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Ron Dennis on Senna - Part one: the early years

28 Apr 2014

As McLaren team principal, Ron Dennis worked with Ayrton Senna for six of the most fruitful seasons in the Brazilian's illustrious F1 racing career. Under Dennis' watchful eye, Senna won 35 races, claimed 46 pole positions and achieved all three of his world championship crowns.

Twenty years on from Senna's untimely death, Dennis - now the McLaren Group CEO - reveals some of his favourite stories of working with one of Formula One racing's most beloved drivers…

On Senna turning down McLaren's support in 1982

"I can't remember what he was asking for, whether he was asking for an option, or for an F1 test drive, but I said to him if you give me an option, I'll pay for your Formula Three season. But he made it very apparent, although not rudely, that he was not interested.

"He had the ability and he wanted to be independent. I liked that - well, I didn't exactly like it, but I did respect it. When he tested for us in 1983 I thought to myself, ‘I might just give you a bit of a comeuppance, so I won't be too impressed with what you do in the car. Even if I think it, I will not tell you.' Anyway, we didn't actually have a seat available at the time, so playing it down (his test performance) was much better than playing it up.

"When he tested he came across as very arrogant because he was very keen to get an advantage, and he was making quite sure that the car wasn't damaged by the other youngsters, and was he going to have fresh tyres etc. He was clearly impressive, no question, but he was still young."

On Senna instigating joining McLaren…

"All great drivers realise the importance of the team, and don't just wait but facilitate securing the drive. Ayrton put out the feelers: he saw the team was very competitive and made it very clear that he wanted to join. He reached out and said maybe he could convince Honda to come, and of course that opened the door and I engaged with Honda. Niki (Lauda) had pretty much decided to stop, so there was an attraction for the driver and for the engine. That was when I realised Ayrton as an ally was very useful - he was very politically astute."

…and Prost's reaction

"We had to do the announcement in the Phillip Morris facility outside the paddock at Monza, and I had the chance to look at people's faces. It was the first time I could see Alain was pensive about whether it would work. He had achieved ‘number one' status in the team and suddenly had this young guy whom I am sure he had every knowledge of. Alain was fine with the competition, but deeply suspicious too. He said, ‘Let's just wait and see - this is going to be difficult'."

On initial dealings with Senna and Prost

"I knew we would have a handful with these two drivers, and that we needed to be explicit about what we expected of them. I remember thinking, as I started to explain this to them, ‘these guys are not listening'. But on the third time of telling there was absolutely no doubt and they went into shock and went away to talk about it. They came back and ganged up on me and said I had been unfair and aggressive - that this was not the behaviour they expected. And I said, ‘no, you have both communicated your concerns about having such strong team mates, and the only way this will work is if the team comes first. We will give you equality: Alain, I will ensure you get equality from Honda, and Ayrton, you will get equality of the car and everything, but your behaviour is critical."

On a million dollar coin flip

"Ayrton had a pretty healthy appetite for money. We started to butt heads on money, half a million, and couldn't agree, and this got really tense - it was becoming relationship-threatening. Everything had to be black and white for him and the concept of chance didn't enter his psyche, so I said let's flip a coin. He completely lightened up; this was fun. After a bit of a debate about who would do it, I flipped the coin and won the bet. What neither of us had twigged at the time was that it was a three-year contract, so it was a $1.5 million flip. I know it has been seen as a total disrespect for money, but in fact it was a great respect because it was the only way to break our log jam. After that, everything cascaded and off we went."

On Senna's stunning qualifying lap at Monaco in 1988 when he finished 1.4s faster than team mate Prost…

"When Ayrton explained that lap to me, he went into the surreal: he would claim, possibly accurately, that he was almost oblivious to everything, that everything he did was intuitive and unconscious. It was at that point, when he was trying to explain how he did it, that Prost started to infer that he was only achieving these things with great danger, and that he accepted that danger because he felt God was protecting him. But in reality he was just a phenomenal racing driver."

…and on Senna subsequently crashing out of a dominant lead on race day

"It was a lapse in concentration. We were trying to slow him down, and effectively when you back off in a racing car you lose focus. It was just a lapse, nothing else. He was so angry that he did something really uncharacteristic: he didn't come back to the pits, but went to his flat. He just walked through the circuit and went and sat in his flat. He didn't appear again until later that evening. He was so angry with himself."

On Senna and Prost's intra-team battles to have the best engine

"There was a degree of obsession with Ayrton and Alain over engine selection. In the end there were three engines, Honda would recommend two they thought we should race, and then it came down to a coin flip. Two people had to witness it; it was an internal drama, but it was clearly the easiest way to make sure there was no favouritism."

On Senna and Prost's rivalry igniting at Imola in 1989 when the Frenchman claimed the Brazilian broke a pre-race agreement not to overtake at Tosa on the first lap

"They broke each other's confidences: they were both to blame. They made commitments to each other several times - it was just this came into the public domain. There was tremendous tension and anger.

"I'm not proud of this story, but they were testing at Pembery [in the aftermath] and I flew up. I'm no pussycat, and I reduced both of them to tears. Psychology-wise, if I could force them together by making me the bad guy, then they wouldn't be hostile to each other - they would join up and say, ‘isn't Ron being tough?' It is a delicate thing to get right. Of course it was much easier with Alain and Niki, because the deviousness was less with Niki and Alain. These two were perfectly matched in deviousness. They played every game: they played the national press, they would go to Honda, lots of things. It was challenging."

On appealing for Senna, and against Prost, at Suzuka in 1989. After surviving a mid-race tangle with Prost, Senna won the race only to be controversially disqualified for using an escape road to re-join the track

"I was appealing more against (FIA president) Jean-Marie Balestre (than for Senna), because that was just the French hooking up, as simple as that. Ayrton was stationary for so long, and then did a lap with the nose hanging off, that there was no gain on the competition. He was waved through the road by a marshal with a yellow flag - that was one of the things I pointed out. He set lap record after lap record and ended up winning, and all the while Alain is trying to convince Jean-Marie. The rule was you had to enter the circuit at the point you exited it. Consequently that was the debate: there were a few other things but they were thrown by the wayside. I was obviously emotional because it was such a stitch up. We had footage of so many incidents where cars had left the circuit and re-joined successfully."

On Senna wanting to retire at the end of 1989 as a result of his Japanese Grand Prix disqualification

"He retired - he wrote a note that he wasn't going to race next year. He festered away for a month or two after the last race, and phoned me up and said he wasn't going to race anymore; that this motor racing world was unjust, not fair, amoral. I told him to calm down. His sister was always extremely influential in guiding Ayrton. I obviously spoke to her and his father and really the key was in the end I kept saying to him, ‘if you stop, they've won. This is exactly what they want. You are not winning if you stop, you are losing.'"

On Senna's relationship with Prost improving in 1990, after Prost left McLaren for Ferrari

"In many ways when drivers find themselves out of conflict within months they are best friends, because they are not in each other's immediate vicinity or competing in the same team. It makes sense not to be in conflict with drivers when you are going wheel to wheel - it is much better if there is mutual respect when you are racing closely.

"I don't know if people realise that it is only possible for drivers to be close to each other, to be racing aggressively, when there is mutual respect. When you are racing against someone you don't have respect for you give them wide berths because you don't have any trust for their judgement. So there was always respect, but he was more than happy for Alain to leave the team."

On Senna's infamous first-corner crash with title rival Prost at Suzuka in 1990

"I looked at the traces (from Senna's car), the brake and the throttle pedals, and you didn't need to be Einstein to work out what had happened.

"He came back to the pits, and I said, ‘I'm disappointed in you.' He got it. I didn't have to say any more. It was one of his rare moments of weakness. I don't think it was anything that he was particularly proud of, but it was the finishing touch when pole position was on the wrong side of the road.

"He said, ‘there's no way I'm able to get to that first corner first. If I get to that first corner and I'm not able to get through, I won't be exiting it.' It wasn't a great moment, but he had very few lapses in his life and he was an incredibly principled person - a great human being."

Continued in Part two: the later years