Home / Motorsport / Formula 1 / The Sports Lowdown’s Greatest Formula One Drivers of all time No. 1 – Ayrton Senna

The Sports Lowdown’s Greatest Formula One Drivers of all time No. 1 – Ayrton Senna

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Formula One has been blessed with some truly outstanding drivers in the past, and whilst they should all be respected in their own right as world champions – many of whom have won multiple titles – it is human nature to try and compare drivers of different generations. Here at ‘The Sports Lowdown’ our chief Formula One writers Dan Culyer and Ben Boorman attempt to do just that. In a daily countdown, they will formulate a list of the greatest drivers – past and present – in an attempt to decipher who is the greatest the sport has ever seen.

Whether it is Senna; or Schumacher; or Prost; or Hamilton; or Clark; or Stewart; or Vettel – be sure to keep an eye on proceedings at The Sports Lowdown, and as usual we would love to hear your views on our list, so any comments would be greatly appreciated.

Here, our list comes to a conclusion…


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No. 1 – Ayrton Senna

It was never going to be anyone else, was it? 

Ayrton Senna heads our list of the greatest drivers of all time, and in my opinion, there is no doubt about this. Never has the world seen someone so magical; mystical; talented; charismatic; fast and passionate as Ayrton Senna and it explains why he was endeared and loved by so many fans world-wide. He raised the profile of the sport, and turned it into an event watched by millions on a weekly basis, and his death proved to be the catalyst for improved safety regulations, later benefiting generations of drivers. 

If one weekend encapsulated Ayrton Senna as a racer, then the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix was it. In the Saturday qualifying session, the Brazilian produced what is without a doubt the greatest single lap of all time, as he went an astonishingly 1.46 seconds faster than his nearest challenger: team-mate Alain Prost. It was a performance so brilliant it sent shock-waves throughout the motor sport world, and is still hailed as the greatest lap of all time. Senna later said I was driving it in a different dimension; well beyond my conscious understanding. Some moments when I am actually driving, just detached me from anything else. On that day [Monaco 1988] I said to myself ‘that’s the maximum for me; no room for anything more’. I never reached that feeling again”. It is a quote which has resonated around the motor world for years, and it gives an insight into the racer Senna was: fully committed, instinctive and immensely quick.

The following day, Senna was again in a league of his own. With 11 laps remaining, Senna was some 55 second ahead of nearest rival, Alain Prost, and after ignoring team orders from team boss Ron Dennis to slow down, Senna had a momentary lapse in concentration making him clip the inside barrier, and consequently span off into the far barrier. His race was over. Prost went on to win the race, and Senna was not seen until that evening, after he had spent the afternoon contemplating how he had lost a race that he dominated in such terrific fashion right from the start.

It is not the ending Senna would have liked, and nor should we remember him like this. But what this race weekend does do is encapsulate the nature of Senna’s character.  He refused to let up and would push until the line – on every corner and straight, on every lap, on every race. For him it was not just about winning, but about being faster than anyone else – especially Prost. As soon as the Frenchman set a faster lap time than him, he would have to better it, and sometimes – Monaco 1988 being one such example – he would push that little bit too hard.

The rivalry between himself and Prost was one which would go on to dominate the sport for years, and is arguably the greatest sporting rivalry of all time. Two completely different drivers; each with a hunger and powerful desire for success; in one team – trouble was always going to be on the cards. And so it paid out, with the pair colliding on numerous occasions, most notably at the Japanese Grand Prix of 1989 and 1990.

Before his move to McLaren however, Senna had announced himself to the world as arguably the fastest man in Formula One, but Prost, as the registered yardstick at the time, was the man Senna needed to beat to prove to the world that he was indeed the one to beat. And he pursued this dream with an ardour that far exceeded anything the sport had previously known. Senna was obsessed with everything his team-mate did, and felt he needed to beat him at every race, regardless of what the score was in the championship. In terms of speed, Senna was undoubtedly superior: his blistering qualifying pace was a reflection of this, and the Brazilian also possessed greater natural talent – more than any other driver has ever possessed – giving him an advantage when all things were aligned. However, as we know, over the course of the season, not everything is going to run to plan, and Senna suffered greater inconsistency than his team-mate, and this perhaps prevented him from winning more world championship than his ability arguably deserved.

So why was Senna so quick?

James Hunt once famously said “Senna is a truly staggering talent”, and this was of course his greatest strength on the race track. It allowed him to spot dry areas on a wet track, and allowed him to judge his braking to perfection. However, perhaps a more important factor in his sheer speed is the fact that he was willing to put more on the line than any other driver, and he would therefore be able to carry this speed into the corners with a momentum that few, if anyone, could or would want to manage. Throughout his career, he spoke chillingly of death and appreciated better than most the dangers attached to his profession, but this failed to deter him from risking everything every race weekend. You are doing something that nobody else is able to do, (but) the same moment that you are seen as the best, the fastest and somebody that cannot be touched, you are enormously fragile. Because in a split second, it’s gone.” The irony in this is appallingly palpable, but it sums up immaculately everything Senna stood for.

In an interview with Jackie Stewart, where the Scot had questioned his occasional recklessness, Senna responded by saying “If you do not go for a gap, then you are no longer a racer”. It is a quote that has been used the world over and has been associated with Lewis Hamilton, a man who has admired Senna his entire life. And he is correct: a true out and out racer is not afraid of failure, and if there is the faintest glimmer of an opportunity to overtake, they seize it with both hands, not thinking first of possible consequences. Prost famously once said “If he wants the world championship badly enough to die for it, he’s welcome to it.” and this just highlights the passion of the Brazilian, and the lengths he would go to achieve his dream.

Alain Prost was perhaps unfairly portrayed as the antagonist in their epic rivalry: he remains a degree undervalued, dismissed as a calculating figure who played the percentages and when it came to ultimate speed was a poor second best to Ayrton Senna. I am convinced that if Senna was alive, he would strongly refute this statement, but there is a strong contrast between the two racers.  Whilst Prost was more than just a calculating tactician, he was less of the out-and-out racer that Senna was. But then again, they were at different stages of their career’s: Prost was on the decline, but had a load of experience under his belt; Senna was on the rise, and had with him a youthful hunger and passion for flat out racing.  In terms of speed, talent and passion, there has never been anyone quite like Senna, and he has by some distance the greatest qualifying record of any driver. And in terms of pure racing ability, Senna is also right up there with the very best.

However, whilst the brilliance of Senna is marvelled and revered, the darker side to his character is less well documented.  Senna had a dangerous sense of entitlement, believing he had a God-given right to win, and could not understand it when occasionally this was not the case. It was a self-confidence that bordered on arrogance, and drove him to such extreme lengths that put his life – as well as that of his comrades – in grave danger.  In the Japanese Grand Prix in 1990, he deliberately drove into Prost at the first corner, forcing both of them to retire, meaning he became world champion for the second time.  It was a move that some critics still hold against him, but what is even more confusing is how unnecessary it was: someone of Senna’s ability should not need to use unsportsmanlike tactics like this to win, and it was times like this where Senna over-stepped a line he so often flirted with, and his occasional irrationality eventually came to the forefront.  It was one of the darker moments in Senna’s career, but was purely a result of his desire to win, as well as the fact that he had been eyeing up revenge for the entire season, after what happened the previous year. It was this determination that gave him his success, and whilst his darker psyche should not be ignored, it should likewise not detract from his magic.

“Ayrton has a small problem. He thinks he can’t kill himself, because he believes in God, and I think that’s very dangerous.”

Senna was a man who flirted with danger week in and week out; but that was how he liked it.

On 1 May 1994, his luck ran out, and on the weekend where God turned his back, Senna was gone: forever. He died doing the job he loved more than anything, and in his determination to stay ahead of Michael Schumacher in the vastly superior Benetton, Senna made a mistake – combined with a mechanical dysfunction of the breaks – that cost him his life. Is he romanticised as a result of his death? Yes, probably. But many drivers have died before in Formula One, and none have been worshipped – and mourned – to the extent Ayrton Senna has been, and that says a lot.

On the track, Senna was steely-eyed, incredibly focussed and immensely passionate; but off it he was humble, caring, loving, compassionate and charismatic. At Spa 1992, Erik Comas had had a serious accident, and after immediately recognising the severity of the situation, Senna stopped his car midway on the track  – the only driver to do so – rushed out and inadvertently saved Comas’ life. It is a demonstration of what Senna is like behind the carbon-fibre enclosure of his racing helmet, and his juxta-posing persona is key to his mystical genius.

So is he really the best of all time?

There have been many great champions in the history of the sport, and who are we to say who is better than the other? But for me, the difference between Senna and, say Schumacher, is that Schumacher does what anyone else can do, but he just does it far better than anyone else. Senna on the other-hand, could do things behind a racing wheel that most people couldn’t dream of doing, and that is what separates him from the rest. He produced countless magical performances of skill, speed, poise, determination and passion that nobody can match, and most likely, nobody will ever match.

Another thing to consider when looking at Senna, is the fact that his career was cut short due to his tragic death in 1994. It is likely that Senna would have raced for many more years, during which time he would have probably won at least another two or three world championships, which would have lowered Schumacher’s tally of titles in the process.  When describing Senna’s world championships, the word many use is “only?”, and that speaks volumes about his sheer ability at the wheel – he could have done so much more had he had the opportunity to finish his career.

How you view Senna depends on what part of him you see: the racer or the human? In fact, the beauty of this is that you can look at him in both ways, and he just as mesmeric and mystical. Senna is the only driver whom nearly everyone seemed to love: he did not just unite a country, but he went far further than that.  A God in Brazil; a hero in Japan; an idol in Britain; and a legend everywhere else – Senna was, and still is, the most popular driver the sport has ever had. He had weaknesses in his driving, but the sheer magic of his skill far outweighs any possible criticism you can make of the Brazilian.

There is one thing you can’t judge though: how he made you feel. Ayrton Senna had that unique ability to engage his audience’s and they would literally be on the edge of their seat whilst watching him. He brought the excitement to Formula One, and some of his magical displays made people feel utterly mind-blown by what they had seen, and made them realise that they were in the presence of some greater being. He was that good. I question whether you could say the same about any other driver.

Ayrton Senna was a genius – a flawed one – but a genius nonetheless, and for that he is still regarded, 21 years on from his death, as the greatest the world has ever seen.

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We hope you have enjoyed reading our top 10 countdown: it has been an enjoyable, enlightening and worthwhile experience for both @benboorman21 and I (@Dan_Culyer) and we hope that you enjoyed our journey just as much as we did!


See also:

No. 2 – Michael Schumacher – https://thesportslowdown.co.uk/2015/09/sports-lowdowns-greatest-formula-one-drivers-time-no-2-michael-schumacher/

No. 3 – Juan Manuel Fangio – https://thesportslowdown.co.uk/2015/09/sports-lowdowns-greatest-formula-one-drivers-time-no-3-juan-manuel-fangio/

No. 4 – Lewis Hamilton – https://thesportslowdown.co.uk/2015/09/the-sports-lowdowns-greatest-formula-one-drivers-of-all-time-no-4-lewis-hamilton/

No. 5 – Jim Clark – https://thesportslowdown.co.uk/2015/09/sports-lowdowns-greatest-formula-one-drivers-time-no-5-jim-clark/

No. 6 – Alain Prost – https://thesportslowdown.co.uk/2015/09/the-sports-lowdowns-greatest-formula-one-drivers-of-all-time-no-6-alain-prost/

No. 7 – Sir Jackie Stewart – https://thesportslowdown.co.uk/2015/09/sports-lowdowns-greatest-formula-one-drivers-time-no-7-sir-jackie-stewart/

No. 8 – Niki Lauda – https://thesportslowdown.co.uk/2015/09/the-sports-lowdowns-greatest-formula-one-drivers-of-all-time-no-8-niki-lauda/

No. 9   – Sebastian Vettel – https://thesportslowdown.co.uk/2015/09/the-sports-lowdowns-greatest-formula-one-drivers-of-all-time-no-9-sebastian-vettel/

No. 10 – Sir Jack Brabham – https://thesportslowdown.co.uk/2015/09/sports-lowdowns-greatest-formula-one-drivers-time-no-10-jack-brabham/


Our Top 10 (top to bottom)

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About Dan Culyer

I am a 17 year-old sport fanatic - particularly when it comes to football, formula one, tennis and swimming/ water polo! I am a part-time sports journalist, as well as a fully qualified football referee! I particularly enjoy doing in-depth opinion pieces, with detailed analysis of players, teams and tournaments!

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