Ayrton Senna: What if

As we reflect upon Ayrton Senna’s career as the 20th anniversary of the Brazilian’s demise comes to a close, our attention should turn to what could have been.

Senna signed with Williams F1 Team on 11 October 1993 as the team were looking to replace their departing elite driver [Prost] with one of just two equals; Senna and Schumacher. The German’s career had only recently taken off, and as a result he was held to a watertight contract with Benetton. Senna, meanwhile, was on a one race rolling contract with McLaren – who he had remained with up until that point out of sympathy and respect rather than desire. Frank Williams had previously harboured hopes of convincing Prost to remain with the team at the time of Senna’s arrival, but ultimately acknowledged that any hope of rekindling the deep-seated rivalry between the two icons was of merely superficial realism.

Both Senna and Williams were keen to join forces. As a result, he was the obvious candidate.

At the time of Senna’s agreement to join, Williams were the undisputed dominant force in Formula 1. They had possessed the fastest car for the vast majority of the 3 years leading up to 1994’s campaign, thus giving both the team and drivers no reason to believe 1994 would be any different. In short, it wasn’t; Williams retained the title of fastest car on the grid thanks to it’s Renault powerplant and solid chassis.

The British team however no longer boasted a number of the electronic aids that had been enjoyed by drivers of previous seasons – namely traction and stability control. Senna endured more difficulty than his adversaries in regards to adapting to such changes, and as a result he struggled in the beautiful FW16 car. Thanks to his brilliant one lap pace, Senna was nonetheless able to claim 3 pole positions in 3 outings, but the young Michael Schumacher was closing the gap, and was already being earmarked as not only Senna’s equal, but soon-to-be superior successor. In the first two Grands Prix, the same story resonated throughout – Schumacher would qualify alongside Senna, and would quickly dispose of the Brazillian as the young star tiptoed around the circuit for 50-whatever laps in his delicately elegant Benetton.

As Imola approached, Schumacher carried over a perfect points haul of 20 whilst Senna was yet to get off the mark, leading to countless headlines questioning Senna and praising his adversary:

Schumacher – 20, Senna – 0
Struggling Senna trails Schu
Can brilliant Schu continue dominance?
Has Senna lost it?

In the midst of such a media onslaught, Senna uncharacteristically showed signs of strain as a noticeably troubled and fatigued figure entered the paddock for the third round of the season. Whilst the rest of that fateful weekend is history, ‘what could have been’ ever remains an enigma.

The fist question to occupy the minds of most tends to be ‘would Senna have caught Schumacher in 1994?’

At a glance, it would be easy to assume he would have slowly whittled away his points deficit to Schumacher and eventually taken the title with relative ease, citing Damon Hill’s own performances against Schumacher as the two drivers emerged as direct title contenders and entered the final round of the season separated by a single point. However, such presumptions are fundamentally flawed.

Following the concluded San Marino Grand Prix, Damon Hill stood 2nd in the championship standings with 7 points. Assuming Senna had survived but retired from the race following his accident, he would have remained on zero. Additionally, it is exceptionally unlikely the 12 day gap between the race at Imola and the beginning of the Monaco Grand Prix weekend would have provided enough time to allow Senna to adequately recuperate both physically and psychologically. Incidentally, Schumacher went on to win this race for a fourth successive win in ’94, extending the 30 point gap to a 40 point gulf between himself and Senna. Such a monumental points difference would have proved impossible for even Senna to have overturned. It is likely however that Senna would have routinely beaten his team mate Damon Hill (as qualifying and race performances up to Senna’s death would suggest) and therefore closed the gap between the two by the season’s end. Senna would have ended the season sitting 2nd in the standings, marginally ahead of teammate Hill. Schumacher would have taken the title and collaborated with Senna to give F1’s worldwide audience some of the most sensational wheel-to-wheel battles they had ever seen, and offered a far more engaging and captivating title fight than reality lumped us with.

“For me it was always clear that Ayrton should have won the championship… He was the best driver, with the best car, but sadly has not been here in the later stages of this season. I would like to take this championship and give it to him.” – Michael Schumacher after winning his first world title in Adelaide, 1994.

Senna’s Williams contract ran until the end of 1996, meaning it is safe to assume he would have honoured his contract and remained at the white and blue team before retiring at the end of 1996, which his manager Julian Jakobi has insisted was his plan.

1995 saw Schumacher receive the car his talent richly deserved and therefore paved the way for him to claim his second world title in a far more dominant and convincing fashion than his 1994 fiasco. The Willaims still possessed what was generally regarded as the best engine and chassis, and as a result the FW17 was superior in qualifying trim, taking 12 pole positions. It is therefore feasible to imagine Senna would have dominated Saturdays and could in theory have gathered every pole position of the season. Schumacher was however usually more competitive on race day, and was able to win nine races against the Williams duo’s combined total of five. I therefore find it difficult to believe Senna could have carried his less competitive race-day package to the top step of the podium enough times to warrant a fourth world title. He would again finish 2nd to Schumacher.

1996 saw a revitalised Williams team as Michael Schumacher’s departure from Benetton led many of their key staff to jump ship and walk straight through Williams’ doors. The FW18 was invincible, and in the hands of the Williams duo, raced to 12 wins and 12 poles from 16 races. Schumacher meanwhile battled through a challenging season with Ferrari, in a car that was nowhere near title-worthy. With Senna’s only genuine opposition handicapped by greatly inferior equipment, 1996 would have been a walk in the park for the Brazilian – who would celebrate a fourth world title to equal foe-turned-friend Alain Prost’s tally.

By this stage, Senna’s charity organisation was thriving, and a surviving Senna’s presence would have undoubtedly only helped this. It is possible that he could have joined Schumacher at Ferrari for 1997, but in all honesty anything other than defeat seems preposterous to assume, given Senna would have been a middle-aged man whilst Schumacher was young and approaching his prime. Indeed, he would have battled on in true Senna esque style and taken poles from Schumacher whilst troubling the German for some victories, but ultimately would have been outclassed. Such emphatic failure would have led Senna to the conclusion that his time had passed. Given he was not a man to participate in something he wouldn’t win, the Brazilian’s must-win attitude would have been driven into retirement no later than the concluding stages of 1997 under less ceremonious circumstances than if he had left the sport the previous year before partnering the man who would go on to dominate the entire forthcoming F1 era.

As Senna continued to age and Schumacher continued to improve, I firmly believe 1996 would have signalled the end for Senna.

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