Motorsport is all about fate. Countless times we have heard drivers claiming that they would have won if it had not been for some unforeseen incident such as a slow pit stop or uncooperative backmarkers. These thoughts are largely irrelevant, but that doesn’t make them any less interesting to ponder.
During an interview for the BBC to mark Ferrari’s 800th Grand Prix; Ferrari President Luca Di Montezemolo let slip that the late great Ayrton Senna had visited the Ferrari factory shortly before his death at San Marino in 1994 to enquire about potentially joining the team.
This is perhaps the most interesting “what if?” in the sports history. So what would have happened if Ayrton Senna had joined Ferrari?
Ayrton Senna left McLaren at the end of 1993 in order to join Williams who had been an unbeatable force in F1 over the previous two seasons due to their advanced technological driver assists such as active suspension, traction control and ABS.
All of these systems were banned by the FIA for the start of 1994, and much to Senna’s shock and bemusement Williams advantage was completely wiped out. However, Williams didn’t just lose their advantage; the loss of these systems also left the FW14 with chronic handling problems which resulted in Senna spinning out of the season opener in Brazil. After another retirement in Japan, the F1 circus headed back to Europe with Senna lying 20 points behind runaway championship leader Michael Schumacher in his Benetton Ford.
Those close to Senna have speculated that the Brazilian was not only disappointed with the Williams car; but was also struggling to adapt to the different culture which existed in the team compared to the McLaren environment to which he had grown accustomed.
It was upon arriving in Italy for the third round of the championship that Montezemolo claims the Senna visit took place. Senna had never made any secret of his desire to join the famous Red squad before he retired; but it should be remembered that his contract with Williams was set to last until the end of 1995.
After assuming the mantle of team leader, Damon Hill went on to challenge Michael Schumacher strongly for the championship thanks to Williams making huge strides in overcoming the cars shortfalls. The British driver eventually lost out by just a single point following a controversial collision with Schumacher at the season ending Australian grand prix.
Over their three weekends together as team-mates, Senna out-qualified Hill by an average of 0.920 seconds; a huge difference in F1 terms. It is therefore safe to assume that Senna would have been a far greater threat to Schumacher than Hill and could easily have scored those two additional points that the British driver would have required in order to become champion in 1994. However, this doesn’t take account of the appalling reliability that crippled the second Williams car which was shared by David Coulthard and Nigel Mansell over the remainder of the season; suffering electrics failures in Spain and Germany, a gearbox problem in France and running out of fuel in Monza.
Hill managed to accumulate 84 points over the remaining 13 races following Imola thanks to perfect reliability. Taking into account these four mechanical failures, Senna would have had to win eight of the nine races which his car would have finished, as well as securing an additional third place in order to match this points haul. This would have been a tough feat to achieve even for Senna; particular in light of the fact that Williams generally struggled to match the pace of the Benetton in 1994.
This trend of the second Williams car suffering from poorer reliability than Hill’s is something which was carried over for 1995; with Coulthard suffering gearbox problems in Spain, Monaco and Belgium as well as another electric failure in Argentina. It should also be remembered that the Williams regularly languished even further behind Schumacher during the races in 1995 due Benetton employing far superior race tactics and conducting faster pit stops.
It is therefore very likely that Senna would have ended his two year spell at Williams bitterly disappointed at not wining another title with Schumacher now a double world champion.
Schumacher was intent on leaving Benetton at the end of 1995 as he wanted to face the challenge of building up a team to race winning form; hence proving his abilities in a different environment. His two options were to either rejoin Mercedes (who had supported him in the junior formulas) now that they had signed to partner McLaren; or move to Ferrari.
History shows that Schumacher joined Ferrari and took design gurus Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne along with him. With Montezemolo alleging that he verbally agreed a deal with Senna to join Ferrari for 1996, this would have been unlikely to happen. It is also unlikely that Ron Dennis would have allowed Schumacher to dictate technical team appointments in the way he did at Ferrari, with the British team eventually stealing Adrian Newey from Williams at the end of 1996; a move which led to McLaren becoming regular championship challengers once more.
John Barnard was Ferrari’s technical director until mid-1997, and would have been unlikely to have been retained by the team even without Schumacher’s presence due to the poor general performance of the 1996 and initially the 1997 car. It is therefore entirely possible that Ferrari would have made a pitch for Brawn and Byrne anyway.
Schumacher came close to beating Williams’ Jacques Villeneuve to the 1997 championship; this may therefore have potentially resulted in Senna’s long awaited forth title and the first championship victory since 1979 for Ferrari.
With Newey in place at McLaren and the Brawn/Byrne technical team at Ferrari, it would have set the scene for a titanic sequence of championship battles between Senna, Schumacher and Hakkinen over the next three seasons with rumour having it that Senna had always intended to retire at the end of 2000 at the age of 40.
The McLaren was the class act of 1998, but poor reliability resulted in a close contest for both titles with Ferrari. With Schumacher’s presence alongside Hakkinen, McLaren would also have had to contend with the added problem of driver management; with each driver stealing points off the other. This was a problem which ultimately resulted in them losing the 2007 title to Ferrari due to the Alonso/Hamilton conflict. It is therefore likely that Senna could have taken advantage of a similar set of circumstances to win his fifth title in 1998.
Schumacher was ruled out of the 1999 championship battle for Ferrari after sustaining a broken leg following a break failure at Silverstone. Assuming that Senna would have suffered a similar problem in the same car and the form of Schumacher had prior to his accident, we can assume that the German would have taken his third title in 1999.
The battle between Ferrari and McLaren was equally as intense in 2000, with Schumacher taking advantage of McLaren’s early season reliability woes to win the title. Senna would have had a similar opportunity, and as in 1998 would likely have benefitted from the McLaren inter-team driver rivalry to claim another title.
The Senna legacy
Ayrton Senna would therefore have ended his career as a record beating six times Formula One World Champion and a Ferrari legend; winning three championships during his five year tenure with the team.
In reality Ferrari went on to dominate the following four seasons with Michael Schumacher; and it is impossible to determine whether or not the German would have been stolen from McLaren as Senna’s replacement in this alternate reality.
But of course, this is all hypothetical. In reality Senna’s death prompted huge strides to be made in improving F1 safety levels. This saved the lives of countless drivers in the following years including Mika Hakkinen, Robert Kubica, Jarno Trulli, Heikki Kovalainen and Felipe Massa to name but a few.
Despite the tremendous on-track battles with Schumacher and Hakkinen that would have occurred in this alternative reality, as well as the legacy of being the most successful driver in both the sport and Ferrari’s history; perhaps it is the legacy of sparking the safety revolution that saved countless drivers lives that would have been viewed as being the most important by Ayrton Senna.