Ron Dennis Opens Up On What Made Ayrton Senna “Phenomenal”
In the build-up to the 25th anniversary of Ayrton Senna’s death, we’re paying tribute to his achievements and reassessing his career with new articles and classic material from the Autosport archive.
Ron Dennis and Ayrton Senna’s Formula 1 careers became irrevocably entwined as the legendary Brazilian won his three titles with McLaren. Five years ago, as Formula 1 marked 20 years without Senna, Jonathan Noble heard Ron’s personal stories of working with the man who defined his time at the head of McLaren more than anyone else…
There are few people, if any at all, better qualified to talk about Ayrton Senna the racing driver than Ron Dennis, his boss at McLaren. It’s Dennis’s voice that perhaps carries the greatest resonance at moments like this. His and Senna’s relationship was not just a successful sporting partnership – it went much deeper than that.
This was about a life journey. Under Dennis, Senna grew from F1 adolescent to grand prix superstar. Working with his driver, Dennis learned much about the passion, sacrifice and commitment that was required to succeed.
But even now, after all these years since that fateful Imola weekend, Dennis still finds it hard to open up on the emotions that tore through him that day when Senna’s life came to an end. And there is a certain frustration that others have been more willing to offer up their views.
“There is nothing more certain than that things happen that change your life,” he says, reflecting on Imola 1994. “At that moment, I just took a decision on the pitwall that I’m going to close down. There is no way you can share those things.
“You can go colourful, wave your arms around and claim to have known him better than anyone else. And some of the things in the Senna film, some of the people who talked, I’d say those guys were nothing. They had no relevance to Ayrton’s life.
“They had no knowledge of Ayrton. And they sit there, talking in the movie, as if they were long-lost friends. It was not the way it was.”
Time has healed a little of Dennis’s pain. Indeed some of his famous stories with Senna – like that coin toss to settle his wages when he joined McLaren, and the $10,000 chilli-eating bet in Mexico one year – have entered folklore and been repeated countless times.
But what Dennis has not talked so openly about before was how he viewed the emotional aspects of his relationship with Senna – how their paths crossed, then parted, crossed again and then parted forever.
Dennis is a firm believer in the human process of ‘retrospective script writing’ – where we fit events to a story to make it look like fate had determined a certain course of events. Fiction sometimes blurs reality.
“You make the script fit the story afterwards,” he says. “No one can dispute that that was the script, because reality proved it to be the case.”
Dennis suggests that is exactly what happened to Senna in Monaco in 1988 after perhaps his most famous of qualifying laps. His view is that the driver’s talk later of operating in the subconscious, of having a religious experience, was part of a revisionist viewpoint.
“In reality, he was just a phenomenal racing driver,” he says by way of a simpler explanation.
Yet what’s more interesting is that Dennis doesn’t opt for such a rewrite of history when it comes to recalling his own initial encounters with Senna. For it would be all too easy – knowing how their careers would intertwine – to suggest destiny was always going to bring them together.
In fact, Dennis’s recollections of their first encounters are actually of being unimpressed by Senna’s attitude – even though there was no doubt about just how special a talent he was. Following the young Brazilian’s title successes in British and European Formula Ford 2000 in 1982, Dennis reached out to him. In return for a future contract option, he was ready to bankroll the driver’s graduation to British Formula 3 for 1983.
“I can’t remember what he was asking for, whether he was asking for an option, or an F1 test drive, but I did say to him if you give me an option, I’ll pay for your F3 season,” explains Dennis. “But he made it very apparent, although not rudely, that he was not interested.
“He had the ability and he wanted to be independent. I didn’t exactly like it, but I did respect that.”
The memories of that snub came rushing back to Dennis when Senna had a test for McLaren in the winter of 1983.
“When he drove then, I thought to myself, I might just give you a bit of comeuppance – so I will not be too impressed with what you do in the car,” says Dennis. “Even if I think it, I will not tell you it!
“When he tested, he came across as very arrogant because he was very keen to get an advantage. He was making quite sure the car wasn’t damaged by the other youngsters, and asking if he was going to have fresh tyres, etc.
“You could see in him the ‘I am always right’ type. He was a very principled individual.
“So he didn’t appeal very much – he was quick but I wasn’t that interested. He was too young to drive in our team, so it didn’t really matter. We let him go to cut his teeth somewhere else.”
Fate would, of course, bring them together later. Dennis recalls he first noticed Senna again at the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix – when the Brazilian in the Toleman was hunting down race leader Alain Prost’s McLaren in the pouring rain before the race was halted early. Four years later, Senna – by then a race winner for Lotus – was McLaren’s golden boy as he embarked on an unforgettable era for the team, which began with his maiden world title in 1988.
From being turned off by a few of Senna’s personality traits, Dennis would grow to not only appreciate them but also take some on board as inspiration.
“I raised my game because I could see the commitment he brought to his driving,” he says. “Like in any situation, if someone demonstrates that you can try even harder, then you do.
“He showed what he was prepared to do to achieve his objectives. And he raised my game. I think that you try to be as good as the person you are with. I liked his principles.”
Senna’s years at McLaren would deliver highs, and lows, as well as some difficult times. There would be moments, too, when Dennis had to do what was right for the greater good of the team, even if it meant sacrificing some personal interest.
He recalls after Senna and Prost’s falling out at Imola in 1989, he flew to a Pembrey test to confront them about what had happened, and more especially express his annoyance that their relationship’s collapse had blown into the media.
“I am not proud of this story at all,” says Dennis. “We had a Mercedes combi-bus with two bench seats facing each other that we sat on. And I was so angry because the drivers didn’t need to be handling the media.
“I went to Pembrey, and I’m no pussycat, as you know. I reduced both of them to tears – and the psychology was that if I can be the bad guy, and if I can make them hostile to me, then they would not be hostile to each other.
“The hope was that they would join up, saying ‘isn’t Ron being tough?’ That was a good way to force them together – by making me the point of focus.”
The damage was already done, though, and attempts by Dennis to manage the relationship between Senna and Prost ultimately failed in trying to get the two to see eye to eye.
Their time as team-mates at McLaren was defined by animosity as competitors. But there were signs of a clear thaw in those tensions during the final months of Senna’s life once they were no longer direct rivals. For Dennis, too, the end of the partnership between Senna and McLaren at the end of 1993 marked a sea change in his relationship with the Brazilian – and he concedes that perhaps they needed time apart.
“He was a loyal guy,” recalls Dennis. “But I think that by the time we arrived at our last race together [Australia 1993], we both needed a breather from each other. The relationship was very intense.”
Yet with a Williams contract signed, Senna’s thoughts remained cloudy about jumping ship. Dennis was determined not to let him go without a fight – and admits if the timing of McLaren’s tie-up with Peugeot for 1994 had been slightly different, events might have gone another way.
“At the last GP, of course, we had a variety of people all over the place emotionally,” explains Dennis. “I won’t name names, but there were people who were just so far over their skis in emotion. I said, ‘For goodness’ sake, I’m trying to get him to stay here. I don’t need anyone being like this – be calm!’
“And he was hovering. He was really hovering. But he said, ‘I’ve signed a contract’. I told him the one thing about [breaking] a contract is to prove loss. And anyway I would underwrite anything if there was a problem.
“He said, ‘Well, I’ve committed. I’ve made a commitment’. But I had him on the hover on the night of the race.
“I could see Ayrton was wrestling with loyalty because he was leaving the team. And, as disastrous as our Peugeot experience was, the moment we said we had factory engines from Peugeot – which was after he left – he phoned up and said, ‘If you had done that two months earlier, I’d have stayed’ – because he just could not see a way to win without a factory engine.”
Senna’s time at Williams lasted just three races before he was taken from the world at Imola. The abrupt end to one of F1’s most successful careers robbed motorsport of its biggest star, but also in a way helped make him a legend.
Dennis acknowledges that, as is seen with pop stars and Hollywood icons who are cut short in their prime, one of the effects of dying early is a degree of immortality of reputation.
When asked why so many people considered Senna the greatest, Dennis says: “I think because he was so good for all of the period he was on the planet.
“I can see no positives in the fact that he had an accident and lost his life, but what you didn’t see is any decline. You remember he was just unbelievably competitive and then, boom, he’s not there. So what do you remember?
“I have never thought, ‘I wonder what Ayrton would look like if he was here today’. But one thing he would do is look a hell of a lot older, and he would have had other things in his life that would have detracted from that reputation.”
Yet Dennis is eager to point out that it was not just because he died that Senna is still a defining figure for F1 long after he was lost.
“Above all, he was great. He had good human values. He was very principled. I remember, of course, the race in Suzuka [in 1990], where he and Prost collided at the first corner.
“I looked at all the traces, the brake and the throttle pedals, and you didn’t need to be Einstein to work out what had happened. He came back to the pits, and I said, ‘I’m disappointed in you’.
“He got it. He didn’t have to say anymore. It was one of his rare moments of weakness.”
So was he the greatest in Dennis’s eyes?
“I think it’s accurate to say he was the best during his time, without doubt,” he says. “You could ask what would have happened if Sebastian Vettel was racing against Senna in the same car? But it’s all subjective.
“Sebastian to me has shown what discipline and sacrifice is all about. He is totally committed. Of course, you hear the stories of him having his girlfriend sit in the grandstands [rather than be a distraction in the pits].
“And what does that mean? It means to me sacrifice. It means ‘I want to bring 100%’.”
There is an inevitability that the arrival of anniversaries such as May 1 prompts talk about the extremes – especially a focus on when were the best of times.
But there is a truth to the Dennis/Senna relationship that it went through so much, and featured so many successes, happiness, tensions and emotions, that it becomes impossible to pick out a single defining moment.
Perhaps it’s true for Senna, too: so many of his victories were great; so many of his qualifying laps on another level that the benchmark for an outstanding moment was set too high.
“There are few things that burn into my mind,” concedes Dennis. “Mika [Hakkinen] passing Michael Schumacher going up the hill at Spa [in 2000]. I held my breath for 30 seconds afterwards. It was a staggering overtaking manoeuvre.
“But Ayrton’s qualifying laps were always breathtaking. He was so awesome it was hard to distinguish one bit of awesome from another. He was just a great guy.”
And, above all else, a man still missed even after all these years.