Remembering Ayrton Senna’s magic at Monaco

At the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix, qualifying is entire ball game.

On this day back in 1988, Ayrton Senna won that ball game in astonishing fashion.

That day, Senna obliterated the rest of the grid, qualifying for pole position a stunning 1.4 seconds ahead of his rival — and McLaren teammate — Alain Prost. His performance that day lives on as perhaps the greatest qualifying effort in the history of the sport, as Senna was able to push his McLaren, and himself, beyond the limits.

In that era of F1, qualifying was done on race tires, not qualifying tires, so drivers would stay out for as many laps as they could, pushing themselves, and their cars, to the brink. As Senna pushed his MP4/4 around the Monte Carlo streets, extracting everything he could from the machine, his lap times ticked down, down, and down some more.

It was unlike anything the sport, and Senna’s rivals, had ever seen.

Neil Oatley, an engineer with McLaren who was working with Prost, recalls seeing the other McLaren driver watching in awe of Senna’s increasingly-quicker lap times. “I was running Alain Prost’s car. Alain had got down to 1 minute 26.9 seconds. And then Ayrton produced a 24.4 second-lap,” recalled Oatley later.

“Alain improved to 25.4 seconds, but then Ayrton did 23.9 seconds. I remember a kind of ghostly look coming over Alain’s face. He just couldn’t understand how or where Ayrton’s time had come from. It illustrated that, despite all the technology, the driver could still make quite a big difference.”

Speaking about that qualifying session, Senna recalled that he had already put his McLaren on pole position, but continued to push the MP4/4 beyond what was necessary. Because, as the driver recalled, it was almost as if he was not actively driving the car.

“Monte Carlo, ‘88, the last qualifying session. I was already on pole and I was going faster and faster. One lap after the other, quicker, and quicker, and quicker. I was at one stage just on pole, then by half a second, and then one second … and I kept going. Suddenly, I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And I suddenly realized that I was no longer driving the car consciously,” said Senna to motorsport journalist Gerald Donaldson later.

“I was kind of driving it by instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel, not only the tunnel under the hotel, but the whole circuit for me was a tunnel. I was just going, going – more, and more, and more, and more. I was way over the limit but still able to find even more,” continued Senna.

That’s when the legendary driver decided it was time for self-preservation to kick in, as he was approaching limits that were uncomfortable for a man with absolutely no fear.

“Then, suddenly, something just kicked me. I kind of woke up and I realized that I was in a different atmosphere than you normally are. Immediately my reaction was to back off, slow down,” added Senna. “I drove back slowly to the pits and I didn’t want to go out any more that day.”

”It frightened me because I realized I was well beyond my conscious understanding. It happens rarely, but I keep these experiences very much alive in me because it is something that is important for self-preservation.”

Senna did return to the track that afternoon, albeit for a brief stint. The driver attempted two different push laps following his incredible performance, but pulled out of both due to traffic on the street circuit. At that point his day was truly finished, and a new chapter in his legendary career had been written.

Senna would describe that afternoon as an “amazing experience” years later to journalist Russell Bulgin.

“Because for that moment I was vulnerable for extending my own limits, and the car’s limits: limits that I never touch before,” said Senna. “It was something that I was not – not that I was not in control – but I was not aware, exactly of what was going on. I was just going-going-going. An amazing experience.”

Gordon Murray, then McLaren’s Technical Director, outlined how even those who knew Senna best were stunned at his performance that day in Monaco.

“Everybody was stunned at his qualifying,” Murray said following qualifying. “Everybody. Even the team who were used to him. Success at Monaco in particular is absolutely proportional to the courage. It’s precision and courage. Commitment on the braking points and placing the car on the apex. Qualifying was a combination of those two things.”

Sadly, actual footage of perhaps the greatest qualifying effort in F1 history does not exist. Senna’s performance in 1988 came well before the current era of onboard cameras for every driver, and while F1 was tinkering with onboard cameras during the 1988 season, only one team was chosen each race week to have an onboard camera.

McLaren was not the team chosen by Formula One Management (FOM) to have such a device in Monaco that year.

In addition, qualifying was only shown live in a handful of countries, and broadcast cameras did not track Senna during his legendary lap.

The best we might get is this recreation done by McLaren, with the legendary voice of Murray Walker taking you through the lap:

Interestingly enough, Senna would not duplicate that magic the next day.

He was again dominating the field, at one point building a lead of around 50 seconds over second-place Prost. Senna was given the instruction by his team to slow down, to ensure a clean finish and a 1-2 result for McLaren. But on Lap 67, with just over ten laps remaining, Senna lost his concentration for a moment.

And in a flash, he was in the barrier, and out of the race.

The driver disappeared to his home in Monaco, not returning to the track until later that night. Ron Dennis, then McLaren’s Team Principal, recalled Senna’s anger with himself following that mistake years later. “It was a lapse in concentration. We were trying to slow him down, and effectively when you back off in a racing car you lose focus. It was just a lapse, nothing else,” said Dennis. “He was so angry that he did something really uncharacteristic: he didn’t come back to the pits, but went to his flat. He just walked through the circuit and went and sat in his flat. He didn’t appear again until later that evening. He was so angry with himself.”

With the F1 world returning to Imola this week for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix — and to mark 30 years since the tragic 1994 San Marino Grand Prix which saw both Senna and Roland Ratzenberger lose their lives at Imola — tributes are beginning to pour in from around the motorsport world.

Already this week we have discussed Senna’s “Lap of the Gods,” his stunning first-lap performance in the 1993 European Grand Prix that saw him push from fifth to first in just one lap, getting to the front in wet conditions. That performance is considered by many to be one of the best in the sport’s history, and perhaps Senna’s best racing performance.

But on this day in 1998, the legend turned in perhaps the greatest qualifying performance, conquering the field — and the Monte Carlos streets — in dazzling fashion. It was an out-of-body experience for the driver, and for those watching him.

While the times ticked down over the years, due to the technological advances the sport has seen, we may never see a dominant performance like that in the Monaco Grand Prix ever again.

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