In the early 1980s, despite his proven speed during testing, Ayrton Senna found it rather difficult to land in Formula 1, let alone in a competitive car. That was partly due to the title sponsors being very particular about the nationality of their drivers, but the struggle was also due to Senna’s relatively high demands as a rookie compared to a field of World Champions. As a compromise, he signed with Toleman for 1984 only to debut at his home race and score three podiums throughout the season for this moderately competitive British team, which became Benetton by 1986. Toleman suspended Senna before the 14th race of the season for signing a contract with Team Lotus for 1985 in secret, thus becoming Lotus’ first driver after Colin Chapman’s death.
With just 16 Grand Prix under his belt, Senna scored his first F1 victory in Portugal. For the second round of the 1985 season, he qualified ahead of Prost in the McLaren, only to start the race in heavy rain. 67 soaking wet laps later, he beat Ferrari’s Michele Alboreto by over a minute and was so happy that his Lotus 97T almost had to drive itself to parc fermé:
Today marks the 35th anniversary of Senna’s maiden F1 victory, which was followed by 40 more throughout his career. Team Lotus gave him his first six, with Senna being 25 years old when the success story began in Estoril, where he lapped the entire field up to second place.
The Lotus 97T was an evolution of the 95T, designed by Gérard Ducarouge and powered by Renault’s 1.5-liter, turbocharged V-6. It also featured elements from Lotus’ stillborn 96T Indycar project as well as an early bargeboard solution. It turned out to be a successful race car, giving Team Lotus eight poles and three wins in the 1985 Formula 1 World Championship.
The Chapman family’s collection still includes Senna’s 97T, which is a running car maintained by Team Classic Lotus.
To relive those 1985 moments, and as part of Lotus’ recently launched US LOT Sessions, there’s a new podcast featuring an interview with Chris Dinnage, who was Senna’s chief mechanic in 1985, and who works as the Team Manager at Classic Team Lotus today. Here’s a teaser of what he had to say about that magical weekend, and Senna as a driver:
“Ayrton hadn’t tested the car in the wet—that was the first time he’d driven in those conditions. Estoril was when he really hit the scene, because people sat up and thought “hang on, he’s lapped almost everybody” and we knew we had something pretty special. Ayrton had the same raw pace as everyone else, but he was only using 50 percent of his capacity as a human to drive the car at full speed, leaving him the other 50 percent to be really aware of everything that was going on around him. His concentration levels were unparalleled—I’ve never met anyone else like him.”