How F1 Legend Ayrton Senna Came Very Close to a Drive With Team Penske IndyCar

Published 12/20/2021, 2:10 PM EST

In 1992, Ayrton Senna had all the motivation in the world to win his fourth title after being beaten by Nigel Mansell. But then, in December, something strange happened. It seemed that Senna would swap seats from McLaren. And not to another team on the paddock.


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But across the Atlantic Ocean to IndyCar.

On December 20, 1992, 29 years ago today, Ayrton Senna participated in an IndyCar test with Team Penske at the Firebird Raceway near Phoenix. The test was arranged with the help of Marlboro, which sponsored McLaren and Penske, both Senna and his compatriot, Emerson Fittipaldi.


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But in reality, many believed Senna’s test was simply an attempt to have an upper hand in his contract negotiations with McLaren. After all, Penske already had a driver’s lineup in place for the forthcoming season.

Yet if they had an actual chance, Roger Penske would’ve gone all out on him. “I think he was using us as maybe somewhat of an impact against the McLaren guys at that point to try and get his deal put together, which we certainly understood,” Penske said.

“If Senna was available, we’d have tried to figure something out.”

That day was the first and only time Senna drove an IndyCar. And even in that, he only put in 24 laps around the relatively small and unknown circuit.

However, that didn’t stop him from showing his class and talent in the little time he had. After struggling initially with the differences between the two cars, Senna got up to speed soon.

How did Ayrton Senna fare in an IndyCar?

One of Penske’s engineers, Nigel Beresford, recalls the unforgettable day he got to meet one of his heroes. He spoke of what Senna said to him.

“He said the engine was very driveable, and found the car pretty heavy — not as nimble as a much lighter Formula 1 car — and added he did not know the revs he was pulling because the engine sounded so different,” Beresford said.

Senna himself expressed his contentment with the new experience.

He said, “The car behaves in a very particular way, but the sensation, the feeling, is great. I’m very happy for finally being able to actually experience an Indy Racing car.”

“One day I’ll drive this car, it’s just a matter of time.”

But we all know that day never came.


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Senna signed on for his last season at McLaren for 1993, lost the title to his nemesis, Alain Prost, in a Williams. He then moved to Williams for 1994 and unfortunately passed away at Imola in the same season.

Ayrton Senna’s IndyCar story never really took off.

Yet that doesn’t mean the few hours he spent at Firebird 29 years ago had no impact. Many consider Senna’s name being linked to IndyCar as one of the biggest boosts the series received back then in terms of a spotlight in Brazil and Europe as well.


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And that only goes to show just how big Ayrton Senna was, not just in Formula 1, but in the entire global motorsports landscape.

WATCH: Incidents That Added Fuel to the Intense Michael Schumacher – Ayrton Senna F1 Rivalry

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Shaharyar is a Formula 1 & NASCAR writer at EssentiallySports. A graduate in Journalism from Amity University, he has been a passionate follower of motorsports for better part of the decade. A Max Verstappen and Ferrari supporter, he dreams of a pairing of the two in future.