Commons