The real Ayrton Senna revealed
AUGUST 1, 1993
BY JOE SAWARD
It is just over 10 years since Ayrton Senna sat in Grand Prix car for the first time. In that time he has made himself a legend. And yet the man himself remains a mystery. Some call him arrogant, ruthless and cunning and others say he is shy, gentle and compassionate. He doesn't seem to care. Deep down he probably does.
"Perhaps I should have taken my profession in a more relaxed way," he muses, "but I cannot. I have tried many times. Either I do the maximum, which is stressful and not always pleasant, or I don't do it. I have to feel that I am fulfilling my goals and exploiting my full potential. To feel at peace with myself I have to give the maximum, not only for me, but also for all the people with whom I am working. Sometimes I get great results, sometimes it goes wrong but I always know I have tried my best and I couldn't do better."
That determination must make Ayrton a difficult person to live with.
"Am I a difficult person?" he asks, but only to himself. "That depends. The key factor in any relationship is the feeling that you are talking the same language and that you have some basic values. There is respect, trust, professionalism, competence and so on. If I feel that some of those things are missing - particually respect, fairness and honesty - I am a difficult guy and I immediately become a difficult person."
And he trusts his feelings to that extent?
"Yes I do."
But he won't give examples: "I don't see anything positive coming from that because I have to name people."
Years of controversy have taught him to be careful what he says and his conversation is punctuated with long thoughtful pauses. When he speaks he has an awesome ability to explain things in a language which is not his native tongue. Sometimes the dry cynical humour of the risk-taker is apparent and the Latin fury, wild when unleashed, is never far below the calm exterior.
Brought up in comfortable surroundings in Sao Paulo, his wealth today is beyond the wildest dreams of most people. When it comes to money Ayrton is uncompromising. If you want the best, you have to pay through the nose. He doesn't need the money, winning negotiations is just part of the F1 game.
He has beach houses in Angra dos Reis, Brazil and Faro, Portugal; there is the farm at Tatoi, near Sao Paulo, with its own karting track and a lake big enough for jet- and water-skiing; there are expensive apartments in the exclusive Sao Paulo suburb Jardims and in Monaco. He flies the world not in a small jet, but in a small airliner all of his own. He has every toy money can buy.
But it has cost him a lot.
To understand Senna, so they say, you have to realise that he has sacrificed everything to be a winner. There is a remoteness and a melancholy, which has become part of his character. Listen to him talk and you quickly realise that you are dealing with an intelligent and sensitive soul which is somehow hard to equate with the determined and aggressive Senna one sees sometimes behind the wheel of his racing car.
Determination and aggression are words one associates with Senna, who made enemies from the moment he entered F1 in 1984, scoring championship points in his second race. He walked away from a three-year contract with Toleman to join Lotus, and then won his 16th GP. A year later he refused to have Derek Warwick as his Lotus team mate. He was uncompromising. Nigel Mansell was so incensed that on one occasion he once physically attacked Senna. Nelson Piquet did the same, but his attack was verbal - and it hurt more.
When Senna moved to McLaren he ended up in a bitter rivalry with Alain Prost. Senna doesn't like controversy, but "the fact is that if you are not yourself and do not stick by the values you have, you are no-one. I think I have good values. I try hard to do things right and sometimes I screw it up, but I don't do it deliberately. It is no-one's fault but my own. Sometimes I am induced into situations and I screw up. That is the atmosphere we are in and that is when I go mad. It screws my head. It is a stressful thing to cope with when you know that some of the people are just not worth it. All you want to do is to be away from them. I prefer not to talk to people like that and yet, even if you make life hard for them, they go round and round and round and come back and you have to face them again. It is tough.
"I do not have the ability to really be 100% sure when to give up on them. My nature tells me to try again. You say "People can change, why not?" and the moment you think it's OK, you get a knife in the back.
"In this environment you have to be yourself, stick to your own mind and your own principles. Sometimes you are going to get it wrong, but in the long-term you are bound to be a lot better off. The worst thing is to be undecided because then you are vulnerable."
Even Senna has been vulnerable. In qualifying at Monaco in 1988 he found himself driving at a level which was almost unconscious. It shocked him. In the race he crashed while leading. He did not return to the pits but disappeared off to his apartment. There was talk of a religious experience.
And when he won his first World Championship title that year in Suzuka, amid the tears and the joy, he spoke of his religious beliefs and was ridiculed.
"I have had many questions about religion," he says, "and often I was misquoted or misinterpreted. Sometimes it was by accident, sometimes to do me damage, but I think it is worth talking about it because in this godless world there are lots and lots of people looking for religion. They are desperate for it. I am only being truthful. I am saying what I believe and what I feel. You offer religion to those who want it. If you don't do that they will not have the opportunity to look and see. Some people may not understand you and do not have a clear opinion, some will understand because they are open enough to understand what you are talking about and it is for them that it is worth it.
"You can have it if you want. It is a question of believing it and having faith, of wanting it and being open to the experience."
Like all religion, of course, it defies logic but Senna says he is both logical and religious.
"I think there is an area where logic applies and another where it does not," he explains. "No matter how far down the road you are in understanding and experiencing religion there are certain things which we cannot logically explain. We tend always to understand only what we can see: the colours, the touch and the smell. If it outside that, is it crazy? I had the great opportunity to experience something beyond that. Once you have experienced it, you know it is there and that is why you have to tell people."
But how does it happen?
"You have to need it and you have to want it and you have to be open to it. It is tough, but life isn't easy. Anyone can achieve easy things, the tough ones are things that some achieve and some do not. But... I am still at the beginning, I am like a baby in this respect. You have to work on it. It is a difficult thing and it is much more difficult alone."
Ayrton has warmed to the subject. It clearly means a lot to him.
"You can be logical or stupid," he adds, "but you are not in control of everything that is happening with your life."
He knows that well. In 1989 his mentor Armando Botelho Teixeira died suddenly and Ayrton seemed to go a little out of control. He lost the title after Prost drove into him at Suzuka and spent the winter months fighting the governing body of the sport. A year later he became World Champion for a second time by driving Prost off the road.
But revenge wasn't sweet.
A third title followed in 1991 and even the great Juan-Manuel Fangio spoke in awe of Senna.
Since those heady days Senna seems more tranquil, the emotional intensity remains and the ambition still burns, frustrated for the last two seasons by the success of Williams-Renault, but the restless soul seems to be searching for more balance in his life.
But that is looking in from the outside. How does he see himself?
Immediately he is suspicious, on the defensive: "Why do you want to know?" he asks.
Just curious. Ayrton thinks about it for a moment and then begins to talk.
"Most people, whoever they are and whatever they do, try to do it well," he says. "This is satisfying and stimulating. In F1 there is always discussion about what we do. Some people say we do good things; some say we do awful things. We are great. We are terrible. It builds up interest in us as human beings, but also as images. We go into millions of homes through by way of television and people feel close to us. But at the same time they are far far away. They have no idea what we are really like. They dream of watching a race live or getting to see one of us and perhaps if they had the opportunity they would see that we are just people, that there is nothing magic.
"I am not exactly as I am seen, but that is how it is. I cannot change it, as hard as I try. You can improve how people see you, but inevitably there will always be a distance between us and the people, so all you can do is say what you think. Some people will take it right, some will take it wrong, all you can do is to be yourself and be consistent. Time will show what you are really like and people will slowly get to see your good and bad points."
How does Ayrton see his good and bad points?
Again he pauses to think for a moment.
"In many ways the qualities and the flaws are linked. They are the extremes of each other. One of my qualities is determination to pursue something I believe. That is also my weakness because I never give up and I never give in. Sometimes you should give in and change direction. In the this "plus" is much higher than the "minus" and that is a fact measured by results."
He pauses again.
The talk is of pluses and minuses. Life, he says, has been good to him. He is fortunate. But at home in Brazil he is faced with a poor country. It must be hard for a man of his sensitivity to be rich and be surrounded by poverty.
"It cannot go on like this," he says. "The wealthy can no longer continue to live on an island in a sea of poverty. We are all breathing the same air. People have to have a chance, A basic chance at least. A chance of education, nutrition, medical care. If this does not begin to happen then there is little hope for the future and little wonder that the problems become greater and that sometimes violence arises."
But he admits that there is only so much that one man can do.
"I am not a politician. Unfortunately I am not blessed with the powers to solve the problems. All I can see is that conditions for the vast majority of Brazilian people are getting worse and that it is virtually impossible to work against this trend. It touches me deeply and worries me considerably."
Ayrton won't talk about his charity work. It is private. The subject changes.
What is Ayrton searching for?
"To get the best out of me," he says, "to extend my own qualities and be a better person. If I am a better man it will reflect in everything I do."
After experiencing such highs and lows in racing, does Ayrton think he might find something to give him the same kick in life?
"No, I don't think so," he admits, "but I could be wrong. Only time will tell. As you get older and more mature and you tend to see things differently. Other things will come along which will motivate and interest me. There will be things I love and things to which I will dedicate my time.
"One will be the extension of my family with a wife and children. It happens in everyone's life - very few people don't get married - and I am sure that I am going to get married again, because I have been married once, and I am going to have kids. That will happen when I have the right girl and we feel it is the right moment for us. I will experience that when it happens. It has to be really special, but I don't think anyone can describe in words what it means."
As a racer Senna has always had a unique ability of putting his feelings behind the wheel into words. Is it still the same for him everytime he gets into a racing car? Is he still enjoying it?
"A lot less than I used to," he says. "Some of it is because of the responsibility the top drivers have. Everything is focussed on you: the mechanics, the engineers, the sponsors, everyone works for the team first, but ultimately for you. You get the car and you express yourself in it. You can make it happen or you can make a fool of yourself and of all the people who put in the effort. That is a tremendous responsibility, and it creates stress and takes away a lot of the pleasure.
"By the same token when you go though hard times and you succeed the pleasure is greater. It comes in a surge and goes away pretty fast. But the pressure is constant.
"Right now I am frustrated," he says. "But what can I do? I can only keep trying. If you are able to judge where you are, you can get through the hard times without thinking: "I am getting old". I didn't win three championships by chance. I beat everybody on three occasions this year with clearly inferior equipment. That is a fact. I haven't forgotten how to drive a racing car and I am not demotivated enough not to drive it properly. I have to be patient - which is something that I am not, but I am learning.
And what does he want most in life right now?
This time there is only the hint of a pause.
"I want to get through this hard period, which has been going on since last year. I have been through similar feelings in my career and I know the solution to it. Now I just want to get through it."
So he is not willing to have a similar year in 1994.
"No way," he snaps. "This is only going to last until the end of the year."
Is he sure?
"We will see. Sometimes even if you want something you cannot have it. You just have to live with that."