With 41 wins in Formula One, Ayrton Senna used to celebrate with iconic gestures, like lifting up his country’s flag inside the car and bursting with joy on the podium. Those were his ways of letting out all the tension and fatigue from the race – by popping the champagne bottle and listening to the Brazilian national anthem, a scene familiar to many Brazilians on Sunday mornings.
Brazil celebrates its National Anthem Day on April 13, and we have decided to honor it by remembering races in which Senna came very close to listening to the anthem. In the following races, he won the contest on the track, but, due to unforeseen circumstances, the anthem wasn’t played at the podium ceremony.
1984 Monaco GP
The Brazilian was having a very special debut season in Formula One. Despite driving a humble Toleman, he had already scored points at the South African and the Belgian GPs. However, it was at the legendary Monaco track that the waorld started paying attention to Ayrton, in 1984.
Under a heavy rain, Senna started in 13th place and climbed 10 positions in just 16 laps. After overtaking Niki Lauda’s McLaren, the Brazilian hunted down Alain Prost, who was in the lead. Ayrton was getting closer and closer when, all of a sudden, the race was suspended due to the conditions of the track by race director Jacky Ickx, with Prost in first place and Senna in second – he actually crossed the finish line in first place, but the rulebook stated that the placement in the previous lap should be considered. It was Senna’s fist time on the podium in F1 – he would get there 80 times in his career.
According to journalist Reginaldo Leme, Ickx would reveal years later that he was under pressure from FISA president, Jean-Marie Balestre, to declare Alain Prost the winner before he was overtaken by Ayrton.
1989 Japanese GP
With Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna in a close battle for the title, the 1989 season could be decided at the Grand Prix that took place in Suzuka. In one of the greatest controversies in motor sports history, the Brazilian went after the Frenchman on lap 47, by taking the inside lane with his McLaren, but Prost cut him off before they reached the first leg of the chicane. They crashed and Prost had to retire.
Even with the front of his McLaren damaged by the crash, Ayrton insisted on fighting for the title. He made a pit-stop to switch the broken front wing and rejoined the race in second place, behind Alessandro Nanini. He was more than five seconds behind the Benetton driver. Three laps away from the end, he was able to overtake Nanini, which meant he was still in the fight for the title. Senna received the checkered flag on lap 53 and was very excited: the title would be decided in the season’s final race.
However, the Formula One authorities, in a maneuver orchestrated by Jean-Marie Balestre, the FISA president, after a long post-race meeting, decided to punish the Brazilian driver, who ended up being taken out of the race for cutting through the chicane in order to return to the track (later, FISA itself would admit that it was the safest way, as depicted in the “Senna” documentary, at the briefieng for the 1990 Hockenheim GP). That meant the 1989 title went to Prost. But Senna would have his revenge in the following year, when he won the championship in a way that many would consider poetic justice for his unjust punishment in the previous year.
1991 Japanese GP
For the fifth year in a row, the Formula One title would be decided at Suzuka, and Senna’s rival at the time was Briton Nigel Mansell. The Brazilian arrived at Japan 16 points ahead of his rival. That meant he could even finish the race behind Mansell and still secure his third F1 world championship.
The title came way before that, however, in the ninth lap. Mansell chased Ayrton’s McLaren down, trying to get closer and overtake him. Unfortunately for him, he overdid, went straight through and ended up stuck in the gravel trap, saying goodbye to his chances of winning the title.
Right after that, Ayrton passed Gerhard Berger, who was leading the race in the other McLaren. But, a few meters from the end of the race, the Brazilian let his friend have the win, as Ayrton himself explained at the time.
“In that moment, I thought, ‘Now I can race the way I like to, stepping on it, to win’. All I thought about was the title. And I finally had the chance to have some fun. And there’s no better way to win a title than by winning a GP, like I did in 1988, in Japan. And I was about to do just that when [Ron] Dennis called me on the radio. I asked him to repeat the message and, once again, I couldn’t make it out. That was when I decided to let Berger go through”, said Senna, who wrapped up the year with another world title.