Few people in the history of sport have been deified like Ayrton Senna. His finest races have become part of Formula 1 folklore – often at the expense of equally good, or better performances – whilst his less redeemable features have been conveniently forgotten. For some, he is undisputedly the finest driver in the history of the sport despite sitting joint fifth on the list of drivers with the most championships and fifth on the list of most races won. Whilst his fans claim that his untimely death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix is the only reason he is not at the top of these lists, his ninth placed standing on the all-time win percentage list tells a different story. It is his death – and his commitment to social justice in his native Brazil – that have led to an idealised image of Senna. People were so in love with the man – especially after he died in action – that they did not stop to analyse the driver. Furthermore, his cavalier driving style and win at all costs philosophy created exciting racing and endeared him to the less discerning fan who simply wanted to be entertained. Whilst I cannot deny that Senna was a great, I can certainly deny that he is the greatest driver in the history of F1. In fact, he’s not even in the top three. When you strip away the posthumous mythical status he has been given, you are left with a dangerous, somewhat arrogant driver who I consider to be worse than Michael Schumacher, Juan Manuel Fangio and even his great rival Alain Prost.
Ayrton Senna won three World Championships but only one of those should be considered as legitimate. Senna’s first title came solely because of a bizarre rule change stating that only a driver’s top 11 performances (in 16 races) counted towards the overall standings. Thus, Senna was crowned world champion in 1988 despite scoring less points (94) than Prost (105); the only time that the championship winner has not scored the most points over the course of the season. After a contentious disqualification cost him the 1989 championship, Senna retaliated with force in the penultimate round of the 1990 season in Japan. Prost failing to finish the race would be enough for Senna to clinch his second championship and after being overtaken on the start line, he made little attempt to hide his intentions as he drove straight into his rival at the first corner; eliminating them both from the race. As he later admitted, he had decided on this unsporting strategy the night before the race – ‘if Prost beats me off the line, at the first corner I will go for it, and he better not turn in because he is not going to make it.’ This is perhaps the ugliest victory in the history of sport; a pre-determined and dangerous display of cheating that puts even Diego Maradona’s infamous Hand of God to shame. It set an awful precedent for the sport and for the impressionable drivers that grew up watching him race (such as Michael Schumacher who won the 1994 championship by crashing into Damon Hill) and hinted at his reckless obsession with winning. In what is a team sport, it is shocking that he was willing to drive into his own teammate – risking both of their lives – to claim the driver’s championship. By blatantly showing his unhealthy win at all costs attitude, Senna revealed his true colours and greatly tainted his allegedly legendary legacy.
Even his strongest suit – qualifying – has been exaggerated.
Senna’s overly aggressive driving style led to him failing to finish 63 of his 161 races in Formula 1; and whilst this is partially explained by the unreliability that characterised cars of the era, his failure to finish races was often completely his own fault. Leading the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix by 50 seconds, Senna unnecessarily continued to push his car to its very limits despite the warnings of his team and crashed out on Lap 65. His continual mistakes perhaps explain why statistically it is almost impossible to claim that he was the greatest. Whist he was perhaps the finest qualifier in F1 history (65 poles @40%) his race day statistics are nowhere near as impressive. His podium percentage is lower than Fangio, Schumacher and Prost with his win percentage (25%) close to half of Fangio’s (46%) and even lower than Lewis Hamilton’s (27%.) Whilst few would consider Hamilton to be one of the greats, he picked up more podiums in the same number of races as Senna – a statistic that is made even more surprising when you compare the dominant McLaren the Brazilian drove from 1988-1991 to the uncompetitive car the same team produced for the Englishman from 2009-2012. Senna never dominated the sport like Schumacher or Fangio and whilst this is partially explained by him racing in a more competitive era, this does not explain why he doesn’t even come close: failing to make the top ten for most consecutive wins or most wins in a season. It also surprising to see a driver so admired for his blistering pace conspicuous by his absence in the fastest lap records. What this shows us is that much of Senna’s legacy is rooted in fiction and fantasy, not facts. Whilst his fans always find excuses the statistics comprehensively and consistently show that he was not the greatest. Even his strongest suit – qualifying – has been exaggerated. His position of fourth on the pole percentage list – 15% behind Fangio – is further evidence that Ayrton Senna is little more than a magnificent myth.
The endless possibilities of the future are unknowable – although the vision Senna’s fans have of it had he not died in 1994 seem thoroughly unbelievable. When the thirty four year old crashed in Imola he was retiring for his third consecutive race and was a full thirty points behind Michael Schumacher in the Championship. Whilst his fans imagine him winning titles with Williams before triumphantly joining Ferrari as his fortieth birthday approached, the more likely outcome was Senna being consistently beaten by Schumacher and his great legacy tainted. But his fans are blind to the facts. Where they see Senna catching Prost in the rain at Monaco in 1984, they miss Stefan Bellof catching the two of them at a far greater pace in his Tyrrell-Ford. Where they see Senna rising from 4th to 1st in the first lap at Donnington, they miss Rubens Barrichello climbing from 12th to 4th in a far inferior car. This is a man who only once scored the most points in a World Championship without cheating. This a man who punched Eddie Irvine at the 1993 Japanese GP simply for having the audacity to not let him pass. This is man that for all his greatness never had the consistency or control to achieve legendary status. After he tragically died at the wheel before he could grow old, the myth of Ayrton Senna began. It far surpassed the man himself.