SPORT Ayrton Senna: Driver Against Time

5 min

Richard Williams Author and Journalist

Time, rather than speed, was what mattered to Ayrton Senna. All Grand Prix cars are fast, and any professional racing driver, given a straight piece of track, can put his foot down to reach and hold 200 miles an hour. Only the great ones can find ways to shave away the fractions of a second that make the real difference. And Senna was as great as they come.

© Norio Koike, ASE

In today’s Formula One, lap times are measured to the thousandth of a second. The technology wasn’t quite as advanced in 1971, when Jack Heuer made his entry into the world’s most glamorous sport, putting his watch company’s badge on the bodywork of Enzo Ferrari’s Grand Prix cars and Steve McQueen wore a distinctive square-cased Heuer Monaco while starring in his feature film based on the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In those days, tenths of a second were sufficient to determine who had made the fastest lap in a race or a qualifying session. 

Within a decade, tenths had turned first into hundredths and then into thousandths. And sometimes F1’s timekeepers have found themselves in need of such fine distinctions. 

Thousandths were in operation when Senna arrived in Monaco with the McLaren-Honda on a day in May 1988. He and his teammate, Alain Prost, would win 15 of the 16 rounds of that season’s championship series, with Senna as champion and Prost as runner-up. In Monaco for the third round of the series, they stood at a win apiece and one of the sport’s greatest rivalries was just coming to the boil.

  • © ASE

Until Senna’s arrival that winter, McLaren had been Prost’s fiefdom. In five seasons with the English team, he had won two world titles. When Senna joined, he was warned by his predecessor, John Watson, that the McLaren personnel had got used to doing things Prost’s way, and it would be prudent to go along with him. Senna disagreed. “I’m going to blitz him,” he said. In qualifying in Monaco, that was precisely what he did.

The Brazilian took pole position, ahead of the Frenchman. But as they completed their laps in the final qualifying session over the tight, twisty two-mile circuit, running from the seafront up to the Casino and back, the gap between the two red and white Marlboro-sponsored cars was not measured in thousandths. It was something almost unthinkable: a margin of 1.427 seconds. Almost a second and a half, over a lap lasting just over 80 seconds. In F1 terms, an eternity.

© Norio Koike, ASE

In the pits of McLaren and the other teams, timekeepers looked at their screens and shook their heads in astonishment. Those watching the feed from the camera mounted on Senna’s car could see the superhuman control and astonishing commitment with which he had hurled the car into Casino Square, down the hill to the hairpin, through the long tunnel into the chicane, and around the blind bends of the swimming-pool complex. Every piece of judgement – accelerating, steering, braking, shifting the car’s balance to stay millimetres clear of the steel barriers – had been perfect. More perfect, in fact, with every lap. Could something be more than perfect? This was on a completely different level.

For once, Senna didn’t need the stopwatch to tell him he had achieved something unprecedented in his era. He knew it was special. “I was already on pole and I was going faster and faster,” he told the Canadian journalist Gerald Donaldson. “One lap after the other, quicker and quicker. I was at one stage just on pole, then by half a second, then by one second… and I kept going. And I suddenly realized that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was kind of driving it by instinct, only in a different dimension.”

  • © Norio Koike, ASE

He had achieved the ideal state of relaxed concentration. He likened it to being in a tunnel. Not the circuit’s tunnel, but a tunnel of perception in which time and space were no longer defined by normal parameters. “I was way over the limit, but able to find even more.”

Then, suddenly, he woke up. Not literally, but as he emerged from the mental tunnel back into reality he gave himself a fright. “I realized that I was well beyond my conscious understanding,” he said. He slowed down straight away and drove back to the pits, knowing that his conscious mind now ruled his actions once again.

© Norio Koike, ASE

On race day he still had some of that freakish speed, leading comfortably from the start. With only 11 of the 78 laps left, his lead over Prost – in an identical car – was a massive 50 seconds. At that point Ron Dennis, the McLaren team owner, got on the radio to tell Senna to slow down and make sure of the one-two finish. His concentration disrupted, the Brazilian immediately hit the barrier at the right-handed Portier corner, damaging the front suspension.

Unable to continue, shocked at the sudden end to what had been an utterly dominant performance, he jumped out of the car and stormed off on foot to his nearby apartment, where he locked the door behind him and allowed his great disappointment to subside. Not until several hours later did he emerge and return to the pits, where the mechanics were packing up after the team had celebrated Prost’s unexpected victory.

Six months and seven more wins later, he was celebrating his first world championship. Before the tragic and freakish accident that took his life at Imola in 1994, there would be two more world titles and many further examples of his virtuosity. The most memorable came in 1993 at Donington Park, where he won the European Grand Prix after an opening lap during which, on a wet and treacherous track, he ate up his opponents like a shark, going from fifth to first place inside a minute. Michael Schumacher, Karl Wendlinger, Damon Hill and Alain Prost were left behind as he took a lead he would hold to the chequered flag. On that day, his genius was the only measure that mattered.

Richard Williams Author and Journalist