Triple world champion Nelson Piquet likened driving a Formula 1 car round Monaco to “flying a helicopter around your living room” (an extension of his famous line comparing it to riding a bicycle indoors) - and it's 30 years today since one of Piquet’s countrymen became the greatest indoor pilot of all.
It was on Saturday 14 May 1988 that Ayrton Senna went into overdrive, blitzing the F1 field including his great rival Alain Prost in an identical McLaren. In a classic interview with Gerald Donaldson, Senna revealed: “I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by instinct, only I was in a different dimension. I was way over the limit but still able to find even more. It frightened me because I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding.”
Most professional racers can switch off their conscious mind – letting their autopilot control the minutiae of driving if they’re in a busy race. But Senna’s experience was something else altogether. This was not easing off but going beyond concentration to the other side. No wonder that as Senna recounted what happened he was shaking, his voice wavered and his eyes misted over – sure signs of his passion for any subject.
Hollywood’s modern classic The Matrix came out after Senna’s death but fans will recognise this kind of experience. “Detached from anything else”, he had unlocked an all-new level of hyper-ability that rendered Earthly pursuits easy. He described the sensation as “between two worlds”. It sounds fanciful, but this was no movie. It was very real and witnessed by millions around the world.
Of those, one had a clearer view of the magic than most. Switzerland’s Alain Menu, who went on to touring car glory, was competing in the F3 race that weekend so his pitpass let him stand on the inside of the chicane, looking back up towards the tunnel exit. What came next remains etched into his memory, as I discovered decades later.
We were talking about Menu’s own career when, unprompted, his mind drifted back to that Saturday in 1988: “There weren’t many people around because it was a private area but I’m so glad I was there. Ayrton Senna was visibly braking eight metres later than anybody else but it was his car that was amazing. All the other cars were a bit unbalanced and you could hear them banging around under braking. For him, nothing. As he braked the whole car just shook. You could hear nothing except for a noise that sounded like phphphphph.”
Menu’s exclamation is reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter recalling his favourite meal in The Silence of the Lambs, but breathing out rather than in. Spine tingling? You bet: “It made an immediate impression on me,” he adds. “It gives me goose pimples to talk about it and I’m so glad I saw it. I’m sure people who didn’t see that lap would have heard what Ayrton said and thought, ‘He’s crazy.’
“If I hadn’t seen it and I’d heard what he said, I’d have said, ‘Okay, whatever, it was just a fantastic lap, that’s it.’ But something definitely happened that day and I believe it was special because I’ve never seen a racing car do this. Never, ever, ever. And I have no doubt it was the same the whole way round the lap. Ayrton was one and a half seconds quicker than team-mate Alain Prost and two and a half seconds clear of the next guy. Alain was a great driver but when he saw the lap times and the printouts he couldn’t have believed it because it was so far ahead of what he could do.
“I’m very down to Earth and I generally don’t believe in this kind of thing. In my own career I’ve had some very good qualifying sessions but never anything like that, where you almost forget what you’ve done. Later I heard Ayrton had to come into the pits because he was looking down on himself from above the car. That was all so hard to believe but now I believe it because I saw it and I heard it.”
Ready for the next Hollywood twist? During my research for In The Zone I spoke about this sensation to Formula 1 world champions including Lewis Hamilton, Mika Hakkinen and Emerson Fittipaldi plus greats of the Indianapolis 500 and the world rally championship. But it was Prost himself who surprised me when he revealed he underwent a similar experience around the very same Monaco streets, two years before Senna: “I was really flying and I could not see the speed. To me it felt like I was driving at 30mph. The whole weekend was like this. Your mind is still focused but it’s really happiness. It's happiness. And you are fast...”
Monaco has been such an eternal, magical presence in Formula 1 it seems strange that the one thing the principality has always been missing is a bona fide top-line driver.
But amid all the mayhem of last weekend’s manic Azerbaijan Grand Prix, one of few indisputably positive stories was a young Monegasque driver taking the principality’s first points since Louis Chiron scored at home in 1950 in the second ever F1 race.
No motor sport fan was surprised by Charles Leclerc’s drive to an unlikely sixth place in the lowly Sauber. After romping to GP3 glory in 2016, his 2017 Formula 2 season was extraordinary: as dominant as the feeder series’ all-time greats including future F1 world champions Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. No wonder this long-time Ferrari Driver Academy protégé is a clear favourite to end up racing for Maranello.
But Leclerc’s stunning rise has been tinged with tragedy: first he lost his close friend and mentor Jules Bianchi. And there was added poignancy that Leclerc’s first ever F1 points should arrive at the same Baku track as his remarkable Formula 2 win in 2017, just days after the loss of his beloved father Hervé.
‘I’ve had two huge losses for my family and myself over these past three years with Jules and my father,’ Leclerc tells me. ‘It has definitely been hard but obviously it has made me a lot stronger.
‘The only thing I told myself before the Baku Formula 2 race is that I knew that from up there they wouldn’t want me to be completely devastated or do a very bad race. They would certainly want to see me happy and doing great things out on the track.
‘Once I arrived in Baku I just tried to focus 300 percent on Baku and try to think the least amount possible of all this while I was in the car. Somehow I believe they hear me every time I speak to them, that they are still somewhere here, trying to help me from up there…’
Mental strength is a key element of all success in sport and anywhere else, but it takes exceptional poise and determination to make a positive out of the worst things life can throw at us. Still only 20 years old, Leclerc has somehow taken everything in his stride.
Of course it helps that he has spent so much time lately honing the racer’s mentality…
‘I’ve grown quite a lot mentally over the last past four or five years,’ he adds. ‘There are many techniques that can be used. I personally like the one of picturing the perfect lap in my head – especially before qualifying.
‘I do this often because I really think it helps. Every time there is a break and I’m not in the car, this imagery helps me hugely to be fully concentrated. When I get back in the car it feels different but this visualisation helps you readapt quicker to the car.
‘Then for the race it’s about looking at previous races then picturing all the different scenarios to be ready for any of them – like where to be at the first corner because obviously that’s very important.’
Later this month Leclerc will have his first chance to take an F1 car around his home streets at the Monaco Grand Prix. This will be even more special as he grew up with tales from his father about what Ayrton Senna’s magic performances and watching them on video.
Ironically Monaco was the only race weekend where Leclerc failed to score last year, but that didn’t stop him taking a characteristic storming pole and leading until retiring with a tyre problem. So it would be no surprise if he comes away with another strong performance later this month.
‘I really like city tracks,’ he smiles. ‘Last year the speed was amazing at both Baku and Monaco: they take so much focus yet I felt very comfortable in both. Of the two pole laps it would be hard to choose – but maybe Monaco because it was the home race and it felt a bit more special.
‘Of course I can’t say I’ve ever felt something like Senna because that would be very cocky. All I can say is that every time you race in Monaco it’s a different feeling: you have so much concentration, you don’t think about anything else. To be honest when I got out of the car I couldn’t even remember anything about the race. Because we are just on it like in no other track. Yeah, it’s a great feeling…’
Clyde Brolin spent over a decade working in F1 before moving on to the wider world of sport - all in a bid to discover the untapped power of the human mind.