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.