Ayrton Senna’s Top 5 Formula 1 Drives, Ranked

by James Foxall
1 May 2024 4 min read
Ayrton Senna’s Top 5 Formula 1 Drives, Ranked
Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

Today, 1 May, marks the 30th anniversary of the fatal accident at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix that took the life of Ayrton Senna. Who knows where his Formula 1 career would have taken him? How many more wins would he have and what F1 records would he still hold today?

Nonetheless, the Brazilian left an incredible legacy. In just over a decade at open-wheel racing’s highest level, Senna amassed 65 pole positions, 41 victories, and numerous legendary drives. How do we narrow it down to his five best? With great difficulty.

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5. Japanese Grand Prix, 1988

Ayrton Senna Grand Prix Of Japan team Honda
Marlboro McLaren-Honda teammates Ayrton Senna (L) and Frenchman Alain Prost (C) confer with team principal Ron Dennis during qualifying.

Up until 1988, Senna had shown flashes of mastery but was never able to put a full season together. Ahead of the season finale at Suzuka, he stood at the brink of his first F1 title. All Senna needed to do was win the Japanese Grand Prix. Easy, right?

Things got off to a rough start. Firing from the pole position, he nearly stalled the Honda V6 in his McLaren MP4/4. By the first corner, he had slipped to 14th place in the running order.

Those who watched the grand prix that day witnessed one of the greatest comeback drives. Ever. Senna dispatched six cars in less than a lap, and by the time he came back round to the front stretch he was in eighth. By lap four, he was up to fourth.

Meanwhile, Senna’s championship rival – and McLaren teammate – Alain Prost was under pressure from Ivan Capelli in a March. Once Capelli faded, Senna inherited second place. It only took him another 10 laps to catch Prost and even less time to pass the championship hopeful. Momentum and adrenaline launched Senna past the Frenchman.

A light rain fell over the track in the final laps. It didn’t matter. Senna was on a mission. He stormed across the finish line, capturing his eighth win of the season and his first championship.

4. Monaco Grand Prix, 1984

Ayrton Senna Grand Prix Of Monaco racing action rain
Senna drives the #19 Toleman-Hart TG184 in the rain to second place during the Grand Prix of Monaco.

Okay, so Senna didn’t win the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix. Rather than putting a notch in the win column, the Brazilian opened a few eyes to his brilliance in wet conditions.

Senna, in only his sixth grand prix, was driving the low-budget Toleman-Hart entry. He qualified 13th in dry conditions.

After 20 laps, his Candy-liveried ride was the quickest car on the track. Between laps 22 and 31, his gap to leader Alain Prost shrivelled in the rain, dropping from 34 seconds to a meagre 7. An upset was brewing.

On lap 32, Senna surged ahead of Prost’s McLaren. Unfortunately, the race was terminated on the previous lap due to torrential showers.

If it weren’t for the stoppage, would Senna have won? Perhaps. Stefan Bellof’s Tyrrell was closing down on the duo when the race was called. And Senna’s Toleman had suspension damage that might not have lasted a full race. Even so, it was an eye-catching performance. Senna would go on to make Monaco his personal playground, winning six times at the street course, including five in a row from 1989 to 1993.

3. Brazilian Grand Prix, 1991

Ayrton Senna Grand Prix Of Brazil racing action

In 1991, Senna claimed his third and final F1 World Championship, driving a McLaren-Honda V12 that was inferior to its Williams-Renault rivals. The Brazilian Grand Prix, Senna’s home race, best encapsulated the season’s struggles.

Senna started from pole position and rocketed into the lead, initially fending off Nigel Mansell before his Williams suffered gearbox trouble. As the race wore on, Senna began experiencing shifting trouble, too. He lost fourth gear, followed by third, and then fifth.

As Senna started his final lap, he put the car in sixth gear and left it there. It meant he had no engine braking but at least he was still going and still in the lead.

Ayrton Senna Grand Prix Of Brazil helmet

As if things couldn’t get any worse, it started to rain. And Senna was on slicks.

By the time Senna crossed the line, Riccardo Patrese’s Williams had closed the gap to less to than 3 seconds. Still, Senna claimed a home grand prix win for the first time in his F1 career. Keeping his car straight amid the rain and gearbox issues had sapped so much energy from Senna that he had to be lifted from the cockpit to attend the podium ceremony.

2. Portuguese Grand Prix, 1985

Ayrton Senna Grand Prix Of Portugal racing action vertical
Senna in the Lotus-Renault 97T at the Grand Prix of Portugal, 21 April 1985.

Senna’s first pole position came in only his second race for Lotus. In that era, Lotus was in its dying days as an F1 superpower. On that rainy day in Portugal, driving the iconic black-and-gold John Player Special machine, Senna simply drove away from the opposition.

As with many of his other wet-weather performances, Senna was in his own zip code. By the finish, he was more than a minute ahead of the second-place Ferrari of Michele Alboreto. The rest of the field was a lap down.

Unlike some of Senna’s drives in the wet, this was entirely undramatic. His self-assurance in the treacherous conditions made his rivals look ham-fisted. Yet out of the car, he had the look of a man who had simply done what he’d expected to do all along.

The triumph in Portugal was Senna’s first F1 victory and a bellwether for future rain-soaked heroics.

1. European Grand Prix, 1993

Ayrton Senna Grand Prix Of Europe racing action
Senna in the McLaren-Ford MP4/8 at the Grand Prix of Europe, 11 April 1993.

In 1993, the United Kingdom hosted two Formula 1 Grands Prix. The first race was held at the historic Donington Park. On a soaked track, Senna started fourth in an orange-and-white McLaren MP4/8. Even worse, he momentarily dropped a place after Michael Schumacher muscled him onto a kerb in the first corner of the first lap.

Schumacher’s move ruffled the Brazilian, but Senna quickly dodged round Schumacher’s Benetton to take fourth, then scythed past Karl Wendlinger’s Sauber for third. Damon Hill’s Williams-Renault was Senna’s next victim, followed by its sister car of Alain Prost. Four passes, one mesmerising lap.

It was all the opposition saw of the McLaren man for the rest of the afternoon – unless, of course, he was lapping them. His team changed tyres four times to suit the wet-dry weather, and Senna almost lapped the entire field. The only driver to finish on the same lap was Damon Hill, who finished nearly 2 minutes behind.

It was a performance that made the world’s best drivers on the F1 grid look like complete amateurs.

Did we miss any of your favourites? Let us know in the comments below.

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