In the winter of 1992 a secret test occured in Phoenix, Arizona. It concerned the CART team Penske, one of the most successful in the series, and was based around a driver looking to investigate the possibility of driving for the team the following season. That driver was Ayrton Senna.
Looking back now it seems impossible to think that such a popular and influential driver like Senna came close to walking away from Formula One. The 1992 season had proved hard for the mercurial Brazilian: McLaren had fallen far behind Williams in the electrical arms race and Nigel Mansell had finally delivered the World Championship he had craved for six long seasons. Coupled with the blow of the loss of Honda engines, Senna knew 1993 would be even tougher to compete in. In essence, he wanted a way out of McLaren and to race elsewhere – whether it be in F1 or not.
Mansell had left himself, not wanting to be caught up in another political war with old sparring partner and new Williams signing Alain Prost. Forced out of the team that he had made his own for years, a new challenge beckoned across the Atlantic in the USA, signing for the Newman-Hass CART team. Senna, curious to see what America could hold, contacted childhood idol and mentor Emerson Fittapaldi, who had been busy building a reputation there himself. Indeed, Emerson had been trying to get Aryton in an Indycar seat for several seasons, and with Mansell showing willingness, Senna was more interested. A test was hastily arranged behind closed doors at the dusty oval Firebird West track.
The four day event consisted of some light oval driving from Fittapaldi, with Senna due to observe and eventually take the Penske out on the road course on the same site on the last day. Many of the team were sworn to secrecy – the extra publicity of such a name would only complicate matters, while the Brazilian wanted to keep the information up his sleeve in the negotiation tactics with Ron Dennis if F1 was still an option. Still, even with tight lips of all involved, some photographers were present to capture the moment. The images would circulate worldwide only a few days later.
After nearly thirty laps, Ayrton called it a day. He thanked everyone involved and left, not saying too much, but enough to keep the experts guessing what the great Brazilian’s plans were for the following season. CART chiefs were rubbing their hands together – not only had they bagged the reigning F1 champion, but were on the cusp of signing their talisman too.
It caused quite the stir. Nigel Mansell was asked in every press conference afterwards whether or not Senna was coming to Indycar – to a point where the Brit had to remind the press it was him they were there to ask about!
Thankfully, for F1 fans at least, Senna decided not to hop across the Atlantic. Instead, he chose a race-by-race deal with McLaren for the 1993 season, even though he wanted a deal with Williams that was vetoed by old nemesis Alain Prost. Without him staying, we wouldn’t have the memory of the unbelievable victory in the wet at Donington.
An interesting fact – Senna beat Fittapaldi’s time of 49.7 seconds by 0.2 in only 15 laps. After 28 laps, he was whole 0.5 faster.