Senna was born in São Paulo. As the son of a wealthy Brazilian landowner, he quickly developed an interest in motor racing.
Encouraged by his father, a racing enthusiast, Senna got behind the wheel of his first kart at the age of four. He entered karting competition at the legal age of 13. Ayrton Senna himself describes his first ever kart race in a documentary that was made in the early 80s. He described how the circuits were made on regular streets and car parking lots. Starting positions were written on pieces of paper, mixed in a helmet and were drawn. The number he drew for his first race was the number 1. He therefore started his first ever race from pole position. The competitors were far more experienced but could not keep up with him on the straights as he was much lighter due to being much younger than they were. He states that they were much better in the corners of course, and eventually someone hit him from behind and he spun out.
In 1977, he won the South American Kart Championship, and was runner up several times in the World Championship but never won.
Heading for Europe in 1981, he entered the British Formula Ford 1600 competition, which he won. He also adopted his mother's maiden name, Senna, as da Silva is a very common name in Brazil.
In 1982 Senna won two of the European races - the British and European Formula Ford 2000 Championships.
In 1983, Ayrton saw off the challenges of Martin Brundle in the 1983 British F3 championship with West Surrey Racing, and then went on to win the prestigious and high-profile Macau Grand Prix with Teddy Yip's Theodore Racing Team although this was, in reality, West Surrey Racing running under the Theodore Racing Team banner. Then, after testing with Williams, McLaren, Brabham and Toleman, he managed to secure a seat with the latter in time for the 1984 Formula One season.
The Toleman team was small in comparison to larger teams of that time such as those of Williams, McLaren, or Brabham. Despite this, the team built a decent car powered by Hart Turbo engines and it would be in this car that Senna's talents soon started to attract notice. He scored his first World Championship point on April 7, 1984 at the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami. Three races and two points later came the high watermark of Senna's debut season when he really impressed at the Monaco GP. Rain had plagued the event come Sunday where he started 13th on the grid, but after the start of the race, he soon was picking his way through the field in the wet on a circuit not known for overtaking in the dry. By Lap 19, he passed second place man (a double, and later triple World Champion) Niki Lauda and soon chased after race leader Alain Prost. However, the rain started lashing harder and on Lap 31 the race was stopped. (This would have unfortunate consequences for Prost. Half points for a win was less than full points for the second place he would have earned (few doubt Senna would have got by him) if the event had continued to two-thirds distance, enough to be counted full race. The extra points would have earned Prost the championship.) It was an impressive first podium for the Brazilian. Two more podium finishes (thirds) would follow at the British GP at Brands Hatch and at the season-closing Portuguese GP at Estoril, ultimately placing Senna ninth in the standings, tied with Nigel Mansell on 13 points.
However, Formula One was not to be his only exploit of the year. He took part in the 1000km Nürburgring where, alongside Henri Pescarolo and Stefan Johansson, he co-drove a Porsche 956 to 8th. Additionally, he took part in an exhibition race to celebrate the opening of the new Nürburgring. A number of notable drivers took part in the event, driving identical Mercedes 190E 2.3-16. Senna went on to win ahead of Niki Lauda and Carlos Reutemann.
The next year, Senna joined the Lotus team powered with Renault engines (albeit in a bit of controversy as he had to buy out the remaining year in his Toleman contract) and it was expected that Senna would finally be able to deliver on his promising talent. He partnered Elio De Angelis and drove one of the best Lotus designs for several seasons, the 97T. He scored his first of a record setting 65 pole positions out of 161 races at the season opener in Brazil at the Jacarepaguá Circuit in Rio de Janeiro, only to retire with an electrical problem. However, at the second round raced at the Autódromo do Estoril in Estoril, Portugal on April 21, 1985, he finally scored his first Grand Prix victory, winning from pole position thanks to an impressive display of wet-weather driving in treacherous conditions which even saw second-place man (and later World Champion) Alain Prost spin off into the wall. However, the remainder of his 1985 season was plagued with mechanical failures despite his outright speed and his ability to score pole position after pole position during qualifying. He only managed another win at the Belgian GP at the famous Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps (once again in wet conditions). At the end of 1985, he finished a respectable 4th in the World Championship with 38 points and six podiums (two wins, two seconds and two thirds), as well as snatching seven pole positions. It was during these years that he also established a relationship with Bernie Ecclestone.
His second season with Lotus however was even better, as the Lotus car was developed and proved to be a more reliable, if not consistent package. He started the season on a high finishing second to his fellow countryman Nelson Piquet at their home event, the Brazilian GP at Jacarepaguá in Rio de Janeiro. He then took the World Championship lead for the first time in his career after winning an exciting Spanish GP at the Jerez de la Frontera circuit in which he managed to hold off the menacing Nigel Mansell in his Williams-Honda for the victory by just .014 of a second. He would not last there for long however as the Championship would ultimately become a straight fight between Alain Prost's McLaren-TAG-Porsche and the Williams-Honda duo of Piquet and Mansell; key retirements due to mechanical failures once again befell his chase for the title. Despite this though, Senna still went on a strong charge, taking his second victory of the year at the United States GP at Detroit, and finishing the season fourth (again) with 55 points, 8 pole positions and six podium finishes (four seconds and two thirds). It was at this stage in his career that Senna worked extensively with performance scientist and consultant Dr. Jacques Dallare on physical and mental testing and to improve conditioning.
1987 came with as much promise for better things as it had before. Lotus now had the powerful Honda engines after Renault decided to step out of the sport. After a slow start, Senna won two races in a row: The prestigious Monaco GP (the first of a record breaking six victories at the Principality) and the United States GP at Detroit for the second year in a row, once again taking the World Championship lead. This time, the Lotus-Honda seemed to be more or less on par with the all-conquering Williams-Honda cars once again driven by fellow countryman Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell. But Piquet had an amazing run of consistency throughout the year that Senna was not able to match, and after a spin due to a faulty clutch in the third to last round in Mexico, he was out of the championship hunt, leaving Piquet and teammate Mansell to fight it out for the last two races. Alas, Mansell badly bruised his back in an accident while practicing for the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, which effectively handed the World Championship to Piquet since he would be out of the season-ending race at Australia in Adelaide as well. However, this meant that Senna still had a fighting chance to snatch the runner-up position in the standings if he managed to finish at least third in both remaining races, and he did more than that by finishing second in both Japan and Australia. Unfortunately at Australia, scrutineering found the brake ducts of his Lotus-Honda to be wider than they should legally have been and he was disqualified, bringing his last and ultimately best season with Lotus to a sour end. After the disqualification, he ended third in the Final Standings, with 57 points, 1 pole position, and 6 podium finishes (four seconds, not counting the one in which he was disqualified, and two thirds). However, this season would mark the turning point of his career as throughout the year, Senna began to build a deep relationship with Honda, a relationship which would pay off in big dividends once his contract with Lotus expired at the end of the season and once the McLaren team soon started calling.
In 1988, thanks to the relationship he had built up with Honda throughout the 1987 season with Lotus, and with the approval of McLaren's #1 driver, Alain Prost, Senna joined the McLaren team with then-two-time World Champion Alain Prost as his team mate. The foundation for a fierce competition between Senna and Prost was laid, culminating in a number of dramatic race incidents between the two. The pair won 15 of 16 races in the dominant McLaren MP4/4 in 1988 with Senna coming out on top, although Prost actually scored more points in a year where the FIA limited the number of races you could score points to 11.
The following year their rivalry intensified into battles on the track and a psychological war off it. This searing rivalry was typified by their mesmerising race-long battle for victory in the 1989 German Grand Prix, which Ayrton won. Prost took the championship after the infamous Suzuka chicane incident, where Senna attempted a difficult pass and collided with Prost as the two McLarens interlocked in a spectacular fashion, due to Prost turning in towards the out-of-road Senna. The move was a high risk one on Senna's part and he received much criticism for it afterwards, however it was arguably the only point on the race track in which Senna could pass Prost in the then closing laps. Prost was set to clinch the Driver's title for 1989 if Senna were to not win the race, which was the reasoning for Senna's actions.
Some may say that Prost had the racing line, while others may say that Prost should have let Senna through since Senna was on the inside. In fact, it is true that Prost appeared to actually turn slightly towards Senna prior to the cars locking together and going off the circuit, across the chicane, however Senna was never ahead of Prost to begin with, despite being on the inside. Senna managed to get back to the pits for a new nose cone, rejoined the race, retook the lead and won the race, only to be disqualified for illegally cutting the chicane.
At the Suzuka circuit in 1990, the pole position was located on the right, 'dirty' side of the track. Senna maintained that, before qualifying fastest, he had sought and received assurances from officials that pole position would be on the left, clean side of the track, only to find this decision reversed after he had taken pole. At the start of the race Prost pulled ahead but when attempting to take the first right-handed corner he was hit by Senna. Telemetry showed Senna made no attempt to decelerate as the corner approached. Both drivers were removed from the race, meaning that Senna won the championship.
Senna later admitted that he had decided to "go for it" at the first corner - perhaps as a way of seeking justice for the change to pole position and, perhaps, for the 1989 Suzuka chicane incident. For critics, it was an act of breathtaking cynicism and one for which Senna received much criticism. Some accused him of a "win at all costs" mentality - but for many fans this is difficult to square with some of his other behaviour, such as his refusal to have his team mates contractually bound to give way to him on the track - a tactic exploited by both Prost and Schumacher.
Senna's absolute determination to win manifested itself in dismay at McLaren's inability to challenge Williams in 1992. With Prost signed up by the Grove based squad for 1993 and possessing a veto over Senna joining him, Ayrton considered a sabbatical from F1. He tested for Marlboro Team Penske in the IndyCar World Series, setting swift times and exciting the motoring press. Of course, this test was but a one-off, but the prospect of both Senna and Mansell racing IndyCars in 1993 was a brilliant scenario.
Questions about Senna's intentions for 1993 lingered as he did not have a contract with any team. McLaren covered their bases by signing 1991 IndyCar World Series Champion Michael Andretti and the promising Mika Häkkinen.
McLaren too had contractual issues to solve with Honda having ended their involvement as an engine supplier to F1 teams, McLaren boss Ron Dennis tried to secure a supply of the Renault engines that had powered the dominant Williams car in 1992. When this deal fell through, Dennis secured a supply of Ford engines - but these would be of a lower horsepower than those used by the Benetton team; however, they were hopeful they would put in a superior performance to the Benetton team due to "loads of electronic trickery", including advanced traction and suspension control. These electronics were determined to be too effective and banned a year later.
Senna tested McLaren's 1993 car and whilst he concluded that the chassis was very good indeed, he knew that the engine would be down on power. Senna declined to sign a contract for the season but agreed to drive on a race-by-race basis for a million US dollars per race.
Senna's start to the 1993 season was spectacular. After finishing a distant second in the opening race in South Africa he drove superbly to win in constantly changing conditions at home in Brazil and in the rain at Donington. The latter is regarded as one of Senna's greatest victories, though Senna himself downplayed it later. He started the race 4th and dropped to 5th on the rundown to the first corner, but was leading before the first lap was completed.
The unexpected success continued with a second place at Spain and a record breaking 6th win at Monaco. After Monaco, the 6th race of the season, Senna was leading the championship ahead of arch-rival Prost in the Williams-Renault, and Michael Schumacher. By this time Senna had signed with McLaren to complete the season and was agitating for Ford to supply McLaren with their best engines, saying that McLaren were more likely to give Ford success than the Benetton team were.
Even Senna could not sustain this challenge against unequal odds. As the season progressed Prost asserted the superiority of the Williams-Renault package and took the championship. Senna concluded the season with two fine wins in Japan and Australia. The latter race, in which Senna prevailed with no assistance from the weather, was a fitting end to Senna's tenure with the McLaren team. Next season he would drive for Williams. Senna would never win again, and it would be some years before McLaren would enjoy a Grand Prix victory.
Senna was most renowned for his qualifying skill, a discipline he mastered like none before to produce a record 65 pole positions out of 161 races. This record stood for 12 years after his death, before it was surpassed by Michael Schumacher while qualifying for the 2006 San Marino Grand Prix, his 236th race.
"Magic" Senna, as he was known to his fans, also won the Monaco GP six times, a record which stands today and a tribute to his skills which earned him the title "Master of Monaco".
Ayrton described in detail an odd feeling that he got during his qualifying laps. His experience when qualifying for the 1988 Monaco GP for example he described as being in a tunnel or dreamlike state:
“ ...the last qualifying session. I was already on pole, then by half a second and then one second and I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel. Not only the tunnel under the hotel but the whole circuit was a tunnel. I was just going and going, more and more and more and more. I was way over the limit but still able to find even more.
Then suddenly something just kicked me. I kind of woke up and realised that I was in a different atmosphere than you normally are. My immediate reaction was to back off, slow down. I drove slowly back to the pits and I didn't want to go out any more that day. It frightened me because I was well beyond my conscious understanding. It happens rarely but I keep these experiences very much alive inside me because it is something that is important for self-preservation.”
In that session, lap after lap he broke his own pole position time, until he felt ill at ease, backed off and returned to the pits.
During the 2004 San Marino Grand Prix ten year anniversary remembrance of Ayrton Senna in a series of interviews, Gerhard Berger, Senna's team mate at McLaren from 1990-1992 and a very close friend, expressed a memory of what it was like qualifying with Senna:
“I remember one weekend in Imola where I went out, I set the time. He went out, he was a bit quicker. I went out, I was quicker than him. He went out, he was quicker than me, and then it goes forwards, backwards -- ping pong -- until close to the end of the qualifying and it was the last set of tyres, and he was sitting in the racing car, me in my one, and he got out of the racing car, walked over to my one and said, 'Listen, it's gonna get very dangerous now,' and I say 'So what? Let's go!'”
This competition could perhaps be attributed to not only Senna's determination and desire to be first (including qualifying), but Senna and Berger's close friendship and horseplay, as the two were always playing practical jokes on each other in attempt to outdo each other.
In F1, wet weather racing is considered to be a great equaliser. Speeds must be reduced and car superiority in power or grip is greatly reduced. The rain demands great driver car control, ability and driving finesse. Senna had some of his best performances in such conditions.
The 1984 season was Senna's first in F1. He came into a field of competitors from whose ranks 16 world championships would be reaped. Participating as a rookie in an uncompetitive car, the Toleman TG184, Senna had racked up three race retirements, a 6th and a 7th place from his first 5 races.
He started the first wet race of the season, the Monaco Grand Prix (a notoriously difficult circuit for racing, as it is run on regular streets) in 13th place. The race was terminated after 31 laps due to monsoon conditions deemed undriveable. At the time the race was stopped, Senna was classified in 2nd place, and catching up to race leader Alain Prost, at 4 seconds per lap. Senna's performance in this race, on a track on which it is notoriously difficult to pass other competitors, should be contrasted with the events of recent races at Monaco in which passing has been the exception rather than the norm, especially in dry conditions.
In 1993, at the European GP at Donington Park, Senna drove for the McLaren team. The MP4/8, although one of the front running cars, was considered inferior to the leading Williams FW15C of Prost and Hill, and the Benetton B193 (which used a factory Ford engine) driven by Michael Schumacher and Riccardo Patrese. Some maintain that the Williams FW14B and FW15C were probably "the most technologically advanced cars that will ever race in Formula One.
Senna started in fourth place on the grid. At the very start, Hill cut across Schumacher's line, causing Schumacher to cut further to the outside across Senna's own line. Wendlinger then passed both Schumacher and Senna on the inside, leaving Senna in fifth and Schumacher in fourth. Senna cut to the inside, having no room to move to the outside as Schumacher came across. Despite being in fifth place at that point, at the end of the first lap he would be first. Having overtaken Schumacher, Wendlinger, Hill and Prost. Examples of wet weather car control such as this gained Senna the title "The Rain Master" in numerous F1 publications in the early 90's. The opening lap is frequently cited as a one of the sport's great moments.
Starkly contrasting to Senna's intense and unyielding will to win on the track, his exploits off it were humane and compassionate. He was renowned for his close relationship with Gerhard Berger, and the two were always playing practical jokes on each other.