Features - Feature

MAY 1, 2014

Pat Symonds remembers Senna: Ayrton moved the goal posts!


Ayrton Senna, German GP 1984
© The Cahier Archive

Ayrton Senna is best remembered for his time at McLaren, but the Brazilian started his Formula One career with Toleman, a small British team where Senna met Pat Symonds, then a young race engineer...

Ayrton Senna is best remembered for his time at McLaren, the team that helped him to three World Championships in five years, but the Brazilian started his Formula One career with Toleman, a small British team that lasted only four seasons in Grand Prix racing before being sold to the Benetton family.

In what would become one of the greatest teams in Formula One, Senna met Pat Symonds, then a young race engineer only on his fourth Formula One season. Ironically, it was with Michael Schumacher that Symonds won his first two championships, before achieving another double success with Fernando Alonso one decade later.

Even 30 years after working with the Brazilian driver, Symonds still smiles when he mentions some of the episodes they lived through and is still a great admirer of Senna's qualities. We sat down for what was supposed to be a relatively short interview about Symonds memories of Ayrton Senna, but the final result was a very vivid recollection of some of the great moments they experienced together back in 1984.

"I was in my fourth season in Formula One, always with Toleman, when we hired this young Brazilian driver called Ayrton Senna. Although he was new to Formula One I knew a fair bit about him, because I hadn't been in Formula One for very long, I had come out of the British Club racing scene a few years before, as I had been working for Royale, and I kept an eye on what was going on in that scene, I was still talking to people like Ralph Firman, who was the boss of Van Diemen and others, so I knew that Ayrton was pretty damn good.

In F3, of course, he had that enormous fight with Martin Brundle, but until a driver gets to Formula One you cannot know how good a driver really is. I knew he was good, but he hadn't dominated in F3, he was pretty level with Martin, very similar. Some drivers you think they're average before they get to Formula One and they end up doing very well; others you think they're brilliant and they end up doing not very well, so you never quite know.

But as soon as I started working with Ayrton I knew that he was very capable. He just had that understanding and mental capacity that stands out. He could drive the car very fast, but it was the first time I worked with a driver that would use 90 per cent of his brain capacity to drive the car fast and the remaining ten per cent to analyse everything else - in fact it was more than that. He just seemed capable to remember every little detail of every lap he had done and in those days we didn't have data acquisition, so we relied on the driver to even tell us like what revs he was using out of a corner, so we could work out the best gear ratios for any given circuit. He was just so good at it.

I think one of the biggest compliments you can pay to any young driver is to forget he's a young driver and I've come across those kind of people a few times now. A month or so after starting working with drivers of that calibre you forget they're rookies and with Ayrton I certainly did - it was the first time I came across someone like that but I've been fortunate to work with a few more of that same mould.

From that first season there are a few races that stand out and while everyone talks about his second place in Monaco, the one that stood out for me was Dallas, where he crashed out, but we came out with such a special story from that race. The car was reasonably competitive there, so we expected to have a good race but Ayrton spun early in the race. He then found his way back through the field in a quite effective way and we were looking for a pretty good finish but then he hit the wall, damaged the rear wheel and the driveshaft and retired, which was a real shame.

The real significance of that was that when he came back to the pits he told me what happened and said "I'm sure that the wall moved!" and even though I've heard every excuse every driver has ever made, I certainly hadn't heard of that one! But Ayrton being Ayrton, with his incredible belief in himself, the absolute conviction, he then talked me into going with him, after the race, to have a look at the place where he had crashed. And he was absolutely right, which was the amazing thing! Dallas being a street circuit the track was surrounded by concrete blocks and what had happened - we could see it from the tyre marks - was that someone had hit at the far end of the concrete block and that made it swivel slightly, so that the leading edge of the block was standing out by a few millimetres. And he was driving with such precision that those few millimetres were the difference between hitting the wall and not hitting the wall. While I had been, at first, annoyed that we had retired from the race through a driver error, when I saw what had happened, when I saw how he had been driving, that increased my respect for the guy by quite a lot.

We had been limited that season in the Michelin tyres we could use, because to agree with us having tyres for the season Ron Dennis had imposed we'd use the previous year's tyre specs, but in Monaco, in the rain, there were no 1983 tyres, we used the same tyres as everyone else and Ayrton drove magnificently to 2nd place but behind him Stefan Bellof was driving even faster to climb up to 3rd from the back of the grid! That's why the other race that stands out for me is Brands Hatch, because we raced on the old tyres and still Ayrton finished in 3rd place! And in Estoril, we also made it to the podium, but that was the last race of the season, Michelin was retiring from Formula One after that race and they said they weren't paying any more attention to Ron and both of our drivers, Ayrton and Stefan Johansson, did quite well - we had a very good race.

In many ways, although a lot of the focus was on the Monaco result, and that was a fantastic result for Ayrton and the team, what he did in Brands Hatch was special. You have to bear in mind how human Ayrton was and in Brands Hatch his team mate had been injured in practice and his drive that weekend was one of the most impressive of the year. His drive in Estoril was great too - a sort of a parting gift to the team, as he was moving to Lotus - by standing on the podium.

We did only one season together, Ayrton and I, but I've carried everything I've learned in 1984 through the rest of my career. I was a young engineer, he was a young driver, and we both grew up together. I think I've learned in life that there are special people, there are people that rise above the norm, they get there by really working hard, by applying extreme intelligence, by bringing everything around then, by attention to detail, but what I really understood that year was that in order to succeed you really have to work hard - and I've worked hard every since!

One of the things that I've learned in that season with Ayrton is that a new generation had arrived and that's a process that never stopped. In fact Ayrton didn't have the attention to detail that Michael brought with him one decade later, so the goal posts had moved but were still being moved after Ayrton. At the time, though, people like Nelson Piquet and others had lots of ability but needed things to be right for them to be at the top, whereas Ayrton could overachieve by sheer hard work. That Toleman TG184 was not a bad car but in no way that car and engine combination could really finish third on merit. Still, Ayrton managed to get it up there on a few occasions through determination and hard work, making some of his contemporaries understand that if they were going to beat Ayrton, they were going to have to shape up a bit and that some of the "good-life" that drivers used to enjoy in those days was going to disappear forever.

I've worked with many great drivers and the ones people remember most are Ayrton, Michael and Fernando Alonso. The thing that they shared was this amazing self-esteem. I don't think that's something unique to racing drivers, I think it's unique to world class sportsman, that they have believe they're the best; they have to go in to every event thinking "I'm the best driver here, so if I don't win this race it cannot be my fault, it has to be something else". Ayrton was the first one I saw that thought like that and all the greats seem to apply that logic to everything - and I realised that was part that what made him so special.

I can talk fondly of Ayrton for hours, but that doesn't mean I'm stuck in the past, because I really don't look back to the history of the sport that much. I've been in the sport for a long while, I've got some great memories but, for me, my best race is always going to be the next race - that's the attitude I have. I think that's something I shared with Ayrton, he never looked back and was always looking ahead, to the next race, to the next year.

Years later I was fighting Ayrton when he was at McLaren and later at Williams and I remained with Toleman, which became Benetton - and it was difficult to fight against Ayrton because you always knew that in Ayrton there were a few tenths per lap worth - that no matter what you did in your car - you were never going to get. By the mid-nineties, though, as Michael developed, we could fight him straight. I think in 1994 we had a better car than Williams - I shouldn't really say this because now I work for Williams - but there's no doubt that when you went up against Ayrton you were up against something that was a bit more difficult to beat than the rest.