Wednesday 22 April 2020

Ayrton Senna's Lotus years, by Ibrar Malik

As we mark the upcoming 26th anniversary of Ayrton Senna's passing, most will undoubtedly dwell upon the more celebrated cornerstones of his extraordinary career. His obliteration of the opposition during qualifying at Monaco '88, or the race at Donington Park '93. His compelling personality which shone through during interviews. Or what might have been with Williams had he not tragically met his untimely death at the '94 San Marino Grand Prix. This blog aims to be slightly different, by briefly looking at Senna's formative years at Lotus.

Coming into 1985, the Norfolk-based team had not won a race since the sudden death of its charismatic founder, Colin Chapman, in December 1982. Lotus had endured a turbulent '83 season. But it bounced back superbly to become a regular frontrunner again during '84, enjoying its most successful season since 1978. The newly-released book, Team Lotus: Beyond the Colin Chapman Era, details precisely how the team achieved this. But by the end of '84, it seemed a key ingredient to elevate Lotus back to the winner's circle was missing. Enter, Ayrton Senna – Lotus's new signing for 1985. 

Senna was widely touted as a future world champion following his stellar performances within the unfancied Toleman during 1984

Within his single season at Toleman, Senna had scored as many points as every other driver for that team combined within its history. He had even matched the points scored by Nigel Mansell in 1984, who was the man he would be replacing at Lotus. This despite the Brazilian having had inferior equipment to the Englishman. Thus coming into the '85 Formula 1 season, the press were expecting big things of Team Lotus and its new signing. F1's rising star was also the first driver to be signed to Lotus following Colin Chapman's untimely passing.

The son of a wealthy businessman, Senna began his motorsport career in karting aged 13. After graduating to open-wheel racing in 1981 driving in Formula Ford 1600, he won the '82 British and European Formula Ford 2000 championships. He then triumphed in the '83 British Formula Three Championship, which put him on the radar of several F1 teams. After impressing in tests for Williams, McLaren and Brabham, the first two teams made offers for '84 in exchange for him signing long-term contracts, while Brabham also showed interest.

However ultimately the latter came to nothing, due to its main sponsor Parmalat wanting an Italian driver and Nelson Piquet (Brabham's number one driver) allegedly putting a stop to Senna joining his team. It then looked like he would sign for Team Lotus, having been approached by Peter Warr. However, when John Player rejected the appointment, Senna signed for the midfield Toleman team. It gave him the space to learn the cars and circuits without being under the microscope, as he would have been with one of the big names. This plan paid off handsomely as he would join Lotus with equal number one status, on a salary nearly twelve times what Peter Warr had offered him a year previously.

The Lotus 97T was the car to beat during 1985 pre-season testing. With Senna on board, perhaps this might be Lotus best chance for championship glory? 

Senna's and Lotus's First Win Post Chapman's Death 

The new Estoril circuit played host to round two of the 1985 Championship, and Senna continued to impress his new employers by taking his maiden pole position, three places ahead of his team-mate, Elio de Angelis in fourth. Come the start, the circuit was hit by torrential rain which didn't let up throughout the race. Nevertheless, the drivers braved the atrocious conditions in which several of them would spin out after aquaplaning. While others complained of not being able to see anything when following other cars, due to the spray, Senna had no such complaints as he romped home to his first win as though he was driving on a different circuit to everyone else. "That race," Renault driver Patrick Tambay said, "was a nightmare. It was p*ssing with rain from start to finish, very, very flooded everywhere, the cloud ceiling very low and the light very poor. It was survival of the fittest."

F1's new superstar had shown what he was capable of at Monaco the previous year, and he now underlined that with what he later described as his greatest ever victory. "People later said that my win in the wet at Donington in '93 was my greatest performance - no way! I had traction control! OK, I didn't make any real mistakes, but the car was so much easier to drive. It was a good win, sure, but, compared with Estoril '85, it was nothing, really," Senna would later claim. Meanwhile de Angelis in the other Lotus finished a lapped fourth. He had been unable to match his team-mate's pace (partly due to a slow puncture). Nevertheless, this result, along with Senna's win, elevated Lotus to the top of the constructors' championship for the first time in seven years. Moreover, this had been the first time the 97T had run in the wet, and the circuit had been very different layout to that of the previous race at Rio. Therefore, the omens looked good for the season ahead for the staff from Ketteringham Hall.

Senna later described his Estoril 1985 win as one of his greatest given the conditions that day 

Before the Monaco race not long afterwards, Peter Warr issued a statement informing rival teams that Senna was contracted to Lotus until the end of 1987. This had followed rumours that Enzo Ferrari had approached the Brazilian for '86. However, Senna had reportedly asked for a figure which Ferrari told him was "stupid money!" The Brazilian again showed why he was potentially in such demand, as he secured another pole position, his third in four races. Within the confines of the Monte-Carlo circuit, the young Brazilian's unique technique of stabbing the throttle to ensure his turbo worked more effectively proved even more effective.

A Personal Recollection of Monaco 1985 by Daran Brookes 

"Myself, and my friend had already booked our tickets for Monaco 1985 before Senna had won at Portugal in the Lotus. So the idea of him in a proper race-winning car had just added to our expectation for the trip. We went down in a coach stopping only briefly in Paris on the way before arriving at our hotel in Nice on the Friday ready for qualifying on the Saturday and the race on Sunday. We had treated ourselves to Hotel Mirabeau grandstand tickets which were quite expensive at the time but well worth it as not only did they include seats which offered a great view but also a splendid lunch on both days which was served round the five-star hotels pool by waiters in immaculate white uniforms.

"I remember waiting with literally bated breath and camera at the ready for the cars to appear for the first session on the Saturday. Sure enough, Senna in the Lotus was the first one round, foot jabbing at the throttle as he flew past us before turning right into the tunnel. The second time round and I took the above picture. The shot was taken with a 200mm telephoto lens but the reason I managed to get it so close to the action and was able to take both the pictures of de Angelis's Lotus and other cars in the race as well, was that one of Bernie's minions had left a hole in the catch fence and I had managed to position myself perfectly to get some great images. Unfortunately it was filled in for the Sunday which meant I took hardly any pictures on the actual race day.

"For the race, Senna had qualified his Lotus on pole but his car started trailing a smoke trail early on and I think went bang on lap 12 unseen by us. The race then became a battle between [Alain] Prost and [Michele] Alboreto with [Riccardo] Patrese, Mansell, [Jacques] Laffite and Piquet in close pursuit. Clearly, we only had a small view of the track but we didn't need a commentary on the race thanks to the group of crazy Italians in one of the flats on the infield from where we sitting. They had a TV in their room but when the cars came round they would dash onto the flats small balcony and scream their support for the Ferraris as the red cars sped by. They went especially bonkers when Alboreto took the lead and we thought the balcony would collapse as they jumped up and down as he drove past. But then there was a mass moan of disappointment from inside in the flat as he spun along with [Niki] Lauda on the fluids left by the enormous Piquet/Patrese smash on the main straight and he had to rejoin the race back in fourth.

Senna was famous for bullying his car around the tight and twisty Monte Carlo circuit

"There was drizzle starting towards the end but it finished with Prost first, Alboreto had battled back to a great second and de Angelis a steady third. The marshals then opened the track as the rain started to fall more steadily and we were allowed to walk around the top part of the circuit, then down the hill to the start-finish straight. Having avoided getting run over by Clerk of the Course Jacky Ickx on his motorbike, we discovered on a raised gantry Murray Walker interviewing Martin Brundle and Jonathan Palmer about their races. And being a bunch of British Formula 1 fans abroad we began some good-natured chanting which seemingly didn't go down too well with the sport's greatest commentator.  

"On the race weekend these days a large number of billboards covering the spot where the Mirabeau grandstand used to be so the shots that I got of these two Lotus's as well the other cars are no longer possible which is sad but I still have the original enlargement of Senna next to my desk. A true genius in one of the best-looking F1 cars ever."

Following his stellar performances, Team Lotus eventually built itself around Senna

Beyond 1985  

Senna's time with Lotus marked the team's final flowering as a grand prix-winning outfit. Given better equipment, he would have become champion with the team. The newly-released book, Team Lotus: Beyond the Colin Chapman Era, details precisely why this did not happen. Nevertheless, after three seasons and six grands prix wins for the team, Senna departed for McLaren. The Brazilian did subsequently go on to win the drivers title at the first time of asking, whereas Lotus's fortunes took a sharp nosedive thereafter.

Throughout his time at Ketteringham Hall, he ingratiated himself with his engineers in a way that previous Lotus drivers like de Angelis and Mansell had not. This was one of the reasons why Lotus eventually focused all its efforts on him. However, as it increasingly became clear to the Brazilian that Lotus was not going to provide him with a championship-winning car yet again in '87, Senna began to distance himself from the team. The Brazilian undoubtedly had the skill in the car. He had raced more maturely during '87, particularly in comparison to '85, so looked more like a champion in waiting. Hence why it was a particular shame there were not enough funds to undertake more development of the '87 Lotus car, to allow Senna to go for the title. The subsequent battles between himself and the two Williams that year would have been epic for watching F1 fans.

Senna would become accustomed to spraying the champagne after races

During the three years that Senna spent with Lotus, we saw a lot of the personality traits that would go on to define his later career. Behind the scenes however intrigues fermented between him, his Lotus team boss Peter Warr, engine suppliers and sponsors. Again the newly-released book: Team Lotus, Beyond The Colin Chapman Era explores all of this and is proud to bring some fresh analysis and exclusive content on this subject. It includes exclusive insight from

Frank Dernie – Lotus's Technical Director Between 1989/90.
Peter Wright – The man behind Lotus's active suspension during the 1980s.
Antony Hayes – Historian for Team Lotus, and someone who worked there during the 1980s and 1990s.
Willem Toet – Designer of championship-winning Benetton's and Ferrari F1 cars and F1 aerodynamics/wind tunnel expert.
Nigel Beresford –  Tyrrell's Race Engineer to Palmer, Jean Alesi and Stefano Modena

It guides readers through all of Senna's races for Lotus and the book is brought to life by over 150 rare images like those above. It also pulls no punches in its final summation of the effect that Senna had on the once glorious Lotus team. You can find out more about this book here while an abridged version is also available to purchase on Audio Book format here. You can listen to a free sample and get more details of the book by clicking on the above links.

Photo Credits: / Franco Villani – ASE (via, Manuel Lara, Erik Veraaik, Daran Brookes, Mariann Nagy, Dima Moroz