I first saw Ayrton Senna race at the 1985 British Grand Prix. I was 11, and it left me with an indelible passion for Formula One, but mainly for Senna.
I remember the black and gold livery of his Lotus with his bright yellow helmet accentuating the contrast, lapping at very high speed. Keke Rosberg, in the quicker Williams, tried his damnedest to pass Senna for the lead of the race; and while Senna hung on until his exhaust broke on lap 21, you always got the feeling that the Brazilian, in the technically inferior Lotus, was the hare, before a much faster Williams or McLaren would take over; which they often did.
That year, Rosberg qualified at an average of 160mph on a Silverstone circuit that had stake posts and chicken wire to protect you, not gravel traps and a mile of tarmac run-off! Back then, grands prix had phases to them too, where the long game was often put into practice. You would normally see the driver who had qualified fifth, nor with the outright pace, heading the field by the end. The cars were unreliable, pit stops weren’t planned – tyres went off and a reactionary pit stop happened – and yes fuel concerns were there, too. All of which made for spectacular viewing for an 11-year-old boy.
You had to work a bit harder to understand what was happening in the world of F1 during Senna’s era; not spoon fed endless hours of coverage as we are today. I used to watch the qualifying times, as they happened on Teletext/Ceefax, as it was not televised, and while the information updated every few minutes it seemed to take an age! Senna would even jump out on the timing screen as you were waiting for him to gain pole in the dying minutes.
Senna made one-lap qualifying a discipline in itself; an art form that does not exist today. The car sat low and was light on fuel, built specifically for the one lap on very sticky tyres. He would be right on the edge of losing control, the car would spark on the circuit, and his focus and commitment made a fast car go that little bit faster. His qualifying statistics stand for themselves – only Michael Schumacher can claim to have secured more pole positions – showing the outright speed he possessed.
At school, I was arguably the only one in my year who liked Senna and who didn’t cheer for the ‘plucky Brit’ Nigel Mansell. When the fast and hard-charging Senna arrived in Formula One, gentlemanly racing was not his top priority, but setting fastest laps and winning was, and that’s what I loved about him. It heralded the start of a more professional and ruthless approach that the sport simply had not seen before. This did make an impression on the established drivers and not all of them liked what they saw. Nelson Piquet, a three-time world champion, would later call Senna the Sao Paulo taxi driver because he would defend his position more than his competitors.
He would not tolerate being held up by back markers either and set his stall out early. This paid dividends later in his career when cars would jump out the way when they saw the yellow helmet in their mirrors. That’s not to say he didn’t care about his fellow competitors. He famously jumped out of his car to tend to Erik Comas after his horrendous crash during qualifying in Belgium in 1992.
He was extremely concerned about safety, and he took a very keen interest and wanted to understand the reasons behind a devastating crash; an example of which was attending the scene of Martin Donnelly’s near-fatal and horrific accident in Spain.
Yet in the heat of battle all of this would be lost. Taking Alain Prost off in the first corner at the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix is the most famous example. If Senna could justify the act to himself, then it would happen. He would not walk away from confrontation, if he thought he was right, on or off the track. He called Prost a coward in a post-race press conference after his bitter rival had a veto in his Williams contract for the 1993 season that would not allow Senna to join him as a team-mate.
Senna would be prepared to do and say whatever to make his point. Could you imagine this happening in today’s PC sensitive world?
But it’s the on track wheel-to-wheel racing that mark Senna’s time and career in F1 and he needed all of the competition to test him. Senna would not be a name known around the world or as great, if it hadn’t been for the likes of Prost and Mansell. When I think back to the duels that kept me on the edge of my seat, its those names that keep popping up. There has been no one like Senna before or after.
Today Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton show some of his attributes, Hamilton has his speed and Alonso his instinctive car placement and the ability to make opportunities happen. But no one is as complete as Senna. With the passing of Senna my world stopped and I lost the appetite for F1, the safety amendments to most of the tracks didn’t help either. It has taken a long time for F1 to stir my emotions again. There always seems to be something missing or an edge blunted. Moments like Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in Bahrain need to happen more, in fact Bahrain had that kind of racing I love throughout the field. The challenge for F1 is to allow that to happen.