But most Formula One drivers concur that Senna is the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT). Even Schumacher himself deeply admired and respected the late Brazilian legend. Although Senna only won 3 world titles, a feat recently achieved by Lewis Hamilton, many drivers of the current generation grew up hearing stories of the legend of Ayrton Senna.
He was the original rain master because his car control was impeccable. His duels with long time rival Alain Prost were the stuff of legend, and would be fodder for any Hollywood director. Senna was also the best qualifier of his rivals and considered a God in his native Brazil.
Senna’s debut was not really a dream start with the Toleman team in 1984, but he managed to score his first points in the second race of the season. A few races later at an extremely soggy Monaco GP, the Brazilian scored his first podium just behind future teammate Prost.
Senna was actually in prime position to seize the lead when the rain grew heavier and race officials decided to stop the race. Senna ideally should have won the race had it continued, although one can argue that 3rd placed man Stefan Bellof also deserved the win because the German was also lapping as fast as the 2 ahead of him.
Also a highly technical driver, Senna provided detailed assessments of the cars and the track conditions, and all this was long before electronic telemetry was introduced to F1 cars. Then-race engineer Pat Symonds in an interview regarded the United States GP in Dallas as his greatest debut race instead of Monaco.
Symonds said: “The car was reasonably competitive there, so we expected to have a good race but Ayrton spun early in the race. He then found his way back through the field in a quite effective way and we were looking for a pretty good finish but then he hit the wall, damaged the rear wheel and the driveshaft and retired, which was a real shame. The real significance of that was that when he came back to the pits he told me what happened and said, "I'm sure that the wall moved!" and even though I've heard every excuse every driver has ever made, I certainly hadn't heard of that one!”
“But Ayrton being Ayrton, with his incredible belief in himself, the absolute conviction, he then talked me into going with him, after the race, to have a look at the place where he had crashed. And he was absolutely right, which was the amazing thing! Dallas being a street circuit the track was surrounded by concrete blocks and what had happened - we could see it from the tire marks - was that someone had hit at the far end of the concrete block and that made it swivel slightly, so that the leading edge of the block was standing out by a few millimeters.”
“And he was driving with such precision that those few millimeters were the difference between hitting the wall and not hitting the wall. While I had been, at first, annoyed that we had retired from the race through a driver error, when I saw what had happened, when I saw how he had been driving, that increased my respect for the guy by quite a lot!”
As a viewer and Formula One enthusiast, watching Senna on track was simply magical… there is no other word that can describe it.
His first pole position was achieved when he moved to Lotus the following year to partner Elio De Angelis. Having achieved that pole lap, a victory was not far behind, and sure enough, the talented Brazilian converted it into a maiden victory and what really stood out from that win was the distance from the second place man Michele Alboreto: 1 minute and 2 seconds!
Alboreto was the only driver to remain on the lead lap in very wet conditions. Of course he did have his critics and several drivers used to accuse him of deliberately driving on the racing line while on a slow lap which would hamper other drivers from setting a competitive time. As the season progressed it was clear that Senna was not the easiest person to work along side, because both he and De Angelis campaigned for that number one driver status and gradually had a falling out and the Italian left to join Brabham the following season.
In 1987 Senna was involved in a major spat with Nigel Mansell after the pair collided in Belgium. The enraged Briton allegedly grabbed Senna by the throat and had to be restrained by Lotus mechanics. After building an early lead in the championship, the weaknesses of the Lotus soon surfaced and Senna decided to look for greener pastures at McLaren but that would soon mean the start of all his troubles.
Senna’s marriage to McLaren was sealed with the approval of number one driver Alain Prost who didn’t know what he was getting himself into. Despite the intense personal rivalry between the 2 drivers they had a mutual agreement that whatever happened between the 2 of them, they had to remain ahead of their constructor’s rivals Ferrari, Benetton, Lotus, Williams and March.
That year, the McLaren team dominated the 1988 season with the 2 warring drivers winning 15 out of 16 races! But the driver’s champion was Senna. The only race which McLaren didn’t win was Monza, which was possibly the result of Senna’s pig-headedness because he did not leave any space for a backmarker to recover from a mistake and was speared by the red and white machine, the end result was an emotional 1-2 for Ferrari.
That year, Senna rewrote the history books with the most wins and pole positions in a single season. The aforementioned rivalry intensified even to the point of a psychological war. Accusations of disobeying prerace agreement flew, allegations Senna vehemently denied. Prost took the title in Suzuka after an accident between the two feuding McLarens and a disqualification against Senna for receiving a push start ensured the title.
Visibly furious, Senna accused the then FIA president Jean Marie Balestre of conspiring with Prost to allow his fellow countryman to win the title, Prost later left the Woking squad for Maranello and Ferrari. The 1990 season was no less turbulent even though the two rivals were in different teams. Everything came to a head when the title decider was in… surprise, surprise, Suzuka again!
This time Senna emerged the victor despite the fact that Balestre denied his request to move the pole position to the clean side of the track. There was a strong sense of déjà vu as the title was decided by another high speed shunt. Schumacher himself didn’t think much of Senna’s on track tactics and the same sentiment was returned.
Although Senna was widely panned as a ruthless driver on track, he was an incredibly nice person off it. One perfect example was when French driver Eric Comas had a serious accident and Senna was the first to arrive at the scene and saved his life.
Senna even disregarded his own safety all to aid a fellow driver. Similarly, when Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger was killed in Imola a day before Senna’s own demise he had planned to pay tribute to the rookie, with race officials finding a furled Austrian flag inside his car.
And a day earlier he oversaw the safety of compatriot and protégé Rubens Barrichello after his accident.
In defense of Schumacher
Schumacher in his own way is considered a great champion but his rivalries were not as fierce as the likes of Senna and Prost. He has had great rivals like Jacques Villeneuve, Mika Hakkinen, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso among others.
And just like Senna, Schumi too was embroiled in controversies. He would have been considered a GOAT if only he had not decided to return to the sport after a 4-year absence.
In his early F1 years, he was known to produce fast laps at crucial points of the race and push the car to the absolute limit. Schumi was another rain master winning 17 of the 30 wet races contested. Most experts judge a driver’s driving ability by watching them in the wet because it takes certain finesse and skill to control a car on those conditions, the same can even be said today.
Schumacher was the main driving force that put Germany on the racing map and cementing that place for good. In 2006, Schumi was voted as the most popular driver in a survey conducted by the Grand Prix Drivers Association. He was then considered Germany’s next rising talent after Stefan Bellof.
Schumacher unleashed his true potential when he joined Ferrari and earned the nickname “The Red Baron”. Schumi, Jean Todt, Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne, AKA the “Fab Four” were credited with Ferrari’s revival as a championship contender and eventual five times back to back winners.
When he retired in 2006 he became an advisor for Ferrari, but realized that he missed the thrill of racing and that led him to possibly one of his biggest mistakes of his life.
Whatever happens, Senna will always be considered the greatest driver of all time by most fans of the sport – including Schumacher himself.