When Ayrton Senna died racing in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, Italy, he was 34 and at the height of his career, and the popular British television and radio presenter Murray Walker predicted that from that day on the Brazilian driver’s legend would continue to grow through the coming generations.
It has been 20 years since Senna’s death on May 1, 1994, and the anniversary has been marked this year by tributes around the world, proving that his legend has indeed grown. It had already taken a particularly large leap in 2010 with a documentary film about his life, “Senna,” by the British filmmaker Asif Kapadia, which became one of the most successful documentaries in British film history.
Among the many tributes to Senna this year is a book by the veteran British Formula One journalist Maurice Hamilton, “Ayrton Senna,” which was commissioned by the McLaren team, where Senna won his three world titles and most of his races. Senna is considered by many observers to be the greatest Grand Prix driver of all time, although few of the records he set are still standing. His tally of 41 race victories, three drivers’ titles and 65 pole positions in a career that ran from 1984 to 1994 is considerable. But all those statistics have long been dwarfed by the German Michael Schumacher. Even Senna’s great nemesis, the French driver Alain Prost, won one title more than him and 10 more races.
But as a driver personality, as a media property, Senna was perhaps the most compelling specimen that motor racing has ever produced. Or at least the most accessible. He was the first champion whom so many people felt they knew intimately at the time of his death, which was witnessed live on television by viewers around the world.
Enter Hamilton’s book, which is at once a straightforward primer on the career of one of the series’s great drivers and a trove of views from the people who knew him best in the team: from employees in the marketing department to a worker who provided him with his gloves and uniform, from the travel coordinator to mechanics and engineers and the team leader, Ron Dennis.
Hamilton also spoke to Senna’s sister, Viviane Lalli, and his nephew, Bruno, and niece, Bianca. As a result, “Ayrton Senna” opens up many sides of the driver not often emphasized, from his occasional fiery temper to how well-loved he was by those who worked with him. Above all, he emerges as a complicated, mixed personality. The book is also beautifully illustrated, with photos from an array of photographers, including some from the Senna family archive. His driving ability is fabulously described by a former McLaren driver, John Watson, who raced at the team in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“I witnessed visibly and audibly something I had not seen anyone do before in a racing car,” Watson recalled. “It was as if he had four hands and four legs. He was braking, changing down, steering, pumping the throttle, and the car appeared to be on that knife edge of being in control and being out of control.”
The book is best for its look at Senna’s McLaren career. Hamilton’s subject is not Senna before he joined the team nor the months after he left it, in 1994, and before he died in a Williams car. But in the final chapter, the recollections from the people he worked with more than compensate for that.
“Ayrton had an aura about him,” said Lyndy Redding, who ran — and still runs — McLaren’s catering operation. “Sometimes he was so focused, he wouldn’t say hello. It wasn’t that he was being rude, it was because he was in a zone, totally in another place. But when he did say hello, he was just so hugely genuine; he always used to kiss us and hold our faces, which was hugely intense, but absolutely lovely.”
The accounts of Senna’s battle with Prost in 1988 and 1989 are among the best parts of the book. Senna arrived for the 1989 Monaco Grand Prix to find his teammate Prost having said he was finished with Senna, whom he called dishonest, in an interview.
“From that moment, there was no conversation between the two drivers for the rest of the season,” said Neil Oatley, who was chief designer of the car at the time.
But Prost tells how they had reconciled after he retired from the series in 1993. “When I retired, we saw a new Ayrton Senna,” Prost told Hamilton. “Before Imola, Ayrton called me, not every day, but almost. I would like everyone to know who Ayrton Senna was. He was a different person when racing against me; it was not like when he was fighting against Michael (Shumacher) or Nigel (Mansell) or whoever. He wanted to beat me. I have to thank him because when we were teammates, we drove each other on. But our story did not end in 1994. Our story will last … forever.”
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