The pioneering F1 approach that made Senna so special

On the anniversary of Ayrton Senna’s passing at Imola, we reflect on what made the Brazilian so special with the man who knew him best.

The pioneering F1 approach that made Senna so special

In an era when Formula 1 as a whole became more professional, Senna is often credited with changing the way drivers approach a race weekend, taking mental and physical preparation to a new level.

Senna’s fierce McLaren rivalry with Alain Prost was a big driving force in that change of attitude. Going up against a driver who proved to be his match, Senna understood it was necessary to pull out all the stops in order to find an edge over the Frenchman.

For Senna, one of those edges was developing a close relationship with McLaren’s fresh-faced new physiotherapist Josef Leberer.

Leberer arrived in F1 at the start of the 1988 season, replacing his fellow Austrian mentor professor Willi Dungl. As a 29-year-old physio Leberer immediately ended up at the powerhouse McLaren-Honda team of Ron Dennis. That season Senna and Prost won all but one race at the height of the team’s dominance, with the spectacular McLaren MP4/4.

Ayrton Senna receives a hand massage from physio Josef Leberer ahead of the 1988 Mexican Grand Prix

Ayrton Senna receives a hand massage from physio Josef Leberer ahead of the 1988 Mexican Grand Prix

Photo by: Sutton Images

For a young newcomer like Leberer the perfectionist Dennis-era McLaren team was an intimidating environment.

"I was more or less experienced but still it was a big step for me because didn't know what they expected,” Leberer said when Motorsport.com sat down with him in 2018.

“I just tried to do what I learned from my intuition and do my best. Doctor Dungl said: 'You cannot prepare for this, just do it. You are good in therapy and good in communication.’"

Leberer then faced the daunting task of earning the trust of two of the toughest and most competitive characters in the sport, but a particular incident during his first event with McLaren, the 1988 Brazilian Grand Prix in Rio, handed him an early chance to make a difference and find a way in.

Read Also:

"On Friday Prost had an accident and got a headache,” Leberer recounted. "There was a huge pressure on me after the accident because I was alone.

"I was a little bit scared if it was [going to be] my first and my last race, but I tried to do my best and it worked out well. He was quite well soon. That was fantastic for me.

"The cars at that time were physically difficult to drive. That meant the drivers needed me, they asked me in the evening for some therapy or a massage. Ron Dennis let me do what I wanted, because I knew what I wanted to do.

"Both Ayrton and Prost were very strong characters. I tried to give them both my time. Prost was a bit older but Senna was my age. I could see that he was very disciplined with himself and with his expectations of the people around him."

Josef Leberer watches on as Ayrton Senna gets ready to go out on track

Josef Leberer watches on as Ayrton Senna gets ready to go out on track

Photo by: Sutton Images

Despite getting off to a good start with Prost, it was Senna who Leberer naturally grew closer to. It turned out that wasn’t entirely by accident...

"On Sunday night [after the Rio race] he suddenly called me. I was dead from this week, I wanted to sleep. I thought he wanted another therapy or massage, but he invited me to come to dinner. I thought that was really nice. Everybody wanted to have dinner with him: the mayor, the president… and he was asking me!

“A friend told me many years later that it was because he saw what I had done with Prost and he thought 'this guy is not so stupid, it’s good to get him on my side...’”

"I was probably a bit naive when I thought it was just because he's such a nice person. Ayrton was a very sensitive person, but the chemistry was right. He had a good feeling for people.

"It was a very successful week. Even Dennis came to me on Sunday to thank me. Designer Gordon Murray also became a friend. I couldn’t have dreamt of a better start.”

"That was not your salad dressing"

Back in 1988 mental and physical preparation in Formula 1 was still in its infancy. Leberer and Senna played a pioneering role in raising the bar.

"I don’t think there has been anyone like Ayrton. It was incredible in the way every detail was important for him. It was a pleasure to work with him because he appreciated whatever you do.

"From the medical side he took up everything like a sponge. Even food and different ingredients were very important for him.

"I was preparing food, cooking, everything. In some of those countries it was very difficult, there was no catering like we have now. I had to cook somewhere and do everything with two plates. It was very important to have the freshest products.

“One time when I did a salad, there was an urgency and I had to ask other people to do the salad dressing for him. And immediately he knew: ‘That was not your salad dressing, it was a little bit off...’”

Sebastian Vettel and Josef Leberer in 2008

Sebastian Vettel and Josef Leberer in 2008

Photo by: Red Bull

After the triple world champion's tragic Imola accident in 1994, Leberer stayed in the sport and joined Sauber in 1997, now named Alfa Romeo. At the Swiss outfit he guided future stars like Kimi Raikkonen, Felipe Massa, Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc.

Senna was idolised by several generations of drivers. Leberer has been often asked by his proteges to tell stories about the great Brazilian.

"Of course," he said. "Some young drivers will ask ‘Oh, you worked with Senna. What was he doing?’ There are always little things to help them in their training programme."

These days all Formula 1 drivers are extremely fit athletes. Physical preparation is at such a high level that it is no longer an area where drivers can make a difference.

The mental side however, is still a game changer because it’s so inherently personal and harder to measure. To this day Leberer still applies lessons he learnt while working with Senna.

"Before Ayrton went to bed [it was] the perfect time to do some therapy. On Saturdays the tension is rising. Whatever went through his head, I could feel the tension in the vibrations of his body. So I tried to get his attention, to concentrate on [the therapy]. It’s important to switch off and recover.

"You can’t always go at 180 [beats per minute]. For the heart and the body it’s important to calm down. You only grow while you sleep.

"If you're still thinking about Prost or Mansell or Piquet, it interferes with this [process]. He learned to do that and I think that was one of the most important things he could learn.”

"It was very exciting and really fulfilling for someone like me. You’re only as good as somebody else. I am nobody if he does not allow me to do it, if he doesn’t ask for it or accept it. I remember once Senna said 'whenever I change teams, I would like you to come with me.' That’s nice, right? That means I wasn’t so stupid!

"To come to McLaren and have two of the world’s top sportsmen to work for: it was incredible, fantastic. I could say everybody could have done it with Senna and Prost."

Josef Leberer on the grid with Charles Leclerc in 2018

Josef Leberer on the grid with Charles Leclerc in 2018

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

shares
comments
Ricciardo tried new driving style in F1 sim before Portugal
Previous article

Ricciardo tried new driving style in F1 sim before Portugal

Next article

Red Bull "very brave" to develop own F1 engine - Brown

Red Bull "very brave" to develop own F1 engine - Brown
Why Red Bull’s RB17 hypercar can help its F1 team Prime

Why Red Bull’s RB17 hypercar can help its F1 team

On Tuesday, Red Bull laid out its plans to develop and build a new hypercar - the RB17 - penned by Adrian Newey. As the project itself sates Newey as a creative outlet, it also offers Red Bull's Formula 1 team a number of new and exciting avenues to pursue.

What to expect from Mercedes as F1 returns to Silverstone Prime

What to expect from Mercedes as F1 returns to Silverstone

OPINION: The British Grand Prix is a home event for Lewis Hamilton and George Russell, with their Mercedes team based just a few miles away too. But there’s another reason why the Silver Arrows squad is eager to arrive at Silverstone this weekend, which may help it fix its remaining problems with its 2022 Formula 1 challenger .

Inside AlphaTauri’s Faenza F1 factory Prime

Inside AlphaTauri’s Faenza F1 factory

AlphaTauri’s mission in F1 is to sell clothes and train young drivers rather than win the championship – but you still need a cutting-edge factory to do that. Team boss Franz Tost takes GP Racing’s Oleg Karpov on a guided tour of a facility that’s continuing to grow.

Formula 1
Jun 26, 2022
Connecting two of Ferrari's favourite F1 sons: Villeneuve and Leclerc Prime

Connecting two of Ferrari's favourite F1 sons: Villeneuve and Leclerc

Gilles Villeneuve's exploits behind the wheel of a Ferrari made him a legend to the tifosi, even 40 years after his death. The team's current Formula 1 star Charles Leclerc enjoys a similar status, and recently got behind the wheel of a very special car from the French-Canadian’s career.

Formula 1
Jun 24, 2022
How a 30cm metal wire triggered open warfare in the F1 paddock Prime

How a 30cm metal wire triggered open warfare in the F1 paddock

Porpoising has become the key talking point during the 2022 Formula 1 season, as teams battle to come to terms with it. An FIA technical directive ahead of the Canadian Grand Prix and a second stay appearing on the Mercedes cars only served to create a bigger debate and raise tensions further

Formula 1
Jun 23, 2022
Does Max Verstappen have any weaknesses left? Prime

Does Max Verstappen have any weaknesses left?

Having extended his Formula 1 points lead with victory in Canada, Max Verstappen has raised his game further following his 2021 title triumph. Even on the days where Red Bull appears to be second best to Ferrari, Verstappen is getting the most out of the car in each race. So, does he have any weaknesses that his title rivals can exploit?

Formula 1
Jun 22, 2022
How F1's future fuels can shape the automotive sector Prime

How F1's future fuels can shape the automotive sector

In 2026, Formula 1 plans to make the switch to a fully sustainable fuel, as the greater automotive world considers its own alternative propulsion methods. Biogasoline and e-fuels both have merit as 'drop-in' fuels but, equally, both have their shortcomings...

Formula 1
Jun 21, 2022
The breakthrough behind Sainz's best weekend of F1 2022 so far Prime

The breakthrough behind Sainz's best weekend of F1 2022 so far

OPINION: Carlos Sainz came close to winning in Monaco but needed that race’s specific circumstances for his shot at a maiden Formula 1 victory to appear. Last weekend in Canada, he led the line for Ferrari in Charles Leclerc’s absence from the front. And there’s a key reason why Sainz has turned his 2022 form around

Formula 1
Jun 21, 2022