March, 1991. Engulfed in the fervent jubilation of tens of thousands of his adoring compatriots, Ayrton Senna can barely raise the trophy he’s received for winning the Brazilian Grand Prix above his shoulders. After seven seasons, two world championship titles and five pole positions on South American soil, he’s finally broken his duck at his home race. But the road to victory was anything but straightforward…
Ayrton Senna turned 31 years old three days ago. But the double Formula 1 World Champion did not celebrate. All his focus was instead channelled into today’s Brazilian Grand Prix, his home race which, incredibly, he’d tried and failed to win seven times before. With the weight of his country’s fiercely proud people on his shoulders, Senna has finally broke that duck. And after a superhuman performance which will go down in motorsport lore as one of his greatest.
Following yesterday’s dominant qualifying session in which Senna stuck his McLaren-Honda MP4/6 on the pole almost half a second ahead of the Williams-Renault of Riccardo Patrese, race day at the Autódromo José Carlos Pace in São Paolo looked, on the face of it, to be the home hero’s to lose. And more so when the looming rain initially held firm on the horizon and Senna tore away from the field at the start.
“Race day in São Paolo looked, on the face of it, to be the home hero’s to lose. And more so when the looming rain initially held firm on the horizon and Senna tore away from the field at the start.”
A series of mishaps from his nearest rivals left Nigel Mansell as Senna’s biggest threat, the Englishman breathing increasingly down the leader’s neck, leaving an entire nation chomping at its fingernails. When a puncture on lap 50 forced Mansell to retreat from his charge, however, the noise of the local crowd may as well have been loud enough to cross the Atlantic to England.
Once again, Senna’s path to victory looked to be a clear one. But Lady Luck had not finished toying with proceedings. In what was an agonising turn of events after the long spell spent holding off Mansell, Senna began to lose gears – one by one until all he was left with was sixth. The concentration and strength, both physically and mentally, it must have taken to drag that McLaren around Interlagos for those final laps were nothing short of Herculean. And even more so when the heavens finally opened.
His arm and shoulder muscles painfully spasming and Riccardo Patrese closing in on his lead fast, Senna began to signal frantically to the organisers in a bid to end the race prematurely. In the end, it was too late. Upon crossing the line, Senna understandably screamed – an outpouring of emotion, joy and acute pain which was 62 laps in the works. He’d finally won on home soil. He was so exhausted he had to be lifted from his McLaren.For many, the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix will elevate Senna’s position as one of the all-time greats and go down in history as one of his greatest drives. The man himself attributed his superhuman performance to God. That might be so, but could the real reason have been him holding off on the birthday pina coladas?Photos courtesy of the Girardo & Co. Archive. Click HERE to discover more than three million motorsport images dating back to the 1970s.