So, you’re an American motorsports fan, you love Dale Earnhardt, you love Mario Andretti, and no one can blame you. As a race fan in the lower-48, you’re also probably a fan of drivers like Steve Kinser, Sammy Swindell and Bryan Clauson as well. The list goes on and on, and everyone has their opinion on who the greatest driver ever is. If you’re a NASCAR fan only, you may throw Jeff Gordon, David Pearson and Jimmie Johnson, among others into the hat as well. Scott Dixon, Michael Andretti and AJ Foyt may be on your IndyCar list.
The disappointing element about this entire discussion, is the fact that most American auto racing fans don’t appreciate the greats of Formula One. What’s even more irritating is fans who do, saying Lewis Hamilton or Michael Schumacher are the best Formula One has or had to offer.
(Photo credit: observer.com)
Today, it’s time, twenty-four years to the day that we lost him, to consider Ayrton Senna as the greatest driver to ever sit behind the wheel of any race car. Senna grew up in São Paulo, Brazil, and quickly became one of the greatest karting drivers in the world. Making it to Formula One, he quickly moved to the top step of open-wheel racing, behind the wheel of a Grand Prix racing car.
Senna began his F1 charge in an underfunded car (Toleman), with team goals to just make the laps and gain the funding to race the next week. Ayrton, of course, over performed, leading the team to three podiums in his debut season of 1984. The young Brazilian had his professional coming-out-party during the Monte Carlo Grand Prix at Monaco. During one of the wettest races in F1 history, Senna drove from mid-pack to compete for the win, before FIA officials stopped the race early and Ayrton’s charge ended in 2nd, just behind his future teammate and rival, Alain Prost.
As the off-season of 1984 came, it was clear Senna was moving on to a better team, in Lotus. The Lotus team was good, but not the favorite to do anything in the 1985 campaign, Senna, again outperformed the car. During his three seasons with Lotus, Ayrton captured six Grand Prix wins, 22 podiums and finished top 4 in points each season.
Senna is probably best known for his time with McLaren, which began in 1988, as teammate to Alain Prost. who had already won two Drivers World Championships. The 1988 season would prove to be one of Senna’s best, finishing with his first World Championship and racking up 8 wins in 16 races. This was also the beginning of the rivalry that may go down as one of the best in F1 history. During the season finale in Japan, Senna and Prost made contact during the opening lap. This would be the start of Senna showing everyone he wasn’t going to be pushed around and would do whatever it took to win, even if it maybe wasn’t the right thing to do.
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Ayrton would go on to rack up 41 career Grand Prix wins, 65 pole awards, 80 podiums and three Driver’s World Championships. Senna still holds one of the best win percentages in the history of Formula One and sits third all-time in pole positions.
What may be the greatest feat of Senna’s historic career, is a one-day test, in the middle of the Arizona desert driving for Roger Penske in an IndyCar. Three IndyCar veterans and three proven champions sat in the car before and after Senna. With Emerson Fittipaldi, Paul Tracey and Rick Mears taking laps, Senna, who had never driven an IndyCar, ran nearly half a second faster than any of the three. In doing this, he scared McLaren into paying him a million dollars, per race, for the 1993 season.
(Photo credit: indycar.com)
It’s easy to see the stats and not put him as the greatest we’ve seen, but if you watch videos or saw him race live, there’s no argument about it.
Not only did Senna impress anyone and everyone that watched him, he backed up everything he said he was going to do, cared deeply about the safety and state of the sport and was known as the most aggressive driver in the sports history. Senna once gained 6 spots, in one lap, in the wet. The story of Ayrton is more of myth, or something that comes up when you’re sitting around the fire talking about the sport, but that doesn’t do him justice. Ask anyone in the Formula One paddock today, ten years ago or twenty years ago, and they’d all say he was the greatest ever. It’s time we give him credit for that and put his name at the top or near the top of every list. Ayrton Senna, 24 years after his untimely death in Imola, Italy, deserves the respect of every race fan in America, as one of the greatest ever.