This is completely different from any other blog I've written. I wasn't sure whether I wanted this posted on here. So much so, I took a completely different approach to writing it. I sat down and wrote it last night, saved it and closed it. This morning, I came back to it and had another read through it, made some little changes and added one or two other things that I'd missed out. It's something that means a lot to me, and though I don't think there's anything deeply personal in there, this piece means more to me than almost every other thing I've written on here since I started the blog.
Here we go...
On Monday evening, I went to watch Senna. It’s a film I’ve been waiting for ever since it was first announced back in...ooh, 2009? It might have been a year earlier than that, but that’s around the time that I first remember there being something about a potential. Then last July, Top Gear did a fantastic piece on Senna to celebrate the fact that he would have been 50 years old.
I said back then that it was the finest piece of television Top Gear have produced, and is probably one of the best things that the BBC have done. Top Gear might be a bit silly at times, and they might joke around and act like buffoons, but this showed that a serious piece of television could still be done. It had interviews with people and clips of Ayrton at his finest, and it celebrated the man’s life. If you haven’t seen that, I highly recommend tracking it down. It’s on YouTube and it’s pretty easy to find.
Then the film came along and gave it some stiff competition. When I first saw the trailer, I thought “Wow..that looks absolutely fantastic.”
I’ll be honest, I’ve probably watched that trailer at least a dozen times. Finding out bits about the film, how it was entirely made up of archive footage and how Ayrton Senna tells the story himself from interviews and audio clips, seemed absolutely fascinating. Having seen the film now, I can give an honest and truthful opinion on it. I think it’s fantastic and is easily the greatest sporting documentary ever made. Really though, that can’t be hard when you’re making a film about one of the greatest sportsmen, or at the very least Formula One drivers, to ever live.
For me, it was so powerful that I made the walk home from the cinema teary-eyed. I didn’t listen to my iPod, I just wanted to be alone with my thoughts and contemplate the life of Ayrton Senna.
The strange thing though, is that I have no memories of Senna. I was born in 1991, the year he won his final World Championship and my first ever race was the 1995 Canadian Grand Prix. I could tell you all sorts of things about that race. Jean Alesi won for Ferrari, his one and only F1 victory, and his Ferrari carried the number 27, the same number Gilles Villeneuve raced under while driving for Ferrari. The Canadian track was named after the great Villeneuve...it’s the sort of magical thing you just couldn’t make up. It was enough to have me hooked.
Anyway, that was 1995. Ayrton Senna died on May 1st 1994, a year before my first ever race. So like I say, I have no memories of Senna. Every single thing I’ve seen of him, I’ve seen second-hand, whether it was through VHS, DVDs, television programmes or in recent years, the internet. That last thing has been so crucial for me. Though I’ve been an F1 fan for 15 years or so, I was aware of past drivers, but hadn’t ever seen many races. With YouTube, I’ve seen clips of all of the “great” moments in F1, and now thanks to streaming websites, I’ve found several channels that stream F1 races from years gone by. Through these, I’ve educated myself about things like the turbo era in the 1980s, the rise and fall of Lotus (and in recent years, Williams) and, of course, the Senna/Prost rivalry.
One of my earliest exposures to Senna was “Murray’s Magic Moments”, a VHS of Murray Walker’s favourite moments from F1. One of those clips was a segment from the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix, when Senna was driving for Toleman in the infancy of his career. He put in an astonishing drive and very nearly won the race in torrential conditions, and probably would have done so had the race continued for another handful of laps. Seeing Senna dance the Toleman around those narrow twisty streets fascinated me, and I was amazed to see how he was able to drag a midfield car right to the front of the race, overtaking cars with sheer will and determination almost to the point where it looked like he was in a completely different formula.
He spent his career doing that, dancing the car around the circuit, especially during qualifying. Whenever he went on a hot lap to get pole position, the world stopped. He’d throw the car into corners at speeds that other drivers could only dream of doing, and he’d know that the car would stick. Even seeing this back now on YouTube with slightly grainy footage from the onboard camera amazes me. Seeing him constantly working the wheel, always making tiny adjustments, and of course, these were the days of manual gearboxes, so he’d often be driving with one hand.
Of course, there are other moments like qualifying in Monaco in 1988, when he was almost 2 seconds quicker than Alain Prost in an identical car, his drive through the field in Japan later that year to clinch his first world title and the battles that raged between himself and Prost through the next few years, all climaxing in amazing fashion at Sukuka, with 1989 and 1990 ending in crashes. There are other fantastic pieces of driving like Donington Park 1993 when Senna, in an underachieving McLaren produced one of his best drives to win in mixed conditions. That first lap is probably the most played piece of footage from the 1993 season...and rightly so.
Senna’s death was tragic and ripped the heart out of Formula One. The sporting world was robbed of the chance to see Senna performing at the best of his ability in a Williams, and the potential of a Senna/Schumacher feud (which would have undoubtedly been brilliant viewing), while Brazil was robbed of a hero. However, from his death, new rules were introduced. To Senna, safety was paramount. We saw this through his career when there were huge accidents, such as Martin Donnelly in Jerez 1990 and Erik Comas in Spa 1992. With Comas, Senna pulled over during the practice session, abandoned his car and ran to the aid of Comas, who had passed out in his car. Who knows, without Senna’s intervention, Comas could have been seriously injured.
There’s a fantastic clip in the film where he argues with the FISA president about safety after having an accident at a previous race and show just how much safety meant to him. And of course, after his death, the safety of cars was improved significantly...so much so that there hasn’t been a death in Formula One since that day.
Like many others, I believe that had he not been killed, Senna would have won the World Championship in 1994...and probably would have done so again in 1995 and 1996. He was a man who had great faith and religion, and believed that God would do the right thing. Senna said this numerous times through his career. I’m trying my best to avoid spoilers in the film, but on the day of his death, unsure of whether he’ll race, Senna opened his Bible and turned to a passage that said on that day, God would reward him with the greatest gift of all, Himself. It might just be me, but that freaks me out. That’s legitimately scary stuff for me...and hearing it from his sister in that film caused a few tears to appear.
What does Senna mean to me then? He was a fantastic racing driver, the facts show that: 41 victories, 65 pole positions and 3 world titles. He was a brilliant person, a hero and inspirational figure to Brazilians at a time when the country needed it most. Michael Schumacher might be my hero, but if I’d been born 10 years earlier, it would have been Senna without a second thought. There are other greats like Fangio and Clark, but footage of races from then is so hard to come by, so my perception of them is based purely on pictures, stories and articles I’ve read.
With Senna though, I’ve seen plenty of races from his career. I’ve seen him race to the point of exhaustion and collapsing in Brazil in 1991, I’ve seen him win world titles and I’ve seen his fatal accident. There’s a train of thought that suggests that people who die while young leave a glowing reputation, and their star burns brighter for it...we’ve seen it with musicians like Jimi Hendrix Kurt Cobain. For me though, that doesn’t apply to Senna. Even if he were still alive, his career would be looked back on with astonishment, with joy and with celebration.
So...back to my question, what does Senna mean to me? It’s subject to argument from many, but this is my own opinion and view. And to me, Ayrton Senna is the greatest Formula One driver of all time. Senna said that he loved karting because it was “pure driving, real racing and that made me happy”. Watching Senna, I can say the same thing about him.