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The Five Best Drives of Ayrton Senna

Ayrton Senna was widely regarded as perhaps the best driver of the Golden Generation of the late 1980s. His duels with four time world champion Alain Prost became legendary. Many described Senna as the best driver of F1 even during his racing career, and his tragic early death in 1994 changed nothing of this.

During his ten-year F1 career, even though Senna spent a few years in cars that were considered the class of the field, more often than not was not driving the best car on the grid. Nevertheless, Senna showed his brilliance and put in some drives that became the stuff of legends since.

Choosing just five among so many brilliant races was incredibly hard, and I am sure next time I look at the list I will have second thoughts about it, but here are the five races I chose.

1991 Brazilian GP

Senna began the 1991 season in brilliant fashion by taking pole position and a victory on the streets of Phoenix. Senna looked utterly dominant in Phoenix and was walking away from the field at will.

He continued his brilliant start to 1991 in Brazil by taking another pole position in his home race. Before 1991 Senna never succeeded in winning his home race, though he often looked blisterigly fast; bad luck and silly errors cost him his inaugural home win on many occasions.

This year, he had a fine start and maintained his lead. At the end of lap 1 Senna was followed by Nigel Mansell, Riccardo Patrese and Gerhard Berger. Senna and Mansell were in a class of their own and were easily pulling away from their teammates. Mansell looked like he could match and fight Senna until the end of the race, but he had to make an extra stop because of a puncture.

Mansell began to charge on his new tyres, but a gearbox failure sent him into a spin. Senna was leading the rest of the field by well over half a minute, but he gradually lost gears, and by the end of the race he was stuck in 6th gear in even the slow corners.

Patrese and Berger were quickly catching up, but they ran out of time to catch Senna, who finally ended his home race barren run to win his first Brazilian GP.

1993 Japanese GP

Senna had a brilliant first half to his 1993 season, but his title challenge eventually faded away as he was unable to keep up in his underpowered McLaren-Ford (some 80 horsepower down on the Renault V10) with Alain Prost’s all conquering Williams Renault.

During the middle part of the season, not only did the Williams team have the legs on McLaren, but Bennetton also looked much faster, and the young Michael Schumacher was regularly much faster than three-time champion Senna.

McLaren made a strong comeback in the Portuguese GP, where both Senna and his new teammate Mika Hakkinen looked once again back on the pace. The race did not turned out well for McLaren, but the pace of the car looked finally promising.

Their good form continued into Japan also and the two McLarens were second and third on the grid.

At the start Senna passed Prost and started to pull away from the Williams. It soon became evident that Senna and his teammate Hakkinen were intending to make two stops, while Prost only one. Shortly after Senna’s stop it started to drizzle, which allowed Senna to catch and pass Prost just before the two went to the pits.

Senna had a much faster stop than his rival and was also much faster than Prost in the rain. He built a huge lead and looked set for an easy win. As everything looked settled, the track began to dry up and many drivers jumped into the pits for dry tyres. But some chose not to do so, and Senna found himself in a duel with Damon Hill and Eddie Irvine and had a real struggle to lap them.

In the end Senna went through the two and went on to clinch a dominant win from Prost and Hakkinen.

1988 Japanese GP

Senna and Prost had a great duel throughout 1988 for the driver’s championship. Going into Japan Senna needed a win to clinch the title.

He took pole position with a brilliant lap, but his teammate was lining up in second place, just after him.

Senna had an awful start and dropped back into the middle of the grid, while Prost took an easy lead. Still, not everything was lost just yet, and thanks to the insanely powerful Honda engine Senna was waltzing his way through the field.

Prost was having gearbox troubles and was unable to pull away from second-place man Ivan Capelli, who even briefly passed the McLaren driver.

As the race progressed it began to drizzle, though not hard enough to force the drivers to change to wet tyres. The wet and dry surface suited Senna a lot more than Prost, which in combination with Prost’s gearbox troubles allowed Senna to catch up Prost.

Traffic held up Prost on lap 27 and allowed Senna to get a run on his teammate and pass him on the mains straight. After he passed Prost he pulled away and took an impressive win to clinch the 1988 championship.

Senna with his legendary rival Alain Prost

Senna with his legendary rival Alain Prost

1985 Portuguese GP

Senna made his F1 debut in 1984 and impressed many team bosses with his strong drives. His strong 1984 performance was rewarded with an offer from the legendary Lotus team, who wanted Senna to replace Nigel Mansell.

Senna joined Elio de Angelis at Lotus for the 1985 season. Senna had little luck in his first Lotus race as he had to retire from the Brazilian GP, but he took an impressive pole position in his second Lotus outing.

The race in the next day was held in torrential rain and Senna showed his wet weather mastery throughout the race. Senna lead the race from the start in the pouring rain and he continously pulled away from the chasing pack. By the end of the race Senna lapped all drivers bar second-place man Michele Alboreto, who still finished over a minute behind Senna. So Senna won his first F1 race in style.

1993 European GP

After a dissapointing 1992 season, Senna was contemplating on skipping 1993, as he believed he stood no chance against the Williams Renaults, and he only raced to win.

He finally agreed to race in 1993, but it was on a race-to-race basis. He looked impressive in the qualifying session of the South African GP, but in the race trim his McLaren-Ford was no match for Alain Prost’s Williams Renault.

He took an impressive win in the rain-affected Brazilian GP, but once again in dry weather his car looked much slower than the dominant Williams Renault’s.

The same pattern continued in the qualifying session of the European GP, where the Williams Renaults looked utterly dominant and were 1,5 second faster than Schumacher and Senna, the first two non-Williams cars.

Rain once again came to the rescue of Senna and allowed him to shine against the odds. He had a phenomenal first lap to his race and overtook Schumacher, Damon Hill and Prost to take the lead. In the initial wet phase of the race Senna started to pull away, but as the track began to dry up he was pegged by Prost. The race was a real nightmare because of the rain, which would stop for brief periods, only to return a few minutes later.

Unlike Prost, who made seven stops in total, Senna judged the conditions much better and his team received better forecastws also. Senna made only four stops, and this fact, in combination with his wet weather driving skills, allowed him to take a dominant win in an inferior car. In the end he won the race by over a minute from Damon Hill, and lapped third-place man Alain Prost.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler