Twenty years have passed since Ayrton Senna passed away in the seemingly endless tragedy of the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola.
Formula 1 is a sport of details, and such a small detail could have spared Senna his life. Senna could have, and was set to drive for Ferrari.
At the dawn of the new millennium, it was rumoured that a pre-contractual agreement, or more correctly a letter of intent, existed between Ayrton Senna and Cesare Fiorio, who acted as team manager for Ferrari from 1989 until the Monaco GP of 1991. The arrangement encompassed a mutual agreement for the Brazilian to represent the struggling but gradually recuperating Ferrari team throughout 1991 and 1992. Legend had it that Fioro possessed the pre-contract, in writing, and kept it in his safe at home.
“My priority when I went to Ferrari in 1989 was to have the best available driver” remembers Mr. Fiorio.
“And of course Senna was first on my shopping list, [along with] Alain Prost and of course Mansell whom I had in the team. My goal was to replace Gerhard Berger with Senna, so I started talks immediately. Senna pointed out that he had a contract for next year, so we could not do any deal. We decided to talk again soon. I managed to bring Prost to the team for 1990 who created a very good lineup with Mansell.”
Whilst Fiorio had managed to snatch one of McLaren’s drivers to found his dream team, a watertight McLaren contract meant Senna remained the missing component. The team principal persisted.
“In 1990, I tried again to speak with Ayrton, who was interested in coming to Ferrari, so the initial approach was very easy, since we both wanted to collaborate. After the Brazilian GP of 1990, a race we won with Alain, I didn’t leave Sao Paolo on Sunday evening and I stayed for one more day. Senna sent a chauffeur to pick me up from my hotel and he drove me to his house. I remember staying there from 9 in the morning to 7 in the afternoon to talk about all the issues, because later I had a flight to catch. There were no managers, no lawyers, just me and him. We stopped the conversation for a quick lunch with members of his family and we went back on. At the end of the day we had solved the 80% of the issues, and practically the 80% of the deal was done. We said goodbye with the aim to speak again in the near future.”
“The near future was the Thursday before the French GP that took place at Le Castellet, at the start of July. We used to travel with a private plane to the track, so the plane made a stop to Nice and I went out. The rest continued. I went to see Ayrton at his home in Monaco. We continued the talks to finish the rest 20% that was remaining and some other small issues, like the fact that he had a Nacional Sponsorship on his cap while we had reserved it for Philipp Morris. But those are details if you had to bring in Senna to Ferrari.”
Following their meeting and discussion, Fiorio returned to Maranello after the French GP, a race that Ferrari won, he wrote a letter of intent, noting all the issues the two discussed. The letter was then sent to Senna, leaving him free and able sign and return it from his fax machine. The deal, however, would soon reach it’s premature demise as other insiders became acutely aware of the ongoing negotiations and Senna’s impending arrival.
“This was used, as to say, against me from the Ferrari President, Mr. Piero Fusaro, who started a personal war against me and he couldn’t win. I took over the team and brought success, but he found a system and by that he beat me. Fusaro went to Prost with the LOI and informed him that I was trying to bring in Senna. From that moment onwards, I had trouble in my collaboration with Prost. Things started getting very complicated and the situation went unbearable. So I had to quit”.
“So that transfer was never completed. I kept this document in my safe for almost 20 years and recently I thought this should come out…”
Above: the contractual agreement, listing conditional arrangements. In return for Senna’s commitment, the team would provide him with such luxuries as a limited edition Ferrari F40 supercar. (credit: gocar.gr)
Ayrton Senna’s side of the deal that was never completed. All that separated Senna and Ferrari, was a lone signature.
When questioned as to whether or not Senna requested for any contract stipulations, Fiorio recalls of several;
“He wanted to know the plan we had on technical enforcement and he asked to bring in Steve Nichols from McLaren because he knew him very well and he wanted to change environment. But I wanted also to enforce my team since I had broken up with John Barnard. So I asked him to point out what he thought it could suit.”
However, Senna did not actively request for any driver to race alongside him, nor did he deny any the opportunity.
“No no no”, says Mr. Fiorio. “The only thing he said was that I should find the fastest available. This was a surprise for me because all the top drivers wanted someone that wasn’t as fast, so they could control him. But he said that he wanted to have the fastest available so he can be sure that he gets out the maximum from Qualifying and the Races, but if he wouldn’t be as fast he would know that he didn’t do the best job he could. And this was a surprise.”
In the following months and years, Fiorio and Senna met several times in the depths of the F1 paddock, but under more cautious circumstances as they kept the dealings discreet and private.
Ultimately, the deal never concluded. However, if it had, it seems logical to presume Senna would have remained at the Scuderia team for the remainder of his career. Whilst the team endured several trying seasons, Luca di Montezemolo’s recent comments and acknowledgment of a previously existing agreement add weight to the presumption that Senna wished to retire behind the wheel of the Rosso race car, citing their unrivalled success and the prestige that such achievements carried. As a result, Senna would have never stepped foot in Williams’ fast and volatile FW16, and perhaps history would have been written slightly differently. Perhaps the San Marino Grand Prix of 1994 would have affected viewers with less heartache and sorrow. Perhaps the Prancing Horse could have saved Ayrton Senna’s life.