Blast from the past: When Senna signed the most extraordinary race-by-race deal

With news that Lewis Hamilton has signed a one-year deal with Mercedes, it may be worth recalling a similar story from years ago.

It involved his hero Ayrton Senna and took place 28 years ago. Similar to the way Hamilton went about negotiating his deal, Senna also went into the 1993 season without renewing his contract at McLaren.

When he finally did put pen to paper, the contract covered only a third of the season. The remainder of the campaign would be negotiated only after this.

He worked his contract in such a way that his participation was almost completely dependent on the clause that McLaren would need to pay him consistently. If they were unable to do this, he would simply refuse to race for them.

“I remember it was a million dollars a race!,” McLaren operations director Martin Whitmarsh said.

“In the 24-and-a-half years I was at McLaren, we were profitable in F1. Our other businesses every single year apart from 1992-’93, when we lost £1.5m, and we were paying Ayrton a million dollars a race…”

The entire situation had been created as a result of Honda’s withdrawal from the sport in September 1992.

Nigel Mansell was dominant in the Williams-Renault and Senna was off to a rather disappointing start with the Honda V12.

McLaren had claimed that their plans for a new engine were not concrete and Senna was in no mood to race with a compromised package.

“As soon as Honda left, he didn’t want to continue,” Whitmarsh recalled.

“Like any driver you want a works deal, and I think he was right.”

McLaren struggle to match salary demands

With the help of Mansour Ojjeh, one option was to buy Ligier. This would basically strip the Renault contract bare and result in a better chance to take on Williams.

This did not work out and by December, it was all but confirmed that McLaren would race with Ford HB engines.

This was a huge switch for McLaren. The team did not have the same sort of wealth at its disposal and would struggle to match Senna’s salary demands.

As always, Senna went for a holiday to Brazil in the off-season break with his family after winning in Adelaide.

He almost joined IndyCar after encouragement from Emerson Fittipaldi. Fittipaldi had invited Senna to try out a Penske IndyCar at Firebird Raceway.

Senna was won over by the car instantly. This made it pretty clear to McLaren boss Ron Dennis.

“I am not committed to any team yet because I’m seriously considering what I should be doing next and what’s best for my career,” Senna had said after completing the test.

“That includes not driving in ’93 and thinking about Indy. I will now go home and have a quiet think about it and see what possibilities I can have for the immediate future.

“I must make it clear that there is no commitment from anyone regarding me driving in the future.”

Following this, Senna returned to Brazil to ponder over his future. He was not just thinking about the year ahead, his vision was more long-term. He was focused on how he could get into a Williams in the 1994 season.

Although he had had success with Dennis, it is fair to say that their relationship was far from perfect.

Strained relationship with Dennis

“They were both highly intelligent,” Senna’s manager Julian Jakobi said.

“They were both pretty ruthless in what they wanted to achieve. They clashed occasionally. But fundamentally, they were reliant on each other for success.

“And it was a very good partnership, they actually got along very well. They fought their own corner. But they knew that they were better together than apart.”

Dennis knew that it was important to keep his options open at McLaren. he went ahead and signed Mika Hakkinen from Team Lotus.

Hakkinen had a strange contract. If Senna did not return to McLaren, he would get a chance at the team. However, if Senna did come back, he would have to spend the season as a test driver.

More drama ensued when Dennis said the team was looking at some way of ensuring that all three drivers would be able to participate at different times.

However, Dennis knew that Senna was his prized asset. He wanted to find a way to convince Senna to stay at the club. The two met at the Swiss home of main sponsor Marlboro.

“Ayrton was a bit concerned about ’93, because McLaren only had a customer Ford engine,” Jakobi said.

“We had the first meeting in late January or early February in Lausanne at the Philip Morris offices.

“I flew into Geneva from London on a scheduled flight, and Ayrton flew private, I think he came from Brazil. Philip Morris sent to a car to pick us up at the airport, and we went to their offices.”

Along with the top brass of Marlboro, Senna, Jakobi and Dennis discussed the future of the team.

Senna knew just how highly he was regarded in the market. He was in no mood to compromise, especially given the news of the lucrative offer that his former team mate Gerhard Berger had signed with Ferrari.

“It sort of came up that Ayrton’s retainer for ’93 hadn’t yet been agreed,” Jakobi said.

“Ron was having to pay for the customer engines. And he said that he only had $5m available, and therefore he couldn’t pay Ayrton what he’d paid him in the past.

“So Ayrton said, ‘That’s fine. I’ll do the first five races, and that’s it.’ And so that’s how the million per race happened. He didn’t say, ‘I want a million per race,’ he just said ‘I’ll just do the first five races.’

“There was kind of a silence in the room. And John Hogan started laughing and he looked at me. Graham Bogle didn’t laugh, he was the most serious guy out of them! And there was a silence from Ron.

“And then Ayrton said, ‘Well, if you find you have any more money later on, fine, we’ll discuss the extra races after the first five.’ So that’s what happened, the first contract was signed for five races, and a million a race.

“But we put a provision in the contract. Ayrton said, ‘But I’m not coming unless the money is in my bank account by the Wednesday before each race…”

Out of the blocks in a flash

Senna may well have been surprised to see just how competitive the new Ford-powered MP4/8 was. However, it was still not as good as Williams, where his arch nemesis Alain Prost was racing.

With the help of some inclement weather and a magical race at Interlagos, Senna managed to win a race. He then won the European Grand Prix at Donington as well.

By now it had become clear that his teammate Andretti was struggling and a senior driver was required by McLaren at all costs.

He played his contractual trump card by the time the fourth race arrived. He knew he held all the aces.

“The first hiccup was in Imola,” Jakobi said.

“I always had to confirm by fax or a phone call that the money arrived. Anyway, the money hadn’t arrived on the Wednesday, and Ayrton was in Sao Paulo.

“And so he said, ‘Okay, fine, I’m not gonna race this weekend then.’ And that was it, so I had to tell the team that he wasn’t coming, because the money hadn’t arrived. The team said they’d sent it – banking wasn’t quite as efficient in those days!

“Anyway, lo and behold, the money pitched up on Thursday morning rather than Wednesday.

“So I called Ayrton’s office in Sao Paulo, and they couldn’t find him. He gone off with some girl somewhere. He wasn’t in his apartment, he wasn’t in the office, and they couldn’t find him.

“And they found him Thursday lunchtime. So he jumped on the plane. McLaren sent Jo Ramirez to Rome to pick him up, but he went to the wrong airport.

“Ayrton got to the track late on Friday morning, got into the car halfway through first practice – and had an accident. So that was the first one that went haywire…”

Senna may have tasted success in his initial races but he remained frustrated at McLaren. He could see that the team was playing second fiddle to works-backed Benetton in Ford’s pecking order.

He publicly complained about this, somewhat driving media attention away from the drama of whether he would show up for the next race.

Dennis eventually had no choice but to pay Senna Senna for remainder of the 16-race season on the same basis as the initial batch of five.

“That’s why it was a million a race and $16m,” Jakobi explained.

“It was one contract, but it could be cancelled at any time if the payment didn’t come through by the Wednesday.

“Ayrton could give them a second chance on Thursday, but the option was his to cancel the contract if the money didn’t arrive. So effectively it was a race-by-race contact, because it could be terminated.

“The second contract was much more difficult to do than the first, because Ron was on the hook for $11m – and he didn’t have the money.

“And he had to get a guarantee or contract from Philip Morris, because Ron wouldn’t sign until he had it.”

Senna’s value to the team was underpinned by his third victory of the season in Monaco. Six races into the world championship, he was on top of the drivers’ standings, before Prost began to gather steam.

“The second one was in July,” Jakobi said.

“We were way beyond the first five races by then, so it was the second part of the contract, but still with the same clause – the money didn’t arrive, so Ayrton didn’t leave home.

“I think it was the French Grand Prix. Ayrton was due to fly from Sao Paulo to Frankfurt on Varig. His plane and his pilots were going to pick him up, and fly him to Magny-Cours.

“The money didn’t arrive, Ayrton said he wasn’t coming, so it was a major issue. I was in our lawyer’s office in London at midnight, and Ron was on the phone.

“We said Ayrton was not coming, because the money didn’t arrive by Wednesday. We prepared all sorts of drafts to terminate the contract, and so various drafts were circulating around.

“And Ron said ‘But you’re not going to do that anyway, because I know Ayrton’s on the plane. I’ve been informed he’s on the plane, and it has left Sao Paolo.’

“About half an hour later the phone rang, and it was Ayrton. We put him on the speaker. Ron was on the other phone and Ayrton said, ‘I’m still in Brazil, Ron.’ He said, ‘No you’re not, the plane left, you can’t be!’

“And Ayrton said, ‘Yeah, I am. I’m in Rio. I’m in the office of the head of police in the airport, and I’m not getting back on the plane until you confirm that that money is there.’

“What Ayrton had done was get the pilot of the Varig plane to stop off in Rio. All the other passengers were on the plane, and he got off.

“I think Ron gave a personal guarantee – I can’t remember exactly what it was, but we resolved it.”

Future in safe hands

Things ran far more smoothly after this small mishap.

Senna was named as the replacement for Prost at Williams the following season. With the belief that his future was in good hands at Williams, he ended the season beautifully, winning two further races in Suzuka and Adelaide.

“In ’93 his nemesis had 60 horsepower more than him,” says Whitmarsh. “When you are in the car and you reach the rev limiter at 10,500 or something and you hear a Renault at 13,000rpm, it must be a bit demoralising!”

“I think he always knew what the limitations were,” says Jakobi. “I think ’93 was his best ever season, in terms of the way he drove, even though he didn’t win the championship, because of the equipment he had.

“McLaren was still a very, very good team, but with an engine down on power. It wasn’t as good in ’93 as the Williams with the Renault.”

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