Fullerton vs. Senna

They were rivals, friends, teammates, world-class drivers and sometimes enemies. Ayrton Senna once called Terry Fullerton the most complete driver he’d ever raced against. We paid Fullerton a visit.
Text Matthias Mederer
Photo Matthias Mederer · ramp.pictures

The town of Melton Mowbray lies in the county of Leicestershire in the middle of England. It has a population of around 26,000 and is well-known for a culinary specialty: the Melton Mowbray pork pie. The town is also home to a pet food factory producing Whiskas brand cat food for Mars, Incorporated. It is here, in a quiet housing estate on the edge of town, that Terry Fullerton lives with his wife, his daughter and his small dogs.

It looks like rain on this dreary British November day as we park the red McLaren Senna in front of the house, right behind a gray, older model Audi A8 – Terry Fullerton’s car, with more than 200,000 km on the odometer. A blue Škoda Fabia is parked at the neighbor’s across the way. The Senna looks like a pink winged unicorn among a flock of gray sheep. But that’s what this car always looks like – except maybe on a runway, next to a golden fighter jet. Terry Fullerton sees us through the window, waves, and shortly afterwards the front door opens, but only a small gap. Fullerton peeks outside: “Come in so that my two little ones can get used to you. It takes ten minutes.” The Senna stays outside. Greeted by excited barking, we step into the house: white tiled floor, straight on a small dining room with adjoining kitchen on the right, outside in the back a small garden. On the left, the living room. Three family pictures on the windowsill, a swivel chair with cushions. “The viewing platform for the dogs,” says Fullerton. “From here they watch the street through the window.” The two canines slowly warm up to the new guests. We don’t seem to be that interesting after all. Up onto the viewing platform. Let’s see what’s going on outside. After all, there’s this unusual red car standing there.

It looks like rain on this dreary British November day as we park the red McLaren Senna in front of the house, right behind a gray, older model Audi A8 – Terry Fullerton’s car, with more than 200,000 km on the odometer.

And then suddenly Ayrton Senna is with us. On a small wooden chest of drawers there is a glass box, in it a small version of his legendary yellow helmet, next to it a few photos of long bygone times, very grainy, poor resolution, as was typical of photographs in the late seventies. The pictures show two men at kart racing. Terry Fullerton in the lead, followed by Senna. The helmet design is clearly recognizable. Two portraits also show a young Terry Fullerton and an even younger Ayrton Senna, thin, hungry, with a determined gaze. “A gift for my birthday,” he explains. You can tell that Fullerton was a racer. The tearful, sentimental retrospective with a trembling voice is not his thing. Like any racer, Terry Fullerton has internalized the need to analyze things as soberly as possible and suppress everything. Niki Lauda perfected this discipline. It is the only way racers can get back into the cockpit after a serious crash or another driver’s fatal accident without sacrificing speed.

Fullerton takes us upstairs, to his little office. He, his wife, his fourteen-year-old daughter and, of course, the two dogs have lived in this house for a year. Fullerton still works in motorsports today, coaching young talents in karting. At the age of twelve, he sat down in his first kart and began racing laps. That was in the mid-1960s. And Terry Fullerton basically hasn’t left the kart track since. Soon he will be off to Las Vegas for a race.

Out on the street, the McLaren is waiting. Fullerton looks out the window. He’s heard of the car. Of course. But he hasn’t driven it. In fact, he’s never driven a McLaren before. “Ferrari, Lamborghini, of course. But never McLaren.” When we contacted him and asked if we could come by with a Senna, he immediately said yes. And being a racecar driver, he informed himself ahead of time. “One of my former drivers is now a racing and development driver at McLaren. He told me a little bit about it, especially when it comes to its behavior in fast corners.” Then he laughs. “Don’t worry, we won’t drive that fast.” Fullerton is very excited about the Senna. He watched the video of Jeremy Clarkson on YouTube. “In part because I wanted to know if I would even fit in the car. Because if Clarkson can fit, then it should work out for me too,” he laughs, patting his belly. So: off to the Senna.

Fullerton approaches the car curiously, showing hardly any emotion, only expert interest. He inspects a few aerodynamic features and instantly recognizes some air guide elements designed to improve straight-line travel at high speeds. A glance at the interior. Then Fullerton crawls into the Senna. He is satisfied. “Fits perfectly. They seem to have put in just my seat.” We don’t have to explain much to him. He knows most things. But he can’t find the door openers and the power windows. Which is because, in the McLaren Senna, they are located where you would least expect them: in the middle of the roof. That’s also where the red start button is. And when the V8 turbo brings its 800 horses to life, that’s quite a show. Though it’s not an epic eruption of violence. Nevertheless, the engine makes its presence felt. It’s very loud inside. Always. We roll off.

We don’t have to explain much to him. He knows most things. But he can’t find the door openers and the power windows.

When Terry Fullerton first met Ayrton Senna, the latter was just seventeen years old, Fullerton twenty-five. “Senna was certainly not born as a complete driver. But he wanted to be one. He was obsessed with it. He was an ambitious young man. Fast, but he also made a lot of mistakes.” When Fullerton speaks about Senna, he always does so from the position of the older, more experienced racer. You don’t hear the sort of idolization that was showered upon Senna later and especially after his death by fans and the media. “He wanted to know everything, came to me often at first and asked me questions, about his driving style and what I’d noticed about him. I told him that accelerating out of corners he often wants too much, pushes too hard and drifts too much as a result.” A mistake that many young drivers make. But what made Senna different from the others was the way he handled it. “He took it to heart, thought about it, and a few laps later he had learned his lesson and was faster.” But the young Senna also went beyond his limits. In 1979, for example, in Italy, he flew off the track shortly before the end of a training session at around 120 km/h and directly into the boundary fence. “It was a shock. Not just for him,” Fullerton says. Senna had tried to maximize the ever-increasing grip level and flew off in the process. Fullerton ran over to him. “He stared at me in fear. I tried to calm him down. After ten or twelve seconds, he began to breathe again. Soon after, he was okay. But it could have been very different.”

Terry Fullerton was born on 4 January 1953 in London. When he was twenty years old, he became the first Briton to win the Karting World Championship. His career lasted just as long: after twenty years of racing, he had earned four more European and eight British championships. He himself chose not to move on to the higher classes or to Formula One. After his older brother had died in a motorcycle racing accident, he wanted to spare his parents a possible second loss. He raced for the DAP factory team from 1978 to 1980, and it is here that he met a certain Ayrton Senna. Fullerton regularly had the upper hand over his Brazilian teammate. Today Fullerton lives in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, and coaches aspiring young racers.

It’s an unusually cold November day, even for England. The on-board computer shows just four degrees above freezing. In the tire temperature indicator, all four tires are blue. Fullerton starts gently along the lonely country road to get some temperature into the tires. He accelerates, the traction control immediately grips, then Fullerton brakes to generate a bit of waste heat. Standard for a racer. Then he accelerates again, brakes again . . . just as he would on the racetrack. The four blue tire symbols in the on-board computer change to green. The Senna has more grip when accelerating, braking, steering. Fullerton likes it. “It’s a racecar . . .”

It’s half an hour from Fullerton’s house to the karting circuit owned by Paul Fletcher, a good friend of Fullerton’s. It is the largest karting facility in the United Kingdom. Here Fullerton trains with his students, here everyone knows him and his story. The pros exchange specialist jargon in the parking lot. And then the child comes out in the man. On a whim, Fullerton takes the Senna to the kart track and does a few laps. The superior performance of the Senna is beyond doubt. Even outside the car, you can hear the traction control and how, again and again, it tries to control the power. Fullerton is far from taking the car to the limits, he accelerates a bit, brakes, steers in. He avoids the curbs. Then he comes back to the parking lot. “Crazy! Absolutely crazy.”

"It’s a racecar …"

Time for a bite to eat. Via a few detours, beautiful detours. Though we stay very close to the karting circuit. Fullerton often comes here. Mostly after training or racing. He orders soup and a soft drink. The McLaren Senna is parked out front. From where he’s sitting, Fullerton can see it through the window. “Beautiful,” he says. Despite or because of all the air intakes and wings? “Because of them,” Fullerton says. “They just fit this car because you know these things are necessary. Nothing is styled or exaggerated. It needs them only for a purpose.” That’s how a racer thinks.

Terry Fullerton was born in 1953. He started racing karts when he was twelve years old. Between 1970 and 1980, as Fullerton grew into a seasoned driver and was at the height of his driving skills, eighteen Formula One drivers died, either in a race, during training, on test drives or in other racing series. “I wanted to live. As long as possible,” Fullerton says today. “The probability of a fatal accident was simply too great for me.” That’s how he analyzed it for himself. Sober. Emotionless. Of course, his brother’s fate also contributed to this decision. He died in a racing accident. Terry Fullerton didn’t want to do that to his parents a second time. “It was simply the most dangerous sport at the time.” Ayrton Senna is still officially the last racer to die in a Formula One race. Jules Bianchi died in 2015 of injuries sustained in an accident nine months prior.

Why McLaren chose to name its P15 (internal code) hypercar “Senna”? Obviously to give their triple world champion a worthy memorial and to pay tribute to one of the best racing drivers of all time. But also to set itself a goal for the market launch back in 2018. And they achieved what they set out to do: because the second car in McLaren’s Ultimate Series is not a bit slower than its namesake. And at least as uncompromising on the racetrack. With 800 hp, active aerodynamics and an incredible downforce, this is the fastest road vehicle to ever come out of Woking. Added bonus: the Bauhaus idea of “form follows function”. Rarely has that been more beautiful, certainly never faster. Wait – have we already mentioned the Senna GTR built exclusively for the circuit?

It is futile to wonder what Fullerton could have achieved in Formula One. He doesn’t think about it either. But doesn’t he sometimes regret it? Fullerton says no. Without stopping to think. Then he pauses for a moment, begins to smile. “If there’s one thing I regret sometimes, if that’s what you want to call it, maybe it’s all that money I could have earned as a Formula One driver.” Because Terry Fullerton isn’t rich.

We get back in and keep going. Terry Fullerton drives rather relaxed; he has no problems driving this street-legal racing car on such roads. He seems calm and composed in every situation. When you think of Senna, you remember races he won in the most difficult conditions – in the rain, for example – beyond any logic or even physics, races in which he didn’t defeat his opponents, but destroyed them, and which made him the icon he is today. According to Fullerton, it was precisely this talent for absolute vehicle control that he saw very early on in Senna. “I remember a race in Switzerland. We were on slicks and it was clear that only he or I could win this race. We drove right after each other, me behind him. I felt I could overtake him; I was a bit faster than him. Then it started to rain. And it was amazing how quickly he adapted to the new conditions. He drove a completely different line and immediately found the places where he had the most grip. He used the grip not only to ninety-nine, but to a hundred percent. From then on, I had to fight hard just to be able to keep up with him.” Over the course of his career, Fullerton raced against a number of other drivers, like Riccardo Patrese, Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost. But none of them came close to Senna for him. To this day.

Over the course of his career, Fullerton raced against a number of other drivers, like Riccardo Patrese, Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost. But none of them came close to Senna for him. To this day.

Fullerton still follows the races very closely. It’s part of his job. For Fullerton, there isn’t that much of a difference between the racing generations. “Today’s drivers have a concrete career plan in the back of their minds much more than we used to. But on the whole, it is still about being fast with the karts.” And they haven’t changed much. In terms of the drivers’ skills, he particularly likes Max Verstappen. He has known Verstappen since he was racing karts at age twelve. “He was very aggressive even then, but also very good.” He finds Vettel to be not as good as Hamilton. “I also think Schumacher was better than Vettel.”

Fullerton conducts the Senna over the English country roads. The car obeys him like his little finger. He clearly enjoys it. Like any real male rivalry, the competition between Fullerton and Senna also culminated in a climax. For Fullerton, it ended fully clothed in a hotel pool. “In the first year and also in the second year, our relationship was still very friendly. After that, Senna kept a bit of a distance. He saw me as an opponent, someone to beat. On this one Monday after the 1980 Champions Cup, he was still pretty pissed off. From my point of view, I had overtaken him fairly, hard but fair. I touched him, but I didn’t turn him. He drove hard and I drove hard against him. It was the last curve in the last race. Everything was at stake. The next day I was at the pool with my mechanic, and of course I was pretty happy about my victory. Senna was sitting there, and I didn’t pay much attention to him. He was obviously not happy. Then suddenly he jumped up and pushed me into the pool. Just like that. When I came back up, I heard him laughing sarcastically and walking away.” Today Fullerton laughs at it. But then it was different. “I was shocked at first. I didn’t understand what that was all about. But it seemed as if it was a kind of revenge for me overtaking him the day before.”

"This absolute and unconditional devotion to maximum performance. That is what the car and the driver have in common. Both subordinate everything to the optimization of lap time. It’s all about being fast."

Terry Fullerton

There is still one question that remains to be asked. It has to come. And it seems like Fullerton was also expecting it: Is there anything, a trait, a characteristic, that he sees in both Ayrton Senna the man and racer and the McLaren Senna? Fullerton switches manually, using the paddles behind the steering wheel, down from fifth to third. It catapults us from 4,000 to over 7,000 rpm in one quick go. It happens so quickly and immediately that it cannot even pass as a second of thought. In the process, he leaves the traction control activated. Then he says: “This absolute and unconditional devotion to maximum performance. That is what the car and the driver have in common. Both subordinate everything to the optimization of lap time. It’s all about being fast.”

In Germany, the Senna was released for a base price of 922,250 euros. Currently a car is being sold online for around 1.5 million. It’s in Marbella, Spain. We get back to the issue of money. If money didn’t matter, would he, Fullerton, buy the Senna? Again, he answers without thinking for too long: “Definitely. I love driving this car! But it would also be the only luxury sports car I would buy.” A quick glance, then he adds full of conviction: “Because it is perfect.” Fullerton then strokes his fingers over the Senna lettering on the passenger side. “And because for me, of course, there is a very huge emotional component in this car. Ayrton Senna was unique. I cried when he died. I’ve never told this to anyone before, but he was a very special person. I’ve never met anyone like him ever again.” It remains the only clear expression of sentimentality for Ayrton Senna on this day.

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