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1984 Nürburgring Race of Champions: The race that began Ayrton Senna’s career

Written by Alis Manriquez, Edited by Sean McKean

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How unusual that - as a rookie with only three races thus far - at the last minute, you receive the news that you will take the seat of another driver in a race in which the best will participate in equal machinery as part of an opening ceremony.

Well, that's how it was for the young Ayrton Senna. What many saw as a friendly race without much importance, he saw the perfect opportunity to get noticed in his first season in Formula 1, and at the same time, give himself enough confidence to know that he could win in the same way in real races.

In 1984 Mercedes decided to launch the classic Mercedes-Benz 190 E 2.3-16, a car with all the capabilities worthy of a high-performance sedan. It had an engine with four valves per cylinder, power of 185 HP and 236 Nm, reaching 0 to 100 kilometres per hour in eight seconds, rear-wheel drive and compact, which guaranteed to deliver the perfect balance between power and safety in the vehicle. 

At all costs, Mercedes' task was to confront its rivals within the automotive trade of the 1980s, and demonstrating the reliability of its car was essential to achieve that. So, they took three of their pre-production units and had them run 50,000 km on the Italian Nardo high-speed test circuit for eight days without stopping at an average speed of 247 km/h.

After this, it still seemed to not be enough. To reinforce its great commitment with the vehicle, Mercedes organized the famous 'Race of Champions' in May 1984. This race was significant for many reasons, but primarily for the reopening of the iconic Nürburgring circuit.

Following the infamous accident that changed Niki Lauda's life in 1976 that led to his car being consumed by flames and leaving him with serious injuries, the German circuit was forced to close for safety reasons

The case of Niki Lauda put an end to a risky era between Germany and Motosports, but unfortunately, it was not the only accident. In previous years, there were five drivers who lost their lives competing in F1, and numerous more cases of catastrophic accidents in different categories.

The frequent accidents of such severity were the undeniable reason for deciding to pause the action at the site for a while and take action in this regard.  

It was a long wait during the reconstruction to recover the largest and most dangerous circuit in the world - dubbed the 'Green Hell' for its risky design and for being surrounded by dense forest.

The circuit measured 24.4 km with climbs and descents of 300m, 40 left curves and 50 right curves. But finally in 1984, eight years later, its reconstruction was finished and safe enough (compared to that time) to achieve its purpose, which was to bring motorsport back to it.

The 'Race of Champions' was scheduled for 12 May of that same year, the same week in which the German Grand Prix would take place. The 1984 season was dominated by three-time champion Niki Lauda and future French four-time champion Alain Prost, while Ayrton Senna was only a young driver just making his debut with the Toleman team before his fourth race in Formula 1.

The Brazilian driver had already scored some points for his team, but it was too early to steal glances and impress someone.

Mercedes wanted to take center stage that weekend in order to benefit from advertising and successfully expand its business.

They took the 20 best drivers to drive his vehicle, and not only that, to compete against each other with their Mercedes Benz 190 E, to attract all kinds of crowds of fans, and demonstrate the resistance of his sports car capable of taking ownership of a professional career.

Credit - EVO

The reason the exhibition race was mainly attractive was because - unlike a conventional race - it would be contested with a similar car for everyone.

The Mercedes Benz met the necessary characteristics to promise a bit of entertainment for the drivers and the public, but there were slight racing modifications to the vehicle, before the speed managed to completely take over every corner of the recently renovated track in Nurburgring.

An exhaust system, a lowered suspension, four-piston front brakes, 4.08 ratio final drive, bolt-in-cage, better brakes, quick-release hood, Recaro seats with six-point harnesses, and wider wrapped wheels with Pirelli racing tires: these were the modifications that Mercedes chose for the 21 units of its recent production line.

The grid consisted of a stacked grid, with a combined 20 F1 World Championships 241 F1 wins. However, Emerson Fittipaldi could not be part of the grid since he was busy participating in the Indianapolis 500. As a result, Mercedes gave his seat to a fledgling Ayrton Senna, an opportunity he would take full advantage of.

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The 20 drivers, 20 completely identical cars, 12 laps, a renovated circuit, 100,000 spectators, rainy conditions, and the engines of the Mercedes Benz 190 E began to sound!

Qualifying was dominated by French four-time F1 champion Alain Prost, who took first place on the grid with a time of 2:05.92. On the other hand, our rising hero Ayrton Senna, achieved a time of 2:06.45, good enough for third place.

The start of the race could not be seen in the broadcast at the Nürburgring, due to the extensive speech by the authorities introducing the event. But, Senna was willing to do anything to get first place on the opening laps. While trying to find space for a move, he took Alain Prost off the track, getting by for the lead.

Although Senna decided to take the event seriously and professionally, the race seemed to be divided into unequal parts by three types of drivers: Those who drove with a sporting and competitive mentality, those who decided to enjoy the car and the circuit, and those who took it lightly as it was not a competition in which they scored points in the championship.

It was expected by the majority that the current champion at that time Niki Lauda would be the absolute protagonist in the race, and even he himself expected it, and he did everything to do it. Lauda was 14th in qualifying, but if you thought this would be an obstacle for him, think again.

He made a remarkable comeback in the first lap from his initial position to reach fourth place, and then close enough to Senna to be able to overtake him.

Immediately, the subsequent laps became a dance between the giant Niki Lauda and the recently hatched Ayrton Senna to see who deserved to be the leader.

At times Lauda led the race and at others Senna, a successive battle that continued for a while until one of them faithfully demonstrated that he deserved to be the best of the 12 laps.

Ayrton Senna's driving quality was unimaginable: he was cunning and dangerous, he accelerated without leaving any space for his rivals, and he did not take a lap for granted.

A little before the end of the expected race, the young Brazilian finished off by overtaking the three-time champion, leaving a difference of three-tenths ahead of him and being crowned champion of the race of champions.

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On equal terms and against the best, just in his first races in the top category, the number 11 surprised many by demonstrating his sufficiency in characteristics that made him capable of beating motorsport legends with impeccable movements behind the wheel.

Senna stole everyone's attention, even world champion John Surtees, who said, "It was after that that I left a little note and said that if you want to get your team in order, you should take Senna, and that was Enzo Ferrari."

This result alone is widely recognized as his ascension to the world stage of motor racing, and although perhaps Ayrton Senna took the display too seriously, and considering it was a road car, it would perhaps make us think which was not so influential.

However, this filled the pilot with vigor, and only 13 days later, he would make his renowned performance on the Monaco circuit, where he set inhuman speeds.

The iconic car number 11 Mercedes Benz 190 E 2.3-16 with which Ayrton obtained his victory, was sent directly to the brand's museum located in Stuttgart. To this day, it is an invaluable piece that remains in the same condition since the end of the race.

Mercedes managed to fulfill the dream of many, that a race be held without mechanical inequality, something that is basically impossible today, being the only one in history to put the drivers on equal terms, at the same time that it promoted the sale of its cars.

They fulfilled his objective, and inadvertently fueled the beginning of Senna's legacy, leaving in history a race that we will never forget, the 'Race of Champions.'



Feb 07

The results show he beat.... De Angelis, Sheckter, Lafitte, Jones, Lauda, Shurti, Surtees, Watson, Rosberg... to name a few. But most were spent forces by 1984 honestly. With apologies to Wattie who often appears locally to me and is still in his prime of course 😊!!


Feb 07

Senna was by this stage a star of FF1600, F3 and beginning to show for Toleman in F1. This 'novelty' race was not the beginning of his career. In terms of his Grand Prix career its a week or two later when he was about to win at that rain soaked Monaco that he got properly on the F1 radar.

The race in Merc 190s... it was fun but it wasn't career defining. Age is not the barrier but referencing Surtees and Emmo would immediately show his rivals were probably 20 yrs (at least) his senior.

Senna was already great by the time of this race.... it absolutely didn't begin his career.

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