Senna began his motorsport career in karting, moving up to open-wheel racing in 1981, and winning the British Formula 3championship in 1983. He made his Formula One debut with Toleman-Hart in 1984 before moving to Lotus-Renault thefollowing year and winning six Grands Prix over the next three seasons. In 1988, he joined Frenchman Alain Prost at McLaren–Honda. Between them, they won all but one of the 16 Grands Prix that year and Senna claimed his first World Championship. Prost claimed the championship in 1989, and Senna his second and third championships in 1990 and 1991. In 1992, theWilliams–Renault combination began to dominate Formula One. Senna nonetheless managed to finish the 1993 season as runner-up, winning five races and negotiating a move to Williams in 1994.
Senna has often been voted as the best and most influential Formula One driver of all time in various motorsport polls.He was recognised for his qualifying speed over one lap and from 1989 until 2006 held the record for most pole positions. He was also acclaimed for his wet weather performances, such as the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix, the 1985 Portuguese Grand Prix, and the 1993 European Grand Prix. He holds a record six victories at the Monaco Grand Prix, and is the fifth-most successful driver of all time in terms of race wins. Senna courted controversy throughout his career, particularly during his turbulent rivalry with Prost. In the Japanese Grands Prix of 1989 and 1990, each of which decided the championship of that year, collisions between Senna and Prost determined the eventual winner.
Senna was born in the Pro-Matre Maternity Hospital of Santana, a neighbourhood of São Paulo. The middle child of wealthy Brazilian landowner and factory owner Milton da Silva and his wife Neide Senna da Silva, he had an older sister, Viviane and a younger brother, Leonardo. He was left-handed.
The house where Senna spent the first four years of his life belonged to Neide’s father, João Senna. It was located on the corner of Avenida Aviador Guilherme with Avenida Gil Santos Dumont, less than 100 meters from Campo de Marte, a large area where they operated the Aeronautics Material park and an airport. Senna was highly athletic, excelling in gymnastics and other sports, and developed an interest in cars and motor racing at the age of four. He also suffered from poor motor coordination and had trouble climbing stairways by the age of three. An electroencephalogram (EEG) found that Senna was not suffering from any problems. His parents gave Senna the nickname“Beco”. At the age of seven, Senna first learned to drive a Jeep around his family’s farm and gained the advantage of changing gears without the use of a clutch.
Senna attended Colegio Rio Branco in the São Paulo neighbourhood of Jardins and graduated in 1977 with a grade 5 in physics along with other grades in mathematics, chemistry, and English. He later enrolled in a college that specialised in business administration, but dropped out after three months. Overall, his grades amounted up to 68%.
In 1983, Senna tested for Formula One teams Williams, McLaren, Brabham, and Toleman. Peter Warr of Lotus, Ron Dennis of McLaren, and Bernie Ecclestone of Brabham made offers for testing in 1984 and presented long-term contracts that tied Senna to driving later on. During his test for Williams at the 3.149-km (1.957-mi) Donington Park circuit, Senna completed 40 laps and was quicker than the other drivers, including Williams’ reigning World Champion Keke Rosberg. Neither Williams nor McLaren had a vacancy for the 1984 season. Both Williams boss Frank Williams and McLaren boss Ron Dennis noted that Senna insisted that he got to run their cars before anyone else (other than their regular drivers such as Rosberg) so that he would have the best chance of a good showing by having a fresh car.
Peter Warr actually wanted to replace Nigel Mansell with Senna at Lotus, but their British-based title sponsor, Imperial Tobacco (John Player & Sons), wanted a British driver. Senna, however, was determined to drive that season and certainly on his own terms. Senna’s test for Brabham occurred at Paul Ricard in November 1983, and he set lap times two seconds slower than the team’s lead driver, Nelson Piquet, who allegedly gave Senna the nickname “the São Paulo taxi driver”. Senna impressed the Brabham team and was linked to their second seat. However, the team’s main sponsor, Italian dairy company Parmalat, wanted an Italian driver. Brabham’s second car was eventually shared by brothers Teo and Corrado Fabi, while Piquet convinced Ecclestone to sign his friend Roberto Moreno as the test driver.Consequently, he joined Toleman, a relatively new team, using less competitive Pirelli tyres. Venezuelan Johnny Cecotto, a former Grand Prix motorcycle racing world champion, was his team mate. During 1984, Senna hired Nuno Cobra to assess his physical condition. Senna had been worried about his condition due to low weight.
Senna made his debut at the 1984 Brazilian Grand Prix in Rio de Janeiro, where he qualified 17th, but had the dubious honour of being the first retirement of the season when the Hart 415T engine blew its turbo on lap 8. He scored his first World Championship point in his second race at the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami with severe muscle spasms, replicating that result two weeks later at the Belgian Grand Prix.
A combination of tyre issues and a fuel-pressure problem resulted in his failure to qualify for the San Marino Grand Prix, the only time this happened during his career. Toleman decided not to run both cars during Friday qualifying at Imola due to a dispute with tyre supplier Pirelli (Toleman were in the process of switching from Pirelli to Michelin). Senna then suffered a fuel-pressure problem in the wet Saturday session at Tosa (the furthest point on the circuit from the pits) and did not have enough time for it to be fixed to allow him to make the grid. Senna’s best result of the season came at the Monaco Grand Prix, the first wet-weather race of the season. Qualifying 13th on the grid, he made steady progress in climbing through the field, passing Niki Lauda for second on lap 19. He quickly began to cut the gap to race leader Alain Prost, but before he could attack Prost, the race was stopped on lap 31 for safety reasons, as the rain had grown even heavier. At the time the race was stopped, Senna was catching Prost by about 4 seconds per lap (while the Tyrrell–Ford of Stefan Bellof was catching both at the same rate). Senna passed Prost when Prost stopped in front of the red flag, before the end of the 32nd lap. According to the rules, the positions counted were those from the last lap completed by every driver, lap 31, at which point Prost was still leading. Senna’s second place was his first podium in Formula One. The popular belief was that with Prost’s McLaren–TAG having major brake troubles (they were regularly locking up due to not generating enough heat in the conditions), the premature ending of the race had robbed Senna of his maiden Grand Prix win. However, Toleman mechanics later confirmed that hisToleman TG184 had suffered significant suspension damage due to an early race incident, and his constant running over the curbs at the Chicane du Port and through the Piscine (swimming pool) over the last few laps before the red flag. The mechanics confirmed that had the race not been stopped, Senna would have been forced to retire within a few laps of the flag.
Renowned throughout his career for his capacity to provide very specific technical details about the performance of his cars and track conditions long before the advent of telemetry, this characteristic led Senna’s first F1 race engineer, Pat Symonds, to regard the US Grand Prix in Dallas as the initial highlight of Senna’s debut season, instead of the more popular Monaco, where Senna and Toleman scored their first podium finish. This is by reference to the following recollection given by Symonds in an interview in 2014, to mark the 20th anniversary of Senna’s death:
The car was reasonably competitive there, so we expected to have a good race but Ayrton spun early in the race. He then found his way back through the field in a quite effective way and we were looking for a pretty good finish but then he hit the wall, damaged the rear wheel and the driveshaft and retired, which was a real shame. The real significance of that was that when he came back to the pits he told me what happened and said “I’m sure that the wall moved!” and even though I’ve heard every excuse every driver has ever made, I certainly hadn’t heard of that one! But Ayrton being Ayrton, with his incredible belief in himself, the absolute conviction, he then talked me into going with him, after the race, to have a look at the place where he had crashed. And he was absolutely right, which was the amazing thing! Dallas being a street circuit the track was surrounded by concrete blocks and what had happened – we could see it from the tyre marks – was that someone had hit at the far end of the concrete block and that made it swivel slightly, so that the leading edge of the block was standing out by a few millimetres. And he was driving with such precision that those few millimetres were the difference between hitting the wall and not hitting the wall. While I had been, at first, annoyed that we had retired from the race through a driver error, when I saw what had happened, when I saw how he had been driving, that increased my respect for the guy by quite a lot.
That season, Senna took two more podium finishes—third at the British and Portuguese Grands Prix—and placed 9th in the Drivers Championship with 13 points overall. He did not take part in the Italian Grand Prix after he was suspended by Toleman for being in breach of his contract by signing for Lotus for 1985 without informing the Toleman team first. Senna became the first driver Lotus had signed not personally chosen by team founder Colin Chapman, who had died in 1982.
Senna also raced in two high-profile non-Formula One races in 1984: The ADAC 1000-km Nürburgring where, alongside Henri Pescaroloand Stefan Johansson, he co-drove a Joest Racing Porsche 956 to finish 8th, as well as an exhibition race to celebrate the opening of the new Nürburgring before the European Grand Prix. Notably this race involved several past and present Formula 1 drivers, includingStirling Moss and past World Champions Jack Brabham, Denny Hulme and Alan Jones), driving identical Mercedes 190E 2.3–16 sports cars. Alain Prost started from pole position, but Senna took the lead in the first corner of the first lap, winning ahead of Niki Lauda andCarlos Reutemann. After the race, Senna was quoted as saying, “Now I know I can do it.” Senna was a last-minute inclusion in the Mercedes race, taking over from Emerson Fittipaldi.