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While today’s Formula 1 cars may look a bit like the race cars of yesteryear, nearly everything under the hood has changed completely. Today’s cars make about 700 horsepower and achieve tons of downforce with aerodynamic elements such as diffusers to maintain grip. But 1980s F1 cars were very different. They were powered by 1.5-liter V6s that churned out an astonishing 1200 horsepower. They had traditional, manual transmissions. And to put this power to the ground with their primitive aero designs they needed sticky tires that are massive by today’s standards.

Lewis Hamilton said it has been a lifelong dream to race his hero’s car: Ayrton Senna’s MP4/4 F1 car. So the team at Top Gear set him up to run it on a track. Afterward, he “couldn’t imagine” taking the beast in a race.

But why Senna’s F1 car? “Since I’ve been in motorsport, I’ve always thought the 80s and 90s was the era–the real special era–of Formula One.” And even in that era, “Senna rose to the top.”

Hamilton certainly enjoyed himself. He was so giddy about experiencing the car, he admitted he literally could not sleep the night before. He hooted and hollered while driving and said “I love it.” He even decided not to pit, just so he could get one more lap. He said of the engine’s added power, “You just can’t imagine. And they sound amazing.” That said, he had some sobering realizations about how far F1 has progressed.

Lewis Hamilton F1 driver
Lewis Hamilton | Clive Rose/Getty Images

He said “It’s nothing like the car I drive nowadays.” He noted that that instead of downforce he only had “mechanical grip.” He summed up the difference succinctly: “I think the cars back then were a lot less aero-efficient and aerodynamic reliant. It was more like a go-cart back then. Because they literally had big, huge tires with mechanical grip. And that’s what you have in a go cart.” Albeit a 1,200-pound go-cart with 1,200 horsepower.

Hamilton also pointed out how flimsy the body felt, with a “cockpit you could almost punch through.” He added, “Driving around at those speeds, your wheel falls off, mechanic makes a mistake, you’re dead.” He admits that without modern safety equipment, “The fine line between life and death was probably a lot narrower.”

There are other positive improvements to F1. “Today, cars are faster. We probably pull a lot more Gs than they maybe did.”

Hamilton felt that driving the old car was truly “phenomenal.” But on the other, he admitted, “I can’t even contemplate what it would have been like.” He added, “To get used to driving this car on the limit, I just couldn’t imagine it man.”

Overall, he admitted you’d have to be just a bit “crazy” to race F1 back in the 80s. So did he lose respect for Senna? No. He said, “That’s why I think you have even more respect for the guys that did it back then.”

Next, find out whether NASCAR or Formula 1 has a higher top speed or see Lewis Hamilton interviewed on Top Gear in the video below: