On May 1st 1994 at around 2:15pm, the history of Formula 1 was changed forever as the #2 Williams-Renault of Ayrton Senna speared into the wall at Tamburello on lap seven of the San Marino Grand Prix.
When the news of the Brazilian’s death came through later that day, it sent shockwaves through his home country and the sporting world as a whole. A dark shadow was cast across the race weekend at Imola, and a certain nauseous feeling was left in the paddock. The hero, the burning spirit and deity that won three world titles with McLaren had died.
On May 3rd 1995, some 367 days later, I was born in Hastings in the south of England where I have lived ever since. I first watched Formula 1 at the age of 10 when I stumbled across the 2005 Brazilian Grand Prix on a rainy Sunday. The rest, as they say, is history, and I’m now writing this piece as a Formula 1 journalist working for America’s broadcaster of the sport, NBC Sports.
We have a running joke at Richland F1 where I refer to my colleague and friend Ernie Black as the “old fart”; he too has a nickname for me that essentially calls me “little”. It’s all in good jest. However, age is something that is inescapable, with both experience and youth having their respective pros and cons. One of the biggest cons for me is that I never ever saw Ayrton Senna race. I never had the pleasure of waking up on a Sunday morning and thinking “Senna’s racing today!” just as I did (in my younger years) about Michael Schumacher. I remember waking up at the crack of dawn to watch the races, creeping down the stairs so as not to wake my Mum, and see his scarlet Ferrari race.
However, it was an odd kind of ‘fan’ experience. I felt a certain draw to the passion and spirit of Ferrari, and I was in awe of Michael as a driver. But there wasn’t this inner fire that I’m sure I would have felt had I been alive to see Ayrton race. Even that flicker I feel when writing about him.
When we began to put together our plans for the 20th anniversary of Senna’s death, it became clear that some of the older members of the team had some very personal recollections of him racing, just as I do of Schumacher, Alonso and Hamilton. You remember where you were, who you were with, what you ate, the sounds and smells.
For Senna though, I’ve never had that chance. Instead, my understanding and appreciation for him has come through the media. As my love for Formula 1 blossomed in 2006 and 2007, I read avidly about anything to do with the sport, and saw this same name come up again and again. As with much of what we learn, it started out as bare statistics: three world titles, so just as good as Stewart, Piquet and Brabham, right? Then you find deeper meaning. This largely came from the book “The Life of Senna” by Tom Rubython, which I found in a charity shop one day. It set me back £2 as far as I can remember, and you could not tear me away from it for a few days following.
It’s the book that made me want to become a Formula 1 journalist. Or perhaps – it was the person it was about that made me want to become a Formula 1 journalist.
When younger writers ask me for advice (jeez, that makes me sound old), I say the same thing: “Read.” And ordinarily, I tell them to start with this one, just as much to know about Senna as it is to read a well-written book.
By reading it, I became totally enthralled by this figure, this driver, this life, this spirit – Senna.
I would often head to Brands Hatch with my Mum for club events, be it two or four wheels. However, I’d love spending time in the shops under the grandstand and the hospitality units that are still there. I’d flick through the books, admire the merchandise, dream wistfully about buying the diecast models. I felt like a king when I managed to save up some money from a Sunday job in a pub washing dishes to buy a 1/18 replica of his 1990 title-winning MP4/5B.
This went to a new level when the film came out. I had many a DVD on Senna by the time that it came out, and quite a few people were asking me about it. In all honesty, I was skeptical. How could an F1-oriented film be sold to the masses? I was proved so, so wrong. It was an absolute masterpiece; a total joy; it shed new light on Senna and only furthered his legend and legacy.
In the summer of 2012, I was at a barbeque with some school friends having a few beers. The conversation got onto F1, and one soon piped up:
“Oh yeah Luke, I saw that film, Senna.”
I was shocked. “You’ve seen a film on F1?!” I asked.
“Yeah, it was fantastic!”
But he wasn’t the only one, as a few others also smiled. “Oh yeah, me too, I loved it!” “Yeah I’ve seen it also!”
I was genuinely surprised, but it proved that Senna’s legacy was such that he transcends not only generations, but also interests. You don’t have to be a Formula 1 fan to love the film.
To my surprise, it didn’t end there: “That Prost… what a dick!” one said.
“Well, it’s not exactly that cut and dry,” I replied, before explaining a bit about the to-and-fro between them. I was just surprised that they had been so interested in a film that – in my naïve eyes – was so audience specific. Would a film on Schumacher do the same? No, he never had that same ‘human’ or ‘demigod’ element that Senna had in abundance.
When watching old tapes of him now being interviewed, there is something special about the way he speaks. There is a pause, a moment of thought before each sentence. And it’s not the faff that we have today, “for sure,” et al. It’s not avoiding the question; it’s a set answer. It has meaning.
In the modern context, Senna becomes all the more legendary. There’s that old cliché of back in my day, we had proper racing drivers. Frankly, it is slightly true. In the technologicalised, internet-ised and Twitter-powered world that we live in today, we can never see a figure like Senna. He would never have brought his dogs to the race track, or died his hair a silly colour, or fannied about moaning when he thought someone unfollowed him.
Senna was a driver for his era. There will never be another Senna, or anyone remotely like him.
And that’s the way it should be. Keep his spirit alive and his flag flying high. Ayrton Senna, the greatest we have seen or will ever see.
Images via Wikimedia Commons.