Suddenly, a radiant glow lights up Senna’s face. His words take on the same lucid calm that he has when he talks about his God or his almost mystic belief in “perfect equilibrium” as he says:
“To drive at the top speed possible, to find the limits of yourself, of the car and the circuit, is a fascinating feeling. Up to a point, it’s fairly predictable but then, at a certain speed, a certain corner, it becomes the unknown. When you go into that band, which is very narrow, it becomes fascinating, inspiring, very attractive – something that you can only experience racing.”
He beams a smile that has a kind of awe.
“When you wait on the grid at the start, you can control the adrenalin, yes, but not too much. Then, when you enter this narrow ‘band’, if instinct takes over from equilibrium, you are really in big danger. This feeling, the feeling of danger, of being at the edge, is very attractive and difficult to control. You need to get close to it but not go over it. But if you can maintain the perfect equilibrium, between calm and speed, instinct, aggression, excitement, control, and competitiveness, then it is a beautiful experience, quite beautiful.”
Like opium for the addict, or meditation for the monk, driving at 350 kilometres per hour, strapped a few inches above the ground into a machine powered by a 700 horse-power engine inspires in Ayrton Senna a sense of transcendental still rather than exhilarated thrill to do with speed.
“You experience it in the moment but also sometimes you can anticipate it in your mind, or recall some of the feelings you have been through. You can ‘play’ with it.”
It’s said that Senna needs, and finds, this “band” more than other drivers.
“No, all drivers experience this. It’s a question of whether they understand whether they are at that point or not. Maybe they don’t process it into their body or mind clearly. Some may know, because they’ve been there, but they don’t like it. They’ll hold back. I don’t hold back.”
Even during the last testing session before the San Marino Grand Prix, Senna stands out like a man standing still during a stampede, like the man in a cartoon or a dream who has seen the bullet heading towards him, but has calculated everything and allows it to explode just inches past his head. Everything about testing is extreme. The blazing heat, the incessant roar of 30 engines scorching the air that smells and even tastes of thick fumes.
Speed may seem to be what makes motor racing extraordinary – Senna does 0-200 km.p.h in 4 seconds – but it’s the conditions that make such speeds truly remarkable. Senna’s car is 25 times faster and 25 times lighter than the average car with G Force and centrifugal pressures so strong that blackouts are always possible. Movement of the arms, legs, head and hands is heavily restricted. Senna’s two mirrors are tiny (2” X 3”) and, as Ivan Capelli’s mangled car during practice confirms, the light fibre-glass shell crumples on impact like a Coke can.
Scrutiny is intense – even the pit marshalls are interviewed by the Italian press. Journalists, camera crews and photographers clutter the Mclaren pits, zooming in on every move. Senna and his new team-mate Gerhard Berger sit silently in their cars like lions having their cages banged, never becoming rattled, waiting while mechanics fuss round like ants, making endless alterations to engines that will be replaces before race day.
“I’m not always so patient,” Senna says. “It’s part of the profession. Some of it, I don’t even notice anymore.”
Eventually, Senna completes one lap, spins off and is towed back to loud jeers from the 10, 000 Italian crowd. Whereas Berger is relaxed enough to lounge around and even snatch a couple of hours sleep, Senna remains utterly absorbed and impassive, a picture of calm concentrations, talking intently with Japanese computer engineers, signing the occasional autograph but rarely chatting or smiling. He never relaxes. After Jean Alessi breaks the track record, mutterings of “Senna won’t like that’ are everywhere. He didn’t. The following lap, he smashes Alessi’s time.
There is no anxiety or ego about Senna – no fuss, no ‘entourage’ or bodyguards, just a quiet assurance and authority that ensures even Marlboro Mclaren personnel fight shy of approaching him lest they distract him.
And yet just one year ago at San Marino relations between Senna and Alain Prost first disintegrated after Prost accused Senna of breaking an agreement not to overtake at the first corner of a race. When Senna’s car clashed with Prost’s at the crucial Japanese Grand pPix, Autosport declared that war had broken out. Senna was disqualified and accused the sport’s autocratic president, Jean Marie Balestre of orchestrating “a manipulation of the World Championship.”
He was fined £ 64, 000 and responded to the threat of a long-term ban by considering retirement from the sport (genuinely, according to McLaren personel.) Senna eventually retracted the remark rather than apologise – as Balestre had demanded – and McLaren paid the fine. Meanwhile, as one McLaren man puts it, “Senna and Prost simply just donft talk.”
IF motor-racing is a sport about pressure then it’s Senna’s ability to absorb, even use, pressure that separates him from the rest. As well as the relentless pressure of Testing, Qualifying and Racing, the intense competition between Senna and Prost, Senna and Alessi (universally regarded as “the new Senna”), McLaren and Ferrari, has raised the stakes. Financial pressure, in the form of a worldwide television audience of over 5 billion and Marlboro’s investment of an estimated £50 million into McLaren, is considerable.
And yet Senna seems to see the sport as the modern day equivalent of ‘The Right Stuff’ putting pressure on himself relentlessly striving for faster lap records, faster victories. Last year he broke Jim Clark’s 21 year-old record for pole positions (now 43 to Clark’s 33), registering 13 pole positions to Prost’s 2 and 7 wins to Prost’s 4. Only mechanical faults prevented his second consecutive Championship.
“My job is to touch the limits all the time,” he says. “We have this strength we can find in ourselves, to enable us to improve constantly. Driving the way I do allows me to express all the feelings I have, like a top tennis player in his best form. Then people watching on TV can get a fraction of the feelings I really have, a fraction. But a fraction is already a lot, let me tell you.”
If motor racing is the sport for obsessives, then Senna is the obsessives’ obsessive and the Prost/Balestre saga did little to endear him to those who consider him not only arrogant and intransigent, but dangerously dedicated and single-minded. After colliding with Prost, possibly only Senna would just carry on. The notion of finishing in a safe second is anathema to him. He hates to be over-taken and never concedes a corner.
“You have to do what is necessary to pass someone,” he has said. “There are no evasions, no excuses. No such word as ‘if’. There is only the next race.”
“Senna doesn’t take more risks than other drivers,” Berger tells me. “If he was mid-table, no-one would talk about him being a dangerous driver – that’s bullshit. He’s a good guy – very strong character, honest, hard worker. Very controlled. Some people get along with him, some don’t.” At 21 Senna was accused of ending his one-year marriage because “his wife was a distraction.” He has talked of the “desire to race… stimulating your whole body with an intensity that you cannot find in a woman.”
“I am not ‘a computer’. I have emotions, feelings, I just try to control the feelings.” So is he ‘obsessed’?
“Strong.” He smiles at the difference.
“It’s important to understand and accept that my commitment is necessary.”
Perhaps winning the World Championship in ’88 has made Senna less intense. Away from the track he seems timid rather than arrogant, scrupulously polite, highly sensitive and intelligent, never glib. In fact, he’s immensely likeable. He’s just unconcerned about the public’s perception of him.
“It doesn’t bother me. I don’t like commercial and promotional activities. I’m not being superficial, making an image people want to see. I have clear, strong principles for my behaviour. I always feel I do things for the right reasons. If you believe in what you’re doing, time will put things right.”
He says it’s years since he dreamt about racing and laughs at the idea it’s hard to relax after a race.
“As soon as you are away from it, you must automatically go to the other extreme, in order to innovate the mind and the body. This is how I find the equilibrium for my life. I have three or four days work. I give it everything I have. Just do it. Then I escape. I refresh myself and come back stronger. It’s unreal for people to think I live only for motor racing. I couldn’t live like that. ”
For the first race of the season, Senna was noticeably more relaxed than usual – “it was all wrong” – and Berger confirms: “He’s changed a little bit already. I’m sure he was thinking about where he was right and where Prost was right.” Certainly when Prost’s Ferrari sweeps into the pits just yards in front of us Senna’s eyes intently scan the Ferrari’s path but betray no emotion whatsoever.
“The past is the past, but it’s not forgotten” Senna says softly. “You cannot forget these things. You have to focus on the future because that is life. The past is not life. I don’t regret anything. It’s only necessary to know what was good and why, and what was bad and why. Always use the past as a good experience.”
It was Prost of course who accused Senna of “thinking he’s immortal” and certainly Senna seems like a man entirely at peace with himself. “The risk is something which we cope with and we live with. There are those who are desperate to see you fail, of course. You are risking your life against unknowable factors on every corner, lap after lap after lap. Fear is a fundamental feeling. Fear is what determines your limits.”
He thinks for fully a minute before telling me that his life has never flashed before him but there was “one moment”, doing 300 km per hour during a Grand Prix in 1984, where he thought he might be going to die.
“For a split second, I just did not know what to expect. At the very moment when the car failed, I was already expecting it in a way. I was thinking: ‘If that happens now, I’m really in trouble, in big danger. I don’t know what the damage might be, serious injury or what.’ And then it happened.”
This was not the moment when Senna met his God but it was one like it two years ago.
“In one moment, a very beautiful moment” he says quietly, the glowing smile lighting up his face again.
“God has given me a special way of understanding life, a new life, a life with faith and with belief and peace with myself.” Before a race, he reads his Bible and prays.
“It has always helped me find peace and the equilibrium between the attack and control.”
He does not seem like a man who is afraid of dying.
“Whenever He decides it is my time, will be the time,” he smiles. “I’ve had some frightening moments, but I don’t think much about death. It is much more important to think about life. I have had a very beautiful life, a present I have from God. We all have.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Senna does not say that he is fulfilling his destiny or God’s will and foresees no difficulty about walking away from it or finding a new obsession.
“No, I chose this. I had the choice to do anything I wanted. I think about the future, of course, but I can’t say right now what I will be doing in ten years’ time, given the circumstances. I still have too much to come.”
Apart from racing, the pleasures in his life, he says, are water-sports, flying model planes, the seaside. “And staying away from motor racing,” he laughs. “I like to be private.”
His father is a wealthy ranch owner and car components magnate and Senna himself is thought to earn up to £ 10 million a year from racing with endorsements and sponsorships from the likes of Boss, Shell, and TAG-Heuer watches. He has his own HS 125 jet to take him back to Sao Paolo and his girlfriend Xuha, a TV presenter and model. He seems genuine when he states: “I am not interested in history” although perhaps he is kidding himself. Is it possible that Senna, who is only 30, could be content with one, or even two, World Championships, when his compatriot Nelson Piquet, Jim Clark and his rival Prost all have three ?
“As long as I get those feelings that innovate me, I’ll be racing. That’s all I’m interested in. There is so much to learn and improve. In the end if you can function in that narrow ‘band’ you can do amazing things.”
He answers carefully when I ask him if he is happy.
“I have a beautiful life, but I am the kind of man who would like to improve it in all respects. The most fascinating feeling of all is to beat yourself. What is not possible today may be possible tomorrow.”
Senna walks back to the track and I remember he once said: “I live to do this, to be the best driver in the world, and when it is over, then I will be like other men.”
Somehow, I doubt it.