The news this week has been completely taken over by the late Ayrton Senna and with good reason. On the eve of the passing of arguably one of Formula 1’s most influential and complex drivers, Senna still occupies a large part of the Sports psyche.
It would be an understatement to say Senna was a great driver. He was much more than that. He brought with him a level of intensity F1 had never seen. He produced drives that to this day stand out and for many people are still clear in their minds as if it had just happened.
To put in perspective the influence Senna had while he was still racing and since his untimely death, in a recently published BBC top 20 drivers of all time list, Ayrton Senna is on the top of that list ahead of such luminaries as Juan Manuel Fangio (2) Jim Clark (3) and Michael Schumacher (4).
Recent world champions Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso have all but said it was Senna that inspired them most while still dreaming of becoming an F1 pilot. I suspect there are others.
“When I was a kid I had all the books, all the videos, he was the driver I looked up to,” said Hamilton, who was just nine at the time of Senna’s death.
“He inspired me to be a driver and on the day of his passing, his death was… it was very difficult for me to show my emotions so I went off to a quiet place and it was very difficult for several days to really… your hero’s gone.”
“On my schoolbooks I didn’t have pictures of girls, obviously I was too young but I had Ayrton there and the same in my room,” said the Ferrari star.
“I had a big poster of Ayrton and even my first go-karts were in the colours of Ayrton’s McLaren because my father also liked him. It was a very sad moment.”
I remember quite well his black and gold Lotus, the beautiful white and red McLaren, his driving, the on going battle with teammate Alain Prost and of course the tragic weekend at Imola. My father was deeply affected in the same manner as Gilles Villeneuve passing several years earlier.
The question has been asked what Senna meant to me and this brings to mind a scene form the most recent film about Senna which goes by the title of his name. The turning point for me in the film comes when Dr. Sid Watkins retells a moment between Senna and himself that took place that fateful weekend in San Marino after the horrible accident that claimed Ratzenberger’s life.
Shortly before Senna got in the car for his last drive, Dr Watkins says to Senna, who was a little freaked out by Ratzenberger’s death, “You have three championships, you like to fish, so do I, lets both quit today and go fishing.” (paraphrased), to which Senna replies simply, “I can not quit, I have to go on.”
Of course Senna’s driving is a big part of his legacy, but also are moments like the one just described by Watkins. This is the somewhat dark part of the true nature of man, the fact that in light of what we know to be the logical choice, we choose the not-so-logical one, for good or for bad. And this exact paradox is also what is so compelling about Formula One as well: If you get in the car you can win, but by winning you may also die.
So to answer the question what Senna means to me, is was his complete and total surrender to the very act of driving a race car despite the overwhelming danger it presented. This surrender coupled with an ability to make the car do things no one else could, to me is more powerful than any other thing on earth.
Every so often when one can witness this surrender whether is be in the form of art, the impossible reach of a skyscraper, the splitting of atoms so small one has to wonder if they are really there, the miracles of modern medicine, or in the case of Ayrton Senna, driving beyond the limits of physics, one must stop and take pause.
I love F1 for many reasons, the competition, the cars, the drama but most of all, it is the people of F1 and especially its drivers. They are a very different breed and it is what draws me to this incredible sport like no other. I might not have been the uber passionate F1 fan or as interested in F1 during Senna’s time, but because of people like Senna and his enduring legacy, I am now and because of drivers like Senna F1 is a much more interesting place and that suits me just fine.
Ayrton Senna March 21, 1960 – May 1, 1994 May He Rest In Peace.
PS – It should also be noted Austrian rookie Roland Ratzenberger was also tragically killed Saturday of the race weekend prior to Senna’s accident. The F1 community remembers you as well.
Roland Ratezberger July 4, 1960 – April 30, 1994 May He Rest In Peace.