There were four future or former World Drivers Champions in both the 1993 and 1994 Indianapolis 500s: Emerson Fittipaldi, Nigel Mansell, Mario Andretti and Nelson Piquet in ’93 and then Emmo, Nige, Mario and Jacques Villeneuve the following year.  Speculation could run rampant all day long as to the motives behind a secret test at Arizona ’s Firebird Raceway late in 1992, but give pause to think about what Indy could have been in either or both ’93 and ‘94 with Ayrton Senna also in the field.

1992 had been a difficult year for Senna and his employer.  McLaren had lost considerable ground to Williams, particularly with reliability issues, a less dominant Honda engine and the MP4/7A’s lack of active suspension.  Over his four preceding years with the Woking team, Ayrton had won the title three times, including the previous season’s, and averaged seven wins per year.  In ’92, he could only manage three victories and fourth in the championship.
As his contract with McLaren had ended and his beloved Honda were leaving the sport, Senna was left in limbo.  He attempted to sign with the dominant Williams for 1993, but Alain Prost, who was returning to F1 from a one year sabbatical, had written a “No Senna” clause into his contract with the Sir Frank’s squad.  So with no contract of his own signed and McLaren toying with an underpowered Lamborghini lump and a customer Ford block that was two specifications down on the factory Benetton team, Ayrton took up a long standing offer from his old friend Emerson Fittipaldi.
In December of 1992, Senna flew to the States to test one of Roger Penske’s Marlboro-Penske-Chevy Indy cars at Firebird Raceway, near Phoenix , Arizona .  Along with the Penske team and fellow Brazilian Fittipaldi, Ayrton was joined at the test by four time Indy winner Rick Mears and Penske’s latest recruit, a young Paul Tracy.  Emmo warmed the car up with a few fast lap before handing it over to Senna.  After a couple of instillation laps of his own, Ayrton brought the Penske in for a quick check before going back out to see what an Indy Car could do.

Actual lap times seem to vary depending on what you read or who you believe.  Rick Rinaman, then Emmo’s crew chief, claimed that after just three laps, Senna was faster than Fittipaldi.  Up to half a second quicker, I have read elsewhere.  Other sources show that, over the twenty-five laps he ran, Ayrton ‘only’ got within four tenths of his countryman’s best time.  Even if that were the case, Senna was running more than competitive lap times in a car he didn’t know on a circuit he had never been to.  Either way, Ayrton was impressed, especially with the view that he had of F1’s over-use of technology at the time.

Speaking of the car itself, Ayrton said, “It was like having a new toy.  Everything was new to me.  I had to get used to driving with a gear lever again, to a clutch pedal.  In a way it’s more for the driver, which is great.  The important thing is that the competition can be decided by the drivers, not the cars.  I think that is where Formula 1 has been wrong, especially last season.
“The Penske reminded me of the old days in Formula 1 where human side was the most important thing.  Today Formula 1 is so sophisticated that the computers do most of the driving for you.  If you have a clever computer, you are in good shape.  If you have a monkey one, you are in trouble.”
“It’s a funny feeling for me, after so many years of driving in Formula 1, to have those feelings like you are very young, much younger than you are, which is great.   For the first time in some time, racing was fun again.  It was a tremendous challenge, but I think it has rejuvenated me.”

The exact reasoning behind Senna’s test will probably never be known.  Did he truly have aspirations to race in Indy cars or was it just a bargaining ploy for a new, stronger contract from McLaren or even a new employer in F1?  Most believe that it was the latter as, in the end, Ayrton began the 1993 season with a race-by-race contract with McLaren, rumored to be at a then staggering million dollars per GP.
Of the Firebird test itself, Fittipaldi had said, “He was very smooth going into the corners, and when he exited the corners, it was beautiful to watch.  It was a beautiful thing to watch him drive.”  He also admitted that he and Ayrton joked after the test about what it would be like for both of them to be on the front row for the Indianapolis 500.
“With Nigel between us,” Senna had replied.
That, as a Formula One fan, would have been something to see.

  • F1_Knight

    This just further proves Senna’s brilliance, and Paul Tracy’s terrible fashion sense. Seriously, all Canada has had to offer the world of motorsport in the past 20 years is two blonde dorks in glasses. Yikes.

    • GPLegend

      I hope you haven’t forgotten the diamond-in-the-rough that was Greg Moore. Who knows what he would have achieved if he’d survived that day in California, newly-signed Penske contract in his pocket…

      • F1_Knight

        I hate to say I did, it is truly tragic what happened to him. He could have very easily been better that Tracy in his prime, and I’m still holding out hope to hear Oh Canada play at an F1 podium ceremony…

  • david

    From what i have read and seen senna wouldnt leave f1 for another motorsport as he had to be the best? But he did like his money and what a good way of getting some more! Great article

  • In the best biography written on Ayrton (which is by Ernesto Rodrigues, and is called “Ayrton” and is in Portuguese) many people close to him said that although he enjoyed it, he felt it was not where he wanted to be. He wanted – needed – to compete in ‘proper’ circuits and in the sport’s most important category. He surely wasn’t so happy with McLaren’s prospects, but the fact that he stayed and drove the Ford car meant he wasn’t ready to give it up – not even for a gear lever and clutch.

    • Tony Greene

      Very nice. Thanks, Mario!

  • Jack Flash (Aust)

    Would have been nice to see Ayrton Senna run in an Indy 500 race.
    A one off – or part year – not necessarily a whole Indycar Season.

    I have no doubt given a couple of track weeks, he’d have had the oval racing techniques honed to give a fair show of his appearances. The Indy 500 is a long and arduous race with so much luck needing to fall your way – so I don’t presume to think he would have won it necessarily in a single try; but Ayrton was a very rare supreme racing talent…. The best of the best.

    Who knows what may have transpired at the Ol’ Brickyard in 1993 should he have takena Penske Racing seat?

    I think the biggest shame in fate about Ayrton not choosing the Indycar route at that point in time, was that the route he did choose back in F1 eventually lead to a Pole Position at Imola in a raged handling and problemsome WilliamsF1 car in May 1994. That was a shame in fate for all motorsport fans.

    Jack Flash

  • Victorinox

    I wonder what role did Marlboro play in all that. Maybe it was just a publicity stunt, after all, they were the main sponsors in both McLaren and Penske. On the other hand, Ayrton was no strange at testing cars just for the fun of it. He tested a rally car once, and made huge headlines, but that was just a one time thing.

    I think the sad part of all this is the way things changed (for the worse unfortunately). Both Senna and Indycar were at their finest, Ayrton with 3 titles and about to put his best season, and Indycar gathering some of the best drivers in the world, combining both past F1 glories and future Indycar/F1 stars.

    A few years later, we lost Senna, and that obviously changed Formula 1, but Indycar too went through a lot of changes, and now it is just a shadow of what it was then. Have you seen the new car? It is absolutely horrible! It is an open-wheel with no open-wheels… If I want to see an open cockpit car with fenders, I will just keep watching the AMLS…

    • For those who haven’t seen it,, here’s a spy photo from a Mid-Ohio test session earlier this week:

      • Victorinox


      • Jack Flash (Aust)

        You have got to be ‘taking the piss’ mate!
        That is just plain rediculous. That has to be a fake photoshop effort… right?

        • scissors

          Jack Flash,, I assure you I did not use photoshop.

  • Look at those cockpit sides: if only F1 had had them in 1994……only Sauber realised their importance that year

  • YouTube video from Brazil (1992) about the test: