The key attraction at this year’s Autosport International certainly proved popular, as thousands queued to catch a glimpse of some of Ayrton Senna’s iconic race cars.
While it may have lacked any machinery from the formative years of his single-seater career – where was the Van Diemen RF82 Formula Ford 2000 as advertised? – the Senna tribute’s collection of grand prix vehicles was certainly something to savour.
So here, for your delectation, are six racers that helped shape the career of one of the world’s greatest ever racing drivers.
DAP/Parrilla Kart – 1980
Ayrton Senna da Silva had driven karts since he was four, when his father Milton da Silva made his son his first hand-built model driven by a one-horsepower engine.
Unable to legally race until he was 13 years old, Senna won his first competitive race shortly after becoming a teenager and went on to excel in the domestic karting scene, winning the 1977 South American Kartin Championship with relative ease.
In the years that followed, Senna contested the Karting World Championship, finishing runner-up in 1979 and 1980 behind his great rival and DAP team-mate, Terry Fullerton.
At the time, the pair was regarded by team manager Angelo Parrilla as being “the two best drivers in the world,” and their final encounter in the 1980 season finale at Nivelles in Belgium was nothing short of epic.
Senna drove this 135cc machine to second place after Fullerton suffered with engine trouble, and while Dutchman Peter de Bruijin may have taken the victory, the young Brazilian was primed and ready to make the transition to single-seaters.
Toleman-Hart TG183B – 1984
In 1984, Derek Warwick’s performances for Toleman were rewarded with a Renault contract, and his replacement had been narrowed down to just one candidate: Ayrton Senna.
There were many lucrative offers floating around at the time, but Senna wanted an F1 drive on his own terms, and so, after much deliberation and contractual scrutinising, the 24-year-old Brazilian agreed a deal that was to his satisfaction and officially became an F1 driver for the Witney-based team.
Senna made his debut in this Rory Byrne-designed TG183B in his home country, qualifying the year-old car on the eighth row of the grid. His race, however, was short lived as he was forced to retire with a blown turbo after a mere seven laps.
But better fortune was to follow in his second race, in South Africa, where he scored his first ever point with a sixth place finish, a feat he repeated in the Belgian Grand Prix, before registering his only DNQ at Imola.
After four races, the TG183B was replaced by the Toleman TG184…
Toleman-Hart TG184 – 1984
The fifth round of the 1984 world championship saw the introduction of the Toleman TG184, a vehicle that was superior to its predecessor in almost every way, especially within the aero department.
Its superiority over the TG183B wasn’t clear to see at the French Grand Prix as both Senna and team-mate Johnny Cecotto were forced to retire with similar turbo issues. But the next race, around the streets of Monaco, would not only showcase the car’s potential, but also that of the Brazilian ace.
Senna found himself on the seventh row of the grid as the cars lined up at the start of the Monaco Grand Prix. Thankfully for him, atrocious weather conditions helped level the playing field and, in the pouring rain, he brought his Toleman-Hart alive.
An awesome start saw him up to sixth place after only seven laps, and his fearless progression continued unabated until he found himself in second place behind Alain Prost.
On lap 20 Prost led the oncoming Senna by almost 35 seconds. In clear air, the Brazilian began to make inroads into Prost’s lead, and by lap 31 the gap had diminished to just 7.5 seconds.
As the appalling weather conditions hung over the principality, Prost would gesticulate frantically every time he crossed the finish line, asking for the race to finish. On lap 31, with Senna breathing down his neck, his request was duly met and the race was stopped.
The likelihood is that were the race to have continued, Senna would well have secured his first F1 victory in only his sixth race. But regardless, a legend was born.
More podiums came Senna’s way during the 1984 season, with third place finishes at both the British and season-ending Portuguese Grands Prix, before he jettisoned Toleman for Lotus.
Lotus-Honda 99T – 1987
The Lotus-Honda 99T was the first Lotus chassis to be fitted with electronic active suspension, which generated a consistent ride height, but it came at a cost. The system proved heavy and added significant weight to the car – roughly 25kg or 55lb – plus it also had a detrimental effect of reducing the Honda engine’s turbo performance by 5%.
Despite valiant attempts by design guru Gerard Ducarouge to claw back much of the performance lost, the 99T was much more bulky and less aerodynamically efficient than the Ferraris and McLarens of the time.
Still, while the 99T is regarded as being the least competitive car Senna ever raced for the marque, it did show occasional glimmers of promise in the hands of the Brazilian. He won twice and achieved six podium finishes during the 1987 season – his victories coming in the Monaco and Detroit grands prix where the 99T came on song.
Senna finished the season strongly and was ranked third in the drivers’ championship. But, most significantly of all, 1987 proved to be a pivotal moment in his career as, throughout the year, Senna had built a relationship with Honda, one which would pay huge dividends, as McLaren had secured Williams’ supply of Honda’s V6 turbo engines for the following year.
McLaren-Honda MP4/4 – 1988
McLaren had left testing their 1988 challenger, the MP4/4, quite late. The design team had only recently come under the command of newly appointed technical director Gordon Murray who, alongside Steve Nichols, busied themselves over the winter period to create a car they hoped would be the cream of the crop. Their hard work was not in vain.
The MP4/4 was designed purely on a turbo-engined basis, and this, combined with Murray’s low-line chassis layout, proved to be a potent combination, as its speed advantage over its rivals was astronomical.
In the hands of Senna and Alain Prost, the MP4/4 proved impossible to beat, with the rest of the field barely ever getting a look in throughout the course of the season – McLaren would win all but one race in 1988.
Notable moments in this championship winning year for Senna included his infamous collision with Williams stand-in Jean-Louis Schlesser at Monza, and of course, the Portugese Grand Prix, which would prove to be a prelude of the ugly days to come in the lives of Senna and Prost.
By 1993, McLaren team boss Ron Dennis and Senna no longer enjoyed the same relationship that had prevailed in earlier years. Contractual negotiations had become protracted and increasingly unpleasant as it became apparent that a standard team-driver contract could not meet Senna’s demands.
Legal wrangling aside, the Ford-engined McLaren MP4/8 proved competitive enough to achieve notable successes in 1993. Even though Prost, fresh from his F1 sabbatical, was in the vastly superior Williams FW15C, Senna’s performances in the first four races were enough to see him lead the championship.
The Frenchman later asserted the dominance of his Williams to take the lead for good, however, but Senna finished the season with five wins under his belt, including his most famous grand prix victory at Donington Park in 1993.
The MP4/8 currently resides at McLaren’s headquarters in Woking, meaning its public showing at this year’s Autosport International was something of a rarity.