September 1992 was a wild time for Formula 1, with newly crowned world champion Nigel Mansell shockingly announcing his retirement from the sport on the morning of the Italian Grand Prix, paving the way for then three-time world champion Alain Prost to take the seat.
One driver not in the running for a Williams seat was Ayrton Senna, vetoed by Prost, who wasn’t keen on a repeat of their disastrous relationship at McLaren, which turned into an internal team civil war played out to millions of television sets.
Following an amusing rant in an FIA press conference in Estoril where he called Prost a coward and a flirtation with IndyCar over the winter, Senna agreed to race for McLaren, now running Ford engines on the ground that he was paid $1m per race.
The run into race day
At the season opener in Kyalami, Senna mugged Prost off the line and held the lead in the opening stages, with the Benetton of Michael Schumacher proving to be a helpful roadblock for Senna in second place after Prost swerved to avoid his spinning teammate Damon Hill at turn 1.
Once Prost got by Schumacher, he set off in pursuit of Senna but rather than just simply waltzing by the McLaren, Prost was frustrated by the ever-determined Senna, who timed his blocks to perfection until inevitably, the Frenchman got by cruising to an easy win ahead of Senna and Mark Blundell.
A fortnight later, the Formula 1 circus reconvened in Sao Paulo with Senna now two million dollars up, hoping to repeat his Kyalami heroics but this time go one better and win in front of his battle-hardened fans decked out in his trademark blue Nacional caps.
But that extra two million dollars didn’t make Senna any quicker as both Williams locked out the front row with Prost ahead of Hill and nearly two seconds faster than Senna and Schumacher on row two.
Cloudy with a chance of Brazilian delight
Throughout the weekend, the sky above Interlagos was overcast but dry, and race day was no exception, with expected rain keeping the teams on their toes.
At the jump, Prost got a perfect launch and lead into the Senna S as Senna muscled his way into second, further back Michael Andretti was halfway back to Nazareth when he collided with Gerhard Berger at the start putting both out of the race.
Like in South Africa, Prost and Senna broke away from the rest of the pack, but by lap 10, Senna was dropping back into the clutches of Hill, who wasted little time in getting past the local hero for second, much to the crowd’s misery.
Some of the crowd could be forgiven for leaving early when Senna lost third after being called in to serve a 10-second stop/go penalty; however, as hope began to fade away, the rain arrived, putting Senna back into the fight as he stopped for fresh wets followed by Hill.
Whilst the leaders stopped, all hell broke loose on the front straight as Aguri Suzuki became the first casualty of the awful conditions, with Ukyo Katayama following his countryman out of the race bringing the safety car out.
But then, to the shock of millions of television viewers, Prost was next to fall foul after not stopping for tyres sending him into Christian Fittipaldi’s stranded Minardi and changing the complexion of the race with the now re-awaken Brazilan crowd celebrating Prost’s retirement with a chant of ‘eu, eu, eu, o Prost se fodeu’.
Prost slips out: Senna takes advantage
With Prost now learning the more fruity side of the Portuguese language, Hill led Senna Schumacher and Johnny Herbert behind the Fiat Tempa safety car that was going at a snail’s pace.
Once the rain eased, the race got back underway with Schumacher and Senna, the two great rain masters of their day, pitting for drys not long after the restart.
Hill, now on the wrong tyre, stopped for dries but lost the lead following a perfect out lap by Senna, who breezed into the lead on the run down to the Ferradurra.
From then on, it was one-way traffic as Senna streaked home to take a crushing victory from Hill and the hard-charging Schumacher.
The crowd, now in a state of euphoria, invaded the track on Senna’s cooling down lap, stopping cars behind him as they tried to catch a glimpse of their idol. Finally, with nowhere to go, Senna got out of his car and raised his arms to greet his compatriots before being whisked away in a course car.
Senna didn’t have much time to catch his breath, he was whisked to the podium where Schumacher, Hill and Ron Dennis were waiting for him, but his attention quickly turned to South America’s other great champion Juan Manuel Fangio, handing out the trophies that day.
In what would become one of the sport’s most iconic images, Senna leapt off the podium to embrace his idol in a rare showing of emotion that few outside of his inner circle had ever seen before.
The aftermath from Brazil
Despite his reservations and the odd tendency to arrive minutes before practice, Senna went on to complete the full season taking stunning wins at Donnington and Monaco as well as victories in Suzuka and Adelaide.
But he could not overcome the Prost/Williams juggernaut that wrapped up both titles by Portugal.
However, like Mansell before him, Prost called time on his Formula 1 career at the top, giving Senna his chance at Williams that would sadly end in tragic circumstances at Imola on Mayday 1994.
Perhaps the best tribute to Senna’s talent came from BBC TV analyst James Hunt who said this just before handing the microphone over to Murray Walker.
“We don’t mind what he’s paid; we want to see the best driver in Grand Prix racing the best driver in the world by a long way; we want to see him racing in Grand Prix racing even if he’s in an inferior car as he comes to the flag he can still beat Alain Prost for the championship.”
An assessment few would disagree with.