But just one has been able to transcend his spectacular feats on the racetrack and leave his indelible mark across the greater sporting world, popular culture and, perhaps most importantly of all, among the impoverished in his native Brazil. That man was Ayrton Senna.
Twenty years ago he was lost to the world in a shocking, violent crash sparking an outpouring of emotion never since seen for a departed sportsman. But then Senna was no ordinary sportsman. He was a hero to millions around the world, and the nearest thing to a living deity in his native Brazil, the vibrant yet impoverished nation he so longed to help. Conversely, he was also ruthless on the track, displaying an almost pathological unwillingness to accept defeat at the hands of a rival. His methods of race craft were also, at times, beyond being questionable: there were times he played Russian roulette with rivals’ lives.
So how do we remember a man of such dichotomy?
To a country where the wealthy are vastly outweighed by the impoverished, Senna’s presence on one of the world’s biggest sporting stages was akin to a beacon of hope. Sure, Ayrton Senna da Silva may have come from a wealthy background, but Ayrton Senna was a man whose race victories gave them hope, an aspiration, a champion for Brazil; something and someone to be proud of.
On his passing, a state of national mourning was declared. En route to his state funeral service, Senna’s casket travelled slowly down streets lined by his countrymen. Millions came to express and share in their united grief; their nation’s great hero was gone.
Look through the vast number of tributes that flowed in the sorrowful wake of his death and you will find a photo of Brazil’s 1994 FIFA World Cup squad, beaming with delight. They had held their nerve against Italy in a penalty shootout to claim their first triumph in over two decades. Among the jubilations, the team rolled out a pre-prepared banner, and all stood respectfully as they hoisted it aloft. Translated, it read: “Senna, we accelerated together. The fourth cup is ours!”
The men who had fought to put Brazil back atop the game it loves so dear were now unanimous in dedicating that victory to their late national hero. Such was the regard in which Senna was held.
If there really was such a thing as a little black book of race driver tactics, then Senna’s arrival saw the Brazilian write a brand new chapter under the heading of ‘intimidation’.To be clear, the tactics Senna used were nothing new. A scan through tapes of the junior formulae of the day show that blocking, weaving, and similar actions happened, albeit frowned upon. Such rough corners were usually smoothed off drivers before they reached the top flight.
Senna not only brought them with him to F1, he made them the standard rules of engagement. Never before had a top driver – indeed, a champion – regularly stooped to such conduct. If you were going to pass Senna you knew he wasn’t going to make it easy, but his tactics would also make him dangerous. If the other driver was unwilling to submit, contact was inevitable. Think of the incident between he and Alain Prost at Suzuka in 1989 and Senna’s later identical pass on Alessandro Nannini to retake the lead. The Italian saw Senna coming and have him room; Prost saw Senna coming and turned across his bows.
In the subsequent roasting the head of the sport’s governing body gave Senna at the appeal for his disqualification, Jean-Marie Balestre said “all these drivers see you on the TV.” A whole generation of young racers were growing up watching his driving tactics and applying the lessons learnt on racetracks across the world. Michael Schumacher was the first to regularly use those tactics against Senna. In fact, Schumacher took the ball put in play by Senna and ran with it.
Today, we don’t bat an eyelid when we see an F1 driver weaving across a straight to defend his position, or cutting off a rival’s line into a corner, or even squeezing them right up to the edge of the track and beyond. That, unfortunately, is one of Senna’s major legacies to the sport he left so abruptly.
From the moment that Senna shoved Prost’s Mercedes off the road in an unimportant exhibition race, the Brazilian’s message was loud and clear: you are the best and I am coming for you.
An entire novel could – and has – been dedicated to their intense rivalry, but the salient points are these: Senna came, Senna saw, Senna conquered. The Brazilian eased Prost out of a team that he had spent the preceding years meticulously morphing around him, and proceeded to win world championships with them.
The on-track jousting was the necessary evil. While Senna’s raw speed usually saw him away from Prost, he sometimes struggled to stomach the times the tables were turned. Their gentlemen’s agreement turned to dust at Imola in 1989, where Senna reneged on a deal to not pass at the first corner of the lap. Intra-team relations degenerated further as the year went on, until Prost finally cracked as Suzuka, closing the door on Senna when his car’s nose was already poked through it.
Their rivalry continued to simmer away as they went to separate corners; Senna staying in Woking with McLaren, Prost transferring to Maranello and Ferrari. It would boil over on a couple more occasions before Prost took his final bow from the sport as a champion at the end of 1993.
For Senna, Prost’s retirement was like Queensland playing rugby league against any state other than New South Wales. It sapped some of his motivation, and he pleaded with Prost to return to the cockpit for 1994. They were gently edging towards something like a friendship, mending fences destroyed in the heat of battle, until Imola 1994.
‘THE QUICK MAN’
Emerson Fittipaldi’s world championship success in the early 1970s opened doors for young Brazilian drivers in Europe, often bringing with them vital sponsorship dollars. Among the flood of emigrants, occasionally, were drivers with stupendous amounts of talent. Chico Serra, a mildly successful ‘Paulista’ racing in Britain, spruiked Senna’s talents to his British team boss by saying “the Quick Man is coming.” When Senna finally arrived in Britain, he more than lived up to Serra’s praise.
In the years between 1985, when he first stepped aboard a top-line car, to 1994, Senna was the fastest man in Formula 1. Across his first two seasons at Lotus, paired with crack designer Gerard Ducarouge, Senna mastered the art of the qualifying lap. The 1980s mantra of ‘more is more’ applied perfectly to the qualifying specification of the cars of the era. His engine would have its turbocharger wastegates blocked up, allowing the tiny, 1500cc Renault powerplant to pump out over 1200 horsepower. All those ponies meant you could add as much wing angle as the car would allow to generate maximum downforce. The final step of the ritual was to bolt on a set of Goodyear’s gumball-sticky qualifying-spec tyres. It meant you had the F1 car of your dreams – for precisely one lap. After that, both the tyres and turbos were throwaways, melted by the ferocity of the energy expended in the 90 or so seconds of fury known as a ‘qualifying lap’.
Along with his legendary ability to absorb, recall and interpret the data shown by his gauges, plus the feel of the cars’s movements through his body and his fingertips on the steering wheel, Senna’s other gift was finding clear space on a track crowded with 30 rivals all trying to do the exact same thing. Not that any would dare get in his way. It’s often said that when rivals spotted his yellow helmet aboard the car approaching in their mirrors at warp speed, they would go the extra mile to get out of his way.
Of the 146 races in which Senna was in top machinery, on a grid packed with some of the greatest drivers across the sport’s history, Senna emerged on pole position 65 times. Statistically, he was on pole almost every for other race. With three pole positions out of three aboard the Williams team’s recalcitrant FW16, you can almost guarantee that number would have been even higher but for Imola 1994.
Clashing with Senna’s renowned hard edged-veneer, the one he wore into battle whenever he arrived at a race circuit, was his incredible sensitivity and compassion.
Away from the tensions and the pressures of his vocation, Senna was free to relax and enjoy himself. He loved spending time with his extended family, playing with his jetskis, or hanging out at the farm or the beach. It is hard to correlate the actions of a man who deliberately crashed into a rival and risked both their lives to make a point, and the instance where the very same man leapt from his car and all but saved a rival’s life after a massive crash during practice for the Belgian Grand Prix just two years later.
THE WORK ETHIC
At the core of the Senna legend is his sublime skill in wet conditions. To call it ‘innate’, though, could not be further from the truth.
A young Senna, still an up-and-comer at the Interlagos go kart track adjacent to the majestic F1 circuit, struggled badly in a wet race. Determined to avoid a repeat, he went out and watered down the track and cut lap, after lap, after lap as he unlocked the secrets of where to find grip when there appears to be none. His acquired skill was put to good practice in his later career, where he was regarded as a wet-weather master.
What the anecdote highlights is Senna’s formidable work ethic. He would leave no stone unturned, no question unasked, no ream of data unanalysed if it meant he could learn something that would give him even a microsecond’s of advantage over the opposition.
The depths and duration of the team engineering debriefs when he and Prost were together at McLaren were staggering. They would spend hours analysing endless amounts of information, despite – or possibly, the reason behind – the team having such a clear advantage over their rivals.
His fitness was brought into question when he arrived in F1. His first points finish ended with Senna in agony with muscle cramps. The solution was to work with a trainer in Brazil to build his wiry frame into a body strong enough to take the beating dished out over the course of a demanding two-hour long race in high heat and humidity.
While Senna did have plenty of natural ability to draw on, it was his work ethic that allowed him to exploit it to the maximum.
It may have started early in his career when he first came to Britain. It certainly escalated as he progressed into and through Formula 1. The common thread throughout his career was the feeling that he thought that the establishment was out to get him.
We saw it through the mind-boggling heights of the Senna-Prost war. Specifically after Suzuka 1989, when Senna was disqualified from victory, handing the world championship to his rival. His McLaren team appealed the result, only to find the charges brought against Ayrton had been changed and escalated.
At one point, Senna had made a thinly veiled accusation that the French-headed governing body of the sport had manipulated the outcome to ensure a French champion. The erratic, autocratic behaviour of then-President Jean Marie Balestre certainly didn’t help Senna’s cause – at one point he faced expulsion from the following season until he apologised.
Not that he particularly cared. The sense that everyone was out to get him nearly drove Senna away from the sport at the end of 1989. He eventually delivered his apology – on deadline day – and raced on into 1990, where the paranoia again reared it’s head.
Told that pole position could not be moved to the clean side of the track, added to other perceived sleights during the pre-race drivers’ briefing, saw an enraged, bloody-minded Senna form up on the grid, vowing that if Prost got a better start Senna would try to pass, and he better not try and close the door…
If Senna truly felt persecuted by the sport’s rulers he certainly didn’t help himself with his behaviour on the track, nor some of his conduct off it.
Very few drivers got close to Senna the person, especially teammates. In a sport where the first goal, above all else, is to beat your teammate, putting up mental and emotional walls are essential lest you start to become friendly with the only man on the grid driving the same equipment as you.
It took the fun-loving Austrian driver Gerhard Berger, brought in to McLaren for the 1990 season, little time to tear them down.
The escalating pranks they played on each other, egged-on, aided and abetted by McLaren boss Ron Dennis, are the stuff of legend.
There was the time Berger threw Senna’s briefcase out of a helicopter; the first Senna knew of it was when an official came running up to the landed craft carrying the demolished case. Or the time Senna took all of Berger’s credit cards and fastened them together with a nut and bolt.
Senna was once detained at an airport in Argentina for 24 hours after he presented his passport at customs, not realising Berger had replaced his photo with that of an, ahem, large-chested lady. That prank followed hot on the heels of Berger placing a dozen or so live frogs in Senna’s Port Douglas hotel room. When a livid Senna confronted him, Berger asked, deadpan, if he’d found the snake…
THE WILL TO WIN
Tied to Senna’s phenomenal work ethic was an unquenchable thirst for victory and an uncrushable self-belief. He methodically plotted his ascension to Formula 1 stardom, picking the best lower category teams to drive for and, memorably, refusing an offer from McLaren and Marlboro to pay for his Formula 3 season, as it would have meant they would have first dibs on his services when he moved up to F1.
He insisted on following a path of his own choice, spending a learning year with helping a lower team punch above its weight, somewhere he could get his intellect around the challenges and demands of the sport out of the glaring spotlight. Having proven his stock at Toleman in 1984, all his subsequent transfers were solely with the aim of winning races and titles.
However, his blinding desire to win would occasionally prove costly, especially when his car wasn’t quite up to par. Take Silverstone 1989: Senna had retired from the preceding three races with mechanical failure, and was leading Prost in the early laps when his McLaren’s new transverse gearbox started to jump out of fourth gear. Instead of electing to back off, preserve the gearbox to the finish and collect points for finishing on the rostrum, he pressed on. A handful of laps later he spun off into the sand and retirement, going home with nothing.
He faced a similar situation at Imola 1994. Senna went into the year armed with what was supposed to be the best car in the field. A season that was widely expected to be a cakewalk was anything but. Though his genius allowed him to qualify on pole, he couldn’t compensate for the car’s lack of pace over a race distance. A spin while chasing Schumacher in Brazil, followed by a first corner shove from Mika Hakkinen in Japan, meant Senna arrived at Imola with no points.
Senna was wringing his car’s neck, driving right on the edge, to lead Schumacher in the moments before his death. His blue and white Williams looked terrifyingly skittery over bumps at high speed. If only he could have accepted second. But then, if he could, he would not have been Ayrton Senna.
Not long before his death, Senna set in motion plans for a long-held dream he had. For a man living the lofty heights of an F1 star, he was also acutely aware of the appalling poverty many of his countrymen lived in. The greatest tragedy, in his eyes, was that millions of children were being born in the favelas that fill Brazil’s sprawling cities, and not one of them stood a chance of escaping it. The cycle would simply continue, and there was little the powers that be could do to abate it, never mind stop it.
From his desire to help, the Instituto Ayrton Senna was born. First funded by his burgeoning business interests along with charitable donations, and now by sales of Senna merchandising and money raised from the use of his name and likeness, the Instituto gives Brazil’s poorest an opportunity to help themselves; to learn and acquire the skills and knowledge that allow them to break the cycle. So far, the charity has aided an estimated 12 million children and teens. It is a great tragedy that Senna is not alive to see it in action.