'Senna would have beaten Schumacher in equal cars'

Ten years ago Ayrton Senna was killed at Imola. Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One impresario, tells David Tremayne how the Brazilian's skills compare to those of the current world champion
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The Independent Online

More than 20 years on, the Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone remembers precisely when he first met Ayrton Senna. And in Cheadle, Manchester, the racing photographer Keith Sutton's mother still remembers telling her son that Ecclestone had called at their house in the middle of 1983, seeking information about the young Brazilian who was winning everything in Formula Three.

More than 20 years on, the Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone remembers precisely when he first met Ayrton Senna. And in Cheadle, Manchester, the racing photographer Keith Sutton's mother still remembers telling her son that Ecclestone had called at their house in the middle of 1983, seeking information about the young Brazilian who was winning everything in Formula Three.

"I was only 21 at the time, and it was just amazing to be told that Bernie had 'phoned to ask me just how good Ayrton was'," recalls Sutton, who handled press relations and photography for Senna in his early days.

"I was interested in Ayrton because of how quick he was going," says Ecclestone, "and I first actually met him after he had tested for Brabham, late in 1983. We gave him a run in the championship-winning BT52B at Paul Ricard. He'd tested for Frank [Williams] in the middle of the year, at Donington, and then I think we were the first after that, before he drove for Ron [Dennis at McLaren] and then Toleman at Silverstone. He came back with me to London in our Learjet from the south of France. I gave him a lift because he was off to Macao the following day for the Formula Three race.

"As a guy, it struck me immediately that he obviously knew exactly what he was capable of doing, and that he was very self-confident. And he also came across as an extremely nice person."

They came close to doing a deal for Senna to join the world champion and fellow countryman Nelson Piquet at Brabham for 1984. Ecclestone recalls that he offered Senna a deal in which he would earn relatively little money in the first season, but that his income would increase in successive seasons. "It was what we had done with Nelson. We only paid him a little bit in his first year with us, in 1979, but I was able to get him a lot of income from outside the team in subsequent years. He earned a lot, and we offered Ayrton a similar deal."

The problem was that Piquet was not so keen on the idea. "I knew that Nelson called Ayrton a taxi driver," Ecclestone says, "but we could all see Ayrton's potential. That was when I knew that Ayrton would be good, because Nelson was so anti! In the end I think Nelson got in touch with Parmalat, our main sponsor, and convinced them that one Brazilian in the team was enough and that they would be better off having an Italian in the second seat."

Ecclestone is adamant that Senna was one of the finest drivers he has ever seen, even though others have suggested that he had highs and lows in his career. "I don't think his highs and lows were as much as you might think. I think Michael [Schumacher] is really, really super. But I think that Ayrton could have done as well or better than Michael has done, had he lived. If he was still here with us, for sure he would have been as good as Michael, and because Ayrton would still have been winning, Michael would have won fewer races and championships."

Pose the inevitable hypothetical question - in a straight long-term fight between Senna and Schumacher, who would have won? - and Ecclestone pauses. But not for long. "That's very, very difficult to say. Obviously they were in different cars and different eras. But if they were in the same car, Ayrton would have been on top. Like I said, he would have won races that Michael couldn't have, though that might also have worked vice versa. But overall? My money would have been on Ayrton."

Senna and McLaren scored a total of 451 points in their best years, with a high of 96 points in 1991. Like the domination today of Schumacher and Ferrari, many felt that was bad for Formula One, but Ecclestone firmly discounts the idea. "Ayrton brought a lot to Formula One. And I think he would have liked the sport as it is today - apart from the qualifying! He would have hated this one-lap stuff, even though he would have been brilliant at it. You remember the old days, when maybe everyone had done three of their four runs and somebody had just beaten Ayrton's time? And out he would go and right at the end he would just beat them? Fantastic! He was just superb at that, and now of course the pole position history doesn't mean so much any more because nobody knows what fuel load everyone is running."

Ecclestone does not believe that Senna's ultimate success came, apart from his sheer level of skill at the wheel, from his ruthlessness, as those who denigrated his bullying tactics suggest. "What he was, was just incredibly self-confident. And he had this ability to concentrate completely on what he was doing. I think he had this ability to focus without thinking about it as much as Michael does, perhaps."

Following an attack by Senna's emotionally charged younger brother Leonardo, Ecclestone was not allowed to attend Senna's funeral, something that clearly hurt. But subsequently there has been a rehabilitation and he is an advisor to the Senna Foundation. "Ayrton is one of those guys who will never be forgotten," he says. "And he will keep his fans forever, not just as a driver but because of his qualities as a person."

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