“Just because I believe in God, just because I have faith in God, it doesn’t mean that I’m immune. It doesn’t mean that I’m immortal.”- Ayrton Senna, 1989.
Back in 2004, when James Gay-Rees and I started out on our journey to bring Ayrton’s story to the big screen, we were both certain on one aspect of his life (and death) that we needed to underpin that story: Ayrton’s spirituality. He was a devout Catholic, something which neither James (an Anglican at school) nor I (a Hindu) shared. Yet we both felt deeply that Ayrton’s story would be incomplete without this monumental pillar in his life — a pillar upon which he stood and reached heights that few mortals ever dream of; but also a pillar which was often misunderstood and used, like a club, to beat him by cynical opponents and press (‘disbelievers’ as I call them).
Ayrton’s early Catholicism was like that of other young Brazilians in the 1980?s — more heritage than practicality, more Sunday morning than something which defined him at work. It took the pressure cooker of Formula One, of a life lived at 200mph on racetracks around the world — of failure rather than victory — to bring God into his daily life.
With superyachts bobbing in the harbour, champagne on ice and 24 hour parties, the Monaco Grand Prix should have been amongst the most unlikely places for Ayrton to have had a deeply profound spiritual experience — yet it was here in 1988 when such a ‘miracle’, in his eyes, occurred …
His qualifying sessions at that race are still spoken of in awe by anyone lucky enough to have seen them. Ayrton took his car, a car designed around his team-mate double world champion Alain Prost, the best driver in the world (perhaps of all time, until then) and lapped the principality faster and faster until — at one point — Ayrton was two seconds faster. Ayrton, it seemed, was visibly bending the car and the track to his will. He had transcended what was physically possible and was exploring limits that no-one had ever dared to reach: he was inhabiting places so far beyond normal human experience, that even the disbelievers were left flabbergasted as they looked at the time sheets.
“Suddenly, I realised that I was no longer driving consciously and I was kind of driving by instinct only, I was in a different dimension … I was so over the limit but still able to go even more … I realised that I was in a very different atmosphere … I was well beyond my conscious understanding.”
Ayrton was literally in another world. Yet, in the race, he failed. With a handful of laps to go, and a lead of almost a minute over Prost, Ayrton made a novice’s error and put the car in a wall. The fury on his face — his human frailty — was there to see and that accident should have marked the end of his challenge to Prost: it would have been the human response after such a humiliating, public error. But, as he explained later, ‘Somehow I learned from that experience and came closer to God.’ And so began his practice of daily scripture study and his occasional ritual, in times of great stress, of opening the bible at a random page to seek the answer to a difficult question.
That failure at Monaco, rather than destroying him, crystallised Ayrton’s faith and he went on to a run of six victories from the next eight races culminating in an experience which few, who witnessed it, in Japan at the end of the year, will ever forget.
Ayrton took his first world championship at the Suzuka Circuit in October 1988. The conditions were damp, the air heavy with droplets of rain which split the light like tiny prisms. As he crossed the start-finish line, both hands waving wildly, the steering wheel between his knees at 150mph, his mechanics heard a kind of crying and laughter, they heard screaming and singing — language that they could not describe — and Ayrton, after he stopped the car, calmly admitted to seeing a vision of God as he took the championship.
The disbelievers had him now. A visual hallucination is the sign of psychosis — of actual madness. Yet there was a sincerity about his words — a mildness with which they were delivered which left his close friends in no doubt of his honesty. ‘I think’ said his friend, Brazilian TV reporter Galvao Bueno, ‘[In the rain], he saw what he wanted to see.’ Publicly, Ayrton only admitted that after winning the championship, he ‘felt a kind of peace.’
In the shallow, commercial, fast-paced world of the Formula One paddock, Ayrton was the exception. He had, in the words of Professor Sid Watkins, the Formula One doctor and father-figure to all the drivers ‘a kind of tranquillity — he was a very tranquil person.’
‘When you talk about religion, it’s a touching point, very easy to be misunderstood … But I try hard — as hard as I can to understand life through God. And that means everyday of my life — not only when I’m home but when I’m doing my work too.’
In Spain in 1990, Ayrton’s fellow driver, Martin Donnelly, suffered horrendous injuries in a qualifying accident. Ayrton — unlike any other driver — went to the scene and witnessed Prof. Watkins resuscitate his stricken comrade. It was harrowing and, in the aftermath, no one knew whether Donnelly would live. But that afternoon, Ayrton demonstrated that it was one thing to have faith, in principle, but another to carry that faith into an arena where death is a constant companion. He sat alone and prayed, reasoning that death or severe injury were parts of his chosen path in life and, at that moment, he could either face them by going out onto the circuit — or walk away from the sport. There could be no compromise. He had no need to drive, that day — he was already on pole position — but he drove none-the-less, and smashed his own time.
It was the one day when the believers and disbelievers were united in their admiration for Ayrton: whatever power he could summon, whatever force compelled him, he used to conquer a circuit that had tried to harm his fellow driver, his comrade, his brother — and won.
In the 1990’s, Brazil was still on its knees, crippled by poverty and debt. Ayrton had been giving away vast sums of money, privately, not just to Christian organisations but to hospitals and shelters: children, especially, were dear to him. Ayrton said ‘We [the rich] cannot live on islands of wealth surrounded by a sea of poverty …’ He knew that even his immense material wealth would barely amount to a drop in this ocean of Brazilian poverty but what he could do was to unite his nation, rich or poor, old or young, every Sunday when he raced.
And the zenith of that ability to unite came on his 31st birthday, March 21st 1991, in his hometown of Sao Paulo — somewhere that he had never won before. Ayrton was pursued, doggedly, by the faster Williams car of Nigel Mansell — his lead never growing to more than a few seconds. Then, as if by magic, Mansell spun out of the race with a mechanical problem. Ayrton was now almost a minute ahead of Mansell’s teammate with a cruise to victory in sight. But now Ayrton’s gearbox started to fail him and he was left with just sixth gear on a circuit with slow corners and near mountainous gradients — even one lap stuck in sixth gear should have been impossible and, duly, Mansell’s teammate began gaining on him quickly, reducing Ayrton’s lead to a few seconds.
And then it began to rain, creating conditions in which Ayrton was truly a master. He crossed the finishing line with less than two seconds of his lead left, completely spent, and had to be helped from the car because of intense muscle spasm. It took almost 30 minutes to get him onto the podium in front of a nation, that for two hours, had forgotten all its misery and suffering — and in one final effort of will, Ayrton hoisted the trophy despite the pain. His niece, Bianca, said that it was so like her uncle to suffer, to work so hard, to give everything and then to say, humbly, ‘God gave me this victory … It couldn’t be any other way … because he is greater than all.’ For me, that race was a perfect embodiment of the man and his faith — in a nation that was falling apart, he used his faith to bring victory and so to bring people together. Truly, that day, he was a prophet honoured at home.
Ayrton’s three championships came hard — when he was in the best car, he had the best team-mate; then he rarely had the best car but he would always find ways to win, to keep motivated – ‘To fight the good fight.’ That faith sustained him through the barren years of 1992 and 1993.
Damon Hill, Formula One World Champion in 1996, said of the San Marino Grand Prix of 1994, ‘It was as if Siva, the Indian God of Destruction, visited Formula One that weekend.’
Ayrton had been struggling with a new car, having left McLaren to join the Williams team in an attempt to recapture his world championship. Regulations had changed and the new breed of car was ‘skittish’ — unstable, nervous — and Ayrton was the grand old man of Formula One, the only champion on the grid. He had failed even to complete the first two races of the season — his worst start to a season since he entered the sport in 1984. The omens were bad. This strange season, the nervousness of the cars and the youth of the drivers around him had prompted Ayrton to prophesise ‘We will be lucky to get through this season without a serious injury — or even worse …’
In Friday’s qualifying session, Ayrton witnessed the horrific accident of his protégé, Rubens Barrichello. He had known and mentored Rubens since 1986 and his shock at seeing his young Brazilian compatriot was palpable. But by some miracle, Rubens was only lightly injured …
On Saturday, Ayrton witnessed a second horrific accident — that of young Austrian Roland Ratzenberger, competing in his first season in Formula One. Ratzenberger was not as lucky as Rubens and Ayrton’s dark prophecy about the season was about to unfold: Ratzenberger was dead.
For a man as intelligent and as complicated as Ayrton was, he had a remarkably simple solution to his chosen life’s pressures: he would drive. And with that gesture, he would forget, he would heal, he would unite. But that death — the first that Ayrton had experienced on track — brought out a grief which was manifested by an image so unusual that it has remained seared on the minds of all who witnessed it: Ayrton took off his overalls and chose not to drive. Faced with a night of turmoil, of conflict, no one knew what his decision would be on Sunday morning, on race day …
‘On that final morning, he woke and opened his bible and read a text,’ explained Viviane, Ayrton’s sister, ‘that he would receive the greatest gift of all which was God, himself.’ From the moment Ayrton’s car plunged off the road to his brain death was less than two seconds and the sequence of events, though violent, were so complicated, they seemed to defy probability.
Ayrton’s car left the circuit, not only at the fastest corner but at the corner with no run-off area in which to brake, in which to react. The car hit the outer concrete wall at the exact angle which caused his front right tyre and suspension assembly to be thrown back at the car. Ayrton’s head was flexed forward the exact moment that the assembly hit him — and a piece found its way through the tiny aperture of his visor, causing fatal head injuries. It was an unprecedented, fantastic series of events. In the words of insurance companies, the most rational entities on earth who sift through data and find patterns where there are none, Ayrton’s death ‘was an act of God.’
Three million people lined the streets of Sao Paulo for his funeral whilst one hundred million watched on television, united by Ayrton, once again — but this time in grief. And it is that union which Ayrton could forge in human beings upon which I reflect, seventeen years after his death. Ayrton’s spirituality, his faith, and his religion brought people together — as faith and religions should.
Asif, our director, is a Muslim; James, our producer, was brought up a Christian; Eric, our other producer, a Jew — and I am a Hindu — all brought together by the intense power of a great human being, who transcended his sport, and whose spirit now transcends his death.
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