Features - News Feature
MAY 1, 1999
Five years after Imola
BY JOE SAWARD
It is five years since Ayrton Senna died at Imola and his shadow still lurks over the Formula 1 circus.
Whenever I hear Tina Turner singing: "Simply the best" I think of Ayrton. She sang it to him during the post-race concert in Adelaide in 1993 after his last - and one of his finest - victories. The song captured the moment.
That day Senna shared the podium with his bitter rival Alain Prost and pulled Alain up with him onto the top step, offering Prost a respectful hand of friendship. It was easier because Alain was retiring but it showed that Senna was trying to be a better person than he had been.
For about a year after his death I found myself watching the timesheets changing, half-expecting to see the name Senna appear at the top of the list, as it always used to. Whenever I saw a McLaren come around a corner I expected to see the familiar yellow helmet to be behind the wheel. That ended when Marlboro split with McLaren and West arrived to begin the era of the McLaren Silver Arrows.
F1 is a world which moves so fast that the dreadful events at Imola on May 1 1994 now seem as if they happened a million years ago. But to me Senna's death marked the end of a great era in F1 history. Without him there was a vast emptiness, accentuated by the disappearance from F1 of Prost, the other great icon of the era. We had been spoiled in the late 1980s and early 1990s and we were left with Michael Schumacher on a different level to all his rivals. And he was been there ever since, only recently has Mika Hakkinen began to creep towards the kind of status enjoyed by the stars of the 1980s.
It is always difficult to put drivers into historical perspective but the Senna/Prost rivalry will no doubt one day be compared to that of Tazio Nuvolari and Achille Varzi in the 1930s. The difference was that the sport had changed so much that by the 1990s the nature of modern F1 had created such pressures that the top men in F1 cannot be friends. Nowadays they pretend to be with jovial banter, but you can see that there is no great warmth between them. It is acting. Since F1 growth exploded in the mid-1980s the stars have lived 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 sit down and have a quiet chat.
Once, in Hungary, the pair sat down in the Elf motorhome and had a long talk and realized that they were very much alike. Perhaps too much so. But that link was blown away by the aggressive competitiveness of the race track. Winning is everything and to be a winner you must be ruthless and cunning. Both Senna and Prost showed that they were willing to do what was necessary to succeed. Michael Schumacher has done the same and you get the feeling that Hakkinen would do the same if necessary.
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 in 1992, when 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.
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 fulltime in F1 he had scored nine wins, but after that I watched every one of his 32 victories and many more of his mesmirizing 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 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 realise just how fragile you are," he said. "It makes you realise 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 centre of the F1 circus but gradually people began to realise that there was a lot more to him. He was extraordinarily lucid and brilliantly intelligent.
I think that the thing I miss most is his ability to express what it is like to be a racing driver, to push to the limits. I remember one year at Monaco, Ayrton talked about having the feeling that he was driving out of his own body, several corners ahead of where the car actually was. The press corps was mesmirized.
Today the drivers appear, drivel out the necessary platitudes and go back to their protected sanctuaries in the pits or motorhomes. None of them express the feelings that Senna could.
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.
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 came true with the establishment of the Ayrton Senna Foundation by his sister Viviane. Those who met her were shocked because here was a woman with the same brooding eyes, the same intensity of thought and the same twinkle in the eye as Ayrton had had.
It was only when I listened to her talking six months after his death that I realized what I had been missing. What I liked most about him was his passion for motor racing. The sport was his life. Today Michael Schumacher has cold German steel in his heart and Mika Hakkinen has Finnish ice, but no-one has Senna's raging Brazilian passion.
If Ayrton 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 his fans with half-hearted performances in his fading years.
Five years on, he is as big a star as he was then...