After testing for Williams, McLaren, Brabham and Toleman over the winter, 24 year old, Ayrton Senna, lined up for his first season in F1 with the fledgling Toleman team for the start of the 1984 season. No one expected anything great from the Toleman team, formed for the start of the 1981 season, they struggled to make the grid for the majority of the first two campaigns and suffering from poor reliability when they did. Senna made people sit up and take note early on in the season, taking two sixth place finishes in South Africa and Belgium. As the season unfolded it was a case of, if the car stayed in one piece, Senna would score points. Enough points to finish 9th in the driver’s standings and help the Toleman team to their highest ever finish in the constructors championship, ending the season in 7th. Senna made three visits to the podium in his debut season, twice finishing third in Britain and Portugal but the standout memory for most is his performance in the rain at Monaco. Starting the race thirteenth on the grid, Senna was quick to show off his ability in the wet, making his way through the field around the tight streets of Monaco. Prost inherited the lead on lap 15 after Mansell had an altercation with the barrier and Senna was soon up to second, Catching the Frenchman at a vast rate of knots. On lap 29, Prost signalled that he wanted the race to be stopped, and again on the following lap. At the end of lap 32, the red flag was shown, along with the chequered flag. Prost pulled up short of the finishing line allowing Senna to cross the line first. Prost was awarded the victory on count back to the previous lap.
Senna’s debut season’s performances earned him a contract with Team Lotus for the next three years. Toleman had given him his first podium and he wouldn’t have to wait long for his first victory with Lotus. In only his second race for his new team, Senna again showed his supreme talent in the wet at the Portuguese Grand Prix. He took pole position and recorded the fastest lap on his way to a crushing victory, lapping the entire field apart from second place, Michele Alboreto. Senna went on to score a further five podiums in his first season with Lotus, the pick being another win in the wet in Belgium. The Brazilian took full advantage of the wet part of the race to lead home Nigel Mansell by 28 seconds. He finished the year in 4th place with 38 points.
1986 was dominated by Prost and the Williams Duo of Mansell and Piquet battling it out for the title. Senna for a long time was in with a shout of the championship thanks to two victories in Spain and the USA, backed up with six more visits to the podium. His Spanish victory is one for the record books as the third closest finish in history. Senna has a race long battle with Mansell and Prost with the lead changing hand several times. Towards the end of the race, Mansell pitted for fresh rubber and charged back up to the leaders, making up 19 seconds in just ten laps. The scene was set for a titanic finish, Senna and Mansell were nose to tail coming out of the final corner in a drag race to the line. They finished side by side with Senna taking the victory by just 0.014 seconds.
1987 again saw Senna taking two victories, including his first at Monaco, a place he would make his own, winning a record six times around the famous street circuit. He trailed Mansell off the grid and inherited the lead when the Englishman retired with turbo problems. ‘Mr. Monaco’ built an unassailable lead over his compatriot, Nelson Piquet, enjoying the luxury of pitting for tyres and rejoining still in the lead, eventually winning by over half a second. Senna finished the year in third place, behind the all conquering Williams Honda’s of Piquet and Mansell.
McLaren was the destination for Senna in 1988 and the start of a career defining battle with his new team-mate, Alain Prost. With the McLaren MP4/4 at their disposal, the pair quickly racked up victory after victory. Senna’s supreme skill was on show again around Monaco. In qualifying, Senna was a second and a half quicker than his team-mate and from the start of the race, he quickly built a commanding lead with Prost stuck behind the Ferrari of Gerhard Berger. When Prost cleared the Ferrari, the gap was 46 seconds with 30 laps to go, Prost quickly took 6 seconds out of the lead. In hearing this news, Senna put in two fastest laps of the race even though he had such a big lead. On lap 67, he pushed a little too hard, hitting the barrier at Portier and retiring from the race, handing an unlikely victory to Prost. Senna famously disappeared back to his apartment for three hours, so upset with mistake he had made.
The championship battle went down to the second to last race in Japan, where Senna could clinch the title with a win. Starting from pole, Senna was favourite for the race but he uncharacteristically stalled at the start, using the tracks downward slope to bump start the car. This dropped him down to 14th and passed six of them back by the end of the first lap. On lap 14, rain started fall around parts of the circuit, enabling Senna to exploit the changeable conditions to close in on Prost and pass his title rival. This time it was Senna calling for the race to be stopped as the weather worsened but the race went full distance. Senna won with Prost in second, crowning Senna as world champion for the first time.