Motorsport: On This Day, 36 years ago, Ayrton Senna Made His F1 Debut

On This Day, 36 years ago, Ayrton Senna Made His F1 Debut

James Gent By James Gent
March 25, 2020
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March 25 1984. Though nobody knew it at the time, that year’s season-opening Brazilian Grand Prix would later go down in history as one of the most significant weekends in Formula 1 history.

On a hot if not oppressive weekend at the Autódromo de Jacarepaguá (later renamed in honour of three-time World Champion Nelson Piquet before its demolition in 2012), Elio de Angelis took his second pole position for Lotus, translating that into a podium finish the following day behind former World Champion Keke Rosberg and victor, Alain Prost. It was the latter’s first win for McLaren, and his 10th overall, drawing the Frenchman level with ’76 champion James Hunt and the late great Ronnie Peterson.

Further back, and on home turf, a young Brazilian, and the reigning British Formula 3 champion, was making the first of, what would become a 162 Grand Prix legacy. A career encompassing 41 wins, 80 podiums, 65 pole positions, and three World Championships. Ayrton Senna.

Heading into his Formula 1 debut at the 1984 Brazilian Grand Prix, Ayrton Senna was the reigning British Formula 3 champion and had annihilated the competition in British Formula Ford. This was not his first time behind the wheel of an F1 car, however.

 

To paddock insiders of course, the Brazilian’s 1984 debut was already a foregone conclusion. In his first full single seater season in Europe in 1981 da Silva, then also sporting his mother’s maiden name ‘Senna’, utterly dominated Formula Ford 1600, winning 12 of the 20 races he started. One year later, now in Formula Ford 2000 and with his Van Diemen F82 now entered by Rushen Green, Senna took a staggering 22 wins from 28 starts (his ninth on the bounce that year at Mondello Park remains a series record). By the end of 1983 and only his third year of European single seater racing, Senna was British Formula 3 champion, having again taken 12 wins from 20 starts and despite stiff opposition from future Le Mans winner, Martin Brundle.

On the back of that came Senna’s now famous testing debut with Williams in July 1983. Aboard the British team’s FW08C, a development of which reigning World Champion Keke Rosberg had secured Williams’ first win at Monaco one month earlier, the famous yellow helmet had lapped Donington almost half a second quicker than regular test driver Jonathan Palmer. This after just nine laps, and despite the lithe Senna having to crush himself into cockpit specifically designed around the broader-shouldered Rosberg.

What’s often consigned to history though is that the Williams test was far from Senna’s only F1 dalliance in 1983. At season’s end, and as part of his prize for winning the British Formula 3 title, Senna was invited by Ron Dennis to try that year’s McLaren MP4/1, though Niki Lauda and Alain Prost had already signed on the dotted line (Williams similarly had Rosberg and Jacques Laffite under contract). Bernie Ecclestone similarly offered a test of Brabham’s championship-winning BT52, though the second berth would eventually be shared by Fabi brothers, Corrado and Teo.

With the head and heart-strong Senna adamant he would be on the F1 grid in 1984, that left Toleman, team co-founder Alex Hawkridge and former Grand Prix winner Peter Gethin, only too happy to test the young Brazilian in the TG183 he would later drive after signing on the dotted line for the British privateer.

Back to March 25, 1984.

25 March 1984. A debuting Ayrton Senna talks with Toleman mechanic Tetsuo Tsugawa before turning his first wheels in anger around the Jacarepaguá circuit. It would prove to be a memorable performance.

 

At the front of the grid, just behind de Angelis’ Lotus 95T, Italian Michele Alboreto planted Marenello’s new 126C4 on the front row on his Ferrari debut. Former Toleman driver Derek Warwick, now with Renault, demonstrated what Hawkridge called “considerably more natural talent than any of his rivals” to qualify 3rd, five places and almost 1.5s faster than teammate Patrick Tambay. Alain Prost meanwhile, who’d vacated Warwick’s Renault seat just a few months earlier, lined up 4th on his return to McLaren. Two spots behind was teammate Niki Lauda, now entering the second season after his return, while Lotus’ Nigel Mansell would start 5th after a messy coming together with Prost and Ligier’s Andrea de Cesaris in final qualifying. Reigning World Champion Nelson Piquet, swamped by the media both locally and internationally, lined up 7th for Brabham.

Further back meanwhile, and not yet bombarded by television cameras as he would be forever after at his home race, the debuting Ayrton Senna planted his TG183B 17th on the grid, one spot ahead of Venezuelan teammate, and formerly the world’s youngest motorcycle road racing world champion Johnny Cecotto. A performance not exactly befitting the future three-time World Champion’s stature you might think, but that is until you realise that Senna’s 1m 33.525s laptime was almost TWO seconds faster than Cecotto’s 1m 35.300s, and a further seven-tenths quicker than old sparring partner Brundle, now at Tyrrell and lining up 18th for his Grand Prix debut, could manage.

Somewhat predictably, Senna’s pace camouflaged some issues. A heavy vibration left question marks hanging over the Tolemans’ front suspension, and under the hot Brazilian sun, his Pirelli tyres were rapidly losing grip compared with his mid-field rivals: several times Senna returned to the pits on Saturday, his front tyres all but delaminated.

“Strong and sturdy”, the Toleman-Hart TG183B was a significant improvement over the British team’s maiden F1 effort, the TG181, but still lacked reliability.

 

Among the biggest issues though was the reliability, or lack thereof, of the 1.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder mounted behind his seat. Developed by British engine builder, and long-time Toleman associate, Brian Hart, the ‘415T’ was essentially a reduced capacity version of the ‘420R’ 2-litre four-cylinder the Toleman-Hart alliance had used to win the European Formula 2 Championship in 1980. Hysterically, with the team having opted against naturally-aspirated DFV Cosworths, the ‘415T’ was also Toleman’s answer (using all the inverted commas in the world) to the turbocharged monsters being produced at the time by Ferrari and Renault. Produced on a shoestring budget, with no additional cash in the kitty, and with “absolutely no accumulated experience”, year one did not go for Toleman. Of its 11 outings, the British privateer failed to qualify for nine of them, and ‘boasted’ only a lowly 10th at Monza as reliability quickly became a curse of both the car – the TG181, also known as ‘The Flying Pig’ internally – and the engine.

By Brazil 1984, engine reliability was still an issue, but the TG181’s successor, the TG183B, looked more promising. Designed by Rory Byrne, the third most successful F1 designer in history behind only Adrian Newey and Colin Chapman, and overseen by Pat Symonds, a future championship-winning engineer with Benetton and Renault, the TG183B was an admittedly unusual beast, featuring as it did a carbon fibre monocoque, front-mounted radiators, and two rear wings. Though the unusual radiator design meant the front end was unstable at speeds – the design was gone altogether on its successor – the rear wings did at least produce an impressive amount of downforce, thus bolstering the hamstrung 415T Hart engine in the process (focus had now switched from outright power to fuel efficiency) and a potential trump card around Jacarepaguá’s more technical first sector. Senna himself admitted to Brazilian radio network, Jovem Pan, during the weekend that “the Toleman is strong and sturdy, but, right now, it’s an outdated model in terms of speed”, but in the right hands, with a bit of luck, and the downforce at its disposal, the “massively sensitive” TG183B was a potential show stealer on 25 March 1984.

Having qualified 17th, almost two seconds quicker than Toleman teammate Johnny Cecotto, Senna was already up to 9th when his turbocharger packed in on lap eight.

 

A lightning start from the ninth row confirmed as such, with Senna up to 13th by the end of the second lap and an impressive 9th just a few laps later. A fairy-tale result in front of his home fans unfortunately was not to be, the Hart’s turbocharger boost pressure calling time after just eight laps and ending Senna’s race early. The same gremlin would also eliminate Cecotto, who’d stalled on the grid and was running outside the top 20 when he retired on lap 19.

Though brief, it was a performance that blew his teammate into the weeds, and caught the eye of the late Alan Henry, the respected scribe reporting on the race that weekend for Motor Sport Magazine:

“Senna replaces Derek Warwick as Toleman team leader and he quickly underlined that he has all the hallmarks of a future Champion. He knows only one way to drive – flat out – and his intolerance over the Toleman’s also-ran status, as well as his dissatisfaction with Pirelli’s very troubled tyre situation at Rio, means that he’s going to be a bit of a handful for Alex Hawkridge and Peter Gethin to handle during his formative stage. The initial impression is one of a cocky youngster who could do with a clip round the ear – but watching him manhandle the Toleman round Rio left this writer suffused with enthusiasm.”

The Brazilian’s day in the sun with Toleman would come, ironically at a soaking wet Monaco Grand Prix five races later, by which point he’d already scored his first two championship points with 6th place finishes in South Africa and Belgium. At the wheel of Toleman’s new, more conventional (read ‘safer’) TG184, Senna came within spitting distance of his first Grand Prix win in appalling conditions, but would have to settle for 2nd when the race was stopped just after half distance. A fortunate Alain Prost took his third win of the season for McLaren, and an overjoyed Alex Hawkridge could finally celebrate his team’s first F1 podium. A furious Senna meanwhile was left seething: “lucky for Prost, but not for me yet.”

Though his F1 debut lasted just eight laps, Ayrton Senna would stun the world just five races later in Monaco. A legacy awaited.

 

No matter though, for this was the drive that proved Ayrton Senna’s underlying greatness, was an ironic genesis of the formidable Prost vs Senna rivalry to come in later years, and was the first step towards the first of an eventual 41 Grand Prix wins, the first of three World Championships, and a career that truly redefined Formula 1 racing.

Cast aside by the Monaco spotlight, it can be easy to forget that this legacy had already begun five races earlier, on this day 36 years ago, with the 17th fastest lap of qualifying in Rio de Janeiro.

*Images courtesy of Motorsport Images

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