If the spirit of motor-racing distilled down to its purest form is about man and machine going as fast as possible, the driver eking out every last ounce of performance from himself and his car, then qualifying is the perfect expression of this spirit.
Very rarely are races as intense as qualifying – they can’t possibly be – when a driver is competing as much against himself and the clock as against his rivals, willing himself on to go faster and faster, nudging ever closer to the limit, that fine line on the other side of which disaster lurks.
Perhaps no driver in the history of Formula One has ever grasped this better than Ayrton Senna.
I’m going to throw in a quick disclaimer here – I’ve never watched Ayrton Senna on a qualifying lap live. I remember first watching Formula One on the television in 1994. I was six then and I have vague recollections of the races, snatches of pictures and colour but nothing that vividly stands out, except, of course, that weekend in Imola.
However years later, in my teens, as a friend and I watched old footage of Senna on a qualifying lap blasting through the streets of Monte Carlo, I recall feeling a thrill such as I had never felt until then, or haven’t felt since, watching any of the current crop of drivers, not even Michael Schumacher.
As clichéd as it may sound, I remember my hair standing on end as Senna wrestled his McLaren around Monte Carlo, one-handed for a fair part of the lap, chucking it into Casino Square, hanging onto the car as it bounced around on the bumpy surface, or exiting the hairpin one-handed with a dollop of opposite lock applied.
It was magical. If qualifying is the perfect expression of the spirit of motor-racing in its purest form, then Senna was the perfect embodiment of that spirit. Quite simply, he was the master of qualifying.
The numbers bear this out: Senna claimed a total of 65 pole positions in his career.
Michael Schumacher is the only man to have surpassed that total but Senna’s qualifying record was the last to submit to the great German in his rewriting of the record books and Schumacher only overhauled the legendary Brazilian in 2006, his final year with Ferrari and the final season of his ‘first career’ in Formula One.
A closer look at the statistics shows that Senna was the better qualifier as he started 40 percent of the 162 races he entered on pole position compared to Schumacher’s 22 percent.
But even taking into account just his first career, Senna overshadows Schumacher who started 27 percent of all races he entered on pole before the Mercedes comeback.
In fact, among Formula One’s top pole-sitters only the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio and Jim Clark have a better pole-to-starts ratio at nearly 57 percent and 46 percent, respectively, while of the current crop, reigning four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel comes closest at nearly 36 percent.
But the raw statistics rob what was really special about watching Senna on a qualifying lap. Lots of drivers through the years have lived on that knife-edge that Senna occupied, precariously poised between triumph and disaster, on their way to pole position.
Schumacher was one of those drivers. I keep coming back to him because he is my hero and I’ve followed his career in great detail. I remember several instances – Monaco 1996 or Suzuka 2001 for example – when I watched on in awe of the laps the former Ferrari great drove in qualifying.
But there was something about watching Senna on a qualifying lap that moved you the way Schumacher never did, even if you were watching those pole laps, as I was, years after the triple world champion actually drove them.
I suppose it was because of the burning intensity he exuded, that fierce determination to go fastest of all and indeed faster than he himself had ever gone. I’m sure all drivers shared the same determination, but with Senna it was visible, on the surface.
Sitting in the pits, you could clearly see it in his eyes but even on the track, with the visor down, you could see he was putting everything he had – physically and mentally — into that one lap and leaving absolutely nothing on the table.
“Before a qualifying lap, everything within me – my personality, my education, my strong points, my weaknesses – makes it fundamental to me that I concentrate as deeply as I can,” Senna once said, explaining his approach to qualifying.
“I isolate all outside interference, whether it’s photographers, fans, people around me. And in that state I am somehow able to get to a level where I am ahead of myself – maybe a fifth of a second, who knows?
“When my car goes into a corner, I am already at the apex, and so on. It’s the same whether I’m braking, changing gear, putting on the power, or whatever. In effect, I’m predicting what I’m going to face, so that I can correct it before it actually happens.”
But what was perhaps the most moving thing about watching Senna on a qualifying lap was that for him it went beyond just driving the car.
His approach and application were so complete that it went beyond the mere physical aspect of hauling the car around the track and was elevated to the philosophical, almost mystical, as he set off in pursuit of the perfect lap.
Qualifying for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix is the example that best illustrates this point, as an intense burst of concentration actually caused Senna to slip out of consciousness and have a transcendental, out-of-body experience on his way to pole position nearly a second-and-a-half ahead of team-mate Alain Prost in an identical car.
Other drivers have may have had similar experiences but certainly none have expressed them as Senna has. Only he clearly understood exactly what happened to him on track that day and recounting the experience is best left to him.
“Suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was kind of driving by instinct, only I was in a different dimension,” he recalled later.
“I was way over the limit, but still I was able to find even more. It frightened me because I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding.”
Formula One: The Autobiography has been used as reference material and a source of quotes for this article. Images via Wikimedia Commons.