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The Last Lap: Ayrton Senna’s Unbelievable Home Win in 1991

Written by Isabel Jane Caporaso, Edited by Meghana Sree

Ayrton Senna's MP4/6 at Interlagos; Image Credits: Bob Thomas Sports Photography/Getty Images

Ayrton Senna, arguably one of the best Formula One drivers who has ever existed, gave us one of the most iconic motorsports moments at the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix. The McLaren-Honda driver had not yet managed to win his home race in his eight seasons in Formula One, a struggle that tortured him mentally.

As one would imagine, the Brazilian Grand Prix was a moment of high pressure for the driver, who’s ultimate ambition was that of making his country proud. But, even under pressure, Senna coped brilliantly, bringing home his first ever home win in '91.

The Brazilian Grand Prix of that year was held at the Interlagos circuit in São Paulo, Brazil. It was the second race of the season and it had already seen Senna as the leader of the championship, four points ahead of Ferrari’s Alain Prost.

Senna’s hunger to win had been obvious since the start of the weekend. The McLaren driver had had a wonderful Saturday, obtaining pole position with a set time of 1:16.392, and a gap of +0.383s from the second-placer Riccardo Patrese in the Williams-Renault. The conditions on track were very particular, as it was warm but the risk of a downpour was imminent.

Ayrton Senna; Image Credits: Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

The intensity of the weekend grew as the Sunday race approached. All eyes were on Senna, as he tried to bring home a victory in Brazil by a Brazilian driver for the first time since Nelson Piquet in 1986.

As the lights went out on race day, Senna got away with the lead thanks to a perfect start and gained an advantage of three seconds by the eighth lap. As the opening laps kept unravelling, it looked like Nigel Mansell, Williams-Renault driver, was his nearest challenger.

The British driver managed to gain second position after the pitstop of Riccardo Patrese and continued the race breathing down Senna’s neck, reducing their gap lap by lap. But just as all the local fans were once again losing hope, Mansell suddenly suffered a puncture. He rejoined the race with only 12 laps to go, but his Williams gearbox failed and forced him into a retirement.

With Mansell no longer a threat, Senna began his very complex last laps. Soon after the Williams’ gearbox issues, the McLaren-Honda began to suffer complications of its own. In a matter of a few laps it lost fifth and third gears, leaving the Senna stuck in sixth gear.

This meant that the Brazilian driver was struggling to keep the car from stalling, as he drove through slow and medium speed corners. In the meantime, Patrese was gaining an advantage of two seconds each lap, which put him in an excellent position for victory. To make matters worse, a storm had arrived on the scene at Interlagos.

Silence fell across the circuit, as fans began to realise that luck wasn't on their side.

But Senna wasn't ready to give up on his dream, on his long-awaited conquest. He continued to push himself with sheer will and skill, and finally saw the chequered flag 2.9 seconds ahead of Patrese.

Ayrton Senna lifting the trophy at the Brazilian Grand Prix of 1991; Image Credits: JEROME DELAY/AFP-Getty Images

His win came along with a roar from the grandstands and one from Senna himself, who couldn't believe what he had just accomplished. The extreme conditions in which he had driven caused him to have spasms in his neck and shoulders, making it impossible for him to get out of his car on his own. For this reason he had to be driven to the podium by the medical car.

On the podium, the warmth and affection of the fans awakened just enough energy in Senna's body to lift the trophy over his head, marking perhaps the most heroic moment in his career.

32 years ago, history was made by a magnificent and immortal legend: Ayrton Senna, gone but never forgotten.


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