The Frontstretch: Formula 1 Friday: Memories of Senna by Andy Hollis -- Thursday May 3, 2012

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Formula 1 Friday: Memories of Senna

Andy Hollis · Thursday May 3, 2012


During this brief lull in the F1 season I was considering topics to write about, and sat down at my computer all but ready to write a piece on the top ten drivers I’ve seen in my lifetime. Whilst thinking about Mika Hakkinen’s pass on Michael Schumacher at Spa, Fernando Alonso’s unmatchable ability to drag performance from unwieldy cars and Alain Prost’s incredible way of driving tremendously fast whilst looking like he was nipping to the shops, my mind kept being drawn to a wet and windy day that I stood on the outside of Redgate corner at the Donington Circuit and the whole premise of the piece changed. Coincidentally I also checked the date and realized it was May 1st – 18 years to the day since the last fatality in F1 and the day the sport inexorably changed as we lost probably the finest, certainly most unique driver to grace the sport which we so love.

Many finer scribes than myself have written countless articles and books about the genius that was Ayrton Senna da Silva and it would be folly to try to compete with my own ramblings, so I will try and offer some personal memories and reflections of the man and the myth. In addition to that though, I would implore ALL the readers to beg, borrow or steal a copy of the incredible, moving documentary by Asif Kapadia simply entitled Senna. It’s an unmatched piece of motor sport film making, whatever your preferences in discipline.

Ayrton Senna first registered on my consciousness in his debut season in F1 in 1984, driving the uncompetitive, poorly funded Toleman car, who themselves at the time were a relatively new team in the sport. As a result they bolted on the cheaper and slower Pirelli tires to their car. All in all it added up to at best a pretty average package to drive in. Most wise people will tell you that the truest measure of a driver is their ability in wet conditions, and so the circus arrived at the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix – precisely the type of tight, twisty circuit where you don’t really want any added difficulties such as heavy rain. Race day arrived and the conditions were horrendous.

In those days where safety was less of a concern, the race began with Senna having qualified in 13th position. He quickly began to climb through the field, and passed Niki Lauda’s McLaren (that would later win the championship) for second on lap 19. He then began to cut the gap to race leader Alain Prost at a rate of four seconds a lap. Sorry to shout, but FOUR SECONDS A LAP! In a Toleman. That’s like me chasing down Usain Bolt over 100m using my own legs! Before he could attack Prost though, the race was stopped on lap 31 for safety reasons. Senna in fact had finally passed Prost during the 32nd lap, at the end of which the red flag was shown. However, controversially, the positions counted were those from the last lap completed by every driver which was lap 31, at which point Prost was still leading – many people screamed “foul” and perceived a French conspiracy between Prost and the universally disliked head of the FIA, Jean-Marie Balestre, but either way the world of F1 knew they had a special talent on their hands.

So it proved and Senna of course went on to win his first race having moved to Lotus the next season, and went on to win three drivers world championships with the McLaren team – he is still the youngest triple world champion in the history of the sport.

Whilst he was with us I was never a massive fan of Senna as it happens. Not his driving ability, which was of course without question, but more because we Brits always plump for the underdog and, well, he was just SO good that it became almost tiresome watching him claim pole position after pole position. Added to that, there was an otherworldly quality about the man which although with the benefit of nostalgia nowadays merely adds to the myth, at the time sometimes came across as that most dislikeable of traits, arrogance.

Saying that though, I will never forget that day at Donington where Senna seemed to take the rulebook of what should be possible and threw it out of the window. In what many people think is the best first lap ever, he wrestled his McLaren from fifth up to first with a display of skill that is etched on the memory of everyone there that day. He then went on to dominate the race, winning by over 1 minute and 20 seconds, despite pitting four times. I urge you to take a look at the in-car footage of the first lap here and consider that in 1993 the Williams cars he was overtaking won pole position in 15 of the 16 races that season, and won 10 – such was their supreme dominance.

The following, fateful year, Senna joined the Williams team from his beloved McLaren and it was that horrendous weekend in May where we lost him. Senna hadn’t wanted to race on that day, having seen his countryman and good friend Rubens Barrichello suffer an horrendous crash in practice, and then Simtek driver Roland Ratzenburger receive CPR on the television screens shortly afterwards, sadly to no avail. Professor Sid Watkins, the hugely respected F1 doctor spoke to him about stopping then and as he says “He thought a great deal before he answered. A minute or more. He was always like that. If you asked a difficult question, there was always a very long silence – he’d never come up with a rapid response, which he might regret. Eventually he said that he couldn’t not race, in effect. There was no particular explanation, but I believe he felt trapped by every aspect of his life at that time. I honestly think he would have liked to step back; that was the impression I’d been getting for a while.”

I remember watching the race and the crash and thinking that although a hard impact, it didn’t at the time fill you with that chill where somehow you know it’s “a big one.” Fairly quickly though it became apparent that all was not well. I recall running to the call box where I rang my father at least three times over the next couple of hours. There was no definitive news at that time, more a dark feeling, compounded by rumor – a feeling I’ve thankfully not had cause to revisit again until the Las Vegas IndyCar race last season – coupled with the disbelief that something this terrible could happen to someone like Senna. Someone so gifted, so untouchable. The shock upon learning of his death was such that I genuinely questioned whether I wanted to carry on supporting the sport which I love so much.

I guess the danger is part of the reason we’re all petrol-heads. But when it slaps you in the face as hard as it did with Senna and, latterly, with Dan Wheldon, you begin to appreciate that race drivers really are a different breed. And yet, they’re so tellingly in those moments, only human.

In the words of the great man himself – “These things bring you to reality as to how fragile you are; at the same moment you are doing something that nobody else is able to do. The same moment that you are seen as the best, the fastest and somebody that cannot be touched, you are enormously fragile.”

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Don Mei
05/04/2012 09:57 AM

Im afraid I disagree with your assessment of Senna as the “finest”; certainly he was an overwhelming talent but no more so than JM Fangio, S Moss or J Clark. I would also point out that the “dark side” of Senna changed the face of Formula 1 forever. Every great champion has a burning desire to win; very few will do anything to the extent that Senna did. His actions on the track make Dale Earnhardt look positively gentlemanly. Earnhardt might tap your bumper and spin you out; Senna would purposely dive bomb another driver, regardless of the potential for serious injury. I would love to know what S Moss REALLY thinks of Senna. So in retrospect, I admire Senna the driver, I dont admire the man.

Andy Hollis
05/04/2012 10:24 AM

I don’t disagree Don – hence my use of the word “probably” – it’s incredibly hard to realistically compare drivers across eras. What I can say with some confidence is that Ayrton was the finest that I’ve had the fortune to see on a racetrack – I’m not quite of the age to have first hand witnessed the not inconsiderable talents of Clark/Fangio/Moss et al.

Nostalgia of course only comes in one colour, rose-tinted, and as everybody knows, Ayrton’s desire to win often pushed him over the line of acceptability. I’d say that Schumacher was/is worse than Ayrton in that, but then the dangers involved during Ayrton’s peak were that much greater. In his slight defence, all the occasions where he did overstep the mark did have some measure of provocation attached – Suzuka with Prost being the most widely known example – Prost had taken him out the previous year (though in less obviously dangerous circumstances), and Ayrton had fair reason to believe the fates were conspiring against him on that day…

It’s a fascinating backdrop to a fascinating man. As I mentioned, at the time I found his arrogance hard to swallow, but as with the majority of sportsmen and women that transcend their sport (of which there are very few) arrogance is a trait common amongst them…

05/04/2012 11:09 AM

I thought the Senna documentary was well done, but very, very slanted in favour of Senna—which I suppose makes sense, it’s about him! But the reality of his rivalry with Prost was much more complicated. Prost was never a villain, and any situation where Senna though he had the team in his pocket is pure conjecture, based on opinion with no evidence. And FIA president Belestre was DEFINITELY in favour of Prost over Senna, but that certainly wasn’t Prost’s fault!

To me Senna was always the “quickest” driver, but he was also an arrogant ass who believed every spot on the track was HIS, and everyone should get out of his way. It went way beyond a sense of entitlement, to the point he actually religiously believed God intended him to win races. So yes, I was always impressed with his speed, but best ever? He falls short in many categories. I thought Jackie Stewart was perfectly in his right as a former world champion to confront Senna and say “you know you’ve been involved in more incidents on track in one season than most champions have their whole career?” It says a lot.

It’s very difficult to compare drivers of different eras, anyway. Every “era” had its superstar: Fangio, Moss, Clark, Stewart, Villeneuve, then in the 80s they suddenly had four (Prost, Senna, Nigel, Piquet), then Schumacher and now, probably Alonso.

Schumacher was only fast when the car was built FOR him (hell he even had tires made for him), so despite his records I have a hard time even putting him in my top 5. For me it’s always what they’re able to do in inferior equipment, which is why I’ll always put Fangio at the top, beating the might of the Ferraris at the Nurburgring in a beat up old 250F. Same goes for Alonso in his crappy cars the last couple seasons, or Mansell when he was at Lotus, or Senna in the Toleman and Lotus.

Anyway I too believe people are looking at Senna with rose-coloured glasses now—there was a time when he was the biggest villain in the sport, and Prost was sort of the unlikely hero. It’s only after his death that Senna’s ruthlessness was changed from being a bad thing to being “just because he was so brilliant.”

While I race stockcars myself, I’m a huge motorsports history buff and I can talk to the ends of the Earth about F1 history, so I hope to see more articles like this on FS! :)

Andy Hollis
05/04/2012 12:12 PM

Wise words John, as you say, Prost was never the villain of the piece as you might suspect just on the basis of the film. Balestre however, certainly was (though these days, perhaps we should be careful what we wish for!)

Glad you enjoyed the article – to be absolutely up front, when I submitted it I was a little bit ho-hum about it as it’s so hard to write anything insightful about a subject that’s been so, so widely covered. I do always cherish that day at Donington though, even if it’s genuinely the coldest and wettest I’ve ever been. My pal and I spent some hours trying to get the rear-wheel drive car out of the grass car park!

How about we go for a VERY subjective “Top 10 of all time” next week? Would you guys be keen for that? I have a vague idea of who I’d put in there – though there’s plenty of argument and discussion to be had. Should I put Mario in there to appease my US readers!? Should Mansell be in there at all? Hakkinen? Villeneuve?

Let’s go for that next week then. Agreed?

05/04/2012 01:59 PM

Aaaugh, now we have to narrow it to TEN? :D

05/04/2012 08:37 PM

April 7, 1968.

05/04/2012 09:51 PM

I agree with John vis-a-vis his thoughts on Senna. To my mind, Fangio was the best there ever was but then again, I’m old enough to remember reading about him in his prime. I spent twenty years road racing motorcycles and that remains my first love but I enjoy just about any form of motorsports and appreciate them all. As to top ten, why not if it stimulates some good discussion. Nuvolari anyone?

Brian in Portland
05/05/2012 01:08 AM

Great article.

@DoninAjax The day the music died. Thx for the mem, it had been that long…

Brian in Portland
05/05/2012 01:13 AM

Well written, insightful article, Andy.

Andy Hollis
05/05/2012 07:18 AM

Thanks Brian – very kind.

The trouble with trying to put together a top 10 is that the natural inclination is to be biased to those that you’ve actually seen, so perhaps it’s going to be easiest to go back to what I was going to do this week and construct a table in that vein. Hence we’ll have to doff our caps to the likes of Moss, Fangio, Nuvolari, Hawthorne, Clark et al….I’ll be pulling the names from Gilles onwards….