Focus: Ayrton Senna at the Belgian GP

By Marcel Schot, Netherlands
Atlas F1 Magazine Writer

Senna's first visit to Belgium, in 1984, wasn't to Spa-Francorchamps, but to Zolder. The next year, however, the circus made its return to the Spa-Francorchamps circuit and the start of the weekend was quite a disaster for Senna. Friday morning free practice started out with no pace at all and the first qualifying session in the afternoon wasn't much better either. Senna managed to find some speed, but his 2:00.710 lap still was only good for 18th place.

Senna in wet Spa in 1985 However, overnight the Lotus driver managed to shake off the problems. In the all out second qualifying session, Senna amazed by taking over five seconds off his Friday time to claim second place on the grid, just a tenth behind McLaren driver Alain Prost.

On Sunday, as it happens so often at Spa, it rained. The warm-up was driven completely in the wet, with both Lotus drivers showing good pace. A while before the race, the rain stopped, but of course the track was still damp and more rain was expected. With Prost taking extra caution in order not to endanger his World Championship chances, Senna was quickest off the line. He was then further helped when Brabham driver Nelson Piquet spun in second place. Despite this advantage in the first lap, Prost and Mansell were closely following again a lap later.

Rosberg then became the first to switch to slicks on the drying track, while the others waited for quite a few laps to do the same. After nine laps, the three leaders came in for tyres. The following lap, Mansell showed he wasn't quite used to the slicks yet, as the Williams driver spun at the La Source hairpin. The Briton remained second, but the gap was there and Senna was able to get into his rhythm just a bit quicker than the others.

After 21 laps, the rain came again and with it, a problem for Senna. A few times, his engine stopped for a little while, but the handling of the car wasn't affected. With ten laps to go, whatever problem there had been appeared to be gone, as Senna picked up some more pace, just as Mansell lost some when taking evasive action for the spun Brabham of Marc Surer. Once the Williams driver regained his speed, the gap was a little over thirty seconds and Senna just had to keep the car going, which he did without too much trouble. After a terrific wet weather drive, Ayrton Senna claimed his second Formula One victory.

The following year things didn't go as smoothly as the year before. Senna was able to stay close to the dominant Williamses of Mansell and Piquet in the first qualifying session, but he was still slightly behind them. With both Prost and the surprising Benetton driver Gerhard Berger also ahead, Senna had to settle for fifth after day one. Saturday went better, as he narrowly beat Mansell to claim fourth on the grid.

Driving the McLaren in 1988 On Sunday, Senna took profit of Prost and Berger colliding in the first corner. This moved him into second place, albeit some three seconds behind Piquet, who had been ahead of the collision. The following lap, Mansell, in the clearly faster Williams, overtook Senna for second. A lap later Senna claimed second back yet again, as the Briton spun ahead of him. After that, Senna slowly started to build a small lead over Stefan Johansson. Piquet was by now comfortably in the lead, with a ten second gap after 15 laps. However, that was the last we saw of Piquet that day. The Honda engine in his Williams stopped, handing the lead to Senna. Mansell was second by now, making his way back after his spin.

Halfway through the race, it was time for pitstops. The Williams team executed theirs to perfection and managed to bring Mansell out ahead of Senna. The two remained close for some time, but when Mansell slowly started to move away after thirty laps, Senna settled for second.

1987 marked Senna's final season with Lotus. In a team which were just starting to fade away, Senna managed to rise above the car's potential on just a few occasions. Spa wasn't one of those, but it demonstrated that the Brazilian was able to think further ahead than one lap. On Friday, rain started coming down just minutes into the first practice session. Senna quickly realised that rain was a common thing at Spa and thus he saved as many wet tyres as possible, by driving a limited amount of laps. In the end, he wouldn't have needed them, but had it rained on Sunday, this thought two days earlier could have well brought him further ahead. Conditions were getting somewhat better in the afternoon, but Senna still had to fight hard against Ferrari and Williams, as he qualified on a provisional fourth place.

On Saturday afternoon, the track finally dried up completely. While Mansell was miles ahead of the rest, a very close battle for second resulted in Piquet making it an all Williams front row. Senna climbed up to third, just 0.01 of a second behind his countryman, a mere 0.025 of a second ahead of Ferrari driver Gerhard Berger and less than one tenth ahead of Berger's teammate Michele Alboreto.

Senna leads at the start of the 1989 Belgian GP On Sunday, Senna made a good start, sliding into second behind Mansell. However, the race was red flagged when Tyrrell driver Philippe Streiff crashed and his teammate Jonathan Palmer drove right into him at Radillon. The restart was even better for Senna, as he grabbed the lead. Mansell followed closely and at Fagnes he tried to overtake Senna. Neither of the two were willing to give way and a collision was the result. Senna retired on the spot, while Mansell managed to hold on for 17 laps until the damage forced him out too.

For 1988, Senna moved to McLaren, taking Lotus's Honda engines with him. With a line-up of Senna and Prost, success was almost guaranteed for Ron Dennis's team. And thus it happened that McLaren came to Spa, round 11 out of 16, with 132 points ahead of Ferrari on 44 points. On Friday morning, at least one of the Ferraris was able to keep up with the McLaren boys, as Berger set the third fastest time, just a tenth slower than Senna. However, the gap to the second Ferrari driver Michele Alboreto was an astonishing 2.5 seconds, with the rest of the field reduced to mere spectators. Only 12 of the 31 cars were within five seconds of the McLarens!

Of course, free practice doesn't count for anything, so Senna pulled another two seconds from out of nowhere in the afternoon. Prost and Berger improved too, with the Frenchman claiming provisional second, four tenths behind his teammate. Berger was another four tenths behind and the second Ferrari of Alboreto was about two seconds behind the polesitter. Patrese was the best of the rest in the Williams, 3.4 seconds behind. Saturday was rained out, so the Friday times made the grid for the race.

On Sunday, the two teammates agreed not to challenge for the lead into the first corner and thus Prost went ahead into La Source. Senna, however, went considerably faster through Eau Rouge and the Brazilian pulled alongside on the following straight, claiming the lead into the next corner. After that, the race was over. Prost could only follow Senna and nobody could follow Prost. After 25 of the 43 laps, Prost seemingly called it a day, settling at a lower speed without pressure from behind and without the ability to challenge Senna for the lead. In the end, Senna finished thirty seconds ahead of Prost and over a minute ahead of the rest, with just five cars on the same lap.

The following year, Friday was once again the day of rain. Surprisingly, Ferrari driver Gerhard Berger just put his car a whisker ahead of Senna's and thus claimed provisional pole. 24 hours later, things returned to normal as the dry session on Saturday rendered the Friday times null and void. With a fabulous lap of 1:50.867, Senna destroyed Nigel Mansell's qualifying record of 1987 by a massive 1.2 seconds. Prost followed the Brazilian six tenths behind, while Berger claimed third, a full second behind Prost.

Senna celebrates victory in 1989 Sunday was once again a rainy affair. Senna made a clean start and was never challenged. After lap one, his lead was three seconds, after which it built up bit by bit until it was six seconds after twelve laps. For a few laps, Mansell was the fastest man on the track in his Ferrari, until he caught up with Alain Prost. This fight made things a lot easier for Senna and he was able to increase the gap to 15 seconds over the next few laps. In the end this proved enough, as Senna managed to finish just ahead of the charging duo. After almost one hour and 41 minutes, the top three were covered by less than two seconds.

In the meantime, Prost had become the enemy and the Frenchman switched to Ferrari. Gerhard Berger now became Senna's teammate and the two got along very well. In qualifying Senna was now pushed much more than he was against Prost, who could easily settle for third or fourth without giving it too much effort, knowing that he would be able to gain whatever was necessary in the race. And so it happened that on Friday evening, Gerhard Berger was the provisional polesitter, with Senna only in third. Prost, now eager to beat Senna more than ever, split the two McLarens.

On Saturday, Senna was wide awake and he pushed to the limit to put in that one magic lap. With 1:50.365, the Brazilian took half a second off his lap record of the previous year. Berger remained second, just a little ahead of Prost and with the rest of the field over one and a half seconds behind Senna.

The start on Sunday was a complete chaos, which is not entirely uncommon at Spa. Suzuki, Piquet and Mansell played a nice game of dominoes, which the Briton concluded by ending up in the middle of the track, facing the wrong way. As the cars following avoided the stranded Ferrari, the two Lotuses hit each other, after which Nakajima in the Tyrrell came too close to Stefano Modena's Brabham. With half the field out and a nice pile of cars blocking the way, the red flag was the only option. Once the debris had been cleared and the T-cars made ready, the field got underway for the second time. The cars got away well this time, Senna leading Thierry Boutsen in the Williams, who had a great start from the second row. However, the good start didn't mean it was the last one for the day. After a few hundred meters, going into Eau Rouge, Italian Paolo Barilla lost his Minardi in a big way. He flew off and hit the armco hard. Both the armco and the Minardi were destroyed and red flags were once again waved.

Third time around things finally turned out good and once again Senna led the pack. This time they were away in qualifying order, with Berger barely able to fend off Prost. After the pitstops, Senna rejoined just ahead of Nannini in the Benetton with Prost just behind them. This gave Senna the advantage over his arch rival that he needed and despite the gap not growing, Senna was able to grab his third consecutive win at Spa quite easily.

Senna at Spa, 1993 Nothing much changed for 1991. It was still Senna and Berger, with Honda power, at McLaren. In Friday qualifying, the Brazilian utterly demolished the competition by flying around Spa in 1:49.100. Berger could somewhat follow, three tenths behind, but the rest was a long way back. Mansell claimed third in the Williams, 1.5 seconds behind Senna, while Prost lay 2.2 seconds back in fourth and Patrese in the second Williams as much as 3.5 seconds behind in sixth. This, however, was not the end of it. On Saturday, both Prost and Mansell managed a 1:48.8, the Frenchman just seven thousandths ahead of the Briton. Senna? He simply went faster. 1:47.811 and the pole margin was a second again.

When the lights turned green on Sunday, Senna went straight into the lead, ahead of Prost and Mansell. Soon enough, only Mansell was following him, as Prost's engine went up in smoke after just two laps. The two battled closely and stayed together until the pitstops, with Senna leading by the skin of his teeth. Williams helped Mansell a great deal with a perfect pitstop, getting their driver into the lead. Then just before halfway, with Senna building the pressure on Mansell, the electronics in the Williams stopped functioning, handing the lead to Jean Alesi, who was running a no stop strategy. Shortly after that, it all appeared over for Senna. His engine died, but as the Brazilian was rolling to reach the pits, the car suddenly popped back to life.

Ten laps later and it became clear that no matter what would happen, Ayrton Senna had a guardian angel that would win him this race. Ahead of him, Alesi's engine blew, handing Senna the lead. The big surprise now came up behind Senna. In the distinctive green livery, it was the Jordan of Andrea de Cesaris who was now chasing the leader. The Italian, always unlucky on the brink of his first win, pushed and pushed. Sadly for him, the result was just like it had been many times before. He pushed too hard and overheated the engine. With three laps to go, Riccardo Patrese now attacked Senna. However, the McLaren driver's guardian angel did another sterling job and Patrese's gearbox malfunctioned, causing the Williams driver to back off. This gave second place to Berger, who protected Senna's lead in the best interest of the Championship.

1992 was the beginning of the end for McLaren. Williams completely dominated the season, like McLaren had done in 1988. This also was the case at Spa. After Friday qualifying Mansell led the field, with Senna an almost embarrassing 2.2 seconds behind in second. This was basically the end of qualifying, as things turned wet the next day.

The race started out dry on Sunday, and Senna, having a great start, moved into the lead. Mansell more or less let it happen and just waited for the right moment to attack. That moment came on the second lap and the Williams driver moved into the lead. A short while later, rain started falling, which presented Senna with a chance. As most drivers pitted right away to switch from slicks to wets, Senna took the gamble and stayed out on slicks. Had the rain stopped sooner, this would have given Senna the advantage he needed to win this race, but unfortunately the rain continued for quite a while and so when Senna finally came in, he had lost too much time and dropped back to twelfth place. From there he could move up some places, but he had gambled and lost. In the end, fifth place was his part.

Senna's final race at Spa came in 1993. McLaren, now without Honda power, was fully demoted to also-ran, and with Ford power and Michael Andretti as teammate instead of Berger, the magic was gone. In Friday qualifying, Senna was fourth, which in itself wasn't all that bad. The gap to the Williams duo of Damon Hill and Alain Prost, however, was bad. Senna was 2.6 seconds behind them, with Michael Schumacher in the Benetton between them. On Saturday, Jean Alesi moved ahead of Senna too, demoting the all-time pole position record holder to a mere fifth on the grid.

At the start, Senna made the best of it, moving past Alesi and a slow starting Schumacher to grab third. Going into Eau Rouge, he then moved past Damon Hill's Williams, but his second place only lasted a lap. After that, Senna had to fend off Schumacher, in which he succeeded until the German overtook him in the pitlane. After the stops, Schumacher was simply faster and with little pressure from behind, Senna just drove the car home for fourth place, ending a string of superb races in Belgium on a low note.

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Volume 7, Issue 35
August 29th 2001


Interview with Alain Prost
by Timothy Collings

Ken Tyrrell: Fallen Titan
by Karl Ludvigsen

Belgian GP Preview

The Belgian GP Preview
by Ewan Tytler

Technical Preview: Belgium
by Will Gray

Focus: Senna in Belgium
by Marchel Schot


Elsewhere in Racing
by Mark Alan Jones

The Tyrrell Trivia Quiz
by Marcel Borsboom

Bookworm Critique
by Mark Glendenning

The Weekly Grapevine
by the F1 Rumors Team

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