When Senna raced a Porsche on the Nürburgring
Thirty-five years ago, Ayrton Senna decided to give Sportscar racing a shot. In 1984, the Brazillian was still finding his place in Formula 1 – it was his first season after winning the Formula 3 Championship in 1983 and he was now driving in F1 for Toleman. He scored his first F1 point in his third F1 start at the South African Grand Prix, and by May that year he managed his first podium at the Monaco Grand Prix. Starting in 13th Senna mastered the wet conditions to climb to second just ahead of Stefan Bellof, before the race was controversially red flagged.
It could've been one of F1's most sensational rookie victories.
1984 WAS A KEY YEAR IN SENNA'S RACING CAREER
Whilst 1984 was a pivotal year in Senna’s legendary career, I wanted to highlight the race he did six weeks after that incredible first F1 podium in a Porsche 956 on the Nürburgring. Bellof was already a part of the works Porsche team, so after impressing with his Monaco drive, Senna was invited to race in the Porsche 956 alongside Stefan Johansson and that year’s Le Mans champion, Henri Pescarolo.
But this wasn’t going to be Senna’s first time at the Nürburgring in a German-built car. Two months earlier, he had taken part in the Mercedes Cup, a race created to celebrate the opening of the ‘new’ Nürburgring.
Twenty identical Mercedes 190E 2.3-16s were on track, with every major World Champion invited to drive – Alain Prost, Stirling Moss, James Hunt, Niki Lauda, all got behind the wheel of identical unmodified Mercedes'. The Brazilian won the race by two seconds, beating Niki Lauda who finished second.
This young Brazilian was turning heads wherever he raced.
A large format painting I commissioned to celebrate this race. Proudly hangs in my dining room now…
He’d never driven a Prototype before, so this was completely new to him, but his first laps were done in the wet during a practice session and we all know that Senna was a master in the wet. Senna instantly took to the car and when it came to qualifying, setting the seventh fastest time overall, immediately quicker than his four-time Le Mans winning team-mate Pescarolo. The final qualifying position was determined by the average time from the trio, so they started in ninth for the race.
The race started wet and Senna was asked to take the first stint. Quite quickly he slipped past the other racers, taking the lead and handing over the car in first position after his session behind the wheel. Unfortunately, the No.7 Porsche 956 later suffered a clutch failure which lost them eight laps whilst it was repaired. Unlike other endurance races where eight laps is a potentially assailable deficit, to be eight tours of the 'Green Hell' behind the leaders is the equivalent of being over half a Grand Prix distance behind.
Senna, Pescarolo and Johansson put together an excellent recovery, but time ultimately ran out for the driver trio, who finished eighth overall. The race was won by the Porsche 956 of Derek Bell and Senna’s fellow Monaco star, Stefan Bellof, who still holds the race lap record of the Nordschleife to this day.
Senna compared the Porsche 956 to an F1 racecar when talking to the press: “It’s heavier than an F1 [car], but very fast”, he said. Despite finishing in the lower regions of the top 10, the No.7 car would have been fast enough to finish on the lead lap and, according to Team Principal Reinhold Joest, third position.
After the race, Joest was impressed with Ayrton Senna: “He was quick since the first practice sessions. During the race, he spent around four hours talking to us, giving suggestions to make the car faster. Senna wanted to know everything about the 956. He worked in a very professional way”.
In 1985, the very same Porsche driven by Senna the year before won the 24 Hours of Le Mans. At that time, the car of the Joest Racing Team was driven by Klaus Ludwig, John Winter and Paolo Barilla, with the same colours and the same number 7 as the one driven by the Brazilian in 1984.