Honda Insights - Remembering Senna

Some figures from the past hold an almost mythical status - heroes that will never be truly known by the current generation. And those held in such esteem can often be built up to be greater than they actually were.

Ayrton Senna is not one of those people.

The Brazilian is still worshipped not only by his own countrymen but by Formula 1 fans around the world. All three of Senna’s World Championships came during the iconic McLaren-Honda era in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and he was an inspirational figure to those who worked with him.

Ken Okada joined the McLaren-Honda team as an electronics engineer in 1991 - when Senna was in his prime - and currently works for the team as an ERS engineer. Ahead of this weekend’s Brazilian Grand Prix, Okada reflects on his time working with an F1 legend.

“The first drivers I worked with were Ayrton and Gerhard (Berger),” Okada recalls. “I knew about Senna from reading magazines and information from Honda, and when I started working with the test team he was already a big hero."

“He was driving for Honda when I watched races on TV as a university student, and I was thinking if I could work with him it would be a dream come true."

“When I joined, I was one of the youngest guys on the team so I was afraid to talk with him! But my boss was very friendly with Senna. And Ayrton was always very friendly to us. Whenever we travelled, we would all meet up at Heathrow in a group. When Senna arrived he would come and join us all to talk.”

There was usually method behind Senna’s interaction. The engineers had knowledge that he wanted to tap into, even if it was sometimes done in a manner that took people out of their own comfort zones.

“He was interested in everything, including technology and how to control the engine. When we were all traveling together, Senna would drive the car from the airport to the circuit. He would always get one of my colleagues to sit in the passenger seat, so he could have a chat on the way."

“During the drive, when something really fascinated him, he would focus on the passenger seat and not on the road for 10 or 20 seconds! He wouldn’t be looking ahead and the person in the passenger seat would get scared, but Senna would say not to worry because he is always watching and knows what’s happening around him.”

At the time, teams could carry out unlimited testing away from race weekends. And it’s on the test team that Okada worked closest with the Brazilian, seeing one side of the infamous rivalry with Alain Prost.

“When he’d return from a run, he’d jump out of the car and come straight over to us. We’d show him the chart and he’d be able to give really good information. It’s quite different to today. Back in those days the driver would ask the engineer to drop the front end by a millimetre, or change the flap angle by one degree, and it would happen. Now drivers just tell the engineers how the car feels and then the engineers decide how to change the car setup. Back then the drivers would talk directly with the engineers and mechanics to make changes.

“I heard from my colleague - who worked with both Prost and Senna - that Prost was good at setting up the car, but Senna wasn’t on the same level. So Senna would copy Prost’s set-up and then he would be very quick and able to win with the same car. That’s why Prost got angry and would hide his set-up, to make sure Senna didn’t get it.”

The rivalry was a tense one for all involved and led to some dramatic flashpoints - including at Honda’s home race at Suzuka in the 1989 World Championship. But Senna had a bond with Honda that Okada believes stemmed from their respective origins.

“His interest and commitment to what we do very much helped motivate Honda. Formula 1 has quite a European culture. We are Japanese and he was from Brazil, so we were different from the Europeans and I think we felt very similar within the Formula 1 world. There’s also quite a close affinity between Brazilians and Japanese, so that all added to it.”

When looking back at what Senna achieved in the sport, the victories and championships are easy to recall and well-documented. For Okada, what made him so special were the small things that nobody else would do.

“One of the things I remember is the fact that most of the drivers talk on the radio when they are on the straight because it is easier as there’s less to do. But Senna would use the radio in the corners. Back then there was no noise canceling system on the radio and the engine revs would be lower during the corners.

“Most drivers would hold their breath during the corners and then catch it again on the straight before getting on the radio, but Senna would think about the team misunderstanding him because of the noise. That was something I was very surprised about.

“Another memory I have is that he was very interested in safety. We were at a track test at Hockenheim in 1992 and Michael Schumacher was there in his second season in F1, driving for Benetton. At one stage, Michael overtook Ayrton like it was a race with a very aggressive move. When Senna came back to the pits he jumped out of the car and ran straight over to the Benetton garage."

“That showed his difference in mentality between racing and testing. He was concentrating on every movement of the car during the test, and for every run perhaps we would be testing something else. He was focusing on something specific when Schumacher dived past, with a move that was potentially unsafe and not necessary in a test session.”

Senna’s attitude and approach may have been unique at times, but it was his incredible ability to notice minute details that really made him stand out.

“I’ve always been a software guy and the digital screen on the dash back in the early 90s had software,” Okada recounts. “The ECU transmitted the engine revs data every 100 milliseconds. After a track session, Senna came back to the pits, saying that at some corners the data transmission had frozen for a while."

“We tried to create similar conditions with the ECU checker, and we found that maybe once in an hour the readout would freeze, for maybe 200 milliseconds. Amazingly, he had noticed this while he was driving the car around the track at maximum speed.”

In 25 years since, has Okada ever worked with anyone else capable of the same kind of ability?

“No, no, no,” he replies with a smile. “I’m proud to say I worked with Senna. He was a good man and I have good memories.”