Senna, driving chassis 6 at Monaco in 1993. Photos courtesy Bonhams.
On paper, 1993 looked to be a challenging year for the McLaren F1 team. Rival – and 1992 constructor’s champion – Williams-Renault had a significant power advantage, but McLaren had driver Ayrton Senna and an all-new chassis, the MP4/8, to level the playing field. This May, the 1993 McLaren MP4/8 raced by Senna to his sixth (and final) victory at Monaco will cross the stage at Bonhams Les Grandes Marques à Monaco sale, a quarter-century after the car was driven to victory in the principality.
From 1988-’91, McLaren-Honda was the team to beat in Formula 1, capturing the constructor’s championship for four years in a row. Senna took the driver’s title in three of these four years, with the 1989 Championship going to his then-teammate – but later arch-rival – Alain Prost. Things changed in 1992, when Nigel Mansell dominated in the Williams-Renault, winning eight of 16 races (and the championship) and easily clinching the constructor’s title for Williams.
Senna found himself fourth in the points that season, and frustrated, began looking for a new team to call home. So intent was he on leaving McLaren – which was losing Honda as an engine supplier at the end of the 1992 season – that he even offered to drive for Williams-Renault at no charge in 1993. The team might have taken him up on the offer, except for one thing: Alain Prost had signed with Williams after taking a sabbatical in 1992, and written in his contract was a clause that specifically prohibited the squad from hiring Senna as his teammate.
As the 1992 season wound down, McLaren found itself without an engine supplier, and potentially without Senna as its star driver. A contract was in the works to use Peugeot engines, but not until the 1994 season. Renault power was one possibility for McLaren in 1993, but going this route would have violated sponsorship agreements with existing petroleum supplier Shell. Left with no other options, McLaren signed a single-season deal with Ford as an engine supplier, with the understanding that the Benetton team would get the supplier’s first-tier engines, with McLaren getting powerplants one-generation old.
Though reports differ, some believe that Senna entered the 1993 season agreeing only to drive for McLaren on a race-by-race basis, reportedly for $1 million per appearance. At the season-opening South African Grand Prix, the constructor introduced its latest chassis, the MP4/8, which featured innovations including electronic engine management, active chassis control, and data-acquisition and telemetry systems. While the Ford-Cosworth HB V-8 was down on power compared to the Renault V-10, the MP4/8 proved to be nimble and well-suited to Senna’s driving style.
Racing chassis number 3, Senna managed a second-place finish in South Africa, followed by wins in Brazil and Donington Park. At the San Marino Grand Prix in April, Senna practiced in chassis number 5 before returning to chassis 3 for the race, but his day was cut short with hydraulic failure on lap 43. In Spain, race five of the 16-race season, Senna switched to chassis 6, the car being offered by Bonhams in Monaco, and delivered another second-place finish.
Things did not begin well for Senna at Monaco in 1993. In practice, a failure of the car’s active suspension put Senna hard into the wall at Sainte-Dévote, injuring his hand and damaging chassis 6. The McLaren team rebuilt the car for qualifying, and Senna, despite his injury, qualified third, behind Michael Schumacher in second and Alain Prost on the pole.
Perhaps seeking an advantage on a track where passing is notoriously difficult, Prost bolted the start, earning a 10-second stop-and-go penalty from officials. Departing the pits, Prost stalled his Williams, and by the time the car was restarted, joined the field one lap down. That left Schumacher in the lead, with Senna in third, and the strength of the better-developed Ford engine in Schumacher’s Benetton soon became apparent as the German opened a gap on the Brazilian. Things changed on lap 33, when Schumacher’s car suffered a hydraulics failure, giving the lead – and the eventual win – to Senna. It would be his sixth victory at Monaco, and though no one could have imagined it at the time, his last.
Senna also raced chassis 6 in Canada, France, Britain, Germany, Belgium, and Italy, but scored no more wins or podiums in the car. At Portugal, the car was used for practice, with Senna switching to chassis 8 for the race. Behind the wheel of chassis 8, Senna would go on to capture wins in Japan and Australia, ending his season – and his career at McLaren – on a high note.
Tragically, Senna’s brilliant career would come to an end three races into the 1994 season. On lap seven of the San Marino Grand Prix, Senna’s car left the track at the Tamburello corner, striking a concrete wall in what almost appeared to be a minor shunt. The impact was severe enough to detach the right front wheel and suspension components, and Senna died of a fractured skull when the wheel struck his helmet, forcing it back into the headrest.
As Bonhams head of global motorsport Mark Osborne points out,
Ayrton Senna was the most charismatic Grand Prix car driver of the modern era, and the MP4/8A was the car with which his team, McLaren, surpassed Ferrari as the most successful team in Formula 1 World Championship history. This particular chassis, number 6, cemented Senna’s legend as The Master of Monaco.
Bonhams is not releasing a pre-auction estimate for the lot, though by way of comparison, Michael Schumacher’s 2001 Monaco winner sold at a Sotheby’s auction last November for $7.5 million, setting a record for a modern-era Formula 1 car.
Bonhams ‘Les Grandes Marques à Monaco’ sale takes place on May 11. For additional information, visit Bonhams.com.