🎧 Tap the top nav bar to listen to an exclusive extract as Ayrton Senna talks about Eau Rouge, vision, mentality and racecraft.
The following interview took place in McLaren’s motorhome at Spa, in August 1990. Nowadays, teams often tend to allow their drivers time only to offer the press short sound bites – but even back in the commercial 1990s things were a little more relaxed. This is the first time the transcript has been published for almost 30 years, although we have edited for space. The protagonists start by discussing the psychology of racing...
Alan Henry It’s 40 years since the dawn of the world championship, although there were grands prix before that, and we’re trying to establish whether the qualities of a top-line driver today are fundamentally the same as they were 30 or 40 years ago.
Denis Jenkinson We spoke before about this and I reckoned the most important thing was eyesight, vision. The brain then had to use what it could see and transmit that to other faculties. And if it transmitted them all 100 per cent, then you had the makings of a world champion, or at least a GP winner. If one part of your make-up was lacking, but another was very strong, it could compensate and bring up the average.
When I wrote the book The Racing Driver I cited vision as the most important thing, then your nervous processes – the things you’re born with, that transmit feelings and muscular reactions.
Next, I mentioned anticipation – your brain always thinking ahead of your vision. It’s a natural reflex, not a thing you sit down and practise. You’ve either got anticipation or you haven’t. After that, you have judgment – a fairly physical thing.
And lastly, a combination of all those things, is response – so I’ve broken the human being down into those five characteristics. If you have a weak one, two strong ones can help… D’you think that sounds reasonable?
Ayrton Senna It’s all theory, of course – you could talk for a long time and find your initial analysis is not quite right by the time you get to the end. Starting with vision, it’s really the ability you have to assess the speed of an approaching target – a corner, an apex. You know its shape, the state of your car and so on. It comes down to your ability, through your vision, to be able to evaluate the speed of your approach. Let’s say you have to reach a maximum speed X for that target – and to reach X, at the correct moment, it’s no good if you brake a little too early or a little too late, because then you’re gone.
DSJ These are nervous processes…
AS Yes, but attached to your vision. It’s the distance you can see, the distance you can measure by looking.
DSJ Your brain has to analyse that, but there are plenty of people with good vision but no brain...
AS I understand, but I’m talking slightly differently – I’m assuming you have the basics. The way it works for me, from a 300-metre target – a long way with no reference points, if you have a reference it’s a lot easier – you have to judge your approach to match the maximum speed you could have at the critical point. That is all completely visual. Then another thing takes over, which is your judgment – it comes from feelings in your hands, your feet, your body. Then it’s all automatic from there on. According to the accuracy of your approach from the visual side, you are going to react until you get to the target.
The thing that has the responsibility for making the rest work properly at the highest level, in sequence, is the ability to judge. On many occasions, if you are not completely into it, your visual ability becomes really reduced. It’s something that comes on many occasions with the equilibrium of your psychological side. If you are in a good state psychologically, your visual sensitivity is so much greater, so much more accurate that everything else feels more natural, and easier, which takes a lot less energy. Everything just comes together and your whole system is less stressed, so the next corner is less stressed – so your judgment will be accurate. That’s what it’s all about: how to maintain a very natural equilibrium.
AH It’s about building momentum.
AS Exactly. If you get the wrong side of that momentum, it’s going to take a lot more out of everything to reverse it. Sometimes, as a race progresses, you have time to breathe a little bit, because the other guy is backing off, or his tyres are going off a little, so you automatically have time to cool down, stop that momentum, reduce your pace and then restart in the right way. That’s over a race distance. If you’re talking about one lap, a two-minute sprint at the maximum, then again you have to be really, really switched on because all your feelings are at their peak – and at the same time you have to be completely under control, because then you optimise every sense… It goes so high, the anticipation feeling, the judgment feeling, everything…
DSJ They’ve got to be there all the time?
AS Things you didn’t even realise were there before. It becomes instinct, pure instinct, in the right way.
AH I’d like to ask about that connection, when you are focusing on a car that’s 300 metres away. Say you’re coming down the hill here at Eau Rouge, on a qualifying lap, and there’s a slower car. D’you find yourself almost taking Eau Rouge without looking at the corner because you’re looking at the car?
AS No. If you do that then you will for sure be at a lower level. If you see a car, you have to be able to determine instantly…
AH Whether he’s going to be through and up the hill or not?
AS Yes. Once you’ve determined that, it’s not going to affect you at the critical place so you just forget it, like it isn’t there, so you can commit yourself completely as though you’re there on your own. You come back to your own world and don’t let anything external affect your feelings. It’s instant reaction, again – judgment and reaction. It’s far away so you might not even be able to make a very accurate speed judgment, but you just put it away. Once you get to the other car, it doesn’t matter because you know it’s not going to be in a critical part of the track.
DSJ Then comes the anticipation, because your brain has absorbed it and thought, ‘In three corners I’m going to catch him, in the wrong place…’
AS Yes, but there’s a difference between qualifying and the race. In qualifying, in that situation, even with your best judgment you think, ‘It’s going to be just on the limit to get through without having to disturb myself.’ Then it’s a question of commitment, whether you are really into everything or 90 per cent into it. That is going to affect your performance.
In a race it’s a completely different thing, because you’ve got to have such an instant reaction. When you see a car, you have to know immediately which one it is – normally you have a feeling about the performance and know how quickly you’re going to get to it, or how much time it’s going to take and where you’re going to get to it.
At that stage you should push a bit more to get there before a critical point where it’s going to cost a second or two, or it’s not worth pushing because you’re always going to use your material a little bit so you carry on at the same pace. It’s very relative. Which car? Which driver? And it also depends on the condition of your own car.
DSJ The important thing is vision again. You explained to me once, here about two years ago, that you could see which car and who was driving long before you got anywhere near it. And you said you knew almost exactly where you’d pass them.
AS Yeah, it’s true.
DSJ The whole race you were doing that and you were very tired at the end. You said that physically there was no problem, but mentally it had been very tough, you were worn out, because you’d spent so much time lapping people and using the knowledge your eyes were giving you to work out where you were going to pass.
AS You know, physically you can be the best trained guy in the world, which is important, of course, but the tension, the stress, the mind work through a weekend goes to such a level that, if you’re not careful, you’re already compromised by Sunday afternoon. It is a consistent fight with your own mind, your own equilibrium. Equilibrium is fundamental for triggering the right momentum.
The Tape Trail
It was an email from the blue. I’d met Nick Henry many years previously, when he was a teenager accompanied by his dad Alan in the Silverstone paddock, and he felt the moment for reacquaintance was ripe. Specifically, he had come across boxes of interview tapes in his late father’s old office and wondered whether they might be of interest to Motor Sport. Just a touch…
We finally met for breakfast at The Milk Shed, near Bicester, and a bag of jumbled cassettes indicated greater potential than we could have dared to anticipate: Jenks & Senna, Ron Dennis, Dan Gurney… it was a veritable treasure trove of voices from a bygone age.
The tapes represent valuable parts of a lifetime’s work and we will bring more of them to the page over the coming months.
DSJ Were you saying this afternoon that you didn’t take Eau Rouge full throttle, but you know you can.
DSJ What was it that told you not to do it on that lap?
AS My self-preservation.
DSJ (laughing) That’s most important, but what feedback were you getting?
AS Simply the speed you’re going – you know you’ve got out of La Source well, you know you’re going to get to Eau Rouge really quick. You know your car’s characteristics are such that, at a given moment in that corner, it’s very tricky.
DSJ D’you get feedback through the steering, through the car’s balance?
AS Yes, but it happens so fast. Before you get to the entry, you have to decide…
DSJ You’re using anticipation again… If it feels all right, you’ll go through flat.
AS Yes, but the anticipation is also linked to the reason for doing it: what you can gain, what you can lose, the risk implication of getting it wrong and losing time, the risk implication of getting it wrong and having a big shunt… If you do it right, how much are you going to gain?
DSJ Do you study the Olivetti [sector] times, now we have them?
AS They help you understand not only what you’ve changed but also what other people are doing. It helps you understand your feelings and, on many occasions, tells you that what you think is not right. You go deeper into it, understand differently and react accordingly. For some drivers I think it helps a lot, for others less so.
DSJ It’s information for drivers to use – and if they’re intelligent they will…
AS Yes, but that information helps more drivers to understand what’s going on. If you don’t have that information…
DSJ …then you have an advantage?
AH When you were on your way up, who was your hero among the top drivers?
AS Emerson Fittipaldi, really.
AH Has he helped you at all?
AS I think he has helped every single Brazilian racing driver. He gave us all more credibility with the outside world.
AH When you were talking to Jenks about sheer effort, the emotional, psychological effort that leaves you drained almost before the race, what steps do you take, say, on Thursday? How do you defuse the situation and reduce the tension, calm everything down in your mind? Other than keeping away from the press…
AS That’s one of the things!
AH How d’you feel on Sunday night, after you’ve perhaps won a race? Are you totally shattered?
AS Not only Sunday night. As soon as you pass the chequered flag it comes in one go – boom! Because your mind goes down. Once you’ve crossed the finishing line you can just [flops hand on table]…
DSJ A lot of our friends the press don’t appreciate that. I’ve seen you after a race and the last thing you want to do is a TV thing and then have people talking to you all the time. I’m sure very few of the press have any awareness not only of the mental strain, but the fact you’ve been doing this since Thursday night. Suddenly, it’s all stopped and now they think, ‘The miserable bugger won’t speak to us.’
AS The objective is the chequered flag.
AH Everything else is incidental?
AS When you reach the objective, everything was established to get the optimum up to the chequered flag. Once you get there [slaps table], that’s the end. It’s your maximum. From Thursday to Sunday you establish a target and you have so many steps to go through, so many barriers, and they all drain you. There are problems and, whether you get it right or not, if you’re committed you’re giving your best all the time. For me there isn’t anything left.
AH You said something very interesting at the Imola test, in an interview with Canadian journalist Gerry Donaldson, when you mentioned this business at Monaco two years ago, when you almost felt you were overdriving, faster and faster, as though somebody else had taken command.
AS We were using race tyres, so were doing lap after lap rather than one lap – that year we had no qualifiers. I went out, had a good lap, did another lap, I was on pole, and the next lap I had an even bigger margin and I was going, more and more and more and more, to a stage that I was over two seconds quicker than anybody else, including my team-mate with the same car. Not because he was going slowly, but because at that stage I was going too fast. You understand?
DSJ You weren’t going too fast, you had everything correct…
AS Yes, but I was doing it in such a way that it was like my car was on a railway track. There was not that much left here and not that much left there.
DSJ But there was enough.
AS Enough, but in Monte Carlo enough sometimes is not enough. Given the fact I was driving a light car in high-performance trim for speed, not consistency but speed, I realised at one stage that I was not really seeing anything other than Armco…
DSJ A tunnel?
AS Exactly. I was in a tunnel, but in such a way that I realised suddenly that I was over a level that was reasonably safe. There was no margin whatsoever, in anything. When I had that kick, I immediately lifted. I didn’t have to, but I was not at the same level you work in all the time. I didn’t and still don’t really understand, fully understand, that different level. I backed off, came slowly back to the pits and stopped. I said to myself, ‘Today is special. That’s enough. You just don’t go out any more because you are vulnerable in terms of putting yourself in an area you don’t really understand. You’re doing it more from your subconscious.’ I could not really cope with that in a manner that felt easy, safe.
AH Have you experienced that again?
AS That intensity? I have experienced it again but at a lower level.
DSJ Now you’ve experienced it once, you wouldn’t get to that limit again?
AS There’s no need to go there, no need.
DSJ You’ve never been able to analyse why you got to that limit?
AS I think I know some of the reasons. It’s because I wanted so much to do more and more, better and better. Just the wish, the desire to go further was so big that nothing happened normally.
DSJ That’s natural, but on that day you were beyond yourself.
AS Actually, as I was doing it I realised that what was going on was not quite…
DSJ Afterwards, when you were back home, did you do a lot of thinking?
AS It was a wonderful feeling. I had experienced something I’d never known before, doing something I love, pushing further and further, every single limit.
DSJ You did the impossible…
AS No, because if I did it once it means it can be done again.
DSJ But you haven’t done it again, because your mental processes have said…
AS No, I haven’t done it at the same level, but I have done at a lower level.
DSJ You were going to reach that level anyway, but you didn’t know when you were going to reach it because you were always naturally striving to go faster and faster.
AS But once you do it, even if you don’t fully understand, it’s there in your memory. I don’t know theoretically how it works, but somehow that becomes a limit.
DSJ You now have that mark...
AS Before that I had experienced situations where I was really going and going, and sometimes I was getting it wrong. This time I was going, going, going, going…
DSJ And getting it right all the time…
AS Exactly, until I stopped before it went wrong. I believe that I was able to experience something I never did before, to a level never reached before with a final result that was my maximum. That day, I could not have told myself, ‘I could have done a little bit more.’ That was the maximum for me. There was no room for anything more. I have not really had that feeling since. Things have been good, good, good, but there was always the possibility of a little bit more.
Who was Alan Henry?
The tenacious journalist behind the tape recorder
One of the foremost specialist writers of his era, Alan Henry (1947-2016) was a regular contributor to Motor Sport and its weekly sibling Motoring News, editor of Autocourse (the 1990-91 edition of which parts of this interview first appeared) and F1 reporter for The Guardian. Motor Sport is proud to perpetuate the memory of a very fine man.