- Ayrton Senna
Dennis on SennaLaurence Edmondson May 1, 2014
McLaren boss Ron Dennis had a unique and complex relationship with Ayrton Senna. To name just a few of the roles he played in Senna's life, he was his boss, friend, adversary, butt of a joke and confidant. There are few people in Formula One who recall Senna with the same level of frankness, willing to reflect on both the positives and the negatives of one of the sport's most famous names. Twenty years after Senna's death, Dennis took the opportunity to share some of his memories with journalists, including ESPNF1.
Dennis on Senna's first McLaren test in 1983:
"When he tested he came across as very arrogant. He was very keen to get an advantage and was keen to make sure the car wasn't damaged by the other youngsters [testing that day], and that it had fresh tyres etcetera, etcetera. He was clearly impressive, there was no question he was impressive, but he was still young. One trait he had is that he was quite full himself. You could see in him this I'm-always-right type of attitude, albeit a very principled individual, so he didn't appeal very much. You could see that he was quick and everything, but actually I was not that interested. He was too young to fit in our team and we didn't need a driver, so it didn't really matter and we were happy to let him go and cut his teeth somewhere else."
Dennis on negotiating Senna's first McLaren deal for 1988:
"Like all great drivers he realised the importance of the team. The great drivers actually implement the actions that get them the drive; they don't just wait they facilitate the drive for themselves. Of course, Ayrton put out the feelers, he saw that the team was very competitive, and he made it very apparent that he wanted to join. He said he wanted to meet and he was living in a rented house in Esher, not too far from where we were based, and all the meetings took place in his home. In those early meetings there was a point when he started talking about the material, he would endlessly talk about the car, but once we'd ticked those boxes there was the talk about money. Of course, he had a pretty healthy appetite, even then, for money and we started to head-butt on numbers.
"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 drive the car, but there was a problem in that we couldn't agree about the money. This got really tense and both of us were edging towards getting angry with each other's stance. He was capable of saying 'I helped you with Honda engines, blah, blah, blah', while I was saying we were giving him a great car and supporting him with the ability to win races. We were going backwards and forwards and playing the mind games - I was quite happy to play the long game - but it was coming to the point where it was threatening the relationship.
"We were arguing about this half million dollars, and because he was very principled and everything had to be as black and white as possible, the concept of chance didn't enter into his psyche. So I said let's flip a coin, leave it to chance, and although I didn't say 'let God decide', I said let's put it down to luck. But when I said 'heads or tails?' he had this blank look on his face, so I had to explain what it was and there was then a five minute conversation about how a tail could like a portcullis [on a penny coin]! I had to draw pictures on a piece of paper to make sure he got it and by this point I was thinking 'I don't care, I just want to find a way forward'.
"So I flipped the coin in the air, it was spinning and it bounced off this dark-brown shagpile carpet that was fashionable at the time. Talk about lack of attention to detail, because of course it was never going to land flat on it anyway - but it went off like a rocket and rattled under the curtain. Just as we got up to the spot where it landed, I told him it could be on its side. There was then another two minutes of what 'on its side' meant, and I said it had to be completely flat to seal the deal. I pulled the curtain back and I won the bet, but of course at that time neither of us had twigged that this was a three-year contract, so it was a $1.5 million coin flip! I know over the years it has often been seen as disrespect for money, but it was actually a great respect for money because it was the only way to break that logjam."
Dennis on managing Senna:
"If you're experienced and know a driver, then you know what lever to pull and when to pull it and what to say and how to say it. I think when you do a lot of winning together you've got to be able to do a bit of losing together. At McLaren he won 40% of all the races he started, that's better than one-in-three, which is a tremendous statistic. And you know at the same time he would always be wrestling with not being competitive. But there was a menu of things that I would say. If I got really frustrated, I'd say 'If I wasn't paying you so much money, then we could spend more on the car'. He'd say 'well you wouldn't have to pay me so much money if we had a really good car because I would be winning'. I'd come back and say, matter of fact, 'this is how much I've paid you over the last couple of years, if I was spending that on a car and R&D…' So there were lots of levers you could pull, but he was a loyal guy. How did I handle him? I leaned heavily on the relationship and closeness [we had], the Honda [engine supply] situation and the total commitment."
Dennis on Senna and Brazil:
"I'm quite fond of Brazilians, they have the rarest traits. They have probably got the strongest national magnetism in the world - a Brazilian always wants to go home. He would go to phenomenal lengths in his career to go back to Brazil. He would hop two or three times to refuel in his plane from wherever we were, just to spend one and half days in Brazil because he loved it so much.
"Winning for the first time in Brazil [in 1991] was brilliant for him. He understood that it would optimise his commercial position and make him a great hero - he had a very strong sense of value. But he was passionate throughout, the crowd went berserk and everyone got caught up. But for me it was just another race. When people ask me what my favourite race was, I always say 'the last one we won' - it's a distance memory at the moment!"
Dennis on practical jokes with Senna:
"Gerhard [Berger] gave me the perfect weapon to deal with Ayrton, because he brought humour to the team. The concept of telling a joke and Ayrton laughing at it was not even possible before Gerhard joined the team. That created a massive icebreaker, and our buffoonery, if seen and written about, would have undermined any respect anyone had for either myself or the drivers at the time.
"The worst thing was that these practical jokes used to get to such fever pitch. The tendency was to affect the practical joke and wait for the reaction, so it therefore it wouldn't be instant but it would be a delayed reaction. The skillset was to not even admit to it having happened, so occasionally you'd be waiting and if it was something they'd plotted together against me they'd be waiting for my reaction.
"On one occasion at the Villa d'Este, one of the most sophisticated hotels in Italy, if I put aside the detail of it and just focus on the scale of it … it was wallpapering a room with pornographic pictures! We won't go into the details, but you can imagine that actually finding a solution to that was not that easy, because of course it wasn't done without damaging the fabric of the room and you've obviously got huge quantities of this literature that you have to get rid of.
"That evening [McLaren sponsor] Philip Morris had decided to entertain with an escapologist, who duly chained himself up with a straightjacket on and threw him in the swimming pool and subsequently started to drown. I only laugh about it because they managed to drag him out quickly enough to take him to hospital, and he came out at the end of the dinner and 'dah, dah' he was still alive. But at the time I thought it was a fantastic distraction for the fact that I had to somehow decontaminate my room! Needless to say one of the group got back to his room that night and there was nothing in it. Nothing! No furniture, no clothes, nothing! And that was just one grand prix weekend.
"I don't think Ayrton had the concept of practical jokes in his childhood. Inevitably for some time he would say 'I can't, I can't. I can't do it' and then suddenly at some opportunity, almost certainly provoked by someone saying 'why don't we do this to get even', he got into it. So I remember the laughter and the fun."
Dennis on Senna and his struggle to find people he could trust:
"We had a very close relationship. Close in a sense that we would talk often about the meaning of life and how he wrestled with finding people he could trust. It was a bigger challenge for him when it came to girls. There was a tremendous amount of beautiful Brazilians and clearly, as a good looking, charismatic and famous man, you can imagine how he measured people. It was a huge challenge for him. It's not uncommon in sport that the people great athletes trust the most are actually the people they went to school with, because then they know they were the friends they had when they had nothing. But then they have a challenge because they haven't grown with you and there's a mismatch."
Dennis on his fondest memory of Senna:
"He gave me an envelope once, which was from his own personalised stationary and I still have it at home, and the envelope had $10,000 in it. He bet me that I couldn't eat a container of chilli in Mexico, but before he could pull the bet back I had wolfed it down. It was about the fourth time that he had lost a big bet, and I remember him coming to me and saying 'I am never going to bet with you ever again!' This is my fond memory for two reasons, firstly because to get a smile across Ayrton's face was not that easy, but secondly because to get him to part with money with a smile on his face was almost impossible! It was a great moment, but I paid for it for a couple of days after."
Dennis on the effect Senna's death had on him:
"There's nothing more certain in life than that things change and that there are things that change your life. At that moment, I took a decision on the pit wall that I was going to close down. There's no way you can share those things. You can go colourful and wave your arms around and claim to know him better than anyone else, like some of the things on the Senna film and some of the people who talked, but I would say these guys know nothing. They had no relevance to Ayrton's life, they had no knowledge of Ayrton and they talked as if they were a long-lost friend. But you can choose. You have to choose how you react to things in your life."
Dennis on why Senna is still so popular:
"I think it's because he was so good for the period that he was on the planet. I can see no positiveness in the fact that that young man did not survive, but what you didn't see was any decline. I think there's a lot of drivers that stay in the sport too long and tarnish their greatness. The thought has just occurred, it's not something that I've had in my head, but he was just unbelievably competitive and always up there. That's what you remember.
"I've never thought about what Ayrton would look like if he was here today, but one thing is that he would look a hell of a lot older. He would have had other things in his life that might have detracted from that reputation, he might have had a failed marriage or all sorts of things, but he didn't. It just came to an abrupt end. So that's one thing, and secondly, he was great. He had all the human values and he was very principled. He had very few lapses in his life, and he was incredibly principled, and an incredible human being."
Laurence Edmondson is deputy editor of ESPNF1