Ayrton Senna was not just one of Formula 1’s greatest ever drivers, he was also one of its most complex characters and deepest thinkers.
The great Brazilian became one of the sport’s most successful figures in its history in winning three World Championships and was arguably Formula 1’s best ever qualifier, with 65 pole positions in his 162 race starts. Only Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton have gone on to surpass his total, though both have taken part in far more race weekends by comparison.
The passion Senna showed on track was matched by a depth of thought off it, with his Christian faith playing a big part in his life and describing on more than one occasion about how his belief in God helped him go beyond his own natural abilities at times.
Some of what he achieved in Formula 1, and some of the drives he completed, were the stuff of legend – and on what would have been the great man’s 63rd birthday, here are a selection of some of the most iconic quotes Senna gave throughout his career in Formula 1.
“You should know that by being a racing driver you are under risks all the time. Being a racing driver means you are racing with other people and if you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver – because we are competing, we are competing to win, and the main motivation to all of us is to compete for the victory.”
In the aftermath of the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, Senna collided with great rival Alain Prost at the first corner, taking both drivers out of the race. In a testy interview with three-time World Champion, Sir Jackie Stewart, after the race, Senna defended his move after being passed at the start, with the McLaren driver tagging the rear wheel of the Ferrari heading into Turn 1 at Suzuka. It has since become Senna’s most well-known maxim: “If you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver.”
“Suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension.”
Monaco, 1988. Senna completed arguably the greatest qualifying lap in the history of the sport, but gut-wrenchingly, there is no onboard footage available of it. In a dominant McLaren alongside Prost, he lapped Monte Carlo a whopping 1.427s quicker than his team-mate, and was 2.6s clear of third place on the grid. A lapse in concentration cost him race victory on the Sunday, but to go that fast on the toughest circuit of them all is the stuff of legend.
“Racing, competing, is in my blood. It’s part of me, it’s part of my life; I’ve been doing it all my life. And it stands up before anything else.”
Speaking in Australia in 1989, if it wasn’t clear beforehand, the Formula 1 great made everybody fully aware just how important racing was to him.
“Thank you, Brazil. Thank you, fans. The human heat this weekend was so great, that we had to win this time. It couldn’t be any other way. We did it.”
After years of trying to win his home race, Senna finally did so in 1991 – but it did not come easily. Stuck in sixth gear for the closing stages, he had to wrestle his car around Interlagos in the final laps and was absolutely exhausted after crossing the line. His elated screaming over team radio is well worth seeking out, and such was the toll on his body that he could hardly lift the winner’s trophy over his head on the podium.
“The harder I push, the more I find within myself. I am always looking for the next step, a different world to go into, areas where I have not been before. It’s lonely driving a Grand Prix car, but very absorbing. I have experienced new sensations, and I want more. That is my excitement, my motivation.”
Senna often spoke in inspirational tones and found motivation within himself, which has then transferred to countless others in the paddock down the years.
“We are made of emotions. We are all looking for emotions, basically. It’s only a question of finding the way to experience them. There are many different ways of experiencing emotions. Perhaps one different thing, one particular thing, that Formula 1 can provide you is that you know we are always exposed to danger, danger of getting hurt, danger of dying.”
Senna’s life ended in tragic circumstances at Imola in 1994, but throughout his career he was always well aware of the dangers of Formula 1 and motorsport in general.
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“I have no idols. I respect hard work, dedication and competence.”
Another famous Senna maxim – ironic in a sense given how many drivers for whom he has since become a hero figure in their own careers. Lewis Hamilton is a big example of this, having spent most of his career wearing Senna-inspired yellow helmet colours, up until recent seasons.
“If you think you have a limit, as soon as you touch this limit, something happens, then you suddenly can go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct and your experience as well, you can fly very high.”
One to hang on a wall or in an office for Formula 1 fans everywhere, if you needed some added motivation today, with Senna speaking in an interview for the 1992 video biography ‘Racing Is In My Blood’.
“It’s important that the drivers stay together, because in difficult moments we have each other. If we are not together the financial and political interests of the organisers and constructors come to the fore.”
Senna on Formula 1 drivers needing to keep solidarity with each other in tough situations with the sport and governing body, speaking in a 1987 interview.
“I started racing go-karts, and I love karts. It’s the most breathtaking sport in the world. More than F1, indeed, I used to like it most.”
A motorsport purist, Senna was long known as a fan of karting and grassroots motorsport, and he said this in a 1986 interview with TV Cultura. In fact, he once credited former karting team-mate and ex-karting World Champion, Terry Fullerton, as one of the toughest racing rivals he ever faced in his career, over his Formula 1 colleagues.