Thank you, Ayrton Senna, for the inspiration.
Cars and motorsport have formed much of my life; it has been my passion, a hobby, and even put bread on the table. From turning the pages of picture books, to playing with push-back cars, to reading every automobile magazine I could lay my hands on, and even sleeping inside and under my grand-father’s Morris Minor, it has been a life of all-consuming focus.
One of my first toys that I remember vividly was a black-and-gold toy racing car. It had front wheels which could steer and real suspension. It was the most fascinating toy for a child obsessed with cars, and a gift from an indulgent aunt who resided overseas. One day, unfortunately, I managed to break one of the front suspension arms. My patient father glued it together, but it was not the same.
Anyway, a few years later, we had satellite television, an investment ostensibly to follow the first Gulf War. The same aunt resided in Saudi Arabia, and the family would crowd around the TV to watch repetitive images of Scud and Patriot missiles and drone-like commentary.
A curious child, I twirled the tuning knob on a bored afternoon and thence began the next stage of this automotive affliction: motorsport on TV. The excitable commentary and images of racing cars, the sound of the engines and the gasp-a-minute on-track action had me hooked.
There was a driver in a red and white car with a bold Marlboro logo, and who always wore a yellow helmet, who seemed to spur the commentators to the most excitable levels of commentary. His name was Ayrton Senna, and he’d just made another fan.
Thereafter, I pestered my father to buy me expensive ‘foreign’ automotive magazines; I would spend my time in the libraries trying to find out all I could about him. The same indulgent aunt in Saudi Arabia, and an older relative in the USA would send me a lot of stuff. So I got my ‘Senna’ t-shirt emblazoned with the trademark “S-curve” logo. I also got a subscription to Road & Track, which unfortunately didn’t carry too much news about Senna. Thankfully, the BBC and Prime Sports as the channel was called then (I think) allowed me to follow much of the goings on. The first and one of only two posters I ever put up in my life was of Senna looking up, his hands folded across his chest, his expression one of deep concentration.
“What is this, cars going round and round in circles?” my family would inquire exasperatedly. I tried (unsuccessfully) to enlighten them about pit stops, race strategy, overtaking etc. Thankfully, most races aired at a time nobody else wanted to watch TV.
And then, came that fateful afternoon in 1994. That accident. The commentators trying to make sense of the scene. Then later, the race carried on. I don’t think they announced that Senna was dead till after the race. Or maybe I heard it in the news later that evening. But I bawled and bawled and even today my eyes are tearing up as I write this.
My hero had died.
Of course, then I knew nothing of his philanthropy, about how he was such a loved character in Brazil, his home country. I didn’t even have an inkling or an understanding of just what an impact his death had on the world. All I knew was that the exciting driver in the yellow helmet, the one with liquid eyes and steely, sometimes unblinking gaze, was no more. I knew nothing about him, and did not have the maturity which comes with age to understand who he was, or what else he was about. Other than the odd interview I watched on TV, and the snatches of information from here and there, there wasn’t much to piece together who Ayrton Senna the man outside the racing car was.
Over the years, I have read a lot more about him, watched endless replays of his overtaking moves, watched movies and documentaries about him, and a picture has begun to emerge.
Ayrton Senna was obviously a very complicated man. He juggled many insecurities perhaps, and had some unresolved demons. But wasn’t he generous to a fault? Didn’t he give away his money? Didn’t he eschew the trappings of being a multiple Formula 1 world champion just to play street soccer with some urchins?
But then, no one will ever speak ill of those who have passed, in any culture in any part of the world. There may be those who may have resented his ultra-competitive on-track behavior. He probably slighted others in his time.
For all that, he will undoubtedly remain the quickest man to ever drive a Formula 1 car. Cars of that era were visibly more physically demanding to drive, more crude and un-refined than the F1 machines of today.
Despite that, his “strike rate” for pole positions is enviable. From 162 races Senna had 65 poles, a strike rate of over 40 %. The only driver who comes close is Sebastian Vettel, whose pole position strike rate is under 36 %. However, let us not forget that many of Senna’s pole positions were in cars that had no right to be on the front row. His genius in extracting the very last ounce of performance from a recalcitrant machine, of flogging a racing car to within an inch of its metaphorical life, that will forever remain his single abiding memory for motorsport lovers.
No doubt, it contributed to his driving sometime beyond the car’s ability, not his, and maybe that’s how he died.
Yes, my hero is dead. But I want to remember him fondly.
“With your mind power, your determination, your instincts and the experience as well, you can fly very high.”
Thank you, Ayrton Senna, for the inspiration.
Ayrton Senna. 21 March 1960 - 1 May 1994