Interview with Pat Symonds: Senna, with Pirelli on his debut

Home Life People interviews Interview with Pat Symonds: Senna, with Pirelli on his debut

The 1st May this year marked the 30th anniversary of the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994, after he crashed heavily into the barriers at Tamburello corner on lap 7 of the San Marino Grand Prix at the Imola circuit. His memory is still very much alive, not just for Formula 1 fans, but also in the wider world because the legend surrounding Ayrton has transcended sport, not just in his native Brazil, but elsewhere and particularly in Italy.

It is probable that no other driver who never drove for Ferrari is held in such high regard by Italian fans, who always supported him and remember him still with great affection, not least because his family had distant Italian roots and because he met his tragic end in Italy.

There's another small link between Italy and Ayrton's time in Formula 1, concerning his first appearance in motor racing's blue riband category. When he made his debut at his home race in Brazil in 1984, his Toleman was fitted with Pirelli tyres, as it was for a further two races before a switch to Michelin. His engineer at the time was Pat Symonds, who has made his mark in the sport over the past forty years, currently in the role of Formula 1 Chief Technical Officer. We spoke to Pat about Ayrton's very first foray into Formula 1.  “Senna had already done two tests, first with Williams and then with McLaren, but he still didn't know if he'd be racing in Formula 1 the following year. I'd noticed him when he started out in Formula Ford and then Formula 3 and so our team principal, Alex Hawkridge organised a day's testing at Silverstone in October. That day, Rory (Byrne) was engineering him, but I was there too, curious to see how he'd get on and how he'd cope with the turbo engine for the first time, given that he'd never experienced that type of engine before and back then, they were very different in terms of driveability compared to a turbo today: our Hart had a power delivery you could describe as a bit brutal…Right from the morning, on a damp track, he set a great lap time, better than Derek Warwick's, the race driver at the time, but in the afternoon, when the track dried out, he was really impressive.”

But it wasn't his speed that impressed you the most, it was something about his character.

“His self-confidence in the destiny that lay ahead of him. It's true that racing drivers and sports people in general have to believe in their own ability, otherwise they would never be successful. During my career, I've been lucky enough to work with incredible drivers such as Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso, but I never met anyone who, on the day of a first test with a car and team that he did not know at all, had such an awareness of what he had to do and what he wanted to achieve. There was no shyness in the guy, he just wanted to be given the opportunity to drive a Formula 1 car. It was an attitude that left no room for doubt or uncertainty which then expressed itself with an incredible ability to explain precisely everything about how the car was behaving. We were all struck by this. Remember that, at the time, there was no telemetry and we engineers were totally reliant on what the driver said, even for example when it came to monitoring engine temperature. And none of the drivers we had worked with up until then were able to give precise feedback quite the way he did. He was very well prepared, not so much from a strictly technical point of view, but rather in his ability to describe what the car was doing on track and what he needed to go faster.”

And so you decided to take him on for 1984?

“That was our intention, but that November Ayrton did another test with Brabham. The number one driver at the time in Bernie Ecclestone's team was Nelson Piquet who had just won his second world title, who clearly didn't like the idea of having a young Brazilian alongside him. Or at least that was the rumour going around the paddock and Nelson made sure that at the Paul Ricard test, Ayrton's set-up wasn't the best, to avoid any risk. So, then Senna came back to us and agreed to race with Toleman for a year, with an option in our favour, a factor that, later, would create some conflict.”

Did you ask yourself why Williams or McLaren had not taken a chance on such a talent, despite having given him a test?

 “Back then, much more so than today, the big teams didn't like taking a gamble on a rookie. At the time, there weren't as many young driver programmes as there are today. So focussing on a rookie was maybe too risky. Ayrton had won the British Formula 3 championship its true, but he hadn't been dominant, as he had to fight right to the very end to beat Martin Brundle. So, in some ways, it was understandable that Frank Williams and Ron Dennis didn't want to take risks. For us, as a little team, it was easier to go for him and then we were really struck by how he immediately felt comfortable in a crabby car like ours: he seemed made to race in Formula 1.”

Did his attitude change at all once the contract was signed?

“No, I wouldn't say so. For him, it all seemed very natural and revealed this incredible awareness of what he was doing. He was well aware that Toleman would just be a first step and that it wouldn't be with us that he'd grow and achieve his goals. It wasn't arrogance, just total self-confidence. He came back to England after the winter break, ready to do the thing he wanted more than anything else in the world, driving in Formula 1.”

How did his debut go?

The car, the TG183 B, was pretty much an evolution of the previous one that had raced in 1982. In 1983, we finished ninth and especially towards the end, we were finishing in the points quite regularly. The car was quick but rather difficult to set up. Its Achilles heel was still reliability, as could be seen at the opening round in Rio de Janeiro. Ayrton and his team-mate, the Venezuelan two-time motorcycle world champion, Johnny Cecotto, both qualified, but neither of them even got to one third distance in the race: on lap 8, Ayrton's turbo blew up and Johnny's did the same on lap 18.”

The next two races went better.

“You race at altitude in Kyalami, its over 1500 metres above sea level and it requires considerable effort to race in those conditions. If the early Ayrton had a weak point, it would be his level of fitness. He started thirteenth and managed to get to the chequered flag, three laps down on the winner Piquet, although he was sixth. It was his first ever championship point. By the end, he was exhausted and we had to pull him out of the cockpit as he couldn't get out on his own. In fact that was his first full Formula 1 race distance, because back then you didn't do the race simulations in testing that you have today! That Grand Prix was an alarm bell for Ayrton because he realised he wasn't fit enough and so he began also working on that. In Zolder, he finished sixth again, a great result.”

But then came Imola, where the problems with Pirelli exploded…

“There had already been disagreements between the team and Pirelli, who also supported us financially and this led to us skipping the first qualifying session. In the second one, Ayrton had a reliability problem that prevented him from setting a realistic time and so, for the first and only time in his career, he didn't make it to the starting grid. With hindsight, it was kind of sign of destiny if you think about it.”

Senna's relationship with Pirelli ended there.

“Yes, because as from the French Grand Prix we started running Michelins, partly thanks to a kind word from Ecclestone. However, the following year, we had to take a step back because Michelin pulled out of Formula 1, but by then, Ayrton had already left the team to move to Lotus. Anyway, a few weeks later in Monaco, the whole Formula 1 world realised what the Brazilian was made of. There had been talk about it, but up until then there hadn't really been a real demonstration of his talent.”

That was the Monaco Grand Prix where a somewhat hasty red flag denied him his first win.

“It was an unforgettable Sunday. In the wet, Ayrton was literally flying and then the race was stopped at Prost's behest and so the dream of victory evaporated, but nevertheless, we were all happy that day. The morning after however, we began to think that rather than having secured a podium finish, it was actually a win that was lost. Having said that, later we discovered that there was a broken suspension rocker on Ayrton's car: we don't know how long it would have lasted, maybe another lap, maybe to the end of the race, maybe all it would have taken would be clipping a kerb and it would have broken definitively.”

You have worked closely with three amazing drivers, Ayrton, Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso. What were they like to work with?

“Ayrton was a loner, a free spirit, absolutely convinced of his mission, able to build a loyal group around him in a very close relationship. I often spoke to Jo Ramirez who always said the same thing. I think that also had something to do with the fact that, at McLaren, they always had a very clear approach to managing the drivers, letting them fight between themselves. Michael is one of the loveliest people you could meet, completely normal and above all, a team player, also because since the beginning of his career he grew up in an environment where that was the norm. Fernando is more similar to Ayrton in this respect, although over the years, especially through his time in endurance racing I think he got a better understanding of the importance of teamwork, while in his early days he was more, let's say, of an individualist. In any case, I was incredibly lucky to be able to get to know them up close, as racing drivers, but above all as people.”