Ayrton Senna claimed all three of his World Championships with McLaren in 1988, 1990 and 1991, during the latter of these years Williams challenged them very hard with the first of Adrian Newey designed Williams cars – the FW14. Despite poor reliability – particularly with the new semi-automatic gearbox – in the early in the season thwarting the team’s title charges the car was often a lot quicker during the races in the hands of “red five” Nigel Mansell and team-mate Riccardo Patrese. This set the tone for the 1992 season and a pre-cursor to the Williams Renault domination of the 1990′s.
As Williams steam-rolled their way to both Championships in 1992 Senna became more de-motivated as the season went on, even admitting he had “no chance” of defending his title as early as after qualifying for the season opener in South Africa. McLaren struggled for competitiveness and reliability, to make matters worse their engine supplier Honda announced they would withdraw from Formula One at the end of the year. Senna found out about Honda’s decision early in the season – and before team principal Ron Dennis – thanks to his close relationship with the Japanese car giant (during his time driving for Lotus Senna managed to persuade Honda to become an engine to the team, and when he joined McLaren for 1988 Honda followed him there too). There was only one way to turn for Senna, and that was to leave McLaren and join Williams for 1993.
Senna did everything he could to try and get a Williams drive for 1993 stating at one point he would “drive for free”, but Renault were determined to have a French driver win the Championship with their engine. Alain Prost subsequently joined and invoked the infamous so-called “no Senna” clause, much to the anger of Senna leading him to label Prost as “a coward” during a press conference. This setback also left Senna without the Williams drive he so badly wanted, although he would go on to join for 1994 after Prost won the Championship and retired from the sport. It is commonly known by many people that Senna decided to remain with McLaren after his attempts to join Williams were scuppered – and thanks to persuasion from Ron Dennis, albeit on a race-by-race basis initially – however he appeared to have a few other options during this time as some are well known whilst others aren’t.
After Nigel Mansell won his Championship in 1992 at Williams, he too had been practically forced out by Prost as well as he did not relish the prospect of pairing up with the Frenchman again. They had previously been team-mates at Ferrari in 1990 and Mansell fell foul to the team and Prost’s political games, such as allegedly swapping Mansell’s car for Prost’s on one occasion when the brummie had found a better setup on his car than Prost’s. For the 1993 season Mansell decided to make the switch to IndyCars in America, famously he dominated, won the title at the first attempt and became the first “rookie” to do so. One of Senna’s greatest idols Emerson Fittipaldi, who was racing in IndyCar at the time for Roger Penske’s iconic team had been offering Senna for a few years to come to the US and have a test. With Senna struggling to find a drive for 1993 he decided to take up Fittipaldi’s offer.
On December 20th 1992 Team Penske were set to shake-down their 1993 car on the Phoenix oval course and then at the Firebird West circuit. Due to the mass media attention over Senna’s future at the time he wanted the test to be kept secret, even Penske team members were not told about the Brazilian’s test apart from managing director Nick Goozée, based at Penske’s UK base in Poole. Despite the security, it would appear that the secret wasn’t well kept as Goozée – whilst preparing to send Senna’s gear over to the US – discovered a note inside the famous yellow and green-striped crash helmet with “Please don’t do it Ayrton!” written on it. As the team arrived in Phoenix rumours were already starting to spread about Senna’s test and that he would drive for them in 1993, particularly as ten days earlier three-time IndyCar Champion Rick Mears had just announced his retirement which left a vacant seat in the team.
Fittipaldi took the new Chevrolet-powered PC21-04 car out onto the oval for its shakedown, Senna watched on patiently as he would have to wait until the team went to the Firebird West circuit before he could have a drive – Roger Penske did not want Senna to drive on the oval due to there being no room for error, especially in an IndyCar. At the Firebird West circuit Fittipaldi went out first again and set a best time of 49.7 seconds, Senna would go out for twenty-eight laps and set a personal best of 49.25 seconds, beating Fittipaldi’s time by half a second. Even more interesting was the fact Senna went out on the same tyres which had been “well used” after Fittipaldi’s run, and he made a few errors along the way too. Formula One cars in the early 1990′s were beginning to run semi-automatic gearboxes, Senna’s McLaren MP4/7 used in the 1992 season had one but IndyCars were running sequential shift gearboxes and Senna “got lost” a few times selecting the wrong gear as this was the first time he had driven a car with one. After the test Senna returned to Brazil for the Christmas period, leaving many attempting to predict where he would drive for 1993 as more became aware the test. Whilst others predicted he was using the test to “kick McLaren into line” Fittipaldi revealed that Senna was keen to one day drive in the Indianapolis 500 and when he eventually did join McLaren on the race-by-race basis, this arrangement left him free to do so. However when he made the call, Roger Penske was unable to accommodate him as he couldn’t race three cars in the iconic race. Fittipaldi would win that year’s race, although he did not get to see his dream of racing alongside Senna come true.
In 1991 successful lower formulae team boss Eddie Jordan made the big step up to Formula One with some successes and controversies along the way. The team’s beautiful Jordan 191 scored points on a few occasions allowing them to finish fifth in the constructors Championship, however driver Bertand Gachot was jailed in the summer – after the infamous CS gas incident with a London taxi driver whilst on his way to a sponsorship event for the team – and replacement Michael Schumacher made his big impact at the Belgian Grand Prix before being whisked away to Benetton. To top it all off Jordan lost their Ford engines as the financial toll of Formula One came to reality, the team had been a victim of its own success. This led to a dreadful 1992 in which the team had a single points finish (courtesy of Stefano Modena at the season finale in Adelaide) and a promising car design spoiled by the heavy, thirsty, underpowered and unreliable Yamaha V12 the team were given in a hastily arranged deal for the team by Bernie Ecclestone.
The Silverstone-based team received a brand new V10 engine courtesy of Brian Hart, who had assisted the team as an engine consultant in 1992 and had been building the V10 engines in his spare time. After a successful post-season test with the new engine Eddie Jordan was confident of an improvement in 1993 and so was – more importantly – the South African oil company Sasol, the team’s title sponsor. Eddie wanted two Brazilians to drive for his team in 1993, one was Formula Three Champion Rubens Barrichello who Eddie had long been an admirer of. As for the other, Eddie hatched a plan in an attempt to lure Senna to Jordan, one which “didn’t seem as daft as it sounded”…
Eddie Jordan and Senna have a history going back to 1983 when Eddie was running in Formula Three, his star driver at the time Martin Brundle was challenging for the Championship against Senna. After a long-fought season between the two Senna eventually overcame Brundle after receiving a sidepod upgrade from chassis manufacturer Ralt which Eddie did not receive (leading Eddie to coin the nickname “SennaPod”). Eddie knew that Honda withdrawing from Formula One and leaving McLaren without an engine supplier had affected Senna, and after receiving a proposal from Eddie he actually went to the Jordan factory outside the Silverstone circuit after a McLaren test session at the track!
Eddie’s plan involved giving twenty-five percent of the team to Senna, rising for forty-nine percent by the end of 1994. Whilst this would mean Eddie only had fifty-one percent of the team he believed the valuation of the team would dramatically increase due to the presence of Senna. Also he believed Senna would build the team around him, take it to a new level and challenge at the front – similar to, if not more than the team did in 1999 with Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Throughout Barrichello’s junior career Senna had been a good friend and mentor to him as well, for Eddie the proposal was a “no brainer” and he revealed this was the tactic he wanted to try out when Schumacher first joined the team. For some time after this visit Eddie and Senna still met up on a few occasions, including another visit to the Jordan factory one evening and – whilst making trips to Brazil to negotiate with Barrichello and his sponsor Arsico – having a lift in Senna’s new Honda NSX to the airport. Despite having “thought long and hard” over the proposal no deal materialised as Senna agreed to stay at McLaren, however both parties would cross paths once again at Suzuka later in the year, although in a different vane…
Senna once said that he did “not care if the Ferrari car is as slow as a beetle” and that he wanted to drive for the prancing horse before he retired from Formula One. Whilst still trying to get a drive at Williams and before deciding to stay with McLaren, Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo made an offer for him. The offer was turned down with Senna saying “Yes but not yet”, as Ferrari were still not in a position to challenge for wins. This was not the first time Ferrari had approached him, there were more secretive negotiations that went on a few years before.
Ferrari had been the closest challenger to Senna and McLaren in 1990, Alain Prost was the challenger and was locked in the infamous bitter rivalry with the Brazilian. Whilst Senna would go on to win the Championship by driving into Prost at the first corner at Suzuka – ensuring the Tifosi would have to wait another ten years before a Ferrari driver would win the Championship there – Ferrari’s Technical Director Cesare Fiorio wanted Senna to join the team. In a recent book about Fiorio, “L’uomo che attirò Senna alla Ferrari” he reveals that secret negotiations took place with Senna to drive for the team in 1992, the book also features a photo of the contract having been signed by Senna – with only the driver salary being blanked out due to confidentiality. Discreet tests at Maranello were also carried out, but despite the secrecy rumours began to grow rife leading both Senna and Fiorio to naturally be in denial, and upon hearing the rumours Alain Prost was disgusted. With backing from Piero Fusaro – predecessor to di Montezemolo – and FIAT the contract was terminated, leading to major internal politics and in May 1991 Fiorio was sacked, with Prost later following suit – after commenting the 643 chassis was “a truck” – and then Fusaro announced his resignation, rounding off what had been a dreadful season for the prancing horse.
In hindsight Senna not joining Ferrari for 1992 was probably for the best, the team endured an even worse season with an underpowered engine and the unique double-floored F92A handling appallingly, which led to some embarrassing results. After Honda informed Senna about their decision to pull of out Formula One he told his McLaren team-mate Gerhard Berger, with the latter also deciding that leaving was the best way forward. Whilst Senna pursued a Williams drive Berger decided to re-join Ferrari – having driven for them from 1987 to 1989 – and before signing for them, he said to Senna that he would “get things going and in a year or two you can come too”. Senna and Berger had always enjoyed a special friendship during – what Berger called – the “James Bond” years” and nonetheless Ferrari began to improve throughout 1994 and 1995 with Berger recording the team’s first win since 1990 at Hockenheim. For 1996 or 1997 this may have been a good time for Senna to join but due to the tragic weekend at Imola in 1994 we will never know… however there is one question that could be considered; if Senna had joined Ferrari in 1996 or 1997 would Schumacher have still joined them too alongside Senna?
Tom Rubython, The Life of Senna (BusinessF1: London, 2004).
Eddie Jordan, An Independent Man: The Autobiography (Orion: London, 2007).
Roberto Boccafogli, Fiorio: L’uomo che attirò Senna alla Ferrari (Nada: Italy, 2011).
Special acknowledgement to Tommaso Cervini.