As I write this column in late April, the mass media is full of stories about Ayrton Senna. I must be the only person who saw Senna’s early races not to have grasped that I was seeing greatness in formation, but I didn’t. It’s amazing how stories get changed in retrospect.
When Ayrton Senna da Silva first arrived on the scene, I was learning my trade covering British club meetings for Autosport and Motoring News. His second race was at the Easter Monday Thruxton Meeting in a works Van Diemen FF1600 car and he won. However, it was not a surprise to see a Brazilian win in a works Van Diemen—it happened all the time.
It used to be said that when a soccer club in the north east of England needed a player, all the manager had to do was to go to the nearest coal mine and shout, “Bring me up a center forward.” Van Diemen was a bit like that—year on year Ralph Firman would run a brilliant Brazilian in FF1600.
There was nothing about Senna that set him apart from other brilliant Brazilians, like Roberto Moreno. Senna entered 20 races and won 12, which was not that remarkable a season. Kenny Acheson won the three top FF1600 championships in 1978—now that was a season you could call a season.
In 1982, Senna won the British FF2000 Championship and the surprise is that he bothered to do it all. As a series, it fluctuated in quality, and 1982 was not a great year. Only one driver gave him any problems and that was Calvin Fish who was never far behind and, on occasion, in front.
Senna racked up early wins in the 1983 British Formula Three championship and then Martin Brundle began to close on him. Ayrton only raced in Britain but, from midseason, Brundle raced in some European F3 Championship events and wiped the floor with the opposition.
At the time there was a scheme called “Racing For Britain,” where fans subscribed and received newsletters and concessions. Most of the money went to supporting Brit talent. Brundle was our man and he battled ferociously, forcing Senna into mistakes.
When they went to the final round of the series, Brundle was actually one point ahead; since his finishing rate had been better, and points had to be shed, he was in the weaker position. On paper it was a clear victory—Senna 132 points, Brundle 123, but Brundle had to drop four points.
There was something else, and that was the fact that both men were in Ralts. Ron Tauranac had an aerodynamic advantage for 1984, and also a slight mechanical advantage. Senna got the aero package for the last race and, at that point, it was over for Brundle. I wrote Tauranac’s biography, yet I have never been able to discover why Senna was given that advantage.
An interesting statistic is that, during 1983, Senna wrecked six tubs to Brundle’s one. Senna was the one who got red mist in front of his eyes and that’s no good in Formula One.
On the above information, would you have deduced that Senna would go on to win 41 Grands Prix, three World Championship and set pole on 65 occasions against Brundle’s two 2nd places and seven 3rd?
I did not and I am not alone. Williams gave Senna a test, but did not sign him. I once saw Ayrton and Ron Dennis talking in Ron’s car and, from the body language, it was not idle chatter. I reminded Ron of this a few years later and I wish I had not. It is distressing to see so much pain on a man’s face.
During this period, the British F3 Championship was sponsored by Marlboro and the top three drivers—Senna, Brundle and Davy Jones—all won a test in a McLaren, and that seemed to be an end to it. Other forces were at work, however. John Watson was holding out for more money at McLaren because, for two years, he had been more successful than his team mate, Niki Lauda. Wattie had a contract in front of him but then Renault sacked Alain Prost and McLaren signed Prost.
Wattie was offered drives with Lotus and Toleman. He rejected Lotus because it used Pirelli tires—Lotus swapped tire companies a few days after the deadline—and he rejected Toleman because he did not want to go through the hassle of building a team. With a seat vacant, Toleman asked Senna to test.
Ken Tyrrell had supported “Racing For Britain” and had pledged a test for the top British F3 driver, which was Brundle. After his test in the McLaren, Martin noted which parts of his body were causing pain and had been to a gym to work on them, so he was prepared.
On a cold day at Silverstone in late November 1983, I was one of four spectators (two were named Brundle) who saw Martin test for Tyrrell and Ayrton test for Toleman. Senna was there because Wattie had turned down the drive, Brundle was there because Ken Tyrrell had offered a prize. Neither was there because they so obviously should have been there.
Danny Sullivan set up an old Tyrrell 011 and Brundle pulverized Danny’s time. Ken brought out an 012, and Martin lapped Silverstone faster than a Tyrrell had ever lapped the track. At the other end of the pitlane, the guys at Toleman were hugging themselves as Senna sliced 2.5 whole seconds off Toleman’s best time at Silverstone.
I came away knowing that I had seen history in the making, but I defy anyone to have predicted the difference in each driver’s future F1 careers. There is a Golden Rule that I pass on to every scheme that aims to promote talent; and it is: you can never tell what a driver will achieve until they achieve it.
Consider a driver who won only 28 races in his entire career. That’s scant rations for an entire career, except that the driver was Niki Lauda.