Q: “I recently discovered all the online videos that show Ayrton Senna’s driving technique, particularly his habit of sharply stabbing the throttle in quick succession as he comes through the apex and then exiting out of a corner. His technique is more akin to a sewing machine than the “gently squeezing an egg” technique that is usually taught. Do you have any insights, or have you ever talked to a data engineer who could explain how Ayrton made that technique work for him? I would have thought that quick, successive stabs at the throttle would immediately break the rear tires loose, which should dramatically reduce their grip level. Was he doing it fast enough that the motor and tires weren’t really responding that fast and therefore he wasn’t breaking the grip? Or was this akin to drivers that saw the wheel slightly at the limit, constantly pushing the front tires slightly over the limit, and then bringing them immediately back again, thereby making sure they are always at the limit?”
A: First of all, I wrote an answer to a very similar question about Senna’s throttle technique in this column a while ago. Go to https://speedsecrets.com/ask-ross/could-ayrton-sennas-throttle-technique-still-work-in-modern-f1/ to check out what I said there.
As for the engineering perspective on this, yes I’ve had conversations with engineers about this. Obviously, we’re making many guesses because we didn’t have actual data from Senna. And yes, one theory is that his stabs of the throttle were so quick that it didn’t have that big of an impact on things (one theory is that the turbo lag in those engines meant that we heard the sound of the engine, but it wasn’t doing much to the rear wheels, and might have been helping spin up the turbo). You can think of it like the way ABS pulses the brakes at many times per second, to the point where it’s almost like threshold braking.
Another factor is the tires he drove on. They liked more slip angle than a modern tires does, so setting the car in a bit of a drift was often useful (Gilles Villeneuve used this technique even more – much more!). So, using the throttle to initiate that drift might have been what he was doing.
One of the things I love about performance/race driving is that there is more than one way to go fast. It’s no different from other sports. Take tennis… it can be argued that a 2-handed backhand is technically not as good as a one-handed backhand shot, but many champions have proven that it works. I don’t think there is anyone who believes that Senna’s technique was right, but he made it right. And that was the main point I made in the post I made on my website.
It is fun to watch what Senna did, isn’t it?!