As Senna wrung the neck of the Lotus, equally, the Brands Hatch circuit seemed to strain itself to contain him....
“The most important thing for all of us is to keep the good moments, and keep the happiness that we had together” Ayrton Senna.
Approaching the 20th anniversary of the loss of Ayrton Senna brings to mind one of those “good moments”. This one was in 1986, on a majestic track long since spurned by B.Ecclestone.
I was lucky enough to see Senna race many times, from his FF2000 Euroseries days to his Grand Prix careers at Toleman, Lotus and McLaren. But one day stands out. Although it was at a Grand Prix in which he failed to finish, his monumental attempt to claim his 13th pole position was an absolute spectacle. To see how hard he pushed that day was an extraordinary privilege.
Some things stay with you. Moments, to borrow Senna’s own word, frozen in time. Things you’ve seen that forced you to drop everything and pay attention. Some days, you know you’ve seen something that you may never see again. And you never do.
For me, one of those days was Saturday 12th of July 1986, the day of final practice for the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. It was the last one ever held at the magnificent Kent circuit. The weekend is remembered mainly for two reasons. It produced a famous victory for Nigel Mansell’s Williams Honda after an epic battle with his teammate Nelson Piquet, and it brutally ended the 176 Grand Prix career of the much-loved Jacques Laffite.
From the Paddock Hill stand, I witnessed the accident that smashed both of Laffite’s legs. Then a part-time motorsport journalist, I ran straight back down to the grid for the hour prior to the restart, speaking with Laffite’s team-mate Rene Arnoux, then Derek Warwick and Ricardo Patrese to get their accounts of what they saw.My mentor Alan ‘Plum’ Tyndall, was commentating live on the unfolding scenes for Eurosport TV, so he sent me to the Williams Press Officer Ann Bradshaw for updates on whether Mansell, whose car was damaged, could restart in the spare car which had been setup for Piquet. It was a tense, fraught Grand Prix day, amid huge concern for Laffite’s condition. Thankfully he made a full recovery.Now, almost 30 years later, the memory that endures most strongly from that weekend is something else I witnessed from the same Paddock Hill Bend stand, 24 hours earlier.
The Formula One cars of 1986 were, and still are, the most powerful F1 cars to have ever raced. That season was mostly about McLaren’s Alain Prost versus the Williams Hondas, but the precocious talent of Ayrton Senna had already started burning a hole into the F1 history books. This was the era of super-sticky qualifying tyres that were good for only 2 quick laps, and of qualifying engines (nicknamed “grenades”) that were designed for one, brief, blaze of glory … indeed, often ending in a blaze! The cars needed qualifying gearboxes, designed to withstand the engine’s immense power for perhaps 4 minutes at most, before disintegrating.
The pace of engine development had taken off that season. Power outputs for the factory teams had now risen beyond the 1,000 bhp reached at the end of ’85. By that weekend in July, the Renault EF15B on maximum boost for qualifying produced 1,200 bhp. Incredibly, Honda and BMW had at least 100bhp more on tap. The sport had never seen such power levels, and this performance peak ended soon afterwards.
During this brief performance window, only drivers of the most exceptional bravery and skill could take full advantage of the technological treasures on offer to them. The turbo lag, then light-switch nature of the power delivery required drivers to anticipate the boost by flooring the throttle 2-3 seconds before they needed full power.For this brief, special time, final practice became THE show, overshadowing the Grand Prix itself. The extraordinary spectacle of these popping, crackling, flame-spitting beasts, and the men wrestling to control them, regularly drew bigger crowds than those for the following day’s race.
So at 1pm on Saturday, when the tyre warmers came off and the battle for Pole Position commenced, it was an almost primal contest. The pressure was intense, and in many ways it was “Cometh the hour, cometh the man”. Seeking the perfect gap in the traffic, for the perfect lap, in a car configured to last for just one, maybe two laps, was itself a rare art.
Renault’s EF15B engine had struggled all year with poor reliability & fuel consumption, but for Brands Hatch it had been updated to improve power & reliability. Knowing they now lagged Honda and BMW in the power stakes, the Renault engineers had removed the heat exchangers and turbo waste gates on Senna’s engine to release maximum boost pressure and power. They strapped in the second youngest driver in Formula One for his final attempt to improve on the previous days 4th fastest grid spot.
At the same moment that Queen’s Freddie Mercury was wowing a sell-out crowd at Wembley Stadium, another virtuoso took to another stage.Suddenly it appeared on track, Senna guiding the sleek black, unbranded Lotus Renault 98T on his warm up lap, needing to produce an absolute ‘banzai’ lap to have any chance of pole position.Driving the 97T at Brands the previous year, Senna had stormed to pole for the Grand Prix of Europe, becoming the first driver to ever lap the circuit faster than 140 mph. Now, in a car whose development had fallen behind his Honda and BMW engined rivals, his honour and pride were at stake.
What followed was a performance that engaged all five senses – first came the sight of the shimmering heat haze, hovering over the
Ayrton Senna sitting in his Lotus97T at the 1985 European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch.
Lotus as it appeared at Clearways, signalling that the engine boost was maxed. Then the sound as it hit the straight, a flat menacing growl, like the grumble of an earthquake. As the black Lotus crested the rise into Paddock Hill, you felt the ground trembling and you were hit by a wall of hot air, like an oven door opening in your face. The smell of the spent hydrocarbons, a rich, sweet aroma reached the nostrils.
You saw it turn in, then, in a blink, disappear up Hailwood Hill to Druids, as your brain struggled to make sense of what you’d just seen. Was it a speeded up film? You hit the pause & replay button in your head, to play it back in slow-motion, to interpret it in real time. But you couldn’t. It was a blur. It happened, you saw it, yet you didn’t.
As the car danced nervously from the blind turn-in, fully committed over the crest, Senna’s left hand glove just visible at the top of the steering wheel, it dived down towards the apex, fighting gravity & centrifugal forces as the track’s negative camber tried hard to unstick it. Senna’s constant throttle-blipping through the bend kept the turbo boost up as his rapid steering corrections were made with the slight of hand of a world class magician. It was magic. Black magic. That was the only explanation your brain would accept.
Despite the super-sticky tyres, Senna’s Lotus fought for grip throughout the entire lap, the back end twitching out of line as the enormous power produced wheelspin, even in 4th gear. In the end, he was bettered by the superior power & aerodynamics of the Williams Hondas, with his countryman Piquet claiming pole from Mansell. But Senna still qualified the Lotus 3rd, just ahead of Gerhard Berger’s more powerful Benetton-BMW (1,350bhp!).
For 67.525 seconds, as Senna wrung the neck of the Lotus and every millimetre out of the track, the grand old Brands Hatch circuit itself seemed to strain equally to contain him, just. Every great Maestro deserves a truly great venue. On that day, Brands Hatch was a worthy theatre for the genius of Ayrton Senna. Unforgettable.