Ayrton Senna's Formula 1 cars: McLaren MP4/4, Lotus 97T and more

Ayrton Senna made his F1 debut in 1984 and spent a decade at the top: Autosport charts his career, car by car

Ayrton Senna's Formula 1 cars: McLaren MP4/4, Lotus 97T and more

Ayrton Senna is widely regarded as one of the greatest racing drivers of all time, and in many people’s eyes his devastating speed and will to win has never been surpassed.

The Brazilian made his debut in 1984 and immediately made an impact, with a wet-weather masterclass at the Monaco Grand Prix earning him a podium in only his sixth F1 race.

Over the next decade Senna amassed 41 grand prix wins and 80 podium finishes, winning the world title three times with McLaren. After his rookie season he never finished lower than fourth in the drivers’ championship, and he was twice a runner-up to Alain Prost.

Had he not been killed in a crash at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994, Senna undoubtedly would’ve added to his tally of wins and championships. His move to Williams that year coincided with the team’s era of domination in which it won the constructors’ title five times between 1992 and 1997. Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve all won the drivers’ crown with Williams in that time: had Senna been around, they might not have had the chance.

Twenty-seven years on from Senna’s death, Autosport looks back at his F1 results car by car.

1984 - Toleman

TG183B: 4 starts
TG184: 11 starts, 3 podiums

Ayrton Senna, Toleman TG184-Hart

Ayrton Senna, Toleman TG184-Hart

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Senna could hardly have arrived in F1 with better credentials: he was Formula Ford 1600 champion in 1981, Formula Ford 2000 champion in 1982 and British Formula Three champion in 1983, winning the Macau Grand Prix that same year.

His junior career earned him a shot in F1 with Toleman in 1984, after the team had lost Derek Warwick to Renault and split with Bruno Giacomelli. The team began the season with the same chassis used in the previous year, and Senna scored his first points with this by finishing sixth at the South African Grand Prix in only the second race. Three weeks later he repeated the feat in Belgium.

The team brought in the updated TG184 after four races, and it was in this car that Senna properly announced his arrival in F1. Qualifying 13th for the Monaco Grand Prix, heavy rain on the day of the race gave the young Brazilian the chance to demonstrate his ability as the world looked on. As several more experienced drivers spun off and collided, Senna dazzled and fought his way up to second place, chasing down leader Alain Prost.

Controversially the race was red flagged after 32 laps after Prost had waved from the cockpit to suggest the conditions were too poor to continue, and Senna passed his slowing rival just before the finish line. But the rules determined that the final classification should be taken from the previous lap, handing victory to Prost.

The Toleman was an unreliable machine and Senna only finished a further three races that season, although two of those were podium finishes at Brands Hatch and Estoril.

1985 - Lotus 97T

7 poles, 16 starts, 2 wins, 6 podiums

Ayrton Senna, Lotus 97T

Ayrton Senna, Lotus 97T

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Senna made the switch to Lotus for 1985, a move that earned him a race ban from Toleman for not informing the team about the discussions as required by his contract.

The Brazilian’s first win came at the Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril in just the second race of the season, having also claimed his first ever pole position the day before the race. From pole Senna established a sizable lead early on, with the gap to second place only increasing as heavy rain began to fall.

As Prost had done the year before, Senna signalled from the car that the race ought to be stopped, but no red flag came and the race continued in the treacherous conditions. Only 67 of the 70 scheduled laps were completed as the race went beyond the two-hour limit, and Senna took the chequered flag more than a minute ahead of Ferrari’s Michele Alboreto; the only driver who wasn’t lapped.

Senna’s team-mate Elio de Angelis won the next race and Senna racked up several retirements over the course of the season, but was back on the top step again at the Belgian Grand Prix. Senna finished fourth in the standings that year as Prost clinched his maiden title.

1986 - Lotus 98T

8 poles, 16 starts, 2 wins, 8 podiums

Ayrton Senna, Lotus Renault crosses the finishing line to win the race by 0.014s ahead of Nigel Mansell, Williams FW11

Ayrton Senna, Lotus Renault crosses the finishing line to win the race by 0.014s ahead of Nigel Mansell, Williams FW11

Photo by: Sutton Images

In 1986 Lotus paired Senna with British driver Johnny Dumfries, a Scottish peer who was officially styled as Earl of Dumfries away from the race track and who went on to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1988.

Despite the Scotsman’s talent, he was no match for team number one Senna in the Lotus 98T: the Brazilian collected his first win of the season at the Spanish Grand Prix in one of the closest finishes in F1 history, and when he scored his second in Detroit two months later, he departed the US with the championship lead.

Promising though the position was, five retirements in the remaining nine races scuppered Senna’s challenge. His tally of 55 points was bettered by Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell and champion Prost, while Dumfries only finished in the points on two occasions.

1987 - Lotus 99T

1 pole, 16 starts, 2 wins, 8 podiums

Ayrton Senna, Lotus 99T Honda

Ayrton Senna, Lotus 99T Honda

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Renault exited F1 at the end of 1986, and Lotus replaced the French firm’s engine with a 1.5-litre V6 turbocharged engine made by Honda. It would be Senna’s first taste of Honda power, and the agreement meant Satoru Nakajima replaced Dumfries in the second Lotus seat. The 99T used electronic active suspension, giving the car more stability and a higher top speed at the cost of extra weight.

It’s of little surprise that Senna’s two wins in 1987 came on street tracks, where the clever suspension had the biggest impact. Senna’s win at Monaco was his first in the principality, and his victory at the Detroit Grand Prix in the next round provided Senna with his first back-to-back wins.

After Detroit Senna again led the standings, and was still in contention two-thirds of the way through the season, but eight podiums weren’t enough to keep pace with eventual champion Piquet.

1988 - McLaren MP4/4

13 poles, 16 starts, 8 wins, 11 podiums (first world title)

Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4-4 Honda

Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4-4 Honda

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

Senna moved to McLaren for 1988, joining as double world champion Alain Prost entered his fifth year with the team. Senna’s arrival from Lotus coincided with Honda leaving Williams, with whom the Japanese firm had won the previous two constructors’ championships as an engine supplier.

The McLaren-Honda partnership proved to be unstoppable, and the MP4/4 won every race bar one that season, also only missing out on a single pole position all year.

ANALYSIS: Top 10 McLaren F1 cars ranked

That left Senna and Prost to contest their own private battle for the drivers’ title: the Brazilian won eight races to the Frenchman’s seven, but Prost outscored him with his marginally greater consistency. This would have been enough to give Prost his third world championship, but F1’s rules back then dictated that only a driver’s best 11 results counted towards the championship. By this measure Senna was three points better off, wrapping up the title with one of his greatest victories in the Japanese Grand Prix.

1989 - McLaren MP4/5

13 poles, 16 starts, 6 wins, 7 podiums

Alain Prost, McLaren, Ayrton Senna, McLaren

Alain Prost, McLaren, Ayrton Senna, McLaren

Photo by: Sutton Images

Turbocharged engines were banned for 1989, and so Honda provided McLaren with a 3.5-litre naturally aspirated V10 for the new season. Once again designed by Steve Nichols, the MP4/5 ensured that the drivers’ championship would be a shootout between Senna and Prost for the second season in succession.

The car won 10 out of 16 races in 1989, with Senna claiming six of those wins to Prost’s four. The fractious relationship between the two drivers reached breaking point midway through the season and, after accusing Honda of favouring Senna, the Frenchman announced his departure to Ferrari for the following year.

Despite recording fewer wins, it was Prost who won the championship: Senna won three of the opening four races, but a combination of poor reliability and a collision with Mansell while leading the Portuguese Grand Prix cost the Brazilian dearly.

Prost and Senna then came together at the penultimate race in Japan, in an incident that meant Prost retired but from which Senna recovered to win. The result would have prolonged the title fight, but Senna was controversially disqualified, making Prost a triple world champion.

1990 - McLaren MP4/5B

10 poles, 16 starts, 6 wins, 11 podiums (second world title)

Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4-5B Honda

Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4-5B Honda

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

McLaren chose to tweak the previous season’s car rather than completely overhaul it, believing the existing machine would remain competitive despite rivals closing the gap in performance. Gerhard Berger was drafted in as a replacement for Prost, although the Austrian driver was too tall to fit into the MP4/5 properly when he first got the chance to test it.

Changes from the MP4/5 included alterations to suspension geometry, updates to the transverse gearbox, redesigned sidepods and radiator ducting, plus a larger fuel cell and a monocoque made from a new material that could better stand up to impacts and crashes. The windscreen design was changed too, and a diffuser added for better aero at the rear.

Evolution over revolution proved to be the right choice, as Senna racked up 10 pole positions and six wins on his way to a second drivers’ championship.

Once again it was Prost who proved to be his main rival, and the contest looked to be heading to the wire once again with Senna only nine points ahead with two races to go. At the penultimate grand prix in Japan Senna only needed a Prost retirement to ensure victory, and so the Brazilian made sure of it by colliding with the Frenchman at the very first corner.

1991 - McLaren MP4/6

8 poles, 16 starts, 7 wins, 12 podiums (third world title)

Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4-6 Honda

Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4-6 Honda

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

Honda introduced a new V12 engine for 1991 with a reported output of 720bhp. Senna and Berger weren’t convinced by the new unit at first, but their fears were put to rest when Senna won the first four races of the campaign.

The MP4/6 looked very similar to its predecessor, but designer Neal Oatley oversaw significant changes to the chassis, the tub and the suspension. The V12 was much thirstier too: so thirsty in fact that Senna ran out of fuel at the British and German grands prix, costing him points.

Williams’s Mansell closed the gap in the championship in the middle part of the season, but Senna responded from Hungary onwards, closing out the title with a race to spare: at the penultimate grand prix in Japan, Senna let team-mate Berger pass him on the last lap to grant the Austrian his first win for McLaren.

PLUS: How Senna won his greatest F1 title

McLaren won its fourth constructors’ championship in a row and its sixth in eight seasons since 1984.

1992 - McLaren

MP4/6B: 2 starts, 1 podium MP4/7A: 1 pole, 14 starts, 3 wins, 6 podiums

Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4-7A Honda

Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4-7A Honda

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

There was a changing of the guard at the top of F1 in 1992, as Williams established itself at the front with its Adrian Newey-designed FW14B. McLaren began the season with a modified version of the previous year’s chassis, but opted to introduce a new platform earlier than planned in a bid to catch the pacesetting Williams.

The MP4/7A was built around a carbon composite monocoque and featured a semi-automatic transmission that allowed the drivers to change gear without lifting off the throttle. Innovative though it was, Senna could only manage three wins all season while Berger collected two: the pair finished fourth and fifth in the drivers’ championship, separated by a single point.

Senna’s win at the Italian Grand Prix would be his last with Honda power, as the Japanese manufacturer decided to leave F1 at the end of the season.

1993 - McLaren MP4/8

1 pole, 16 starts, 5 wins, 7 podiums

Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4/8 Ford

Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4/8 Ford

Photo by: Motorsport Images

After the departure of Honda, McLaren turned to Ford for an engine and eventually agreed a deal for a 3.5-litre V8 that was lighter but less powerful than the Renault V10 used by Williams. McLaren hoped that it could make up for the power deficit with a host of new technologies, and so it set about building the most sophisticated car it had ever created.

The MP4/8 featured electronic engine management software, chassis control and telemetry systems designed exclusively for McLaren by TAG Electronic Systems. There was also an electronic control panel in the cockpit, while the chassis, suspension and traction control were all improved.

The advancements were impressive but ultimately they weren’t enough to deny Williams, now led by Senna’s old rival Prost. To his credit, Senna managed to take the chequered flag first five times that year and finished second in the championship, while team-mate Michael Andretti could only manage one podium before being dropped: he was replaced with three races remaining by Mika Hakkinen, who would later become McLaren’s next world champion.

1994 - Williams FW16

3 poles, 3 starts

Ayrton Senna, Williams FW16

Ayrton Senna, Williams FW16

Photo by: Sutton Images

Prost sent shockwaves through F1 at the 1993 Portuguese Grand Prix when he announced that he would not return to defend his newly earned fourth world title in 1994. His departure paved the way for Senna to join the team that season, and on paper it looked an unbeatable combination, with the best driver in the most dominant car.

The FW16 evolved from the FW15C that had won the constructors’ championship the year before, with minor aerodynamic changes, a revised suspension and upgraded engine introduced for 1994. Crucially, though, many of the electronic aids that Williams had pioneered, such as active suspension and traction control, were banned for 1994.

The season didn’t begin well for Senna: although he started from pole in the opening pair of races, he retired from both after incidents and immediately faced a 20-point deficit to Benetton’s Michael Schumacher, who won both grands prix.

At the San Marino Grand Prix, Senna was once again on pole for the third race of the season, an event that had already been marred by the death of Simtek’s Roland Ratzenberger in the final qualifying session. Despite the tragedy Senna chose to race on, but seven laps into the race the three-time champion crashed at the Tamburello corner, becoming the second driver to lose his life that weekend.

The season was overshadowed by events at Imola, and Williams continued with Damon Hill as de facto team leader as reserve driver David Coulthard and Nigel Mansell shared Senna’s vacant seat for the remainder of the year. Although Schumacher won the drivers’ championship it was Williams who prevailed over Benetton for the constructors’ title, with the FW16 recording seven wins and six additional podiums in 1994.


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