Requiem for Ayrton Senna

As the Formula 1 circus gathers this week in Sao Paulo for the start of a new season, a few Grand Prix people will be flying out to Brazil a day or two early, to be present at the official launch of the Ayrton Senna Foundation.

Last Tuesday would have been Ayrton's 35th birthday and although everyone is getting revved up for the start of the new season it would probably do us all some good to pause for a moment and remember. F1 is a world which moves so fast that the dreadful events at Imola on May 1 last year have long been a part of history. Its feels as if they happened a million years ago. F1 has moved on.

Since he died many millions of words have been written about Senna, but as the new season beckons, I feel it is the time to say what I felt about Ayrton Senna.

If I am honest I have to admit that at each Grand Prix last year after his death I watched the timesheets changing and, in the back of my mind, I always half-expected to see the name Senna appear at the top - just as it always used to do. When I was out onto the race track whenever I saw a McLaren I expected to see the familiar yellow helmet behind the wheel.

Without Senna there was a vast emptiness, accentuated by the disappearance from F1 of the other great icon of the era, Alain Prost.

Twenty years from now racing fans will look back at the late 1980s and early 1990s as a great era when two huge talents: Senna and Prost met head-on. In other eras each would have dominated as Jackie Stewart or Niki Lauda did, but the fact that their careers coincided and were so closely intertwined make them a double-act which will not be forgotten.

It is always difficult to put drivers into historical perspective but the Senna/Prost rivalry will probably come to be compared to those of Tazio Nuvolari/Achille Varzi in the 1930s or Stirling Moss/Juan-Manuel Fangio in the 1950s. The difference is that the sport has changed so much and the nature of modern F1 had created a world in which drivers can rarely be friends. The sport has grown to such an extent that there are extraordinary pressures on the leading names. These stars now live in rarified worlds, divorced from reality. Both Prost and Senna suffered from this and many of their controversies might have been solved - or even avoided - if they had been able to have a quiet chat. Once, in Hungary, the pair sat down in the Elf motorhome and had a long talk and, I think, realized that they were very alike. Perhaps too much so, because that entente could not survive the aggressive competitiveness of the race track.

This is an age in which winning is everything and the F1 paddocks are full of people who are not to be trusted. To be successful drivers have to be ruthless and cunning. Both Senna and Prost showed that they were willing to do what was necessary to succeed.

The era was also marked by the fact that advancing technology meant that being in the right car at the right time was more important than outright talent. This meant that after their falling out in 1989 Senna and Prost never again drove together. That is a shame because their talents, so finely-balanced, produced some great races before the split.

The darker sides of both men was too often allowed to submerge the more human faces of both Alain and Ayrton. Both did things which they probably regretted doing and both had fervent fans - and bitter critics.

It was nice to see that their competitive relationship ended on an upbeat and dignified note in Adelaide in 1993: that day Senna won the race and Prost the championship and, on the podium, they saluted one another. Two great champions. I felt at the time that, as the years passed, the bitterness they felt would slide away and that in the end the two would become friends - as they were back in 1988. On the day he died Senna took the first step in building a bridge between them when he sent a special message to Prost live on French TV, during the warm-up on race morning.

For many of the same reasons which made it difficult for Senna and Prost to be friends, Ayrton had a lot of trouble with journalists - and I was no exception. We were not friends but he was an integral part - the focus - of my generation in F1. I started my motor racing career writing about Formula 3 in Europe at the time when he was dominating the British F3 series. A few years later I followed him into F1. We had known each other for years - and we nodded "Hello" - but we were never really close. There were times when I completely failed to understand him and there were times when he completely failed to understand what I was writing and we had a few fights because of it.

There was one particular stand-up shouting match which became pivotal to our relationship. It took place in an Adelaide restaurant where we found ourselves seated opposite one another at a function. He objected to something I had written and I defended my comments. The argument was simple. He said I did not know what I was talking about and I said that if he wanted to be understood he had to learn to open up a bit and learn to trust people.

As a result of that fight, Ayrton did what I had asked him to do. He gave me the chance to get to know him better. Our relationship began with bristling aggression, but we quickly calmed down and he began to trust me. We talked for hours - about many different subjects - and it enabled me to write about him in a completely new light. After that we never had a problem. I had earned his trust and I gradually grew to like him as well as to respect him. A few months later we talked about his businesses and, completely at ease - without feeling the need to say "Off the record" - he told me with a smile that it was all rather tedious. He couldn't be bothered with business because all he ever wanted to do was be behind the wheel of his racing car, pushing it to the limit.

As a racing driver I had always respected him, ever since I first watched him in F3 in 1983. A year later I stood in the rain on the outside of the Swimming Pool complex at Monaco and watched him hound Prost in the wet. It was his first really famous drive.

When Ayrton went to Lotus in 1985 I was reporting on other kinds of racing, but I remember in October that year I stood on the inside of Paddock Hill Bend at Brands Hatch and saw him on one of his brilliant pole position laps in the sleek black and gold Lotus.

By the time I arrived full-time in F1 he had scored nine wins, but after that I watched every one of his 32 victories and many more of his mesmerizing qualifying laps. He was braver than the brave, the most determined, the most talented and the quickest driver I have ever seen. He drove with passion and commitment. He was an extraordinary racing driver with a bewitching ability. He seemed to have no weaknesses. The fans around the world called him "Magic" and with Ayrton you always knew that sometimes he would achieve the impossible.

In the late 1980s Ayrton and McLaren made winning look easy but his uncompromising character often led to controversy. He could not help himself. He always gave his best and expected everyone else to do the same. He hated injustice and when Prost drove him off the track at Suzuka in 1989 he was outraged by the behavior of FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre and said as much. He found he could not beat the system and so, a year later, with their roles reversed Senna drove Prost off the track and got his revenge. It was not sporting but Ayrton felt that justice had been done.

Those turbulent times faded and by 1993 he was driving better than ever. His last season at McLaren, I think, provided some of his best drives with magnificent victories in Brazil, at Donington, Monaco, Suzuka and Adelaide. Ayrton was winning races in an uncompetitive car - the mark of the really great champions - and never was winning so sweet. He rejoiced in his ability.

There were many extraordinary things about Senna but for me the most remarkable was his will to succeed. His need to win. He came from a wealthy family, was well-educated and well-raised. He was not a man who had to fight his way up from the gutter and yet he always felt the need to keep improving. Just as remarkable was his ability to block out everything when he was driving. I shall never forget the day Martin Donnelly crashed at Jerez in 1990. Ayrton went to the scene of the accident and was shaken by what he saw. He went back to the McLaren motorhome, sat with his own thoughts for half an hour, and then climbed into his car and drove an amazing qualifying lap to take provisional pole position. The following day he went even quicker in breath-taking fashion. And then, with tears in his eyes, he sat down and calmly spoke about his feelings.

"It makes you realize just how fragile you are," he said. "It makes you realize that something like this can happen to any of us because there are situations which are out of control."

That was Senna. He could be chillingly cold and yet moments later warmly sensitive. Some said that this was contradictory but if anything I believe it was a talent. His ruthlessness came because he knew what he wanted and he would not be stopped. He did what was necessary to win and that made him enemies.

For a long time he remained an outsider at the center of the F1 circus but gradually people began to realize that there was a lot more to him. He was extraordinarily lucid and brilliantly intelligent. He could talk on many subjects and in several languages. He had his beliefs and he didn't care what the world thought of them - which in the F1 world was admirable in itself. He had found God somewhere along the way but while other drivers decline to talk about religion, Senna had the courage of his convictions to stand up and be counted. In the cynical world of F1 these beliefs were ridiculed, but he stood by them and was happy to share the message. And yet, he would always admit that he was only at the start of the road in his Christian. He was learning.

But, as we know, Ayrton was no angel, although he had the ability to use his mistakes - both on and off the track - to learn. He never did stop learning about racing nor about life and in his final year I believe that he had finally begun to mellow. He talked of life after motor racing; of marriage and of children. He was at ease with himself and content with his life. He even talked of some kind of foundation through which he could help his deprived countrymen.

That dream is now coming true. In Japan last October Ayrton's sister Viviane announced the establishment of the Ayrton Senna Foundation. Those who were in Suzuka were shocked, because there in front of us was a woman with the same brooding eyes, the same intensity of thought and the same twinkle in the eye as Ayrton had It was only then, listening to her talking that I realized what I had been missing since Ayrton's death. What I liked most about him was his passion for motor racing. The sport was his life.

If he had to die I guess he died at the right time - at the absolute peak of his ability, in the prime of his life, doing what he loved best and adored all around the world by millions and millions of fans. He will never grow old nor disappoint those fans.

I look around the paddock for that same fiery passion in the F1 stars who have taken his place but I do not see it.

And there are times when I wonder if I ever will.

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