McLaren last night (Wednesday) unveiled a book on MP4/4; the most successful – and arguably the most elegant – of their many Formula One cars. The launch was held on the Monaco quayside, close by the race track that, 30 years ago, marked both a thrilling high and a shocking low in the spectacular career of one of the car’s drivers, Ayrton Senna.
In the space of 24 hours, Senna demonstrated the unique demands and foibles of one of the world’s most glamorous sporting theatres. Thanks to an excruciating lesson in such a public arena, the Brazilian learned that skill and daring needs to be backed by the fundamental need for total concentration.
A fast lap at Monaco is threading an automotive needle – on the understanding that the eye is propelled towards you in a blur of colour edged by stout steel barriers. McLaren’s superiority in 1988 was such that pole position was going to either Senna or his team-mate Alain Prost.
In the closing minutes of qualifying that Saturday afternoon, Senna shocked even himself with a lap that went beyond anything experienced before. Not only had he conquered the plunging and twisting 2.07 miles 1.5 seconds faster than Prost – an astonishing margin that left the Frenchman speechless – Senna would later describe the lap as “well over something conscious”; a scary thought that prompted him not to attempt a repeat.
Pole position at Monaco, while not actually guaranteeing victory, goes a long way towards it thanks to the narrow streets making overtaking almost impossible. Senna’s chances were improved further when Prost made a bad start and dropped to third.
With a clear track ahead of him, Senna left the field standing. By the time Prost had finally moved into second place on lap 54, Senna was 49 seconds – or three-quarters of a lap – ahead.
Aware that he had no chance of catching the leader in the remaining 24 laps, Prost played a crafty game by setting fastest lap in the knowledge this piece of information would be passed on. Senna responded – as Prost knew he would – and continued to lap faster than was really necessary. When Prost reduced his pace, Senna was asked to do the same by a team anxious not to jeopardise a significant one-two.
Monaco is all about confidence and flow. By backing off, Senna lost his precise rhythm and brushed the barrier on the inside of Portier, an innocuous right-hander he had already negotiated 66 times that afternoon. The glancing blow knocked the steering wheel from his hands. In an instant, the McLaren had been flicked across the road and into the waiting barrier.
Physically unharmed but mentally destroyed, Senna climbed from the car and walked briskly away. The only salvation was the close proximity of his Monaco residence, where he would remain distraught for several hours, speaking to no one.
Prost won and Senna lost. But it was the strength and depth of such wildly divergent emotions that summed up a challenge still valid this weekend.