SPORT Senna’s Sixth Sense

8 min

Stuck in sixth gear, Ayrton Senna performed a near-miracle to win his first home grand prix in 1991.

No gaps exist in our collective memory of Ayrton Senna. If you had to describe a racing driver to an alien, you might unconsciously evoke Senna. That’s obviously hyperbole, but the grammar of his driving was hyperbolic. Every turn, every lap, every victory was an overstatement. To watch him drive is to worship at the Temple of Speed. Whether you’re viewing a YouTube clip of his onboard camera. Whether you’re rolling through a compilation of his greatest drives. You can’t help but shake your head in bemusement and wonder, “How did he do that?”. 

« If you no longer go for a gap that exists, you're no longer a racing driver.

Ayrton Senna

Senna was arguably the most compelling driver that Formula 1 has ever produced. Every racing fan has their version of Senna. The Suzuka Senna. Senna, the rain king. The quiet Senna. The angry Senna. In a country that worships football, Senna was a hero of the same stature as Pele. Imagine that. There’s also the famous quote that compared other drivers to Senna. “It was like you were watching photographers, and then you were watching a painting done by Michelangelo.”

Here’s another one, from former Formula 1 driver, John Watson. “I witnessed visibly and audibly something I had not seen anyone do before in a racing car. It was as if he had four hands and four legs. He was braking, changing down, steering, pumping the throttle, and the car appeared to be on that knife edge of being in control and being out of control.” That knife edge was where Senna found himself one rainy afternoon at Interlagos in 1991.

Norio Koike ©ASE

Hometown hoodoo

By 1991, Ayrton Senna was already a superstar. It was his eighth season in Formula 1. He had been crowned world champion twice already. But he hadn’t yet won his home race, the Brazilian Grand Prix at the Interlagos circuit in São Paulo. He desperately wanted to break his unlucky streak. From finishing second to being disqualified to having an accident while leading the race, Senna had seen everything but victory in Brazil. So you could see his determination on the eve of the race. Senna blitzed through qualifying, seizing pole position and beating the fast and furious rival cars of Riccardo Patrese and Nigel Mansell. Advantage Senna.

“Ole, ole, ole, ole…Senna, Senna!”

Interlagos on race day was a cauldron of noise. The famous Senna chant rang around the circuit. All of Brazil sensed that this was the day the son of their soil would come home a winner. Everything, except for Senna’s gearbox, was geared towards victory. Lights out, the race began looking as if Senna was going to have the easiest race of his career in Brazil. But he had refused to celebrate his pole position. He didn’t want to do anything that might jinx his chances of earning the best gift he could imagine: the top spot on the podium, in his home country. 

A comedy of malfunctions

As the race went on, the drivers behind Senna were struggling. His teammate’s car caught fire. Nigel Mansell was trying to catch up to Senna, but his gearbox malfunctioned, and then he suffered a punctured tire. Senna was all set to cross the checkered flag with ease, after years of anguish. But with just ten laps left, disaster struck. Senna’s gearbox decided to pose a challenge far greater than his rivals. Lap by lap, he lost gears, eventually being stuck in sixth gear for the rest of the race. They say fortune favors the brave. They were clearly wrong in this case.

Norio Koike ©ASE

Switching to a superhuman gear

While he may have been stuck in sixth gear, Senna was driving as if he had a sixth sense. The circuit was Interlagos, but Senna was racing on some superhuman plane. Imagine being stuck in sixth gear, inside an angry speed machine. Your eyes, your arms, your mind, your feet all have to work in sync. There’s no margin for error until you cross the finish line. It’s a dance with almost certain defeat. But this was Senna, and this was the knife edge. An otherworldly zone in which he thrived when anyone else would’ve just parked the car by the side of the circuit and called it an afternoon. This is where any hyperbole isn’t hyperbolic enough. 

When it rains, it pours

As if driving in sixth gear wasn’t hard enough, another obstacle was sent down from the heavens. It began to rain. The track turned into one long and winding banana peel. Patrese, who was in second place, was gaining on Senna. As he slipped and slid in sixth gear, his hope slipped and slid with him. They raced into the final laps with the rain now pouring down, creating sheets of doubt between Senna and the podium. 

The best gift he ever received

And then, after what felt like eternity, Senna overcame his gearbox, cut through the sheets of rain, fought away Patrese, and crossed the finish line. He let out a scream of disbelief into the radio. The fans at the circuit bellowed cheers of relief. Senna grabbed a Brazilian flag from a track marshal, but he was spent. He couldn’t drive the car anymore, forget waving the flag. His sixth sense cost him muscle spasms in his arms and shoulders. As he got on the podium, Senna barely managed to lift the trophy over his head. He later said that the crowd’s love and enthusiasm gave him the power to raise the best gift he said he would ever receive.

Touching the limit

“On a given day, a given circumstance, you think you have a limit,” Senna once said. “And you then go for this limit and you touch this limit, and you think, ‘OK, this is the limit.’ As soon as you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly can go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and the experience as well, you can fly very high.” And fly very high he did that day in 1991. We recall it as the day Senna was stuck in sixth gear. But maybe we should remember it as the day he gained his sixth sense.

TAG Heuer Formula 1 Senna Special Edition (CAZ201D.BA0633)

Senna lives on

Senna is, and always will be, a legend. Not just in motorsport, but outside of it. One of the ways in which his legacy lives on is through the Ayrton Senna Institute, which promotes education for children and young people in Brazil. The Institute works with a network of education professionals, researchers, and third-party organizations to improve public education policies.

Through a special edition TAG Heuer Formula 1 Senna, TAG Heuer celebrates the legend that was and is Ayrton Senna. This stunning timepiece echoes Senna’s search for perfection, with its sunray-brushed anthracite dial and bold black and red colors. It’s a symbol of resilience and calm, even at the highest speeds.

For the details about this new special edition timepiece, visit

TAG Heuer Formula 1 Senna Special Edition (CAZ201D.BA0633)