Dennis: Senna was just so unbelievably competitive
1 May 2014 – Ron Dennis finds it hard to talk about Ayrton Senna. The last time he spoke extensively about the Brazilian was ten years ago when it was the tenth anniversary of his passing. But now another ten years have passed since that dark weekend at Imola and another special commemorative event is being held at McLaren's Woking base. It took place earlier this year and Dennis was again on hand to talk about Senna. GPUpdate.net was of course there...
A stage has been constructed at the McLaren Technology Centre and Dennis, just back from the Geneva Motor Show, sits perched on a stool. Positioned around it are three Formula 1 cars. These are not just any F1 cars. There is the McLaren-Honda MP4-4, which took Senna to his first of three F1 titles in 1988. There is the MP4-8, the car Senna used in his last season with McLaren and which took him to what would be his final F1 victory at the 1993 Australian Grand Prix. There is also the MP4-5, which Senna raced in 1989 - and in B-spec form in 1990 - yes the one that was involved in those two famous title deciding clashes with Alain Prost at Suzuka in Japan.
Dennis begins and doesn't stop for over two hours.
Dennis talks extensively about Senna's time at McLaren, from the first time the São Paulo man drew his attention through to his emotional break with the team at the end of 1993. He also recalls some amusing tales, now well known, like the time in Mexico, when Senna challenged him to eat a container of chilli.
"He gave me an envelope once, I still have it at home – he had his own personalised stationary, it had his crash helmet on it. The envelope's been opened, but when he gave it to me it had $10,000 in it – the result of a bet we made that I could not eat a container of chilli in Mexico. Before he could pull the bet back, I wolfed it down," Dennis recalled.
"That was about the fourth time that he had lost a bet, a big one. And I can remember him giving the envelope of money to me, and saying he was never going to bet ever again, that I'd got him into betting and that it was not a good thing to do!
"That's a fond memory because getting a smile across Ayrton's face was not easy, but getting him to part with money was even more difficult!"
He also reflects on the time a coin was tossed during negotiations with McLaren in 1988: "As the contractual negotiations neared their conclusion, we started to headbutt on the numbers," Dennis explained. "There was no way he wasn't going to drive the car and there was no way we weren't going to contract him to us – but we could not agree about the money.
"We were arguing over half a million dollars, and I came up with the idea of us flicking a coin to decide. But Ayrton's English wasn't so good at the time – so there was a five-minute conversation about the details. I had to draw pictures on a piece of paper. I just wanted to find a way forward. So the coin was thrown into the air, spinning. It landed and it went off like a rocket! You could hear it rattling under the curtains, I pulled them back and I won the bet!
"At the time, neither of us twigged that we'd tossed a coin over a three-year contract – so the net result was for $1.5m. That's often been depicted as a total disrespect for money – it was nothing of the sort, it was the only way to break the log-jam."
So what does he miss most about Senna? "The fun we used to have," Dennis replied. "Most of the time it was only Gerhard [Berger], Ayrton and myself joking about, but occasionally a trainer would get roped in as well. Most people would think I'd remember all the winning. But no - that was just doing our job. It wasn't the thing it was all about. It wasn't just that we were having fun either, it was the sophistication of the fun. What do I mean? Well these practical jokes used to get to such a fever pitch.
"I remember after dinner during one race weekend, when one of our group got back to his hotel room, there was nothing in it. Literally nothing - no furniture, no clothes. Nothing. These kind of things are the things I remember the most - the laughter and the fun."
It is the way Dennis talks about Senna, though, that is most striking, most upsetting. You can see the emotion, the pain, the pleasure. It is like he lost a son on that Sunday twenty years ago today...
Senna is often regarded as one of the greatest, just why is that? "I think it's because he was so good for the whole time he was on the planet. I can see no positives from the fact that he had an accident and lost his life, but it means that you didn't see his decline. There are lots of drivers that stay in the sport too long and tarnish their greatness," Dennis stated.
"I also think he's remembered because he was just so unbelievably competitive. He was great, but he had good, human values. He had a few lapses in his life, but he was incredibly principled.
"And he was a good human being."