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25 Years On: Spirited Senna Stuns Champion-Elect

A constant, respected and feared fixture in the F1 calendar, the Monaco Grand Prix rolls around once more at the end of this month, and the event promises – as it ever does – the glamorous off the circuit and the spectacular on it. It is, therefore, appropriate that the leading racer of all time at Monaco is Ayrton Senna.

A record in no foreseeable jeopardy, his six wins in Monaco reflect a famously dauntless racing style, and a disquieting ability to recover from setbacks in qualifying. The 1992 Monaco Grand Prix, which was his penultimate win at the circuit, served as a prime example of Senna overcoming adversity to electrify the maddening crowd.

"Ayrton Senna" by Instituto Ayrton Senna via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Mansell Mania

Ahead of this race, Nigel Mansell was the only name on the lips of every F1 fan across the world after winning the first five races of the 1992 season. It was a winning streak that compares only to the dominance enjoyed by Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel earlier this decade. Interestingly, Vettel himself currently stands 9/10 odds-on favourite to win the 2017 title after years of being eclipsed by Mercedes' apparently 'unbeatable' machinery.

Indeed, this is a recovery that would certainly have made the late Senna proud. Back in 1992, Senna himself had followed up a disappointing season opener – a third-place finish in South Africa – with a return of zero points from the following three races, with that run including two retirements.

A third-place finish in San Marino left Senna hopelessly adrift of Mansell (and second-placed Ricardo Patrese) prior to Monaco, and there was even serious talk of Mansell winning every single race of the season. Such talk was given further backing when Mansell claimed pole position for the Monaco Grand Prix.

Early Promise Leads to Monaco Mastery

Consigned to third on the grid, Senna already knew that his crown was as good as given up, but he would not concede it without a fight. Defying expectation and using his unrivalled vision, he overtook Patrese at an early stage, doing so at the notorious, and potentially deadly, St Devote corner with a daring manoeuvre.

Boasting superior machinery to Senna, if not the same exalted status in racing circles, Patrese began his fightback. However, brute speed over style is seldom the key to victory at Monaco, and he proved incapable of matching Senna’s all-around racing ability at the most crucial and decisive moments.

"Grand Hotel Hairpin" by Shmuliphoto via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-4.0)

The Calm Before the Storm

The middle stages of the race were uneventful for the front three of Mansell, Senna and Patrese. That changed after 60 laps, when Michele Alboreto suffered a spin directly in Senna’s path. Utilising every ounce of his racing expertise, Senna narrowly evaded disaster, and ensured that Mansell remained firmly in his sights, although he lost a considerable number of precious seconds in doing so.

Ten laps later, it was Mansell’s turn to suffer the wrath of the fates. A loose wheel nut forced him to make an unplanned pit and give Senna a golden opportunity to build a slender lead after his earlier near-miss with Alboreto.

The closing laps were as tense as they come for Senna. The then-champion had capitalised fully on Mansell’s misfortune, building a lead of just over five seconds. Yet, Mansell fought to the bitter end, with his unrivalled car in the end losing out by just 0.2s to a battling Senna.

’Twas but a Scratch

Ultimately, Senna’s penultimate win in Monaco did nothing to derail Mansell’s unstoppable title win – by a staggering 52 points, prompting the veteran racer to retire at the very pinnacle of the sport.

Senna’s disappointing form would continue, with seven retirements by the season’s end. In the close season, speculation was rife that the Brazilian would follow in Mansell’s footsteps and retire gracefully from F1. The following year, he would in fact flourish once again at Monaco, overtaking personal long-term rival and pole-sitter Alain Prost for win number six at the famous circuit.