Ayrton Senna. One of, if not, the greatest racing driver of all time. The magical Brazilian that made his rivals look like amateurs; from a cold and wet Donnington Park in 1993, dancing past cars on the opening lap as if they were go karts, to Monaco in 1988, out qualifying a star studded grid by a legendary 1.427 seconds. Senna’s raw speed and talent was unbelievable, his pace unmatched, and according to a model developed by AWS, the quickest driver of all time.
Written By Oskar Yigen Korsholm, Edited by Joe Kirk
Surely this speed led to plenty of drivers’ championships? Well, though the 3 titles that he did win were no mean feat, he was tragically robbed of the opportunity to claim more, his life cut short by the infamous accident at Imola in 1994 – a weekend that is considered by most, as the worst weekend in F1 history. A weekend where we lost not only Senna, but the rookie Roland Ratzenberger. A close call with Rubens Barrichello, also shook the sport, who’s massive accident left him dead for six minutes until the Medical Delegate, Professor Sid Watkins, managed to revive him. A truly horrible weekend for Formula One and motorsport in general.
Now, long after Senna’s death, a lot of questions still remain, most importantly the question of what could have been: ‘’How many titles would Senna have gone on to win?’’.
It’s important to consider Senna’s previous achievements in order to compare him to other drivers, so let’s start at the beginning. The first time Ayrton got a chance to compete for the championship. After making his debut for Toleman-Hart in 1984, Senna moved to the then dominant McLaren-Honda in 1988, giving him a good enough car to compete for the title – and he didn’t disappoint, the Brazillian won the championship in his first year for the team. Despite a fierce battle with teammate Alain Prost, Senna prevailed by a mere 3 points. Now, many would argue that because of the scoring system back then, when only a drivers’ 11 best results (out of 16 races) counted towards the championship – Prost should have won the title, but the facts remain, the 1988 championship was Senna’s.
Over the next couple of years, the rivalry continued. Prost would turn out victorious in 1989, following a season of bad luck and crashes from Senna, who ended up only scoring 60 points to Prost’s 76. Throughout the year, Senna’s reliability issues, coupled with multiple collisions forced him to retire from race after race, and ultimately placed the title out of his reach.
Moving on to 1990, a season where Prost moved to Ferrari after falling out with McLaren and its team principal Ron Dennis. Now with Gerhard Berger as his teammate, Senna’s duel with Prost continued. After a crash at Suzuka, which Senna later controversially admitted he’d caused to prevent Prost from taking the title from him, Senna was declared world drivers champion of 1990.
In 1991, the statistics would tell you that the championship came pretty easy to Senna, winning with 96 points to Nigel Mansell’s (Williams-Renault) 72 points. However, the standings doesn’t tell the full story. Without going into much detail, the Williams was more often than not the faster car, but the team for one reason or the other never seemed to capitalise fully. Furthermore, Senna started off the year with 4 straight wins, the two Williams drivers in those four races only scored a second place each. This solid foundation meant that the Brazillian was never really under pressure in the standings, and Ferrari had failed to build a proper car, which led to Prost falling out with the team, and announcing that he would take a sabbatical for the 1992 season.
Come 1992, and Williams was now comfortably the best car. They took the constructors’ championship, and Mansell won the drivers’ title with 108 points. Senna finished the year in 4th place, with less than half as many points. This pattern continued somewhat in 1993, only this time it was the returning Alain Prost who won the championship for Williams. Senna came 2nd but ended the season more than 20 points behind the Frenchman (equivalent to 2 wins), courtesy of the fact that the McLaren car was considered underpowered compared to the Williams. Honda had left McLaren before the season, and the British team was forced to take on the uncompetitive Ford engines. With McLaren out of the picture, Prost could cruise to the title with little challenge from Damon Hill, his teammate at Williams. Senna had virtually no chance of seriously challenging for the title.
Prost retired after the 1993 season, and Senna took over his place at Williams for 1994. But with the banning of driver aids, which Williams had used to great effect in 1993, the team’s large advantage over the others was gone. Benetton-Ford, with a young Michael Schumacher at the wheel, was now just as quick if not quicker than Williams.
In 1994 for the 3rd race of the season, the circus arrived at Imola for the San Marino Grand Prix, the site of Senna’s fatal crash. It’s at this point in the article where Senna’s results become hypotheticals, and I begin trying to guess how Senna’s career may have ended had history played out differently.
After Senna’s passing Michael Schumacher became the man to beat, and Damon Hill (Williams’ second driver at the time) turned out to be his closest challenger. It became obvious that Schumacher was the far better driver as the season progressed, and Benetton was also the faster team, with a faster car, and what was widely considered to be a better example strategy. Despite this, the title went down to the final round in Australia.
This was due to Schumacher’s disqualifications from four races during the season: In Britain, he and his team ignored a 5-second stop-go penalty for overtaking Hill during the formation lap, and were shown the black flag which, at first, was also ignored. When they did come into the pits seven laps later, instead of retiring as they should, Schumacher only served the original 5-second stop-go penalty and proceeded to rejoin the race, something unimaginable in today’s sport.
All that led to the German being disqualified from the race, plus a ban from next two races (a decision which was appealed by Benetton, meaning that it had to be reconsidered, and while the decision was pending, Schumacher was allowed to race). Eventually, it was decided that the two-race ban was correct, and was applied three races after the British GP, meaning Schumacher missed the Italian and Portuguese Grands Prix. The final disqualification for Schumacher came at the Belgian Grand Prix, this time the wooden board on the bottom of his car wearing away by more than the maximum permitted 10%.
It was these four disqualifications that allowed Hill to catch up to Schumacher in the championship. After the British Grand Prix, where Schumacher received his first dsq, the German was 27 points ahead of Hill in the standings. Fast forward to just before the start of the European Grand Prix, and Hill had reduced Schumacher’s lead to a single point with just three races to go. After trading wins, Schumacher with the European GP, Hill with the Japanese GP, the title went down to the final round in the streets of Adelaide. That race famously decided by the still to this day controversial collision between the pair, which led to both of them retiring and therefore Schumacher claiming the title by 1 point – but would it have been any different, had Senna still been alive?
Well, the title would have undoubtedly come down to Schumacher’s many disqualifications, as those ultimately allowed Hill to catch up, making the championship much closer than it should’ve been. As stated previously, there was no doubt that Schumacher was the better driver, and Benetton probably the better team. In that case, the question becomes: would Senna have capitalised better on Schumacher’s disqualifications than Hill did? Would Benneton even have made the mistake of ignoring a stop-go penalty if Senna was there? Perhaps Benetton and Schumacher became too cocky due to their lead in the championship, allowing them to make the mistake of ignoring a penalty. Would they have been so careless with Senna hot on their heels?
On the other hand, both Schumacher and Benetton were new to the top, their inexperience could have easily led them to make the wrong decision in the heat of the moment. With Aryton Senna chasing them down mid-race, would a 5 second penalty have been that much more beneficial to make it worth the risk to ignore?
For me, that’s the difference between Senna winning or not. If Schumacher were not to pick up 3 race dsq from that Black Flag, the Benetton driver would’ve won, no matter who sat behind the wheel of the Williams. Add in those missed points opportunities however, and it could have been an entirely different story.
The following year is less contentious. In 1995, Benetton and Schumacher comfortably won the championship. They weren’t completely unchallenged, despite Schumacher’s 102 points to Hill’s 69, throughout the season the German and the Brit having several collisions, namely at the British, Belgian and Italian Grands Prix. Maybe with a few less retirements, a Williams could have somewhat challenged for the title, but there aren’t really any realistic scenarios in which Schumacher doesn’t dominate this season.
Moving on to 1996, and now it gets even more complicated. Senna had often said in interviews that he wanted to end his career at Ferrari, and it would be difficult – at least in my opinion, for Ferrari to turn down a driver of his prestige. In fact, Luca Di Montezemolo (then President of Ferrari) said in an interview that he and Ayrton met in Montezemolo’s private home in 1994, shortly before Imola to discuss the matter. Senna made it clear to Montezemolo that he wanted to end his career at Ferrari, and according to the Ferrari boss, they apparently agreed to ‘’meet again soon, so as to look at how we could overcome his contractual obligations at the time.’’ This indicates that Senna (were he to get out of his Williams contract) might have already been looking to join Ferrari in 1995, and if not then, then at least the season after.
Let’s suppose that Senna somehow got out of his Williams contract, and joined Ferrari for 1995, could he have won the 1995 championship? After all, it is often said by many that Schumacher could have won the 1995 championship in the Ferrari. Personally, I disagree, I simply cannot see, looking at the race results over the 1995 season, how a Ferrari driver would have any chance of winning races consistently, and take the title. Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi (the two Ferrari drivers in 1995) finished respectively fifth and sixth in the final standings, 60 and 71 points behind Schumacher. That can be put down partly to the fact that the Ferrari drivers had 2 and 4 more retirements respectively than Schumacher, but even then Benetton driver would’ve been a long way clear. Berger and Alesi were both very capable drivers, that would have pushed the car close to it’s limit, we can only justify so much when claiming there would be an increase in pace purely from Senna’s ability. Leading us to a similar conclusion to that of the hypothetical in which Senna was driving for Williams in 1995 – that the Brazillian could have been driving as fast as ever, and it still probably wouldn’t have been enough to prevent Schumacher from winning the championship.
So what about 1996? In reality, it was won by Damon Hill (Williams) with 97 points, followed by rookie Jacques Villeneuve (also Williams) with 78 points, pushing Schumacher, who had moved to Ferrari, down to 3rd with 59 points. From the standings alone, it’s easy to conclude that in order to compete for the 1996 title, one would need to be driving for Williams. Not only was the Williams quicker, but the Ferrari was also unreliable, particularly at the start of the season. So for Senna to win in 1996, it would require him to stay at Williams for two years longer than he probably intended to, postponing his alleged planned move to Ferrari. In order to win the title after moving to Williams, Aryton would also have had to beat Damon Hill in his prime – something I think Senna would do fairly easily, but it’s still a very real possibility that the Brit could have made life difficult for him.
After the 1996 season, a 36 year old Senna would be a veteran, and at that point, I think it would have been either a Ferrari seat or retirement. Were he offered the seat, I think he would’ve stuck around for at least another year, just for the experience of driving for the legendary team. This would of course mean joining a team with Michael Schumacher as his teammate, in a car that was a championship contender. In reality, Schumacher fell short of Jacques Villeneuve after a dramatic final race, where contact between the two title rivals ultimately meant that the Canadian came out on top by 3 points. But what would’ve happened if the pairing of arguably the two greatest drivers of all time had become reality?
For me, there are two possible ways in which the Senna-Schumacher relationship would’ve turned out. The first, and more likely outcome, is that neither of the two drivers bow down to the other, their fierce, competitive personalities clashing, causing them to butt heads more than once, contributing to a brutal rivalry which could arguably have ended up costing the team and both drivers a reasonable amount of points. This would likely result in neither of them winning the championship and Senna leaving the team after getting his Ferrari wish, and going into retirement.
The second scenario is very much the more romantic of the two, but perhaps also the less likely. With Senna turning 37 years old in 1997, he wouldn’t be far away from retirement, and although the racer in Senna may have had a hard time accepting that, the more sensible part of him – that he was starting to show more and more in the years leading up to his death – might have seen sense and realised that he at that time had reached a point in his career where he could no longer face the challenge of a prime Michael Schumacher.
Instead, Senna would take on a ‘mentor’ role, in which he would help develop both Schumacher and Ferrari as a team. Senna partakes in a harmonious relationship with Schumacher, and together they fight for the championship against Mika Häkkinen and McLaren. In that case, it would either be Häkkinen or Schumacher to take the championship, Senna past his prime and on the edge of retirement. The prospect of two legends combining to wake the prancing horse after an 18 year championship drought is certainly a mouth-watering prospect, if an unlikely one. There is one more possibility however, if the Brazillian continued racing for one more season with Ferrari, there could have been one last drivers title waiting for him.
In 1999, the Ferrari was finally the fastest car again. It looked as though the championship would once again boil down to a battle between Häkkinen and Schumacher. It all drastically changed though at the British GP, where Schumacher broke his leg after crashing at Stowe due to a brake failure, pinning all Ferrari’s hopes on Eddie Irvine, a driver nowhere near the level of Schumacher. The Northern Irish driver ended the season short of Häkkinen by just 2 points – would a 39 year old Senna have had the edge to take the championship?
After the 1999 season, it probably wouldn’t have been long until Senna’s retirement. Being 40 years old in 2000, I don’t see any way in which he could have taken a serious fight to Schumacher, and I doubt Senna, with his winning mentality, would want to play second fiddle to anyone for more than a year or two, as well as obstruct young drivers from moving up to Ferrari. Retirement would put an end to a long and successful career.
To conclude, if not for Senna’s tragic accident, it could easily be that he never would’ve won a championship again. Yet it could just as easily be that he would’ve won two or three more. At the end of the day there’s only so much that a talent like Senna can accomplish if in the wrong car, and that’s the nature of the sport – to win a championship you have to be in the right car, at the right time. Sadly, we will never know how history would have looked if Ayrton was still with us today, but it’s always fun to speculate about what could have been.