A windfall is washed down the drain

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PETER COSTER took the wrong turn at the Adelaide Grand Prix but found himself in a winning position after the race:

IT WAS Ayrton Senna’s last race for the McLaren team before he joined Williams at the end of the 1993 F1 season. Adelaide was a party town and the City of Churches had given itself up to hedonism and howling F1 engines. Senna was on pole in the McLaren-Ford, with his great rival, the “Professor”, Alain Prost, in a William-Renault alongside him on the front row. That was also how they finished.

It was Prost’s last race and it was Senna’s last victory. Prost retired and Senna died when the steering column snapped in his Williams at the San Marino Grand Prix in Italy and he crashed into the wall at the Tamburello corner. Roland Ratzenberger died when his car crashed in qualifying the previous day. At Adelaide the year before, Senna, perhaps the greatest GP driver of all time, embraced Prost on the podium with tears in his eyes. He was always an emotional and moody man, a fiery Latin who some drivers said believed God was with him in the cockpit.

He would not die. At the Japan GP before the Adelaide race, Senna won but punched rookie Eddie Irvine for holding him up. The last season with McLaren saw Senna the victim of his mixed emotions. After the race, he was embraced by Tina Turner as she sang to him that he was Simply the Best. Adelaide was a glorious farewell from McLaren for the volatile Brazilian. The editor of the newspaper I was working for was a petrol head who begged me to get Senna to sign a couple of T-shirts, which I bought from one of the merchandise booths at the circuit.

A grumpy and glowering Senna was sitting at the back of the McLaren garage and I watched as he started signing the T-shirts with a felt pen I had also provided. He signed one and then threw the pen down.

Ayrton Senna in Adelaide. (Photo by Jean-Marc LOUBAT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

What had upset the triple world champion? Why was he angry? Was I about to be thrown out of the McLaren garage?

The publicity manager came back with a rueful look on his face. “He says it’s not him. He says it’s Michael.” Michael Andretti was the second driver for McLaren, an Indy car champion who had been controversially signed by McLaren for the 1993 season but who didn’t cut it in F1 and had left the team three races before the end of the season.

He had been replaced by the Finnish driver, Mikka Hakkinen and the guy who ran the merchandise booth was getting rid of the T-shirts without bothering to tell anyone that he was flogging old stock.

You couldn’t tell who it was sitting in the McLaren, but Senna knew. I should have known by the colour of the helmet but I didn’t and, of course, Senna did. I made profuse apologies for having upset him before the race. But he did win, I thought later as I unpacked back in Melbourne and put the T-shirts in a drawer.

Then someone I told about the fiasco said Senna’s signature on the wrong T-shirt was probably worth more to a collector than his name on his own T-shirt and the paper could still use it in a promo.

A check on Google said the T-shirt was likely to be worth at least $5,000, maybe $10,000. It was like finding a rare stamp with an imperfection. “Have you seen the Ayrton Senna T-shirt,” I asked the person who used to go to the motor races with me before we were married and who has shown very little interest since.
“I washed them,” she said with a dismissive sniff. “I had to put one of them through twice to get rid of that black stuff on it.”

Ayrton Senna’s signature on the Michael Andretti T-shirt was gone, but the F1 legend lives on. I prefer to think of it that way. Memories of the 1993 Adelaide Grand Prix and the great Ayrton Senna are priceless.

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Author: Peter Coster

PETER COSTER is a former editor and foreign correspondent who has covered a range of international sports, including world championship fights and the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

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