Updated:Nov 11, 2021
“Ayrton Senna achieves his ambition, to win the Brazilian Grand Prix, but another lap or two and I think he would not have done so.” Those were the words of the late, great Murray Walker as a relieved Senna dragged his poorly McLaren-Honda over the line to finally win his home Grand Prix, sending the Brazilian public into pandemonium.
A god-like figure to the people he fought so valiantly for, throughout his life, Senna’s triumph at home remains to be one of the best drives in Formula 1 history.
It was something he had craved for so long, with a second-place finish back in 1986 being the closest he’d got to standing on the top step of the podium before of course, victory finally came on that day in 1991.
One Bit Of Unity
After a routine race win at the season-opening USA Grand Prix in Pheonix, many of the Brazilian population and indeed, the wider Formula 1 community put the Brazilian as a favourite to win before the weekend even began. It was not only something people expected to happen but also dearly wanted to happen as well.
Not only because it was his home Grand Prix, but also because of what it would mean to the Brazilian people as well.
During the late 1980s and early 90s, Brazil as a country was in economic decline. Unemployment and poverty figures were high, which arguably acted as a catalyst for the growing rate of violence within the country as well. People were divided but the one bit of unity they had was supporting Senna.
He acknowledged this fact and did all could to support his country whilst he was winning Formula 1 World Championships.’
His off-track heroics made up for the fact he had yet to win his home Grand Prix – something which was weighing heavily on him. However, from the very first practice session on Friday morning, you wouldn’t have known it.
One of his many brilliant characteristics was his ability to drive in the wet – he was just sensational to watch, throwing his car into corners with such furiosity that you thought he was going to either spin or crash out. But he kept it all under control – somehow remaining just as quick and consistent.Embed from Getty Images
After topping the wet first practice session, he went even quicker in the afternoon’s second free practice – mainly because the session was run in much better conditions.
Saturday morning saw the rain return, but this time, it was Britain’s Nigel Mansell who returned the quickest time. The Williams-Renault driver then originally set the fastest lap time of the qualifying session on Saturday afternoon too, putting the packed grandstands on the edge of their seats.
Senna responded before Mansell and then Riccardo Patrese – in the second Williams – knocked him down again. However, spurred on by the expectancy of his people and team, the Brazilian responded again, claiming his 54th career pole position. That result arguably raised the expectation levels, however.
After yet more rain overnight, the Sunday morning warm-up saw Mansell top the timesheets, followed by Alain Prost in his Ferrari, Patrese, and Senna.
But much like it had on the previous two days, the track soon dried out and the race began with the hometown hero setting the pace early on. However, Mansell soon found his speed and closed the gap Senna had originally built up in the early stages. After 21 laps, the gap between the leading duo was just one second.
Going for the undercut, Mansell and his Williams team went for the much bolder strategy in a bid to claim the race lead and upset the faithful Brazilians who had come out in their numbers to support their conqueror. It may have worked as well, but as he exited the pits, he struggled to select a gear, costing him 14.6 seconds.
Senna pitted a lap later and rejoined comfortably ahead with a lead of 7.26 seconds. Again though, the Brit fought back again in what was becoming a tantalizing, see-saw-like battle. The sort of race neutrals was probably relishing and exactly the sort of race those Brazilian Senna fans were probably hating.
At the end of the 42nd tour, Mansell had reduced the deficit to just under three seconds. Pushing hard, maybe too hard, Mansell was forced to stop again after his right rear tyre had sustained a cut down its centreline. This allowed the Brazilian to once again open up the lead, this time to a much more comfortable 34.8 seconds.
It soon transpired that Mansell was struggling with transmission problem, however – the same ones that affected both him and teammate Patrese in Pheonix – even though they opted to only run five speeds at Interlagos, rather than the six they had used in America, believing that’s what caused their issues.
Potentially confusing the gearbox of his FW14, it downshifted from fourth straight down to first, pitting Mansell into a spin and soon after, out of the race. Surely, nothing would stop Senna from, at last, winning his home Grand Prix.
Heartbreaks At Home
His previous seven appearances at his home Grand Prix had yielded little success. He made his Formula 1 debut in 1984 as Rio de Janeiro staged the race. He put his Toleman 16th on the grid, the best of the rookies in the field for that season. He started the race well and was running in ninth before a turbo failure ended his debut early.
However, that 1984 season is perhaps better known for his utterly brilliant drive at the soaking wet Monaco Grand Prix, finishing second after starting in 13th.
A winter move to the Lotus team for the 1985 campaign saw Senna arrive in Brazil with a certain degree of expectation.
“I can’t promise a win,” he said. “Our engine is the one with the poorest gas mileage out there and this has made us study race strategy in detail. What I can promise is a fight to the end for the podium.”
A fourth-place starting position provided a good foundation for that hopeful podium finish as well, but an electrical problem on lap 41 forced him to retire from his home Grand Prix for the second year in a row.
A pole position in 1986 with fellow Brazilian Nelson Piquet lining up alongside him in second excited the home crowd. Mainly because it was Senna’s first pole position in his home country. The previous season, he had secured seven poles in the 16 races run that year.
Getting off to a great start and maintaining the race lead, Senna soon found himself coming under increasing pressure from Piquet and on lap three, was overtaken by his fellow countrymen. Being the first race of another long season, Senna decided to settle for second rather than jeopardise the car and his World Championship chances.
However, despite retiring from the race, it would be Prost who would lift the title for the first time in what would be a brilliant career for the Frenchman.
That would prove to be Senna’s best result at his home Grand Prix, before his eventual and emotional win in 1991.
A new engine for the 1987 season gave Senna and Lotus renewed optimism heading into the new season. So, when he stuck it third on the grid in qualifying behind the two Williams of Mansell and Piquet, it was a result deemed to be satisfactory by the Brazilian.
After initially taking the race lead before being relegated to third again, Senna was forced to retire on lap 50 of 61 with a blocked radiator causing overheating issues to his engine. Despite the disappointing result, Senna admitted after, “I know that it is competitive and resilient. I believe it’s going to make me very happy.”
In a year that saw him stand on the top step twice, Senna finished third in the drivers’ championship behind Piquet and Mansell. Williams also got the better of Lotus in the constructors’ championship as well, with lotus eventually finishing third behind McLaren – the team Senna would drive for from 1988 onwards.Embed from Getty Images
His McLaren debut started well, as he secured pole position for his home Grand Prix for the second time in his career. There was a growing sense of expectation in the air that he would go on to win it as well as the cars lined up on the grid. However, Senna realised that his McLaren had an issue and quickly returned to the garage, jumping in his spare car.
He was calving his way through the field after having to start from last place as a result, but on lap 30, he was given a black flag. Ron Dennis had tried to persuade the race officials that the car swap was legal, but the stewards saw it as ‘not obeying the proper starting procedure.’
Despite the retirement, a successful campaign brought Senna his first Formula 1 World Championship.
Returning home as World Champion the following year, Senna once again stuck his McLaren on pole but after a first corner collision with Patrese and Gerhard Berger on the opening lap, would finish in 11th.
As Interlagos returned to the F1 calendar in 1990 after 10 years away, there was once again a sense of hope that Senna’s hoodoo experiences at home would become a thing of the past.
It was quite literally his home Grand Prix as well, with Senna himself being from Sao Paulo where the track is located. Refusing to take part in the tracks’ re-opening ceremony, his only focus was winning his home Grand Prix.
Starting from pole, the local racer got off to a blistering start but then on lap 42, Senna collided with the Tyrell of Satoru Nakajima, forcing him to pit to change his car’s broken nose. He eventually finished in third and would once again win the World Championship later that season.
Stuck In Sixth
Given his unfortunate luck in the previous Brazilian GPs, it was perhaps no surprise to people when (just before Mansell retired), he hit problems.
Fourth gear went just after the halfway stage as the rain started to fall around the track. He luckily had a big gap back to the now second-placed Patrese but when third and fifth gear also went with just seven laps to go, his laps times started to increase and the gap began to close.
Stuck in sixth, Senna had to dig deep. Luckily for him perhaps, Patrese was also ironically suffering from gearbox issues – although they were nowhere near as bad as that of his teammate’s or Senna’s.
Despite closing the gap, the laps left were not sufficient enough for Patrese to get past and so, relived, Senna crossed the line to finally win at home – a result that had been seven years in the making.
Screaming over the radio – not just a scream of happiness, but also a scream of reprieve, exhaustion, and pain. He was there. He had done it!
Stopping just after turn three on the slowing down lap, the marshals ran to their race-winning hero – tired, he waved the Brazilian flag out the cockpit before wearily handing it back to the marshal. Two pushed the stricken McLaren to safety whilst the third ran jubilantly behind, skipping and waving the Brazilian flag for all to see.
“Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, Senna, Senna” cried the Brazilian crowd who were overjoyed at the result – a stark contrast to Senna who had to be helped from his car and taken to the podium by the medical car, he was in that much agony.
His father Milton was also ecstatic with the result, but even he could not hug his son in parc ferme – instead, a gentle but still warming embrace between the pair as his super-hero son made his way gingerly up to the podium, finally ready to stand on the top step in front of his adoring home nation.
A gritted smile through the pain, Senna lifted the trophy above his head. More cheers and applause came.
“God gave me this race”
The pressure that weighed down on Senna before the weekend even began became apparent in the post-race press conference.
“The cramps were partly because the shoulder straps were so tight, but also because of emotion,” he would say later. “The rain really didn’t help me and I was hoping they would stop the race. I saw Patrese coming and I didn’t think I would make it.
“I felt it was my duty to win here. By the finish, I had nothing left. God gave me this race.”
It was quite literally a weight lifted from his shoulders that carried the hope of an entire nation and wider global community. It was a race people expected him to win, but perhaps also thought wouldn’t.Embed from Getty Images
The 1991 season would also see the Brazilian secure his third and final Formula 1 World Championship, as he would secure five further wins in a superb campaign.
He would go on to win the Brazilian Grand Prix once more in his career, in 1993 before his fatal accident at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
The win in 1991 would have been a memorable one anyway, but to do it in the manner he did, shows what a truly amazing sportsman Senna was. His legacy lives on with the famous ‘Senna Esses’ at the Interlagos track being named after him.
A true tale in resilience and fighting power, it remains to be one of the best stories Formula 1 has ever told.