Ayrton Senna is the latest Formula One champion to test Indy car waters. And he liked the experience.
The three-time world champion from Brazil--in company with fellow Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi, another former Formula One champion--test drove one of Roger Penske's Marlboro Chevrolets earlier this week at Firebird Raceway, south of Phoenix.
"I have always had a lot of curiosity about Indy, so this occasion was most important for me," Senna said after a few laps on the desert road circuit. "It was like having a new toy. There was so much to learn, to understand. It was a tremendous challenge, but I think it has rejuvenated me.
"For the first time in some time, racing was fun again. Formula One--the people and the politics--had drained my enthusiasm for racing this past season. I have no commitments to run an Indy car, but I'm very excited at having this opportunity to find out about it. Now I can go home to Brazil, cool down a bit and think about it. Then we'll see what happens."
Fittipaldi, who talked Senna into joining him in Arizona for the test and then talked Penske into letting his countryman drive one of the team cars, was as excited as Senna.
"Ayrton and I have talked about this for a number of years, over dinners in Brazil during the off-seasons," he said. "Firebird is very small, with very slow corners, but it gave Senna a bit of a taste. I told him to be very careful, that an Indy car is quite a different breed from a Formula One car, but in only a lap or two he was very quick.
"It was beautiful to watch him drive, to see how much he was enjoying his work. He was very smooth going into the corners, and when he exited the corners, it was beautiful to watch. I know when he gets on a longer and faster track, he will have even more fun."
Fittipaldi said that he and Senna were joking after the test about what it would be like for both to be in the front row for the Indianapolis 500.
"With Nigel (Mansell) between us," Senna joked back.
Mansell, the Englishman who won a record nine Formula One races this year en route to his first championship, is quitting the Grand Prix circuit to drive a Lola-Ford Indy car next year.
Senna made it clear that his test did not necessarily mean that he was following Mansell.
"If I am honest, I will admit that I am thinking about Indy cars in my future, but there has never been a discussion of any kind with Roger or Team Penske officials about driving a Marlboro car this year," he said. "This deal is strictly between Emerson and myself. But because I have been a Marlboro driver for four or five years, it made sense to drive one of their cars here."
Although Rick Mears, the No. 1 Penske driver since 1978, recently retired, the Penske team lineup for 1993 is complete with Fittipaldi and young Paul Tracy of Canada.
Senna also said that the technology that has taken over Formula One made it more fun to drive an Indy car.
"Formula One has become so sophisticated that it is computer racing," he said. "Most of the thinking is done for you. I have gotten spoiled by pushing buttons without lifting my foot on the pedal.
"The clutch pedal no longer exists in Formula One. All a driver does is keep his hands on the steering wheel and his eyes on the track. The engines are so synchronized with the wheels that you don't have to think about things like rev counters (tachometers).
"The Indy car was more like the old days, and it was much more enjoyable. I have been driving Formula One cars since 1984, going through all the rules changes, but this was a totally new experience.
"I had not driven any race car for a month and a half, and the Indy car is much heavier. The pedals were set for Emerson and the seat was fitted for Rick Mears and the steering wheel was much closer to my body, but I enjoyed it. Part of being a race driver is being adaptable.
"It reminded me of old days, where the man was the important thing in racing. The Formula One cars have taken racing away from the driver and put it in the computers. In the Indy car, I felt important again."
Senna, 32, who finished the 1992 Grand Prix season fourth, won Formula One titles in 1988, 1990 and '91.
Senna's contract with McLaren ended with the final race last month in Adelaide, Australia.
"The unusual circumstances at McLaren, even though I had so many successes in the past, allowed me this opportunity (to test the Indy car) because I am unattached," he said. "Before, I was always under contract to another team, so I could not take advantage of such an opportunity as this.
"It is important to me, too, that I did this with Emerson. When I was a young boy racing go-karts in Brazil, he was in Europe winning world championships. I remember how important Sundays were to me because I was eager to see how Emerson would do.
"Over the years, he opened the doors for Brazilian drivers in Formula One, and now he is opening them in Indy cars. He told me how he felt the same way I do about Formula One--drained of enjoyment--and how he rejuvenated his career with Indy cars.
"He has given me something to think about, and I must say, I enjoyed my first taste of it."