Ranking the Top 25 Moments of Ayrton Senna's Formula 1 Career
On 1 May 1994, three-time Formula One champion Ayrton Senna was tragically killed in a crash during the San Marino Grand Prix. He was 34.
A family lost a beloved relative, a country lost its hero and the sport lost its brightest star. Senna's death sent shock waves through F1 that are still felt to this day.
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of Senna's death, I've produced this list ranking the Top 25 moments of his career.
Thanks go to my colleagues Oliver Harden, Matthew Walthert and Mark Patterson for their input on this piece.
25. 1984 Brazilian Grand Prix
Senna made his F1 debut at his home race in 1984, driving the curious Toleman TG183B. It had two large rear wings, radiators in the front wing and was being used because the 1984 car was not ready.
He qualified 17th, one place ahead of his more experienced teammate Johnny Cecotto. Senna only managed eight laps before his turbo failed, but he had arrived on the F1 scene.
It was all uphill from here.
24. Mercedes Exhibition Race, 1984
When the new Nurburgring GP-Strecke—the same basic F1 circuit we see in use today—opened in 1984, Mercedes bosses organised an exhibition race to celebrate. Twenty of the world's finest drivers took part, each driving a Mercedes 190E saloon.
The field was impressive and included future and former world champions—including Niki Lauda, Alain Prost, Denny Hulme, James Hunt, Alan Jones, Jack Brabham and Keke Rosberg.
Emerson Fittipaldi was due to take part but was busy with the Indy 500, so Senna was recruited to take his place. At the time, he only had three F1 starts and two points under his belt.
Prost, who gave Senna a lift from the airport, told a Top Gear DVD about the day (h/t ESPN):
We had a 10- or 15-minute time difference [in flights] and I had a car, so I was waiting to take him to the Nurburgring. That was the first time we talked together and we had a long drive, something like two or three hours, so we had time to talk.
He didn't talk very much but he looked impressed because I was driving very fast on the motorway in Germany and he said: 'You know you're driving fast!' It was nice and we were quite close because he didn't know anybody, so he was always close to me during the first days.
It was very funny because he looked very open, very nice and then we started the practice and we were fighting together for pole position. I saw him being very competitive; I took the pole, he was second and then at the start he went before the flag and I said to myself 's---, I have to take care of this guy!'
In damp conditions, Senna barged past Prost on the opening lap and went on to win the race.
It wasn't the fact he won that was impressive, rather it was the manner he went about it. To Senna this wasn't a fun exhibition race—it was just a race like any other, and he had to win.
Afterwards, per Top Gear, Senna said: "Now I know I can do it."
Everyone present did too.
23. Punching Eddie Irvine
The 1993 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka was the 40th of Senna's 41 career wins.
He drove an exceptional race in changeable conditions to beat Alain Prost's Williams by 11 seconds, but that's not why the race is remembered.
Senna was still on wet tyres during the second half of the race and attempting to lap Damon Hill. Behind him, Eddie Irvine was doing a fine job in his first ever F1 race and wanted to challenge Hill for fourth.
So he overtook Senna, unlapping himself.
Senna was furious, and he confronted Irvine over the move after the race. A full transcript is available here on themagicofsenna.com.
The foul-mouthed tirade wasn't all Senna had for Irvine. As he went to leave, the Brazilian turned and punched Irvine, who fell off the table he'd been sat on.
It wasn't Senna's finest moment, but it's listed as a contrast to a very different interaction with a fellow driver that you'll encounter later on.
22. Catching a Ride at the 1991 British Grand Prix
Senna was running second in the 1991 British Grand Prix when he ran out of fuel on the final lap.
Race winner Nigel Mansell, one of Senna's greatest rivals and a man with whom he had some exceptional battles, slowed and stopped on his victory lap to give Senna a lift back to the pits.
It was a touching display of mutual respect, and to this day remains one of the sport's most iconic images.
21. 1984 South African Grand Prix
In his second race, Senna qualified in 13th—2.110 seconds behind pole-sitter Nelson Piquet and 1.317 seconds quicker than his teammate.
He was still driving the 1983 Toleman TG183B.
It was a typical race of the era, with plenty of mechanical failures among the front-runners. Senna finished up three laps down, but it was good enough for sixth and his first F1 point.
20. 1989 San Marino Grand Prix
Before the 1989 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, pole-sitter Senna was passed by teammate Alain Prost at the start.
The Frenchman led through Turn 1, but Senna attacked around the outside at Turn 2 and completed the move into Turn 3.
After the race, Prost accused Senna of reneging on a pre-race agreement that whoever led the race into Turn 1 would not be challenged.
The strained relationship between the two was further soured, and the rift was only healed when Prost retired at the end of 1993.
19. Interview with Jackie Stewart
Senna was a complex character, but this interview he did with three-time world champion and long-time safety campaigner Sir Jackie Stewart in 1990 gave a real insight into who he was.
Stewart is critical of Senna's driving style and highlights the number of accidents the Brazilian has. Senna passionately defends his style.
The clash between two of the greatest drivers of all time is as interesting as any on track battle, and contains one of Senna's most famous quotes:
By being a racing driver, you are under risk all the time. By being a racing driver means you are racing with other people. And if you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver, because we are competing. We are competing to win.
As interviews go, you'll struggle to find a better one.
18. Joining McLaren
Lotus had been a step up from Toleman, but they weren't quite a top-level team.
McLaren came calling in 1988, and Senna joined Alain Prost to form probably the best driver line-up an F1 team has ever had. They also had one of the greatest cars of all time, the MP4/4.
Senna qualified on pole for the opening race of the year, over a second clear of second-placed Nigel Mansell. A gear selection issue caused him to stall on the grid and he switched to the spare car to start from the pit lane.
He fought back through the field to run as high as second, before dropping to sixth after stalling in the pits during a stop.
In the end he was disqualified for changing to the spare car after the green flag had been shown.
But his performance showed he could handle the pressure at a truly front-running team, alongside a world champion teammate.
17. First F1 Test
Senna's success in the 1983 British F3 championship attracted multiple offers of F1 tests. The first took place in July of that year for Williams at Donington Park.
He did not disappoint.
His lap was significantly quicker than that managed by Williams' official test driver, Jonathan Palmer, but the team had no room to hire him as a driver for the following year.
He also tested for Brabham and McLaren, but neither could offer the 1984 seat he wanted.
Toleman could, so he signed for them.
16. 1989 Japanese Grand Prix
Coming into the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix, Senna trailed teammate Alain Prost by 16 points, but only the driver's best 11 results counted towards the championship. The points system at the time was 9-6-4-3-2-1—nine points for a win, down to one for sixth.
Prost had four wins, six second places and one third. If Senna won the remaining two races with Prost second, the Frenchman's tally would increase by just two, while Senna's would go up by 18.
They would be equal on points, but Senna would be champion by virtue of winning more races.
The Brazilian qualified on pole by a massive margin, but Prost got away better and led. The two McLarens ran close together all race, until Senna finally got a sniff of an overtaking opportunity on Lap 46.
He went down the inside into the final chicane, but Prost refused to yield and they collided.
Prost was out, but Senna got a push from the marshals and rejoined. He overtook Alessandro Nannini—who had taken the lead—and won by 12 seconds.
However, race stewards disqualified Senna after the race because he had driven down the chicane's escape road after being pushed.
It seemed a safer and more prudent choice than turning around and driving back towards oncoming cars and Senna's outrage was justified. At the following year's race, he walked out of the drivers' briefing after they were told cutting the chicane would not result in a disqualification.
15. 1986 Spanish Grand Prix
The 1986 Spanish Grand Prix was the second round of the season, and it saw one of the closest finishes in F1 history.
Senna started on pole and led the opening laps. Nigel Mansell, who had dropped to fourth at the start and made his way up to second, closed in and passed Senna on Lap 39 of 72.
But the Brit pushed too hard on his tyres, and late in the race Senna caught up. He forced his way back into the lead with 10 laps remaining.
Mansell was also passed by Alain Prost, and he decided to try his luck on fresh rubber. In nine laps he caught back up to Senna, but the Brazilian defended his line and hung on to win by just 0.014 seconds.
Having finished second in the opening race, it was the first time Senna had ever led the F1 world championship.
14. The Famous Monaco Lap, 1990
There exists a very famous onboard video of Senna setting a qualifying lap at the Monaco Grand Prix—a race he won five times in a row.
It's from 1990, and though it wasn't his finest lap around the streets of the principality, it has become one of the most viewed F1 videos of all time.
Millions of fans over the years have watched it to get an idea of what Senna could do behind the wheel, and no DVD or documentary is complete without it.
13. Standing Up for Driver Safety
Toward the end of his career, Senna became increasingly outspoken about driver safety.
In the video above, he argues passionately with FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre about barriers, which he felt were unsafe and could cause serious accidents.
This took place at the 1991 German Grand Prix, but it's only one example among many of Senna taking a position as a drivers' advocate and leader of F1's "dressing room."
12. 1993 Australian Grand Prix
The Australian Grand Prix was the final race of the 1993 season and marked the end of Senna's long relationship with McLaren.
It was also to be the final race for Senna's greatest rival, Alain Prost.
Williams cars had claimed every pole position for the last 24 races, but Senna broke the streak by posting a lap almost half a second quicker than Prost.
He went on to win the race, with Prost second. On the podium, the long-term enemies embraced. Now they would no longer be fighting on the track, the animosity seemed to float away.
No one knew it at the time, but it was to be Senna's final race win.
11. 1991 Spanish Grand Prix
There are few battles that stick in the memory more than the one between Senna and Nigel Mansell at the Spanish Grand Prix in 1991.
The two men raced side-by-side down the pit straight, their wheels only inches apart.
They didn't need to be that close, but neither would back down. Each was paying as much attention to his rival as he was to the track in front of him.
It was an exceptional piece of gutsy driving from both men, and another iconic Senna-Mansell moment.
10. Second World Championship
Alain Prost departed from McLaren at the end of 1989, but he and Senna again found themselves in a title fight when the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix came around.
Senna went into the weekend with a nine-point lead and six wins to Prost's five. If Prost failed to score, Senna would be champion.
That was exactly what happened.
Before qualifying, Senna had asked the stewards for the pole position slot on the grid to be moved onto the racing line. He thought they had agreed.
Senna qualified on pole, but later discovered the slot would not be moved. Prost, from the clean side of the grid, got a better start. Senna drove into him at Turn 1, taking both cars out.
As he walked back to the pits, he was asked how it felt. He replied in footage seen in Senna: "It's not a bad feeling at all, is it?"
A year later, Senna admitted the collision was no accident (h/t ESPN for the quote):
I said to myself: 'OK, you try to work cleanly and do the job properly and then you get f---ed by stupid people. All right, if tomorrow 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.' And it just happened.
The incident would forever be a stain on Senna's character.
9. 1989 Monaco Grand Prix
At the 1989 Monaco Grand Prix, Senna out-qualified teammate Alain Prost by 1.148 seconds.
He converted the pole into the race lead, and towards the end of the race he had lapped everyone except Prost, who was over 50 seconds behind.
It was then that his McLaren lost first and second gears.
Monaco is filled with low- and medium-speed corners that would usually require those gears, but Senna somehow adapted and overcame the issue.
He maintained his massive lead and finished 52 seconds clear of Prost.
8. 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix
Senna qualified on pole for the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix, the fifth time he'd claimed the top spot at his home race.
As the race progressed, Senna was leading with a small gap to the cars behind, but his McLaren was developing gearbox issues. He first lost fourth gear, and later third and fifth.
It took incredible effort to keep the car going at a reasonable speed as rain began to fall. Though Riccardo Patrese was closing and it looked certain he would lose the lead, Senna hung on to record what was one of his finest victories.
But getting to the end with a badly broken gearbox took a heavy toll on Senna. After the race, he was so exhausted he had to be lifted from the cockpit.
It was the first of only two home wins.
7. First World Championship
The 1988 season was a two-horse race between Senna and Prost. They won all but one of the races, and going into the Japanese Grand Prix either man could take the title.
Senna qualified on pole but stalled. He managed to bump-start the car on Suzuka's downhill pit straight, but had dropped to 14th.
He embarked on a storming comeback drive, and he seized the lead from Prost on the 27th lap.
The track became wet later on and Senna even waved to indicate he wanted the race stopping, reminding fans of Prost's actions four years earlier at Monaco.
The race was not stopped, but Senna retained the lead to win his first world championship.
6. 1984 Monaco Grand Prix
Senna started the wet 1984 Monaco Grand Prix in 13th place, and immediately set about slicing his way through the field.
It was a beautiful drive, made even more impressive by the fact it was only his fifth F1 start, and the first time he'd driven on Michelin tyres.
Senna made his way up to second and was catching race-leader Prost at around three seconds a lap. The Frenchman repeatedly gestured to the stewards for the race to be stopped due to the severity of the rain.
On BBC commentary, James Hunt's words were quite prophetic: "I think we are watching the arrival of Ayrton Senna as a truly outstanding talent in grand prix racing."
After a few laps of Prost waving, the gap was down to just seven seconds. The clerk of the course, Jacky Ickx, eventually agreed with the Frenchman and showed the red flag.
The race was stopped, never to resume.
It's worth adding to this one that another brilliant young driver, Stefan Bellof in the Tyrrell, was third and catching them both. Had he not lost his life in a sport car crash the following year, we might be speaking of him now the same way we discuss the sport's all-time greats.
But it doesn't matter who won, who would have won or who should have won. This was, as Hunt said, Senna's true arrival in F1.
From then on, the world took notice.
5. 1988 Monaco Grand Prix Qualifying
At the Monaco Grand Prix of 1988, Senna produced one of the greatest qualifying performances in F1 history.
Driving the brilliant McLaren MP4/4, he out-qualified teammate Alain Prost by a staggering 1.427 seconds. In the wet that would be impressive, but this was on a bone-dry track.
And it wasn't just one fast lap—it was a whole series of them. He was quite simply in a different league.
Speaking to Denis Jenkinson of Motorsport (h/t McLaren), Senna said:
And, remember, we were using race tyres for much of qualifying, which meant we could manage more than a single-lap run. I got to the stage when at one point I was actually more than two seconds a lap faster than anybody else, including my team-mate, who was using the same car, the same tyres, the same everything.
It wasn’t because he [Alain] was going too slow, but because I was going too fast. I felt at one stage that the circuit was not a circuit any longer, just a tunnel of Armco barrier. But [events were unfolding] in such a way that I was over the level I considered reasonable. There was no margin, whatsoever, to anything.
When I had that feeling, I lifted immediately [from the throttle pedal]. Then I felt I was operating on a different level, which I didn’t quite understand. So I backed off and came into the pits. I said to myself, 'Today, that was special. Don’t go out any more. You’re vulnerable.'
Senna led the race by almost 50 seconds when he hit the barriers at Portier with only 11 laps to go.
He never lost in the principality again.
4. Coming to the Aid of Erik Comas
During Friday practice for the 1992 Belgian Grand Prix, Frenchman Erik Comas crashed heavily at Blanchimont and was knocked unconscious.
Senna was right behind him. He immediately stopped his own car on the circuit and ran back to help his fellow driver. He switched off the engine and ensured Comas' head was held in the right way.
Everyone else drove past.
Speaking to Nigel Roebuck in 1998, former F1 doctor Professor Sid Watkins recounted how Senna had stopped at the scene of Martin Donnelly's horrific crash at Jerez in 1990. The Brazilian watched what Watkins did and later questioned the doctor to learn more.
Watkins then speaks of the Comas incident (h/t ayrton-senna.co.uk):
Then, of course, subsequently he arrived once or twice at an accident before anyone else did. It happened with Erik Comas at Spa. By the time I got there, Senna was kneeling down, holding his neck—in the correct way, I might add.
As we took over, Ayrton said: 'I made sure his breathing was all right, and I’ve asked the marshal to keep the helmet, so you can examine it for damage.' He was a great student. I found that anything I ever said to him was filed away in his mind forever. Never forgot a thing.
Comas explained in a later interview that, because the car was leaking and explosions were possible at the time, he felt Senna's actions in turning off the engine could have saved his life.
The incident had nothing to do with brilliant car control, overtaking or defending, and everything to do with the selfless actions of a man whose concern for the safety of his fellow competitors was becoming ever stronger.
Comas later stopped his own car at the scene of Senna's fatal accident at Imola in 1994 and withdrew from the race.
3. Third World Championship
Senna went into the 1991 Japanese Grand Prix with a 16-point lead over Nigel Mansell and just two races remaining. The Brit needed a win to keep his title hopes alive.
Teammate Gerhard Berger qualified on pole with Senna in second. The two McLarens led into the first corner, Berger leading as Senna held Mansell back until the Williams driver made an error and spun off on Lap 10.
With the title now secure, Berger let Senna through and the two drove around together all race, before switching places again at the end.
It was Senna's third championship. All were decided in Japan.
2. 1993 European Grand Prix
The 1993 European Grand Prix at Donington Park was the scene of what has become one of Senna's most famous drives.
It started with one the greatest laps F1 has ever seen.
The track was damp when the race began, with Senna in fourth on the grid. He lost one place before the first corner, but got it back by passing Michael Schumacher one corner later.
He passed Karl Wendlinger's Sauber into Turn 4, then went around the outside of Damon Hill's Williams at Turn 6, cementing the move at Turn 7.
Finally, Senna passed Alain Prost for the lead at Turn 10.
The race was mostly wet, with periods when the track dried. But, whatever the conditions, Senna was in a different class.
At the end, only one car was on the same lap as the Brazilian—Hill's Williams, which was 83 seconds behind.
1. 1985 Portuguese Grand Prix
Senna had qualified on pole in the dry, but it was raining when the race began on Sunday.
These were the days of unlimited testing, but Senna's Lotus 97T had never been driven in the wet. It was difficult to tell.
By the end of the first lap, he was three seconds clear of his teammate in second. He never looked back, setting the fastest lap and simply driving away from the field.
When the chequered flag fell, Senna was over a minute ahead of second-placed Michele Alboreto's Ferrari and a lap clear of everyone else.
It was Senna first win, and the first of his four grand slams,
And it was also, quite possibly, the greatest drive of his career.