Wednesday, 24 December 2014

1985 Portuguese Grand Prix - Autódromo do Estoril

April 21, 1985

Ayrton Senna's maiden season, at Toleman in 1984, had been nothing short of a sensation. If Monaco, where he finished second to Prost in monsoon-like conditions, was an incredible single performance when taken in isolation, two further podium finishes, in Great Britain and Portugal, for a team more familiar with struggling to qualify confirmed that Senna was a remarkable talent. In his single season with Toleman, Senna scored as many points as every other driver for the team combined in their history.

It was apparent that Toleman was not a team with which Senna could conceivably hope to achieve his championship aspirations, and having correctly identified that the Lotus-Renault combination would best serve his career ambitions in 1985, Senna duly sealed the deal. But for a man with so obviously passionate about his chosen calling, he remained objective enough to agree to joint number-one status with Elio de Angelis. Senna was the first driver signed to Lotus since the death of Colin Chapman in 1982, and de Angelis the dashingly enigmatic and cultured Italian had five years' experience at the team. Elio's natural charisma and talent marked him as a firm favourite within the team, although his apathetic attitude towards testing and the increasingly technical aspects of Formula One were a weakness Senna was primed to ruthlessly exploit. The dedication which Senna applied to his racecraft would become one of his defining professional characteristics, and he allied this facet with his blistering speed to swing the momentum of the Lotus team away from de Angelis through the course of the 1985 season.

The Next Step - Senna joins Lotus and de Angelis.

All of his determination and zeal came to fruition at just the second round of the championship in Portugal. And it was a timely tonic for the once mighty Lotus team. Their cars had won only once since the days of Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson, when the team dominated F1, and that was out of the blue. Since then, they had often taken pole, often led, but this race, at Estoril, had been dominated by a Lotus, first to last.

Senna, stunning in the Toleman here in 1984, was the clear pace-setter in both timed sessions. De Angelis was fastest on Friday morning, but thereafter Senna was in control, the 97T was visibly strong in all departments. With it and Ayrton was able to score his first pole position, on only his second weekend with Lotus. On Friday the elements helped a bit, occasional splashes of rain, then a brief but fierce downpour ensuring that the Brazilian's time was beyond reach, but on Saturday his first flying lap settled the issue. Later in the session he did one more, and that would also have been good for the front row where he was joined by Alain Prost (McLaren).

The warm-up session on Sunday took place under murky skies and odd drops of rain, but soon after noon grey skies were going black. Everyone was going to be on wets. Indeed a timely race for Ayrton to have scored his first pole position. In these conditions a good start, and a clear road, would be more than usually important. Only the leader would be seeing much in the early laps. Senna did the job, smoothly away without too much wheelspin, but into the first corner there was black and gold rather than the expected red and white, in his mirrors. De Angelis had beaten Prost away, and that was going to be important.

1985 Portuguese GP - Senna and de Angelis lead the field away.
On the grid Keke Rosberg (Williams), third, had stalled, allowing de Angelis, fourth, some room with which to work. Although Michele Alboreto (Ferrari), directly behind the stranded Williams, lost little time in going round it, de Angelis momentarily had a clear path down in the middle and made the most of it. At the end of lap one then, Senna and de Angelis came through 1-2, followed by Prost, Alboreto, Derek Warwick (Renault), Niki Lauda (McLaren), Andrea de Cesaris (Ligier), Patrick Tambay (Renault), Nelson Piquet (Brabham) and Stefan Johansson (Ferrari).

Senna was treading warily, at the same time doing it faster than everyone else. Making the most of his clear view, he was already lapping at a speed beyond his team-mate. After two laps there was a 3 second gap between the Lotuses, and Prost's McLaren was a similar distance behind de Angelis. Further back in the field Bellof had predictably been making excellent progress, reviving memories of his brilliant display at Monaco last year. From a grid position of 21st, he had come past 14th at the end of the opening lap, and had Winkelhock's RAM against the ropes. Getting by though, was a different matter, for the German could always pull out several lengths down the pit straight. On lap five they touched and spun, both managing to continue, but Stefan's right front wing was gone. He opted to stay out with what he had, and proceeded to charge for the rest of the afternoon.

Far and away the most imperturbable man on the circuit appeared to be the leader. Once or twice the Lotus jinked under braking for the first corner, but never once did it look like escaping Senna's control. Just occasionally comes a race when one driver makes the rest look ordinary, and this was one such. After 10 laps Senna had nearly 12s over his team-mate, who was coming under repeated pressure from Prost, the McLaren in turn being caught by Alboreto's Ferrari. Then Rosberg crashed and not long after that Warwick too, hit a barrier.

Flawless Drive - Senna was brilliant in the worst of conditions.
At the front there was no change. As the 30-lap mark approached Senna led by more than 30s and Prost continued to crowd de Angelis for second place, with Alboreto's beautifully driven Ferrari ever present in their mirrors. As the two of them pounded down the pit straight to begin lap 31, the McLaren suddenly began to weave, veering first left, then right, then breaking into a spin and hitting the wall. Conditions had now gone from bad to appalling. At this point Senna was waving vigorously as he passed the pits, indicating that the race should be stopped. All around the circuit were abandoned cars. Pierluigi Martini (Minardi), after countless spins, was finally out, as was Gerhard Berger (Arrows). The young Austrian had driven a fine and forceful race. Mauro Baldi (Spirit) gave the guardrail a very sizeable thump, and Martin Brundle (Tyrrell), running 10th despite gearbox problems, also spun into retirement.

There were, however, no mistakes from the leader, despite the fact that he was lapping faster than anyone else. An hour into the race he was 40s clear, and interest centred on the battle for second, for Alboreto very definitely had his sights set on de Angelis. On lap 43 the Ferrari had emerged from the spray and flicked inside the Lotus as they approached the first turn. De Angelis made no real attempt to close the door. Immediately he made a rather futile attempt to get back at Michele, but only two corners later left his breaking too late and slid wide. On the gravel and slippery grass he did a fine job in keeping control of the Lotus, but while off-course punctured a front tyre, which deflated slowly thereafter but did not keep him from reaching the finish. However, this allowed Tambay, who had driven an excellent race, to close on the Italian and take third place on Lap 59. De Angelis, struggling with his soft front tyre, could offer no resistance – indeed he was lapped by team mate Senna before the end.

After 67 laps of the originally scheduled 69, with the two hour time limit having been reached, the chequered flag went out to Senna. In the manner pioneered by Colin Chapman, some of the Lotus mechanics jumped over the barrier and onto the track to greet their man. Before reaching the first turn Ayrton had flung off his belts, and was waving both arms wildly. This was his 17th grand prix, only his second for Lotus, and he had won it. More than that, he had been in a different class right from the green light. Fastest in both sessions, fastest lap of the race, leader all the way. Grand Chelem. Victories like that deserve more than nine points.

Magic Victory - Senna could hardly contain himself.
"The big danger," he said later, outward exuberance now gone, "was that conditions changed all the time. Sometimes the rain was very heavy, sometimes not. I couldn't see anything at all behind me. It was difficult even to keep the car in a straight line sometimes, and for sure the race should have been stopped. It was much worse than Monaco last year. Once I nearly spun in front of the pits, like Prost, and I was lucky to stay on the road."

If Monaco '84 had alluded to Senna's wet-weather prowess, his first Grand Prix victory, in just his second race for Lotus, confirmed his prodigious ability in the wet. From the start he was in a race of his own, and made no mistake worthy of the name in conditions so appalling as to catch out a man of Alain Prost's quality. He simply decimated the field in torrential conditions, taking his maiden victory by over a minute and lapping the entire field up to third place. It was a stunning statement of intent from Senna, declaring for the first time his front-running credentials and asserting the unrivalled skill in the wet that would become one of the most enduring attributes of the Senna legend. It was a mesmeric performance.

Towards the end of 1985 one man was afforded a unique, fleeting insight into what made Senna such a special performer at the wheel. John Watson. a veteren of a decades Grand Prix endeavour was having his last ever F1 drive deputized into the McLaren team for Niki Lauda, who had injured his wrist. The occasion was the Grand Prix of Europe at Brands Hatch, and Watson was just slowing his McLaren after a qualifying run on the first day of the meeting."I came through Westfield Bend into Dingle Dell." he recalls very precisely, "when I saw a black car coming up in my mirrors and moved off-line to let it past. it was Senna, and I then witnessed something that few people could ever have been privileged to see from such close quarters. As he came past me, not only was his car carrying so much speed, but he seemed to be braking, blipping the throttle, changing gear and throwing his car into Westfield Bend all at the same time. And at absolutely awesome speed. The Lotus was dancing absolutely on tippy-toes, on the very limit of adhesion, but he displayed his remarkable ability to retain his composure in such extreme situations. I reckon I saw something very special that day: it was a little glimpse of his genius."

Genius indeed, and Estoril was a prime example of Senna's innate talent. He, himself considered this the greatest victory of his career and as a result of it, he was given the apt moniker of "Magic".

Alboreto, Senna and Tambay - The only three to finish on the lead lap.

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