(Image source: senna.org.br)
Going into round six of the 1984 season, McLaren were the force to be reckoned with, winning all but one of the previous races. Their drivers, Alain Prost and Niki Lauda, seemed destined to duke it out for the title. In the drivers' standings, Prost had a six-point lead over his Austrian teammate and McLaren had a twenty-point lead over second placed Ferrari, the only other team to win a race so far.
But the story of this Monaco Grand Prix was not that of the all-conquering McLarens, it was very much centred on three rookies who astounded everybody who witnessed their performances that weekend.
There was excitement and almost tragedy even before qualifying began when Monaco debutant Martin Brundle slammed into the wall at the exit of Tabac and flipped his Tyrrell. The collision was so severe that a concussed Brundle couldn’t remember the track where he was racing. His first Monaco Grand Prix was over before it had hardly begun.
Miserable Monaco Monsoon
On Sunday, a heavy rainstorm drowned the Principality like we've seldom seen before or since. Had this race been held in 2018, it would never have started, but back in the 80s, Formula 1 raced no matter the weather. It was so drenched that before the race, the local fire brigade had to water the track inside the tunnel because the sudden difference in the surface could’ve been too great for the wet weather tyres to take. These conditions made Brazil 2016 look like a drought.
After a 45 minute delay, the race got underway, the 20-car grid waded their way to the first corner, Sainte Devote, but this was as far as Derek Warwick, Patrick Tambay and Andrea de Cesaris got as they all collided at the bottom of the hill. At the end of the first lap, Alain Prost led in the McLaren with Nigel Mansell’s Lotus following closely behind, the two Ferraris noticeably slower.
By Lap Five, Niki Lauda, a man considered by some to be afraid of the wet, had made it up to third from eighth by passing both Ferraris, one at the hairpin and one on the run up the hill. Seven laps later, Prost lost his lead to Mansell, and the Englishman quickly built up a gap. It didn’t last much longer, however, as he lost control of the rear of the car before the casino, hitting his rear wing on the wall and exiting the race.
Senna's Sensational Drive
Prost retook the lead, Lauda was now second and sensationally, a young Brazilian in a Toleman made up the top three. His name was Ayrton Senna, and he was gaining on the McLarens in front of him.
Meanwhile, Stefan Bellof, who only just scraped through qualifying in his Tyrrell, was in the in the points (P6) and catching the 1982 world champion Keke Rosberg in fifth. The field was down to just twelve runners after fifteen laps, an attrition rate of over one retirement every other lap.
A few laps later, Senna got a much better run out of the Rascasse and drove around Lauda as if he wasn’t there. He was now chasing down Prost for the lead. Surely he couldn’t win it? The Toleman was not a good car. It was a midfield runner with little chance of points and Prost had a 30 second advantage over the Brazilian.
Further back, Bellof went past Rosberg at the chicane (more like a kink back then) after the tunnel - the two rookies showing the established pros how it’s done. Both Senna and Bellof were both on the limit, throwing their cars into every corner, accelerating as hard as they dared out of them and praying they wouldn’t contact the barriers.
Lauda spun off at the casino on Lap 24, stalling his engine and bowing out of the race. When Riccardo Patrese retired soon after, this there was just nine cars circulating with two-thirds of the race remaining. Bellof then put at an incredible move down the inside of Rene Arnoux’s Ferrari at Mirabeau to put himself in a podium place.
The 30-second advantage that Prost had over Senna had now being slashed. The Brazilian had set the fastest lap of the race (30 seconds slower that pole, such was the deluge on track) and was gaining around three to five seconds per lap - a mind-boggling pace!
“Prost is waving his hands, he wants to stop the race!”
Shouted Murray Walker in the commentary box as the rain had intensified and the Frenchman realised that he was in serious trouble. He got his wish as the French officials (no bias here) brought the red and chequered flags out on Lap 32 and Prost stopped on the pit-straight before the finish line. Senna swooped passed and crossed the line to win the race - or so he thought.
Senna coasted around the circuit, waving his fist in the air in sheer ecstasy sadly unaware that when a race is red-flagged the positions from the previous lap are taken as the results.
Ironically, this move by Prost may well have cost him the 1984 title, as he finished just half a point behind Lauda by the end of the season, the smallest ever losing margin. Finishing second on full points would’ve given him 1.5 points more than winning on half points. However, it's doubtful that Prost is losing much sleep over this, as he won four driver’s championships, second only to Fangio.
Bellof finished third but was later disqualified as Tyrell were found guilty of breaching weight and refuelling restrictions. Still, it remained the German's finest hour in F1 as he was killed in the World Sportscar Championship at Spa-Francorchamps just over a year later. He was just 27-years-old and had been tipped as a future world champion.
Every great champion has a race that announces them on the scene: Michael Schumacher had Belgium in 1992, Lewis Hamilton's was the British Grand Prix in 2008 and Sebastian Vettel's moment came in Italy in 2008. Monaco 1984 was the drive that would make Senna the hottest property in motor sport. He later became a triple world champion and is classed by many as the greatest driver in the history of Formula 1.
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