The Life of Ayrton Senna

“I witnessed visibly and audibly something I had not seen anyone do before in a racing car. It was as if he had four hands and four legs. He was braking, changing down, steering, pumping the throttle and the car appeared to be on that knife edge of being in control and being out of control.

“The car was pitched in with an arrogance that made my eyes open wider. Then – hard on the throttle and the thing was driving through the corner. I mean, it was a master controlling a machine. I had never seen a turbo car driven like that. The ability of the brain to separate each component and put them back together with that rhythm and co-ordination – for me it was a remarkable experience; it was a privilege to see.”

That was the joy of Ayrton Senna in full flow, described not by an awed fan, but by experienced racer John Watson in Ayrton Senna, McLaren – a new book by Maurice Hamilton released to mark the 20th anniversary of the driver’s untimely death. It’s an image that is hard to reconcile with the picture painted by Hamilton of the model plane enthusiast with whom he conducted an interview in late 1985, at the Brazilian’s rented home in the sleepy suburb of Esher, Surrey.

Senna-1987“I approached him directly – there were no PR people in those days – and told him what I wanted to do and he agreed, so I went to see him at his house. He was renting a big house with Mauricio Gugelmin – it was a detached house in a cul de sac. They had no furniture or anything – I remember peering into what would have been the lounge, and there was nothing in it except model aircraft parked against the skirting board all around the room. He loved flying model aircraft. We sat around a pine bench in the kitchen – like the ones you get in a pub garden, with a bowl of peanuts in the middle – and chatted for an hour.”

Of course, Senna was loved not only for his on-track brilliance, but also for his charisma off it. In interviews he was “absolutely wonderful”, says Hamilton: “English wasn’t his first language, but he mastered it as time went by and he would be very thoughtful in his responses to you. There would be long pauses and this would carry on all the way through his career in interviews. There would be a pause of half a minute, and you’d think: ‘Oh, he hasn’t got the question.’ But no – he’d be formulating the words in his brain, going into every detail, and he would explain it extremely well.”

He carried that aura everywhere in his life, not just on the record. “He was very humble, and he made sure that everybody was on his side,” continues Hamilton. “He would pay a lot of attention to them, he would chat away. He always shook them by the hand, looked them straight in the eye, but he was still demanding – he still wanted to get everything done right. But if you screwed up, be it organising his travel and the helicopter wasn’t there, or if you were a mechanic and you made a mistake, you got to know about it. He didn’t mince his words – he would tell you. Because he was going to get into that car and give 100 per cent and he expected you to do the same. Trust was everything to him.”

Sky Sports F1 analyst Damon Hill, who was Senna’s teammate at Williams in 1994, offers an insider’s view. “Ayrton had a kind of scary level of commitment to racing,” he explains. “If you compared him to Alain Prost, you would say Alain was the calculator – the person who managed risk – whereas Ayrton was prepared to put himself at the mercy of his own innate talent, which is not always a comfortable place to be. He really went out on a limb in his driving, and other drivers were in awe of that. Ultimately, there’s a point where you’re out of your comfort zone, and he lived out of that comfort zone a lot more than other drivers – and that made him different.”

Hamilton claims that Senna’s charisma was never disingenuous, but it’s impossible to know how much of his behaviour was influenced by a desire to motivate and ingratiate himself with the mechanics and engineers who would ultimately be responsible for how quick he could go on the track. Above everything, Senna was driven to succeed. “Look, I really liked him a lot,” says Gerhard Berger, who raced alongside him at McLaren from 1990 to 1992. “But Ayrton was extremely selfish. He’d be a bastard, all of those things, but in a sympathetic way. That’s how it should be. You are not going to be the world champion and win races just being the nice guy. But people did not criticise him. They did not realise it because he’d been such a nice guy at the same time. Very clever. He was the same as Michael Schumacher in this sense, but he did it in a much better way.”

He certainly had no qualms about being selfish in negotiating the best deal for himself, as McLaren team principal Ron Dennis recalls: “I did say to him: ‘If you give me an option for F1, I’ll pay for your F3 season.’ He made it very apparent – not in a rude way – that he wasn’t interested. He felt he had the ability and he wanted to be independent.”

During a particularly protracted set of negotiations after he had eventually joined McLaren, with neither wanting to back down, Dennis and Senna flipped a coin to settle a contract disagreement.

“He was as quick as anyone we’ve seen, and terribly clever,” says Sir Frank Williams, Senna’s team principal during his truncated final season. “If he hadn’t been killed, he’d have probably been a billionaire by now. Immensely clever in what he set out to do, and he had a gift for making money.”

Even the name he raced under was a function of Senna’s business acumen. He realised early on that to succeed in F1’s sponsor-heavy world he needed to make the right moves off the track as well as on it. After rising through the junior ranks and claiming two championships in Formula Ford under real name Ayrton da Silva, Senna abruptly returned to Brazil, citing among other things the difficulty in getting sponsorship. When he came back, he was ‘Ayrton Senna’ – he’d chosen to go by his mother’s maiden name, which was more distinctive than the very common ‘da Silva’ and would help him stand out in press coverage and attract sponsors.

Despite his frankness, Berger was one of the few drivers who really connected with Senna. “He kept himself to himself,” says Hamilton. “They saw him as the man they had to beat and generally couldn’t. And he really didn’t mix with them a lot – he was just so focused on what he was doing. He was just his own man – he didn’t do any of the social stuff. He was just so dedicated that he thought only about the car, about the racing; he would spend all his time at the track.”

That’s not to say he was antisocial. Fellow Brazilian Rubens Barrichello recalls a couple of spare days in Tokyo in one of his first seasons in Formula 1, and Senna accompanying him on an impromptu trip to Disneyland. “I opened my door, and Senna was coming out of the room in front of my room. He had nothing to do, he was going to the gym, and he asked to come with us. It was probably our best time together. But he was always a driver – he had eaten a hamburger there [at Disneyland], so I had to go running with him at eight in the evening because he was meant to go to the gym.”

But Senna became less serious as his career progressed, explains Hamilton: “He had a little bit of difficulty with our sense of humour because he took life so seriously. So you would say something tongue-in-cheek and he would take it literally. It wasn’t until Gerhard Berger arrived in the team that he really began to understand what jokes were all about, because Gerhard taught him to chill out and played all sorts of tricks with him. He was a lot better after that.”

Dennis recalls helping Berger in an attempt to “give him an understanding of the value of laughter”, as he explains in Hamilton’s book: “One of the best moments was when we were in Australia together, hatching up what we could do to really inflict pain on each other.

“Gerhard stole Ayrton’s passport without him knowing, and we surgically removed all the pictures from the passport and cut out from a very dubious magazine an equivalent size of male genitalia and carefully put it in place with Sellotape. At a glance, you did not realise anything had taken place other than there wasn’t a face where there was supposed to be a face. When Ayrton came back to Europe, he immediately got on a plane to Brazil. But, whatever the route was, he had to go through Argentina. That was the first time anyone looked at his passport. They were not amused and he spent 24 hours in Argentina because they would not allow him to pass through without his passport being rectified.”

Senna’s entry into F1 arguably marks the point at which the sport took a decisive turn from its roots as a garage pastime – in which adjustments to the car’s set-up were made by feel and based on hunches – into a science, with telemetry data and rigorous testing. In a way, Senna was the sport’s first scientist.

“Ayrton just brought a whole new way of working,” says Hamilton. “The depths he would go to study everything and learn about the engine, the tyres, the car was in a different league. It raised the bar above anything that McLaren had seen before in a driver, and that’s just what he did all the time – thought about every aspect of his racing, every aspect of his lap.”

He had an amazing eye for detail, even when tearing round a circuit at hundreds of miles an hour, and used that to help his team. “A number of people have told me that you’d see him sitting in the car with his eyes shut, you’d think he was having a sleep,” says Hamilton. “But actually he was going through the lap in his head.” Senna was using his brain as a simulator in the days before such tools existed.

In an interview conducted around the 10-year anniversary of Senna’s death a decade ago, Barrichello expressed admiration that the “simple guy laughing at the table could get emotions out of the way and drive really fast”. But Senna did not always find it easy to stop his feelings from interfering with the precise workings of his racing driver’s brain.

“You could play mind games with Ayrton,” says Eddie Jordan, who was managing Martin Brundle during his rivalry with Senna in Formula 3 in 1983. “We would employ simple moves to upset him. We knew Ayrton had a thing about being the first in line to go out to practise, and he wanted his guys to be first in the queue for scrutineering each weekend to avoid wasting time. We would arrive early, at about 6.30am, just to be first in the queue. That would irritate him like you wouldn’t believe.” It worked – after winning eight of the first nine races “he lost the plot,” says Hamilton: “He started crashing a lot. He couldn’t believe what was happening and as a result overdrove.”

Brundle, who had his fair share of duels with Senna in Formula 3 that season and later in F1, remembers a moment that sums up both sides of the man. “In 1993, he went into the back of me and hit me so hard it threw me into the barrier. I looked up and there was Senna running towards me with a really angry look on his face. I thought: ‘If he’s going to try to blame me, we’re going to have such a fight!’ But all he was concerned about was if was I all right. That was the great paradox that was Ayrton – he’d be the first man to run you off the road, and the first man running back to check you were okay.”

Hill recalls a similar moment when we ask him for his defining memory of Senna. “I saw him on a motorbike, in a tuxedo, in Monaco, with a girl on the back. He was going up the road very fast. He was on his way to the hospital. It was after an event, and it was because a guy at his table had choked or had a heart attack and typically for Ayrton, he got involved. He just had this instinct to want to be able to help in whatever situation. He had this need to be an agent of benefit. It wasn’t just about the racing, it was everything.”

That is why Senna still captures the imagination – uniquely, he managed to balance natural talent not only with the drive and determination required to push the boundaries of his sport, but also with a genuine warmth, charisma and care.

Barrichello sums up best why, 20 years on, it’s not Senna’s untimely death, but his life that’s worth remembering:

“We thought he was a superhero,” he says. “And superheroes never die.”