Thursday, 1 May 2014

Obrigado Ayrton

Before you read on, I have also written a tribute to Roland Ratzenberger, which I feel you should read as well.

If you were to type "Ayrton Senna" into Google, you would probably find thousands upon thousands of tear-sodden tributes and list articles of his greatest performances, some of which rank among the greatest Grands Prix ever. This will be especially true today, the 20th anniversary of the day he was killed. No, the day he was immortalised. Across the globe he has been a sporting icon for so long, drawing people in not just with his sensational qualifying laps and ruthless determination in races, but his complex and charismatic personality shown in interviews. The video above, however, is not focusing on Ayrton Senna da Silva as an heroic racing driver. Instead it gives us a look into his more tangible legacy, and looks at the triple world champion as a human being.

The Instituto Ayrton Senna was set up to educate those less fortunate in poverty-stricken Brazil. Ayrton was born into the nicer side of Brazil's rich/poor divide and looked at the other side of the coin not with contempt, but wishing that they had been given the same opportunities he had. The mini-documentary - directed by the same man who directed "KAZ," a look into the life and mentality of Gran Turismo creator Kazunori Yamauchi - gives us an insight into why the institution was founded, its work and its motivations, and by extension Ayrton's legacy in his home country. Oh, and the director's previous work isn't a coincidence; this was made for Gran Turismo as they intend to release content relating to Senna over the next month. They've already launched a tribute site here.

Damon Hill at Imola earlier this year, looking up at Senna
as millions do and have. Damon was his team mate at that
fateful race.
But one question keeps coming back into my head: Why him? Anniversaries of Jim Clark's life and death come and go with little more than a passing mention, and he along with Senna and Juan Manuel Fangio are the three most likely to be top of any given "Greatest F1 Drivers of All Time" list. There have been other multiple world champions who influenced the sport afterwards, like Sir Jackie Stewart. Why does Senna have such an emotional impact on so many people inside and outside of the sport? Is it just that he died young? While Clark also died with plenty left to give, he didn't do so when Formula 1 was watched globally on live TV by hundreds of millions. People are often guilty of glorifying Senna-type people, sporting heroes that left us behind too soon, but even stripping that away and including the thoughts of those who didn't idolise him still give the impression of someone who ranks among motor racing's all-time greats on a number of levels. I don't honestly know. Personally, I never saw Senna alive. He died when I was two years old, so even though I've watched F1 since I was a child there's no way I could have any memories of him. Somehow, though, he has an impact on me that I can't easily describe. I think the eponymous 2010 docu-movie has played a big part in this. I already had an idea of his significance, but really he was "that famous F1 driver who was killed" until I watched Senna in the cinema. That excellent movie started in the normal way for biopics, but before too long it draws you in and you become emotionally invested in what you're seeing (it also means more here than in normal movies because all the stuff you're seeing actually happened in reality). I'll put it this way: even though I already knew the ending, it still hit me quite hard. Hell, when the first shot of the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari came on screen in the cinema with the caption "SAN MARINO GRAND PRIX, 1994," you could've heard a pin drop. Everyone watching either knew and sat in dreading silence, or had no idea what was about to hit them. I'll never know for whom the fatal accident was worse to watch, but I'll always remember the intense feeling of that moment.

Maybe that's it. Maybe the movie accurately represented Ayrton Senna simply by captivating the viewer and making them feel. It does seem like he had that kind of personality. People talk of an aura he had around him whenever he entered a room, and such like, plus the contradiction between the charitable empathetic Christian out of the car and utterly ruthless, determined, entitled racer inside the car (Murray Walker says that Ayrton believed he had "a God-given right to win races") must have made him mysterious to many. His bitter and infamous rivalry with Alain Prost helped draw attention to him as well, but this is where the movie invites criticism, because after Prost retired at the end of 1993, the two quickly became close friends and Ayrton confided in the Frenchman about many things related and unrelated to F1. The movie omits this completely, including a moment at Senna's final race weekend when he recorded a lap of Imola for the French TV channel Prost commentated for, and wrapped it up by saying "We miss you Alain." This once again shows the dual personality he had, because as a racer and a rival Senna wanted nothing to do with Prost and openly bashed him in interviews for being a coward or a moaner or whatever else. But once Prost retired, he realised that his greatest motivation had gone with him, and his high respect for the Frenchman surfaced.

Again though, I can only hope to build up a reasonably accurate picture of him based on the available footage and interviews with people who were there. I asked my Dad, who has watched F1 since well before Senna, how he remembers the Brazilian in context:

"There were quite a few characters around at that time. Prost was the Little Professor, and he was quite big on safety. When it was really wet, he was always the one complaining the most. I was aware of Brundle, but didn't know much about him. Schumacher and the Benetton story were interesting, just because it was a small team and he was a young guy. It was good to see Damon Hill starting out because I remember watching his Dad, and I was delivering newspapers when they had the story of his death. Plus there was Mansell, of course.

So there were lots of different drivers around. But Senna was the one that stood out because he appeared to have something that the others didn't have. It seemed like racing was what he was supposed to do, whereas the others had just learned how to do it. He seemed to be a natural, although we know nowadays that he worked at least as hard as anyone else on the preparations.

He definitely wasn't like the others."

The closing line is the impression I see most often, I think, whether it's pundits, onlookers or drivers from that time. While I try to filter out the hyperbole surrounding Senna, I probably just have to accept that he really did have a special something about the way he was, or the attitude he took to everything. Certainly he's the most quotable F1 driver in history. How do I see him as someone who has only the recounted memories and replays for aid? Not as a God. Not as the saint he's often painted as by his more emotionally-inclined disciples. To me, he was for sure one of the sport's all-time greats, but more than that, he was perhaps the most openly-human F1 driver I've seen or heard of, combining undeniable raw talent with a passion and charisma we just don't see in modern motor racing very often. When you factor in his compassion for people in Brazil and other racing drivers - running across the track at Spa to help save Eric Comas, investigating the sites of serious accidents himself and asking friend and F1 doctor Professor Sid Watkins (R.I.P) how he could help injured drivers like Comas - it's clear that he was equally and highly admirable both as a racing driver and as a human being, albeit in quite different ways. The reason he can touch people's lives even in death is because of all this, and probably more besides. He was an unstoppable force, and despite his flaws and controversial actions, he was, and is, an inspiration and a worthy hero.

Obrigado Ayrton. I hope you're on that fishing trip with Sid up there.

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