How a Honda/Senna partnership almost rekindled after Helmut Marko spurn

Thomas Maher
Bruno Senna, Honda, 2008 F1 testing

Bruno Senna came close to landing a seat with Honda for 2009, only for the Japanese manufacturer to leave F1.

Following the extremely successful Ayrton Senna and Honda partnership in the late 1980s/early 90s, the two names almost reunited in 2009.

Until Max Verstappen’s win at the 2023 Miami Grand Prix, Ayrton Senna’s record of 32 wins powered by Honda made him the most successful driver for the Japanese manufacturer.

Bruno Senna shrugs off Ron Dennis and Helmut Marko comments

Ayrton’s nephew Bruno, who had been singled out as a talent behind the wheel by his famous uncle, had not been permitted by his family to continue his karting interests following Senna’s death in a crash at Imola in 1994.

As a teenager, Senna picked back up his forgotten hobby and set about trying to establish himself as a racing driver – enjoying the help of Ayrton’s close friend Gerhard Berger, as he tried to make up for the years of experience lost to other drivers.

The Senna name proved both a help and a hindrance, with the youngster climbing the ranks quickly and showing plenty of speed, but admitted to a lot more scrutiny and pressure than might have been applied to a driver without his famous surname.

One incident that stuck out to Senna on his climb through the ladder was shortly after he made his debut in single-seater racing in 2004 in the Asian Formula Renault series. Heading to Macau at the end of the season, Senna crossed paths with Red Bull talent scout Helmut Marko.

Given Senna was working with Berger, a fellow Austrian and, shortly after, a shareholder in Toro Rosso, did Senna feel he already had a little bit of an in with the Red Bull hierarchy as they geared up for F1?

“You’d think that,” he said on the Beyond the Grid podcast.

“But, you know, interestingly enough, I did the Macau race in Formula Renault in 2004 at the end of the year.

“Helmut Marko was there, I finished the race in second after it was a completely crazy race.

“It was not like one of my most competitive performances – I had never been there, and I didn’t like the car.

“But, anyway, it was the fourth race in my career. Helmut came to me and he said, ‘You will never be good enough for Formula 1’. That’s what he told me. Helmut, obviously, was the guy who was picking drivers for the Red Bull series.”

Senna also described being given the cold shoulder by Ron Dennis, McLaren’s boss, who had been extremely close to Ayrton during their time working together through the late 1980s and early 90s.

“When I met Ron Dennis, before I started racing, he came to me and said, ‘You’re too tall to be a racing driver’,” he said, before being asked whether the legendary team boss had done anything to help his rise through the ranks.

“No, not at all. It’s fine. I mean, I didn’t expect help from anyone.

“People didn’t compare me to people who were racing at the time, they always compared me to Ayrton, and it’s just the way it is. So what can I say?”

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Rising to GP2 by 2008, finishing second in that year’s championship, Senna had become a test driver for the Honda team and was granted a test in late 2008 with an eye to signing for the following season.

Headline along to the Circuit de Catalunya in late November 2008, Senna popped in extremely competitive times, and it opened the door for him to begin contract negotiations for 2009.

“Honda decided to test me and Lucas di Grassi to be part of the team, the programme, in any way in the future,” he said.

“So it was a three-day test in Barcelona. We shared a car on the first day. Lucas did the second day and I did the third day, the test went really well.

“Jenson was putting new tyres [on] all day long. And I put two sets of new tyres during the day so, being within two and a half tenths of Jenson was not too bad on my first time in an F1 car.

“After that, things had gone really well. The people from Honda were very interested and we started to have conversations about potentially going forward in the future. We had already confirmed the test that was happening a month and a half later at Jerez. I was confirmed for the test.

“But, obviously, Honda pulled out and that never happened.”

Honda withdrew from F1 just a few days after Senna’s test with the team, rendering the contract they had sent to the Brazilian for review utterly useless.

“They sent us a contract to review. So there was like a potential contract on the table for racing for them in the next year,” he said.

“We didn’t have a signed contract or anything. Anyway, it wouldn’t have mattered because the team was not the same anyway for the following year.

“Even though that car was not competitive that year [2008] – when they took some bits of the car to simulate [2009]’s aero package, and they put slicks on the car, it was awesome.

“It was a really nice car to drive, it had an amazing gearbox. Maybe the engine wasn’t the most powerful. But the car was really, really good.

“I drove in Jenson’s seat and I was destroyed after the test – after 140 laps, my neck was completely dead. But I was just loving life. I was like really looking forward to racing for that team. Even if it meant that we wouldn’t be necessarily winning races the next year, I was super, super confident that I could do a really good job for them.”

With Ross Brawn infamously buying the team for a symbolic pound, inheriting the Honda design and mating it to a Mercedes engine supply, the renamed Brawn team went on to have a fairytale season with victories in both championships.

Senna revealed that he and Barrichello had been the contenders for the seat alongside Button, who would win the Drivers’ Championship with the team that season.

“We were trying super hard, super, super hard. We had loads of meetings with Ross. I think, in the end, they went to the safe option,” he said.

“They didn’t know exactly what they had in their hands with the car because everything was very late in development.

“They had sort of adapted the car to the Mercedes engine. So definitely a big challenge for the team and I respect that, at that point, if you’re like organising a race team for a Formula 1 championship, you will go for the safe option.

“They knew what they had in Rubens, they knew Rubens was competitive and was not a poor driver, and they had Jenson.

“Maybe, if we had done the second test at Jerez before Honda pulled out, I could have shown a lot more. But I only had one day in the car, so I can’t blame them, honestly.”

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