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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