When Senna beat Prost at Monaco without two gears

Formula 1

Daniel Ricciardo last year proved how it’s possible to nurse a sick car around Monaco without losing the lead. Thirty years ago, Ayrton Senna achieved the seemingly impossible by managing to hide the fact that his winning McLaren-Honda had neither first or second gears for the second half the race. At Monaco, that’s like attempting to run the Olympic 100-metre final without spikes.

The first hint of possible trouble had come during the 30-minute warm-up on race morning. Senna had opted for the spare McLaren 4/5, a fresh gearbox having been fitted as a matter of routine. When he completed his first run and oil was discovered all over the back of the car, the culprit was found to be seals wrongly fitted around the gearbox output shafts. The seals had a spiral groove machined in the sealing surface to act like a pump and push oil back into the gearbox. Fitted the wrong way round, they pushed oil out of the gearbox instead of in!

The matter may have been easily rectified, but it did leave a niggling worry for a race notoriously tough on transmissions thanks to 46 gear changes — manual, of course — per lap; more than 3,500 in total.

Added to which the McLaren team knew their drivers may have been starting from the front row but both would be going hell for leather thanks to mounting tension between the two. Alain Prost had publicly stated his distrust of Senna following the breach of a private agreement during the previous race at Imola. Ron Dennis’s fatuous claim that “Our aim is to win — but we like to have fun at McLaren” did nothing to dampen the rising tension.

Senna made a clean getaway from pole. There may have been 77 laps to come but, having clipped the barrier at Portier and thrown away an easy win the previous year, there was no way Ayrton was going to repeat such a fundamental error when under pressure from his team-mate.

Prost stuck with Senna, the gap never more than a second until they came across the first of the backmarkers on lap 14. The spectre in the mirrors of a red and white car with that menacing yellow helmet was too much for most and Senna sliced his way through. For Prost, it was not so easy — particularly when the leaders reached Rene Arnoux in 15th place.

The Frenchman, having almost come to a standstill as Senna rushed by, was less accommodating for Prost. These two had history, stretching back to their time at Renault when Arnoux duped Prost during the 1982 French Grand Prix. Trapped behind the Ligier (blue flags in 1989 were advisory rather than statutory), a furious Prost was helpless as Senna’s lead stretched from 2.8 to 15 seconds in four laps. Once Arnoux had his fun and Prost was through, the gap remained. But there was worse to come.

Andrea de Cesaris, having a remarkable race in the Dallara, had worked his way into fourth place. Nelson Piquet, a desultory 15th in his Lotus, failed to share the Italian’s sense of excitement and urgency when about to be lapped, the two colliding as de Cesaris tried to dive down the inside at the Loews Hairpin. Compounding the felony, the pair then engaged in a ludicrous bout of arm and fist waving, Senna finding his way around the outside of this stationary pantomime. By the time Prost arrived at the scene, marshals were all over the road as the pair tried to extricate themselves, forcing the McLaren to wait for around 20 seconds.

With 40 laps to go, it was looking good for Senna. But it didn’t feel that way inside the leading car. First gear, essential at the hairpin, had become difficult to engage, then impossible. The extra demands soon proved too much for second gear and the engagement dogs became worn to the point of spitting out the gear. Dog ring damage was not unusual in those days, but this was the last place Senna needed it.

Determined not to give Prost any hint that something was wrong, Senna began to drive as though every lap was for pole. The times recorded by Longines bear testimony.

Senna had set his fastest lap, 1:26.017s, on lap 23. On average, and allowing for traffic, he had been in the high 1:26s to 1:27s before the gearbox began to play up.

In the second half of the race, he regularly posted 1:27s and 1:28s. Prost, keen to apply pressure as he had done so successfully the previous year, recorded 1:25.501s; the fastest lap of the race on lap 59. Senna responded with 1:27.103s, 1:27.245s and then 1:26.819s followed by 1:26.619s. All without first or second gear. No other driver at that stage was remotely close. Prost backed off and rarely ventured into the 1:28s for the remaining 14 laps. Game over.

Approaching Rascasse on his penultimate lap, Senna casually told his team he had been without first and second gear. It was the first they knew of it, Ayrton having not previously wished to impart the news by radio for fear it might be relayed to his rival.

The full extent of his secret struggle was later brought home by a photograph taken from high in the gardens overlooking Loews. The image showed Senna stretching over to hold the gear lever with his left hand, his right arm cranked across the cockpit as the only means of applying the full left lock necessary to get around the hairpin.

An extraordinary performance by an exceptional driver at an extraordinary place. Anything is possible at Monaco.

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