Twenty years after Ayrton Senna's tragic death, Ron Dennis still struggles to speak about the special bond he shared with the Formula One great.
Dennis, whose McLaren cars took Senna to three Formula One world titles, rarely delves publicly into his memories of a man who "was so good for the whole time he was on the planet."
Senna's death left Dennis devastated and the McLaren CEO still regards it as a private and complex affair, preferring to keep his emotions to himself. But as the 20th anniversary of Senna's passing is observed this week at the Imola track where he had his fatal crash on May 1, 1994, Dennis remembered one of the most fruitful collaborations in the history of the sport.
Dennis signed Senna to McLaren in 1987 on a day he will never forget. As negotiations neared conclusion, Senna and the McLaren boss could not agree on the money.
"We were arguing over half a million dollars, and I came up with the idea of us flicking a coin to decide," Dennis said in an in-depth interview with McLaren Mercedes website. "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!"
The 10 best F1 drivers
The 10 best F1 drivers
1/10 AYRTON SENNA
The tragic death of Ayrton Senna promoted the Brazilian's status in Formula One to almost mythical status. Yet even if he hadn't died in front of a world wide audience doing what he loved, his achievements in his all too short career would still have had him jostling for the title of the greatest F1 driver of all time. Senna is now considered something of a forerunner to the modern driver, who prided himself on his fitness and understanding of the modern Grand Prix cars. When he joined forces with Alain Prost at McLaren, the young driver showed no sign of being overawed by the established champion, and in the end forced Prost to move on. On the track words such as brave, fast and daring were used to describe him - and are the attributes that took him to three world titles. When he died in May 1994 in an accident at the San Marino Grand Prix, he was trying to fend off the challenge of a young Michael Schumacher. F1 fans never got a chance to see the two duel for supremacy over an extended period - but could they have done - it would have been one of the most fascinating battles in F1 history.
2/10 JIM CLARK
When Jim Clark joined Lotus it was a match made in heaven. Like some of the others on this list, Clark was completely dominant during his time in Formula One in the mid-60s. He was recognised for his natural ability behind the wheel. As well as winning two F1 championships he also excelled in saloon and rally races. The race for which he is often remembered is the 1963 Spa-Francorchamps Grand Prix in Belgium. In dreadful conditions, Clark lapped the entire field, effectively putting him eight miles ahead of his nearest rival in a display of supreme wet weather driving. The quiet Scotsman may well have gone on to record more Grand Prix victories and titles had he not lost his life in the pouring rain at a Formula Two race at Hockenheim in April 1968.
3/10 MICHAEL SCHUMACHER
The seven-time World Champion was utterly dominant during his time in the sport, particularly his spell with Ferrari with whom he picked up five titles. There is no doubt surrounding his ability behind the wheel, but question marks have always been raised regarding his sportsmanship. His first title came in 1994 amid dubious circumstances in which he crashed into title rival Damon Hill, preventing the Brit winning the championship. He tried a similar tactic against Jacques Villeneuve in 1997, but on that occasion the authorities came down hard and expunged him from the records. But whatever people think of Schumacher, there is no doubting the mark he's left on Formula One.
4/10 JACKIE STEWART
Jackie Stewart was something of a pioneer when it came to the playboy lifestyle often associated with the drivers of today. He became the sports first millionaire, dined out with royalty and spent much of his time in Monaco. But all of this wouldn't have been possible had the Scot not have been so formidable behind the wheel. Stewart was blindingly fast and drove himself to three championships. He could have gone on to record many more achievements but after the death of team-mate and close friend Francois Cevert, Stewart walked away from the sport in a stand against slack safety-standards. Many of the safety provisions in place today are thanks to his campaigning.
5/10 FERNANDO ALONSO
There are numerous young drivers on the current grid that could stake a claim to be in the mix for the greatest driver. Lewis Hamilton has been nothing short of breathtaking since he emerged on the scene while Jenson Button showed incredible patience before guiding his Brawn to the title. Yet it is the Spaniard Fernando Alonso who makes the cut. He lifted the world title twice during his first stint at Renault, and was the driver who ended Michael Schumacher's run of five straight titles. He's now often remembered for his part in the bitter power struggle with Lewis Hamilton at McLaren, but with his return to a competitive car with Ferrari, don't bet against this undoubtedly gifted driver winning more titles. He has as much of a claim to become one of the greats as Lewis Hamilton.
6/10 JUAN MANUEL FANGIO
If Ayrton Senna was the Pele of motorsport, Juan Manuel Fangio was certainly the Diego Maradona. The Argentine's incredible record seemed to defy logic. A rotund figure with powerful forearms, Fangio was also 47 when he won his last Grand Prix. He drove in only 51 Grand Prix yet started 48 of them from the front row and won almost half of them. The Argentine won five titles with four different teams in a career noted for his sporting behaviour and awesome driving ability.
7/10 SEBASTIAN VETTEL
He's been labelled the Schumacher of his day for two reasons. One, he's German. The other, he's dominated the sport in recent years, winning the last four Drivers' Championships. Some have put his success down to the Red Bull car under him, but the fact he put his former team-mate Mark Webber in the shadows before the Australian retired, prove just what a good driver he is.
8/10 ALBERTO ASCARI
The very name of Alberto Ascari conjures romantic images of Italian motorsport. Already a notable driver, Ascari teamed up with Enzo Ferrari in the 1950s and together they would win two Formula One titles. He was noted for his steely concentration and at times the wild, jerky corner taking that he would employ to drag the best out of the car beneath him. His career came to an abrupt end when at the 1955 Moncaco Grand Prix he careered into the harbour. Then a few days later he died at Monza during testing for Ferrari. Ascari was revered in his home country, and as the only Italian to win a title at the wheel of a Ferrari, he remains so.
9/10 ALAIN PROST
Alain Prost's style of driving failed to win over the purists. He drove every race in exactly the same way: he didn't take risks, refused to enter any hi-jinks with other drivers and drove a considered, intelligent race. He was the antithesis of his great rival Ayrton Senna. Yet 'The Professor's' four world championships are testament to the fact that while the Frenchman may have not won many friends, he did win a lot of races.
10/10 NELSON PIQUET
Another Brazilian driver to make the cut in out ten best list. Piquet took three titles during his Formula One career, all the more remarkable considering the likes of Alain Prost, Niki Lauda and Ayrton Senna were all competing against him at the time. Piquet was regarded as something of a serious professional with undeniable intelligence. His technical know-how helped him reach the peaks of the sport and his rivalry with Nigel Mansell when the two were team-mates at Williams is one of the most fondly cherished in the history of Formula One. The legend that Nelson Piquet Jnr had to live up to can not be underestimated.
That episode speaks volumes about Dennis and Senna's playful mindsets. It also marked the beginning of a five-year relationship, sometimes marred by feuds and disagreements, but mostly made of joy. During his time at McLaren, Senna triumphed in 35 grand prix races.
Senna left McLaren at the end of 1993 to join Williams and was killed in only his third race for the team when the 34-year-old Brazilian crashed on the seventh lap of the San Marino Grand Prix.
Over the years Senna drove for McLaren from 1988-92, the moments of fun Dennis shared with a man who was not exactly famous for his mischievous side have a special place in his heart. Driven and focused at races, Senna was indeed game for a laugh with people he knew intimately.
When asked about his fondest memory of Senna, Dennis mentioned a bet he won.
"He gave me an envelope once, I still have it at home," Dennis said. "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 chili in Mexico. Before he could pull the bet back, I wolfed it down. 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!"
Dennis said one of the reasons many people consider Senna to be the greatest ever is because he died too early.
"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," Dennis said. "There are lots of drivers that stay in the sport too long and tarnish their greatness."
On the track, Senna was ruthless as can be and infuriated many of his rivals, including French nemesis Alain Prost. Senna and Prost spent two years at McLaren together in 1988-89 and Dennis was there to witness first-hand their long-lasting feud. At Imola in 1989, Prost accused Senna of breaking a pre-race agreement but Dennis said both drivers were to blame.
"They broke each other's confidence," he said. "They both made commitments to each other several times, that was one that came into the public domain. There was tremendous tension and anger ... Those two were perfectly matched in deviousness."
The dispute reached its climax the year after at the penultimate race of the year in Japan, when Senna crashed into the Frenchman at the first turn, guaranteeing himself his second world title. The move disappointed Dennis.
"I remember looking at all the traces — the brake and throttle pedal — and you didn't need to be Einstein to work out what happened," Dennis said. "When he came back to the garage, I told him I was disappointed in him. He got it. He didn't have to say any more. I don't think he was particularly proud of what happened."
But according to Dennis, that was just a moment of weakness in an otherwise flawless career.
"He's remembered because he was just so unbelievably competitive," Dennis said. "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."