Ranking Ayrton Senna's 10 Greatest Rivals in Formula 1

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistMay 4, 2014

Ranking Ayrton Senna's 10 Greatest Rivals in Formula 1

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    PIERRE CLEIZES/Associated Press

    Between 1985 and 1993, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost combined to win seven world championship titles. Both drivers' careers were defined, in large part, by their intense rivalry.

    Although the Senna-Prost rivalry is discussed most frequently, Senna had several other rivals in his Formula One career. The Brazilian had memorable battles with fellow champions like Nigel Mansell and Michael Schumacher, as well as less successful drivers, such as Elio de Angelis and Eddie Irvine.

    Recently, Damon Hill told The Guardian's Donald McRae that, "Ayrton seemed to need battles to galvanise him – with Alain Prost and even his own team."

    Here, as we remember the tragic death of Senna 20 years ago, are the top 10 rivals from his career.


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    Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

    Ranking rivalries is a very subjective exercise, but a few criteria will guide us—though there will be no hard-and-fast formula for applying them.

    Each rivalry will be judged according to:

    • Length
    • Intensity (also known as the Eddie Irvine scale—i.e. Did anyone get punched in the face?)
    • Relative skill of the drivers
    • Historical significance
    • Senna's own views, if known, of the rival

    Here we go...

10. Terry Fullerton

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    First up is 1973 karting world champion Terry Fullerton. No, he never made it to F1, but, as you can see in the video above, Senna considered Fullerton one of his greatest rivals.

    Despite being quite young at the time, it seems the rivalry between Senna and Fullerton was quite intense, and it no doubt played a large role in Senna's development as a driver.

9. Eddie Irvine

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    Eddie Irvine in 1993, his first F1 season.
    Eddie Irvine in 1993, his first F1 season.Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

    Eddie Irvine only shared the track with Senna for three races before the Brazilian's fatal accident, and during those races, he was not close in terms of pace. In fact, the reason Irvine makes it onto this list is the fallout from an incident that occurred at the 1993 Japanese Grand Prix, when Senna was lapping him. 

    After Senna had passed him, Irvine unlapped himself, which angered the Brazilian champion. After the race, he confronted the young driver from Northern Ireland, and according to a transcript from The Senna Files website, told him, "You're driving like a f*****g idiot. You're not a racing driver, you're a f*****g idiot!" Before leaving, Senna punched Irvine in the face.

    You won't find a much more intense—albeit extremely short—rivalry than that.

8. Damon Hill

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    Hill and Senna, teammates in 1994.
    Hill and Senna, teammates in 1994.Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

    Senna's rivalry with Damon Hill is more a case of what could have been. In 1993, Hill's second F1 season, he finished second to Senna at three grands prix early in the year and won three himself in Hungary, Belgium and Italy.

    Ultimately, Senna finished second in the championship, just four points clear of Hill.

    In 1994, Senna moved to Williams to partner Hill, setting up what should have been an excellent, season-long battle. Sadly, though, Senna was killed in the third race of the season, and Hill went on to finish second in the Drivers' standings, one point behind Michael Schumacher.

7. Gerhard Berger

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    Senna leading Berger—a familiar position for the teammates.
    Senna leading Berger—a familiar position for the teammates.Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

    Gerhard Berger was Senna's teammate for three seasons at McLaren, from 1990 to 1992. His rivalry with Senna was more of the friendly variety.

    They traded practical jokes with one another, though on the track it was usually Senna who came out on top. In fact, Berger won only three races during his time at McLaren, while Senna took 16 victories—and two world championships—in the same time period.

6. Martin Brundle

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    Martin Brundle makes this list not for his rivalry with Senna in F1—there is not really one to speak of—but for their epic battle during the 1983 British Formula Three season.

    After nearly losing a massive lead in the standings, Senna came out on top at the final race of the season.

    While both drivers were offered F1 drives in 1984, Brundle would spend years in uncompetitive cars, while Senna quickly climbed from Toleman to Lotus to McLaren.

5. Elio de Angelis

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    De Angelis finished fifth at the 1985 European GP. His teammate, Senna, was second.
    De Angelis finished fifth at the 1985 European GP. His teammate, Senna, was second.Getty Images/Getty Images

    Elio de Angelis was Senna's first teammate at Lotus, in 1985. Although that year was De Angelis' sixth with the team, Senna won two races to the Italian's one and finished five points ahead of him in the Drivers' Championship.

    De Angelis left the team at the end of the year and was killed while testing for his new team, Brabham, the following year. He was the last F1 driver killed before Roland Ratzenberger and Senna at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

4. Nelson Piquet

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    Piquet (left) and Senna (right) on the podium at the 1985 Italian GP with Alain Prost.
    Piquet (left) and Senna (right) on the podium at the 1985 Italian GP with Alain Prost.Associated Press

    Nelson Piquet, a fellow Brazilian, had already won two world championships by the time Senna made his F1 debut—and he would go on to win another, in 1987, with Senna finishing third behind him.

    Later in his career, frustrated as it became apparent that Senna and Prost were the future of the sport, Piquet lashed out. According to the BBC, he called Senna, "the Sao Paulo taxi driver," in 1988, the year of Senna's first championship.

    Piquet lasted three more years in F1, but he never again seriously challenged for a title.

3. Nigel Mansell

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    Mansell gives Senna a lift at the 1991 British Grand Prix.
    Mansell gives Senna a lift at the 1991 British Grand Prix.Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

    Nigel Mansell was a thorn in Senna's side for most of his career. He recently told the BBC that, "Ayrton could intimidate pretty much every driver on the grid but he realised then I would not cave in. ... We went on to have many incredible races, where we didn't knock each other off. It was just good, hard, clean racing."

    In 1986 and 1987, Mansell finished second in the championship, with Senna fourth and third. In 1988, though Senna won his first title and Mansell finished only two races in an unreliable Williams car (although he was second in both of them).

    In 1991, the Brit pushed Senna hard, but ultimately finished second to him in the Drivers' Championship. The following year, though, Mansell finally got his title and, although Senna won three races, he was 58 points adrift.

2. Michael Schumacher

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    Schumacher passes Senna into the first corner of the 1994 Pacific Grand Prix.
    Schumacher passes Senna into the first corner of the 1994 Pacific Grand Prix.Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

    This is another rivalry that was cut short by Senna's death. Schumacher burst into F1 in 1991 and quickly established himself as a contender to Senna and Prost's recent dominance.

    In 1992, his first full season, the German finished three points ahead of Senna, and the two had words after a collision in the French Grand Prix.

    The following year, Senna was back ahead, winning five races to Schumacher's one and outscoring him 73-52 (although Prost won the title with 99 points).

    In 1994, Schumacher and Senna were set for an epic showdown, and the German won the first two races, while Senna desperately tried to catch him. At Imola, Senna was leading Schumacher when he had his fatal accident, and the German went on to win the race and his first of seven world championships.

1. Alain Prost

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    Senna and Prost collide at the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix.
    Senna and Prost collide at the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix.Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

    There is no surprise here. Senna-Prost is not only the greatest rivalry of Senna's career, it is probably the greatest rivalry in F1 history.

    Not only were the two drivers very evenly matched, but they also raced each other in the primes of their careers, alternating world championships between them.

    Their two most famous moments occurred at the Japanese Grands Prix of 1989 and 1990. In both years, the championship was decided at that race when the two drivers collided. The first time, Prost took the title, with Senna claiming it the next year.

    Despite their intense on-track battles, after Senna's death, Prost said, "He was the only opponent I truly respected," according to The Independent.


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