I’m assuming it was particularly pleasing to catch and overtake Piquet at the British Grand Prix in 1987, then?
I think the British public appreciated who I stuck it to! I pitted for tyres with 24 laps to go and was trailing Piquet by about 24 seconds. To pull a second a lap from him seemed—well, almost impossible. But over the last 15 laps, I broke the lap record 11 times.
How was the team reacting to your charge?
I was being told over the radio to slow down, but the radio wasn’t working in the car. A pit board was telling me, lap after lap, that I was running low on fuel. I just turned up the turbo-boost as far as it would go and drove qualifying lap after qualifying lap; if I ran out, I ran out. If not, I’d catch Piquet.
When you got onto the rear of the Brazilian’s car, with 100,000 people urging you on from the grandstands, what was on your mind?
I knew I had to sell Nelson a dummy at [320kph] on the Hangar Straight. As soon as he moved his head to look in one mirror, I moved to the other side of him. I knew as long as I didn’t hit him up the backside, I could slingshot past. We touched wheels going into Stowe Corner, but then I was gone.
The response from the crowd was euphoric. How was it for you?
There weren’t too many people happy with me at Williams. I was supposed to know my place! People forget I went to the British Grand Prix many times with no hope in hell, so I was going to seize this chance.
That same year, at Spa, didn’t you march down to the Lotus garage to grab Ayrton Senna by the throat?
For a quiet chat?
It was a great moment. I had the red mist, as he scared me to death knocking me off as hard as he did. Obviously, the discussion led from one thing to another, and soon he was changing colour momentarily. I am quite strong, actually!
Did Senna throw a punch at you?
He did—but he had four mechanics holding me at the time. The point was, we had a healthy exchange of words. Drivers make mistakes, but there are “mistakes” that are not mistakes. What he did, turning into me at high speed, was totally unacceptable in my book.
Senna never took any liberties with you again?
I was privileged to drive against men like Niki Lauda, Alan Jones, Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost, Gilles Villeneuve, Carlos Reutemann, and Jacques Laffite, but I’d have to say Senna was the best. He took so many victories from me and knocked me off the circuit so many friggin’ times. He was the hardest and toughest competitor. With Ayrton, Alain, Nelson, and myself, we had most races covered for a number of years.
Did you watch with amusement when, in 1988 and ’89, Senna and Prost spectacularly fell out at McLaren?
As great a team as McLaren was, they gloated at other people’s problems—so we enjoyed it when Senna and Prost became, shall we say, the best of enemies. McLaren was so dominant at the time that if they took one another out, you had a chance of winning instead of coming in third!
How flattering is it to be the last driver ever signed by Enzo Ferrari, for the 1989 season?
I went to dinner with him a couple of times. If he lifted a hand—and there could be 20 people at the table—everyone stopped talking instantly. Quite extraordinary.
Sadly, the great man died before you made your Ferrari debut in Rio. You expected to be on the early afternoon flight home, didn’t you?
Yes. The car had not run for more than seven laps before the Brazilian Grand Prix. My team-mate Gerhard Berger’s car only lasted five laps in the race, and when I passed his car I thought, “Right, a few more laps and I’ll be off to the airport.” But the car kept going—until the steering wheel went crunch. I must be the only driver to come in to the pits to change five wheels! After the stop, I went back out and won. It was seven races before we finished again.