It was 35 years ago today, in monsoon conditions, that a determined young Brazilian raced to his first Formula 1 victory and cemented his name in motorsport folklore.
It was Sunday 21 April and the 1985 Portuguese Grand Prix. Behind the wheel of a Lotus 97T was Ayrton Senna, just turned 25 years old. With the car at the absolute limit of its grip, he delivered a masterclass in wet-weather driving for the hardy Estoril crowd and powered to the chequered flag. Such was his dominance he lapped the entire field up to second place, finishing over a minute ahead of his nearest competitor.
A legend was born
In just his second race for Lotus, Senna took the first of 41 career F1 victories. The performance stunned his rivals and lay down a marker that would see him go on to become a global sporting icon and a national hero in his native Brazil. Despite his tragic death in 1994, he remains a racing legend.
“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,” says Chris Dinnage, Senna’s chief mechanic in 1985 and the current Team Manager at Classic Team Lotus.
“Ayrton had the same raw pace as everyone else, but he was only using 50% of his capacity as a human to drive the car at full speed, leaving him the other 50% 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,” Dinnage adds.
Reigning in the rain: Senna at Estoril
Rain, as ever, is the great leveler for on-track performance. It requires sensitive driver inputs, instinctive car control and a sympathetic approach to the mechanical set-up. One weekend in Estoril revealed Senna could excel in all.
It was also the setting for Senna’s first-ever F1 pole position, and he went on to claim another 15 for Lotus. His record of 65 F1 pole positions is eclipsed only by Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton.
In the race, Senna got off the line well and led a Lotus 1-2 after the first lap. With a clear road ahead, he began to pull away from team-mate Elio de Angelis and the chasing pack. The race was one of bravery and attrition; conditions worsened and, in an era before safety cars, pit-to-car radio or yellow flags, cars were pulling off the track or hitting the barriers.
Senna remained calm and composed in his Lotus and, after two hours of brutal racing, crossed the line first. Just nine cars were classified as finishing.
A long-standing legacy
“It was a hard, tactical race, corner by corner, lap by lap, because conditions were changing all the time. The car was sliding everywhere – it was very hard to keep the car under control. Once I had all four wheels on the grass, totally out of control, but the car came back on the circuit. People later said that my win in the wet at Donington in ’93 was my greatest performance – no way! I had traction control,” Senna later commented.
The Lotus 97T chassis was the first in F1 to use bargeboards that were placed between the front wheels and sidepods. This aided airflow around the side of the car and is a concept that still exists in motorsport to this day. The car took eight poles and three wins that season with Senna and de Angelis at the wheel.
Today, the actual Lotus 97T in which Senna won at Estoril is owned and maintained by Classic Team Lotus. Like Lotus, it is based in Hethel, Norfolk, and uses a team of expert and knowledgeable designers, engineers and mechanics – including Chris Dinnage – to preserve classic Lotus F1 cars for their owners.