The early 1990’s were a turbulent time in the world of Formula One. The turbocharged madness started by Renault in 1977 had been brought to an end in 1989, and the sport switched to a new 3.5L naturally aspirated formula. With these new simpler and more affordable units, F1 became a damn side more accessible for teams with smaller budgets. Despite this, the head of the field was still dominated by the top dogs of the turbo era.
British team McLaren had experienced a resurgence in 1984 with racing legend Niki Lauda and young gun Alain Prost. Propelled by the reliable and fuel efficient TAG-Porsche V6-engines, the all-star team managed to clinch McLaren’s first titles since 1976. Lauda had bested Prost by only half a point for the Driver’s Title, but the diminutive Frenchman would prove his worth by claiming both 1985 and 1986 as his own.
Niki Lauda put an end to McLaren's long slump in 1984.
After a loss to Williams in 1987, the team resumed dominance in the infamous 1988 season, winning all but one round. Young and promising Brazilian Ayrton Senna joined the team, and immediately secured his first drivers title. The switch to 3.5L engines did little to tarnish the reputation McLaren-Honda had attained during 1988, as their RA109-E V10-engine proved to be superior once more.
A tense rivalry between Senna and Alain Prost dominated 1989, which resulted in a clash at the Japanese Grand Prix that year which decided the title in favor of the Frenchman. Prost opted to move to Ferrari for 1990, but that did little to cool down the heated rivalry between the two men.
As before, the title fight ended with a controversial clash at the Japanese Grand Prix. This time however, there was no doubt where the blame lied. Ayrton Senna had willfully crashed his McLaren into the back of Prost’s Ferrari to deny him the chance to defend his title.
The aftermath of the infamous shunt at Suzuka, 1990.
For 1991 however, the dust had settled and McLaren was able to focus on winning another championship in peace. Ferrari had slumped after a competitive 1990, and Alain Prost’s harsh comments in the press saw him sacked before the final race. Williams’ new FW14 proved too unreliable to challenge until the second half of the season and teammate Gerhard Berger was less of a threat, so Ayrton Senna was able to sail towards his third and final Driver’s Title in relative comfort.
Williams struck back in 1992 with the active suspension, fully automatic gearbox, traction control, launch control-equipped FW14B. A switch to a semi-automatic was not enough for McLaren to close the gap, and Williams dominated the season.
Adding insult to injury, Honda announced its departure from Formula One after the 1992 season due to the disastrous Japanese economic recession, leaving McLaren empty-handed for 1993. Team principal Ron Dennis tried desperately to secure the dominant Renault V10 also used by Williams, but his efforts proved entirely fruitless..
Honda's abandonment forced McLaren to resort to customer Ford engines.
The dire situation forced him to source the lesser Ford 3.5L V8. Because rival team Benetton had a pre-existing contract with Ford as its de facto works outfit, Dennis had to make due with an even more lackluster HBD7 customer unit. Compared to the more advanced HBA8 used by Benetton, McLaren’s new motor produced 20 less horsepower for a grand total of 680. This in turn was some 80 less than the Renault V10, and 70 less than the Ferrari V12.
It was painfully clear that the monumental power deficit would make it virtually impossible to keep up with the vastly more powerful Williams. To try and compensate for the engine’s shortcomings, head designer Neil Oatley worked closely with Saudi Arabian tech specialist Techniques d’Avant Garde to incorporate every active system known to man.
Mika Häkkinen and Michael Andretti presenting the new McLaren MP4/8.
As a result the car was fitted with an extensive package consisting of an updated 6-speed semi-automatic transmission, active suspension, traction control and launch control. Additionally the McLaren featured a much shorter wheelbase than the Williams, and was also physically shorter and smaller.
This made it more nimble on shorter, twistier tracks, the only venues where the team could hope to offset the Williams’ immense straight line speed. In all the car weighed just 505 kg (1113 lbs), conforming neatly to the minimum weight requirement after the use of ballast.
The finished car was then given to McLaren’s new driving team. Ayrton Senna had initially been joined by young Finn Mika Häkkinen, who was brought in after a promising few seasons with the ailing Lotus outfit. Häkkinen quickly lost the drive for 1993 however, as McLaren hired 1991 CART Champion Michael Andretti (USA), son of 1978 Formula One World Champion Mario, instead. In the process Häkkinen was demoted to test driving duties.
Mika Häkkinen lost his F1 seat to Michael Andretti prior to the start of the season.
After initial testing Senna was positive about the stability, agility and overall handling of the new MP4/8. Unsurprisingly, he was less enthused with the performance of the mediocre Ford V8. His exasperated attempt to secure a drive with Williams had failed, even after he had offered his services for free. Arch-rival Alain Prost had meanwhile returned to F1 by joining Williams after a one-year sabbatical, and had excluded Senna from being his teammate in his contract with the team.
Disappointed at being stuck with an uncompetitive car he deemed highly unlikely to have winning potential, Senna demanded a re-negotiation of his contract. Instead of a traditional year-long affair, he pushed for a race-by-race contract valued at $1,000,000,- to make it easier for him to quit should he feel the need to do so.
Senna was unhappy with the situation at McLaren.
Going into the 1993 season, McLaren’s biggest rivals were Williams and their impossibly advanced FW15C, Ferrari with their powerful F93A, and Benetton with the agile B193. All teams enjoyed the services of amazing drivers. Williams was lead by Alain Prost and Damon Hill (GB), Ferrari employed Jean Alesi (FRA) and Gerhard Berger (AUT), and Benetton fielded rising star Michael Schumacher (GER) and veteran Riccardo Patrese (ITA).
Senna fighting Prost and Schumacher for the lead, Kyalami 1993.
The first race of the season took place at South Africa’s technical Kyalami Circuit. Ayrton Senna showed his amazing qualifying skill by putting the massively outgunned McLaren 2nd on the grid behind Alain Prost’s Williams, with just 0.088 of a second between them. Michael Andretti performed well enough for a rookie by placing 9th.
The race quickly turned into an intense three-way battle for the lead between Alain Prost, Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna. The three jostled for position for a number of laps, but in the end the superiority of the Williams revealed itself and Prost disappeared into the horizon.
The F1-circus moved to Senna’s home race for the second round at Interlagos. Despite his vast talent, he was unable to prevent a dominant 1-2 placing on the grid for Williams as Damon Hill pushed him into third. Michael Andretti on the other hand showed good form by improving to 5th behind Michael Schumacher.
Senna was able to take Hill at the start, but his teammate would find drama right away. Apparently unsighted, Andretti collided with Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari, which sent him into a terrifying spin. After hitting the barriers the McLaren suffered a secondary impact as the Ferrari followed it in, resulting in another spectacular somersault. Thankfully both drivers were able to walk away unharmed.
A severe rainstorm wreaked havoc on the field around lap 25, and most drivers immediately collected a set of rain tires. Uncharacteristically, the normally calculating Alain Prost stayed out on slicks.
This decision eventually sent him towards Chrisitian Fittipaldi’s Footwork, which had spun at the first corner. Prost was unable to avoid Fittipaldi’s car on slick tires in the increasingly wet conditions, and slammed into him.
Senna had meanwhile served a stop-and-go penalty for overtaking under yellow flags, but had made up enough time to catch up to Damon Hill. As Schumacher’s Benetton fell off a jack and out of contention in the pits, the Brazilian was able to take Hill and his first victory with a Ford engine.
Ayrton Senna celebrating his second victory at his home Grand Prix.
The third round of the season was the European Grand Prix, held for the first time at the wonderful Donington Park circuit. Ayrton Senna dropped down to 4th in qualifying behind Michael Schumacher, with Michael Andretti securing a strong 6th.
The race itself produced arguably the greatest single lap performance in Formula One history. Schumacher was not done with Senna yet though, and tried to dive through to take second. The Brazilian ruthlessly closed the door on him, causing Schumacher to spin out of the race. Michael Andretti had already eliminated himself on lap 4 by colliding with the wall.
Senna got away relatively poorly at the start, and settled in behind Schumacher in fifth. Both were passed by Saubers’ Karl Wendlinger (AUT), but Senna swiftly mounted his superhuman charge. After barely half a lap, he was in the lead. The event was marred by extremely unpredictable conditions, as rain and dry spells alternated multiple times during the race.
In response to the changing weather, Alain Prost eventually pitted an unprecedented seven times, whereas Ayrton Senna only came in four times. As a result the Brazilian had lapped every single driver save for Damon Hill, who was 1 minute and 23 seconds behind.
Furthermore, Senna set the fastest lap of the race while travelling through the pitlane after abandoning a stop. With little in the way of speed restrictions, the shortcut provided by the pitlane at Donington enabled him to set an incredibly fast time. Michael Andretti continued his string of retirements by colliding with Karl Wendlinger and ending up in the gravel trap.
Ayrton Senna celebrating his unprecedented win, Donington Park 1993.
The McLaren team remained stable in qualifying for the San Marino Grand Prix, with Ayrton Senna 4th and Michael Andretti 6th. Senna’s relationship with McLaren had become so strained he intentionally stayed behind in Brazil while the team set up shop at Imola.
Ron Dennis called him up at the last minute promising a raise in salary, and the Brazilian flew to Italy right away. He slept on the plane and arrived just ten minutes before the start of the first session. Senna got dressed and ventured out on track without any form of preparation whatsoever.
Michael Andretti's car after his spin in qualifying, Imola 1993.
The advanced electronics which helped the MP4/8 to keep up were starting to falter however, as both Andretti and Senna experienced problems with the active suspension system. As the drivers pushed their cars hard over the kerbs, the active suspension would inexplicably go down.
This caused the floor of the car to make contact with the kerb and spin the car out. Because of this Senna crashed his car twice at Aqua Minerali, while Andretti made contact with the pit wall after spinning off at the final chicane.
On race day Senna performed strongly once more, running 2nd before retiring with a hydraulics problem. Michael Andretti stayed true to form, and spun off on lap 32 while trying to overtake Karl Wendlinger. The American proved to be out of his depth in Formula One, despite his strong qualifying performances.
At the Spanish Grand Prix, Ayrton Senna improved to 3rd on the grid behind the Williams cars, with Andretti dropping to 7th. Senna converted this improvement into a fine 2nd place behind Alain Prost. More surprising however was Michael Andretti’s performance. After four Grands Prix he finally managed to finish, and scored his first World Championship points with 5th place.
Michael Andretti, Monaco 1993.
On the tight and twisty streets of Monaco, the miscommunicating active suspension system again troubled the McLaren outfit. Both drivers spun multiple times due to the systems irregularities, spelling disaster for the coming race. Nevertheless, Senna still qualified third despite many aborted laps, while Andretti slumped to 9th.
Despite the persistent problems, the race would turn to Senna’s favor. Alain Prost was penalized for jumping the start with a stop-and-go penalty, and stalled his car while fulfilling it. Michael Schumacher took over as leader, but the German had to retire with failing hydraulics after 33 laps. In the end Ayrton Senna won his record 6th Monaco Grand Prix with a cozy 52 second lead over Damon Hill. Micheal Andretti finished out of the points in 8th, 2 laps behind his teammate.
Ayrton Senna celebrating his 6th and final Monaco Grand Prix victory.
Following the amazing victory at Monaco, the team’s performance took a nosedive into oblivion. At Montreal Senna was barely able to reach the top 10 in qualifying by taking 8th, while Andretti managed 12th. Electrical problems forced the Brazilian out 62 laps. Andretti finished a colorless 14th.
At the French Grand Prix Ayrton Senna started 5th, while a demoralized Michael Andretti could only muster an appalling 16th. The active suspension issues still weren’t solved, and the American rookie seemed to be the most badly affected by this. The Sunday was mostly positive though, as Senna finished 4th ahead of Andretti in 6th, one lap down.
Ayrton Senna being hounded by Michael Schumacher, Magny Cours 1993.
Andretti’s pace had clearly taken a dent during the season, as the strain of Grand Prix racing was starting to take its toll. The American was used to the effective simplicity of CART machines and found it hard to adjust to the computerized Formula One cars.
Moreover, he refused to move to Europe to reduce travel time, instead electing to commute from his home in Philadelphia. The added travel time robbed him of test days and isolated him from the F1 world at large, which made his progress a lot harder than it should have been.
Michael Andretti followed by his illustrious teammate, Silverstone 1993.
This difficulty to adjust had already bared itself in races through frequent accidents, but it was starting to affect his rather strong qualifying performances too. He failed to reach the top ten in all but one race after the Canadian Grand Prix, and retired another three times at the British, German and Hungarian rounds. A pointless 8th place finish in Belgium did little to offset the abject misery Andretti found himself in.
His renowned teammate had finished inside the top 5 in all of these races, except for a throttle related retirement at the Hungaroring. Standing in the shadow of one of the world’s most famously capable drivers was no easy situation for Michael Andretti, and the constant threat of being replaced by the more experienced Mika Häkkinen only exacerbated his concerns. Andretti seemed to be on the end of his rope.
Michael Andretti had a difficult time as a rookie in Formula One.
Although the Italian Grand Prix marked his return to the top ten in qualifying with 9th place, he was still far off from his teammate, who recorded a 4th place. Curiously though, what would prove to be his last race in Formula One would also be his best.
At the start, Ayrton Senna’s brash overtaking maneuver sent him into the back of Damon Hill and back down the order in 9th. He was able to recover the car undamaged, but hit Ligier’s Martin Brundle a few laps later in an attempt to take 5th. This time the triple World Champion had taken himself out for good.
Michael Andretti had meanwhile recovered from another active suspension-induced spin and soldiered on to a personal best 3rd place. By this time he was sick and tired of Formula One however, and retired in mutual agreement with Ron Dennis.
Senna's hot-headedness catapulted him out of the race, Monza 1993.
Mika Häkkinen was brought in as his replacement for the Portuguese Grand Prix, and the young Finn immediately impressed. The paddock looked in awe as Häkkinen managed to out-qualify the master of qualifying himself, taking 3rd place on the grid with a margin of 0,002 of a second over his world-famous teammate.
Senna was perplexed at the Finns's performance, and harried Häkkinen to reveal what he had done to be faster than him. Mika's response was as simple as it was infuriating to the Brazilian: "Bigger balls". Unfortunately the race ended with a double retirement. Ayrton Senna was out with engine failure on lap 19, while Häkkinen crashed out of a battle with Jean Alesi on lap 32.
Häkkinen proved to be a stellar replacement for Andretti despite his crash at Estoril. For the penultimate round of the season, he again qualified 3rd. This time though, he had to concede to his teammate, with Senna in 2nd behind Prost.
In changing conditions, Ayrton Senna was once again able to reinforce his title as “Rain Master“. As the track got more and more wet, he was able to pass Prost for the lead while both men were still using slicks. In barely a lap the Brazilian pulled out a lead of two seconds and pitted for wets. In the soaked conditions, he ran away from Prost to establish a 30 second lead.
Senna angrily attacks the hard-charging Eddie Irvine.
The track began to dry up however, and Senna found himself stuck behind 4th placed Damon Hill, who had just pitted for slicks. His rapidly deteriorating wet weather tires prevented him from making lapping the Briton, but he was still losing time. As Senna trailed Hill, he was caught by Jordan’s Eddie Irvine, who was in his first Grand Prix.
Unhindered by outdated concepts like respect or manners, Irvine heroically unlapped himself by re-passing the McLaren driver and opening the hunt for Hill. A frenzied fight between the Jordan and the Williams followed, but Irvine was unable to make any move stick as he was also on wet tires.
Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Mika Häkkinen on the podium, Suzuka 1993.
Ayrton Senna could only follow in silent frustration as he saw himself lose 15 seconds by being caught up in the melee. Eventually Senna would retain first place in front of Prost and Häkkinen, who finished his first Grand Prix on the podium.
Eddie Irvine received a barrage of swearwords and a well-placed punch to the face from Senna following his antics on the track. Ironically the Northern Irishman was a massive fan of the Brazilian champion, as he wore a helmet featuring a very similar design to his hero.
Ayrton Senna going round the hairpin, Adelaide 1993.
At the season-ending Australian Grand Prix, Ayrton Senna drove his heart out. The tight Adelaide street circuit suited his driving style perfectly, and he went out in search of his first pole position since the 1992 Canadian Grand Prix. His search proved fruitful, as he was able to lap the track four tenths quicker than Alain Prost.
With this performance Senna had prevented the Williams team from scoring a perfect 100% pole position score that season. “Flying Finn” Mika Häkkinen settled into 5th on the grid for the final race of 1993. The event would also be last for active suspension cars, as the technology was banned for the 1994 season.
Flying Finn Mika Häkkinen earning his nickname with a jump during practice, Adelaide 1993.
Ayrton Senna controlled the race from start to finish in a characteristically dominant showing. Alain Prost finished nine seconds behind him, with Damon Hill in third. Mika Häkkinen had suffered brake failure on lap 28, and was forced to retire.
Senna’s masterclass of street racing would go down in history as the last Grand Prix won by an active suspension car, and the last to be one by arguably the greatest driver in the sport. In a curious detail, Senna was both the first and the last driver to win with active suspension, as he had won the 1987 Monaco Grand Prix in the Lotus 99T.
During the traditional post-race concert, famous singer Tina Turner was greeted by Ayrton Senna on stage to her surprise. In his honor, she gave another performance of her hit “The Best“.
Ayrton Senna celebrating his final win, Adelaide 1993.
The McLaren MP4/8 was a lackluster car beset by adversity on all sides. The Ford engine was outdated and woefully underpowered, the cutting edge active systems proved buggy, and its drivers really wanted to be somewhere else. McLaren darling Ayrton Senna was found lusting after the blindingly quick Williams machine, while Michael Andretti was dreaming of the simpler times he had in CART racing.
Ayrton Senna famously reconciled with long-time rival Alain Prost on the podium in Adelaide.
With sub-par straight-line performance, persistent reliability issues, jittery active suspension and unmotivated drivers, the MP4/8 failed to revitalize the struggling McLaren team. Yet its lack of performance proved to be its biggest positive attribute for Senna.
With spirited drives in predominantly wet conditions and five seemingly impossible wins, Ayrton Senna had removed even the faintest shadow of doubt about his talents. He had once again proved he was able to win without the luxury of a dominant machine. In effect, the Honda-powered cars had made him a star, but the paltry Ford would make him an enduring legend.