Ayrton Senna's inauspicious Formula One debut belied the successes to come

The Formula One world's focus was squarely on the Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of Jacarepagua for the start of the season on March 25, 1984.

Those gathered at the Brazilian Grand Prix 35 years ago Monday cheered for one of their own in defending champion Nelson Piquet, but in the shadows lurked a driver from Sao Paolo set to make his F1 debut. Ayrton Senna would that day begin one of the sports's most prolific careers, one that would see him collect 41 wins and world titles in 1988, 1990 and 1991, before he was killed crashing into a concrete barrier at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix in Italy.

Going into his debut, however, he didn't make much noise driving for an underdog team.

"The expectation for Senna's debut was cautious because almost nobody bet on Toleman Motorsport," journalist Castilho de Andrade told ESPN Brazil. "Outside of that, Piquet was the main man. He had just become a two-time world champion, and he was from Rio."

The developing rivalry between Piquet and French driver Alain Prost -- who would win the race -- was the big topic that weekend, de Andrade said. Journalists scurried for a spot in the Brabham and McLaren team boxes. Meanwhile, nobody paid much attention to Senna's British Formula Three rivalry with UK driver Martin Brundle -- whom he beat in the circuit to advance to F1.

Brundle debuted in F1 in 1984, like Senna, and enjoyed support from his country's media. He did well in F3, but Senna thrived in the circuit with a record 12 wins in a season.

"He [Senna] knew a lot of journalists, and as a debutant, he wanted to talk, give interviews and all of that stuff," de Andrade said. "He had some attention, but not much. The results he had that weekend were not that good, so there was no way he would be a big deal just yet."

Brundle would suffer a broken leg that summer at the 1984 Dallas Grand Prix, sustaining injuries so severe that doctors considered amputating his left foot. His racing career was never the same afterward.

The weekend

Senna finished that Saturday's practice round in 17th place, just five seconds slower than pole winner Elio de Angelis. Brundle finished 19th, and Piquet secured the seventh spot on the grid.

Within Senna's Toleman-Hart team, cracks were already beginning to show. De Andrade recalls how Johnny Cecotto of Venezuela was annoyed at the attention directed at his Brazilian teammate.

"You could feel the tension," de Andrade said. "Johnny Cecotto knew the battle for first driver was lost. ... Senna was two seconds faster in qualifying. Cecotto refused to answer any questions about the time difference."

Still, de Andrade remembers Senna not being happy with his qualifying results. The Toleman, Senna said, couldn't have performed any better, and he complained about the weather that day in Jacarepagua.

As de Andrade remembers it, Senna put it like this: "This is only the beginning. I'm not worried. I'll do my best and that's that."

On race day, Senna's turbocharger broke down on Lap 8. He was the first driver to retire from the Brazilian GP.

"His Toleman wasn't good enough for the job, indeed," de Andrade said.

The results could have been even more disastrous. Folha de S. Paulo, Senna's hometown newspaper, reported that his cockpit was soaked in gasoline during the race. According to the daily, Toleman mechanics had overfilled the tank, causing fuel to leak into the car on the first lap. When the start of the race was delayed, mechanics opened the hole and attempted to dry Senna's seat with absorbent paper.

Yet even with only eight laps to his credit in his debut, Senna managed to make an impression. Rio daily O Globo, which would grade drivers after races, gave Senna an 8 on a scale of 10, explaining that "Senna's short race was enough to prove to fans he will be on the top of the mountain when he gets a competitive car."

Two-time F1 champion Emerson Fittipaldi also saw something special from his fellow Sao Paulo driver.

"He's a big prospect. I'm sure he will make Brazilians very happy. But this season is about getting experience and nothing else," Fittipaldi told Folha.

A frustrated Senna cursed his bad luck and told O Globo that he was confident he could've made a top-10 finish in his first entry.

"Mechanical failures happen. What we have to do now is try to figure out what happened to the turbocharger and get the car ready for the next one. But of course I'm sad. Who wouldn't be?," he said. "I've always had the best cars. I'm not used to forfeiting races, especially not in the first few laps."

Through the media lens

Paul-Henri Cahier has photographed drivers from Juan Manuel Fangio to reigning F1 champion Lewis Hamilton, a span that started in the 1960s. The son of the late French photojournalist Bernard Cahier was on the scene in Rio for Senna's debut but didn't remember much about the young driver.

"No one knew who he was. All eyes were on Piquet," Cahier said. "It wasn't until Monaco GP in 1984 [Senna's first podium finish] that drivers realized that Formula One had a new rising star."

Senna would establish himself as one of the greatest race drivers of all time, winning Paul-Henri's admiration along the way.

"I had the utmost respect possible for him. It was impossible for him to think of anything else other than racing a car come race weekend," he said. "I was a photographer, and he was a racecar driver. We were from different worlds. But I was kind of close to him to the point I was the one chosen to take pictures of him in his Lotus days and later on when he was with McLaren.

"He allowed me to be close to him. There was a lot of mutual respect there."

De Andrade, now in charge of communications for the Brazil Grand Prix, remembers with a tinge of regret one particular story about that weekend in Jacarepagua.

"I think it happened one day before, on Friday," he said. "The National Bank, a major sponsor, brought over a few journalists for a Senna poster reveal. I won one, and he signed it. The director of the bank assured me, 'Keep it. One day it will sell for a lot of money. He [Senna] is our hope to be the next Brazilian world champion.'

"When he won his first title in 1988, that poster was no longer in my possession."