Twenty-five years ago today, Ayrton Senna set tongues wagging about his future in Formula 1 by testing a Penske IndyCar in the USA.
On this day in... 1992
The Brazilian triple World Champion had gone on record about his disillusionment with F1, in particular his fears over McLaren’s split with Honda and the team’s new deal to run customer-spec Ford V8s in 1993. It seemed that if he couldn’t compete on equal terms he wasn’t interested.
Whether Senna wanted to rattle a few cages or was genuinely interested in a move to IndyCar, he would sample a race-winning car from America’s top-tier single-seater series for the first time.
Senna’s fellow Brazilian and Marlboro-contracted racer Emerson Fittipaldi, who’d moved Stateside and won the Indy 500 and the CART IndyCar title, brokered a last-minute deal for Senna to try his ’92 Penske PC21 – a car in which he had taken four victories that year for Roger Penske’s crack outfit – and linked up with his friend at the small, tight and narrow Firebird Raceway in Arizona.
The 1972 and ’74 Formula 1 World Champion, who was scheduled to be at Firebird to sample the following season’s PC22, undertook the initial running in the PC21 on the cold and slippery track.
After a dozen or so laps, having made some set-up changes, Fittipaldi clocked a 49.7s best time before handing over to Senna.
The then-32-year-old, who’d won 36 Grands Prix at that point, as well as the Drivers’ Championship in 1988, 1990 and ’91, took his time to acclimatise to the turbocharged Chevrolet V8-powered car with its stick-shift sequential gearbox.
After making some adjustments of his own, including softening the rear suspension and adding fuel to compare changing car weights, Senna got down to a best of 49.09s – seven-tenths quicker than Fittipaldi. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he impressed everybody who witnessed his fleeting glimpse into life as an Indycar driver, including Fittipaldi, fellow Penske racers Rick Mears and Paul Tracy, team designer Nigel Bennett and, of course, the boss.
Sadly for US racing fans, Senna would return to Formula 1 in 1993, winning five races in the underpowered McLaren-Ford. And, as history has recorded, he never got the chance to make the switch to IndyCar. Senna racing in the Indy 500 really would have been quite something.
In this unique video made recently by Instituto Ayrton Senna, the foundation set up in his name, we hear from Roger Penske himself. ‘The Captain’, one of US racing’s most successful team bosses of the past 40 years, remembers fondly the day Ayrton Senna tried one of his cars. And look out for Penske making a special presentation to the team at the end.
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