From asphalt to gravel
Get to the Brazilian Grand Prix, and there’s one name that comes instantly to mind: Senna. Ayrton will be forever associated with Formula 1 in its golden era, but with the World Rally Championship coming to a close in Australia the weekend after Interlagos, it’s a good moment to reflect on another incredible moment in his remarkable career. What few people realise is the fact that the Brazilian champion was also a rally driver – for one day.
In 1986, while he was employed by the Lotus team, Senna tried out a diverse group of rally cars in Wales for a feature in the now-defunct Car and Car Conversions magazine. He sampled everything from a two-wheel drive Vauxhall Nova (similar to the car in which Colin McRae made his name) to the incredible Group B Austin Rover Metro 6R4. Also on his tasting menu were a Ford Sierra RS Cosworth and a homemade 3.4-litre four-wheel drive Ford Escort.
The reason why? In Senna’s own words: “I know nothing about rallying. I’ve seen the pictures in magazines, sometimes watched it on television. And I deliberately haven’t listened to anyone about rally driving. I want to find out for myself.”
Mastering the slide
On his very first run in the mighty Sierra, he nearly went off on the first corner. Not exactly what he was expecting. “It’s surprising,” he commented drily. “Because I really went into the first corner like a normal car. It was stupid. Now I understand why you have to use opposite lock and use the traction a bit – to keep the car really biting on the ground. If you try to just go around the corner, you don’t go around. You just go straight on.”
Senna wasn’t exaggerating: he knew so little about driving rally cars that he didn’t even bring driving gloves, expecting the experience to be similar to a road car. By the end of the day there were blisters across his palms, and he found it hard to understand exactly how the cars could take so much punishment from the loose gravel. But he loved the whole experience and just like Kimi Raikkonen 25 years later (the most recent grand prix driver to have a go at rallying) he found it hard to draw any comparisons with Formula 1.
“It’s difficult because here there is much more excitement, I think,” said Senna. “It’s much more exciting here than in a Formula 1 car. Because here you don’t have the top, top speed, but you have tremendous acceleration. It’s a much more instant emotion than it is in a Formula 1 car. In a Formula 1 car you go-go-go-go-go! And then you come down. Here you go to a peak and come down, go to a peak and come down. It’s a different approach.”
Rallying to the cause
Senna categorically ruled out a switch to rallying – ironically he thought it was too dangerous – but in his mind, he was thoroughly converted. The only thing he still needed to work on was his British geography, although to be fair this was the first time that the Brazilian had ever been to darkest Wales.
“Apart from the races that I did, testing or anything, this was probably the best day I ever had in England,” he concluded. “Outside of the races I did, that is. For fun, this was the best day.”
Sadly, Senna never got the chance to drive a rally car again. But for those privileged enough to watch him test that day, there was no doubt that Senna had everything it took to go straight to the top of the WRC. As well as everything else.