The period from 1984, when the Brazilian wizard Ayrton Senna made his debut in Formula 1, and until 1993, when another great racer Alain Prost completed his career, in the royal races is considered the golden time of Formula 1. They were complete opposites: cold, calculating Prost and expressive, hot Senna, but it was their standoff on and off the track that made that period in Formula 1 unforgettable. For nine years of joint performances, they for two gathered seven champion titles, and this struggle was accompanied by scandals, truces and accidents.
The pilots managed to really get acquainted in 1984. At that time Prost was at the top and soon won his first champion title, while Senna only made his debut in Formula 1 and in a small, unknown team, Toulmen tried to prove his talent. The acquaintance of two great racers took place on the way to the Nürburgring, at the opening of which they were invited. Then the car, which was sent to Senna at Frankfurt Airport, was late, and the team managers called Alain Prost, who lived near the airport, with a request to throw Senna to the race track. Prost agreed. During those hours on the road, which they brought together, they became friends. The very opening of the race at the Nurburgring ended with the pole of Prost and the victory of Senna, but then no one gave any importance to this.
The first scandal A few weeks after that race, the Monaco Grand Prix took place. It was then that the world learned about the “rain man” of Ayrton Senna. The Brazilian started from the 13th position, but in the pouring rain began to confidently go to the leadership in the race. On the 20th lap, Senna came in second place and the gap between him and Prostom was 33 seconds, but by the 31st lap, the gap was reduced to only seven seconds. By all accounts, Senna had to beat the race leader, but due to heavy rainfall at the end of the 31st round, the race was stopped and Senna could not win his first victory. Ayrton accused the organizers that in this way they did not allow the sensational victory of “Toulmen”, and Prost regretted the young colleague and noticed that he could rejoice at the second place. Then it was not their confrontation, it was just a coincidence that it was just Prost that was in the lead – their struggle was still ahead.
In the next three seasons, Prost won two league titles, and Senna made his way to the top on the Lotus. The 1987 season became a turning point in some way: the current champion Prost finished the championship in fourth place, and the young and ambitious Senna became the third. At the end of the season, McLaren decided to return to the top in the Constructors’ Championship to invite Senna, and from 1988, when Prost and Senna became partners, everything started to turn. The young Brazilian’s eyes were burning – he finally had a decent car for winning, and he had seen nothing and no one on the way to the champion title. Senna won eight races in a season and confidently won the championship title, but two incidents happened that season that had serious consequences.
Designer Steve Nichols, who participated in the creation of the legendary car “McLaren” MP4 / 4, shared his memories of working with Ayrton Senna, spoke about the opposition of the Brazilian with Alain Prost, which became legendary, and also noted the key aspects that allowed the car MP4 / 4 achieve such impressive results. “Everyone knows that Ayrton Senna was a fantastic racer, he combined all the necessary qualities. He was incredibly competitive, had a bright personality, great memory, he was very sensitive. He knew exactly what to do with the car, knew how to articulate thoughts and bring them to the engineers. The latter, perhaps, was its main quality, because a great deal always depended on the understanding between the driver and the engineer in Formula 1. He could always calculate the points that needed improvement, change the settings and as a result, the car became much faster. He was very sensitive to the slightest change in the settings of the car. Sometimes he asked me to change the settings a few minutes before the start, these changes more influenced his psychological state, but in this way he felt more confident and we always made the necessary changes.
He was very good at working on the development of the car. For example, while working on an engine, he sometimes had to travel a long time to the track. At such moments, it became boring for him, and he constantly changed the settings, checked the operation of the engine at different speeds, thus obtaining a tremendous amount of information. After that, he could drive a few laps in fuel economy mode and all the necessary data that was born in his head, immediately passed to the engineers. And he did this without any effort. He was always glad to spend the evening with the engineers after piloting the car, figuring out every empty line in the settings. We could not fill in all the data in advance, as Ayrton definitely wanted to consider every moment, which will in one way or another affect the work of the car. As a result, he could not make corrections to the data, but he always tried to keep track of every little thing, carefully studied each setting in order to obtain a possible advantage from it.
Ayrton was a very emotional man. He was very warm towards everyone, and it also superimposed on his Latin American mentality. He never treated engineers as dummies, always worked all the way, tried to keep abreast of events from the very beginning. This put a certain pressure on all of us, because we all understood that we were working with a legend. I felt that I would not want to spoil anything, because this could lead to the loss of a champion title for Ayrton. He was never overly excited or emotional with me, we always tried to do the best that we could, and everything always worked as it was intended. He was always very kind to the people he worked with.
When developing a car, we have never tried to limit ourselves to the minimum requirements. I never tried to dwell on any one parameter. We have always sought to build the best car, taking into account all possible options for development. There were several things that appeared with the emergence of a new car. First of all, it is about clutch. In 1988, Tilton developed a carbon fiber grip that was smaller in diameter, which meant that the guys who developed the engines could produce a smaller motor. In addition, the volume of the gas tank was changed to 150 liters. Thus, having a new engine with a small fuel tank and, accordingly, their lower placement in the design, it seemed logical also not to have a high position of the pilot. Instead, we simply positioned the cockpit within the fuel tank and engine. Also, due to the low location of the engine, we decided to similarly arrange the gearbox, which as a result gave us a low arrangement of all components.
In those years, there was a fairly strong competition for 3-4 places. It is interesting that 1988 became a transitional year, since in 1989 everyone had to switch to atmospheric engines. Throughout the race, race cars equipped with conventional atmospheric engines had more power due to the greater amount of horsepower. The only advantage we had was the presence of an adjustable impulse, so the races turned into tactical battles, chess on the race track. In order to stay ahead of the competition, we had to control fuel consumption. Sometimes we had less fuel than our competitors, and we had to wait for the moment when the opponents turned up the pace, and therefore the fuel consumption, in order to start attacking again. After that, it was necessary to reset the speed again in order to minimize consumption and hold on to the end of the race. As a result, all this put serious pressure on our pilots, as they had to squeeze the maximum speed out of the cars on those short stretches, when they could begin to attack without restraining themselves. They really had to attack at the limit in every turn, and then fly as carefully as possible so that they had enough fuel to complete the race.
“We performed with a great percentage of reliability and the only race that failed – became Monza, where Prost’s engine burned down, and Senna got into a famous accident and also failed to get to the finish line. Before and after Monza, the reliability of the car was admirable and that year, of the 15 victories that our riders mined, 10 of them were marked by a double take, so the car showed an amazing reliability that was achieved thanks to the research and development of Honda and the close attention of McLaren in working with small details,” Nichols says.