“The following profile is from my book Grand Prix People, Revelations From Inside The F1 Circus. It is based on my historic 1990 interview with him in which spoke about his out-of-body experience at Monaco in 1988 and bared his soul on many subjects.” – Gerald Donaldson
He is undoubtedly one of the greatest racing drivers in history, and one of the most controversial. Everybody has an opinion about him, invariably a very strong one. Yet the man himself remains an enigma. He’s the subject of endless speculation and, it would seem, considerable misunderstanding. This is mainly because he seldom speaks publicly, which is a great pity for Ayrton Senna has a great deal to say.
He is a complex man – intense, introspective, sensitive, private – and very intelligent. He is probably the most intellectual of all the drivers and, if Alain Prost is ‘The Professor’, Ayrton Senna should be ‘The Philosopher.’ Noted for his fierce commitment to racing, and his penchant for taking risks, it may really be his intellect that most sets Senna apart from his peers.
He is remarkably articulate (even in English, a language far removed from his native Portugese), though talking about any superior talents he might have makes him uncomfortable. “To say that I am better than most drivers is something you have to discuss to see if it is really true. If it is true, it is for me an uncomfortable feeling. It is in a way pleasant, of course, but talking about it publicly, just being open and natural about the subject, is difficult for me.
“I do try very hard to understand everything and anything that happens around me. Not only in the car but in my behaviour as a professional on the circuit, outside, in the garage and so on, and it takes a lot of energy. At the end of every day I feel very tired, because I just give everything I have. It drains me completely.
“Sometimes I think I know some of the reasons why I do the things the way I do in the car. And sometimes I think I don’t know why. There are some moments that seem to be only the natural instinct that is in me. Whether I have been born with it or whether this feeling has grown in me more than other people, I don’t know. But it is inside me and it takes over with a great amount of space and intensity.”
Behind the wheel he constantly strives to combine his metaphysical inquiries with his natural instincts to make a supreme effort. But sometimes he finds himself in the grip of an unknown superior force and Senna becomes a passenger on a surreal ride into unexplored nether regions – beyond his normal limits, beyond his understanding. It’s an experience that can be frightening.
“When I am competing against the watch and against other competitors, the feeling of expectation, of getting it done and doing the best and being the best, gives me a kind of power that, some moments when I am driving, actually detaches me completely from anything else as I am doing it…corner after corner, lap after lap. I can give you a true example I experienced and can relate it.
“Monte Carlo, ’88, the last qualifying session. I was already on pole and I was going faster and faster. One lap after the other, quicker, and quicker, and quicker. I was at one stage just on pole, then by half a second, and then one second…and I kept going. Suddenly, I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And I suddenly realized that I was no longer driving the car consciously.
“I was kind of driving it by instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel, not only the tunnel under the hotel, but the whole circuit for me was a tunnel. I was just going, going – more, and more, and more, and more. I was way over the limit but still able to find even more. Then, suddenly, something just kicked me. I kind of woke up and I realized that I was in a different atmosphere than you normally are. Immediately my reaction was to back off, slow down. I drove back slowly to the pits and I didn’t want to go out any more that day.
“It frightened me because I realized I was well beyond my conscious understanding. It happens rarely, but I keep these experiences very much alive in me because it is something that is important for self-preservation.”
In that 1988 Monaco Grand Prix Senna was leading his team mate by nearly 50 seconds when he crashed – inexplicably. While Prost went on to win, Senna did not return to the McLaren pit. He walked the short distance to his flat and promptly went to sleep. He later acknowledged that he lost concentration when his pit ordered him to slow down. The accident was a major turning point in his inner life.
“I am religious. I believe in God, through Jesus. I was brought up that way, was maybe drifting away from it, but suddenly turned the other way. Things that have happened in my racing career contributed a lot to my change of direction. It was a buildup of things that reached a peak and then I had a kind of crisis. Monaco was the peak and it made me realize a lot of things.
“It is something that is difficult to talk about, very touching for me. But it is something unique in life, something that can hold you, can support you, when you are most vulnerable. It has made me a better man. I am a better human being now than I was before this. I am a better in everything I am and everything I do.”
There have been other changes in his attitude toward life. Much has been made of Senna’s absolute singlemindedness, how he divorced his wife because he was so consumed by his racing passion. He has always been deeply devoted to his family, but now he feels the need for a more balanced life, and to share it with another person.
“Time shows us, as we progress, different perspectives of life. And a few years ago I had no time for anybody or anything other than racing. Today I not only have the time but I need the time for my family, my friends and particularly for my girlfriend. And it is something that I fight for and I organize my life in order that I can get the right balance between the private life, the personal life, and the professional life. Because only that way, having the equilibrium between both sides of myself, can I perform to my best.
“Now, even when I am doing my job, the need for somebody to be by my side is great. It gives me something I don’t get in any other activity in life. You know, I think when you love a woman you feel more human. You feel stronger, a better man, more macho, and at the same time you feel inner peace because it fulfils the empty space that you have, that we all have in us, and that only love can fulfill.”
Little Ayrton Senna was only four years old when he first drove a go kart and as a schoolboy his head was filled with heroic visions of the exploits of Stewart, Lauda, Villeneuve. The highlights of his life were Grand Prix mornings in Sao Paolo when he awoke, trembling with anticipation at the prospect of watching his heroes in action on television. He remembers that just before the start of the race the palms of his hands were wet.
“Now, before the start of the race, I have still a lot of expectation – tension – when I am waiting. My hands still perspire a bit, but I have other feelings. Like an empty space in my stomach, a feeling of wanting to sleep…there are several conflicting emotions.”
Senna admits he brings a high degree of emotional intensity to his racing, but it goes beyond his profession. “I am intense about everything I do. I have an attitude about life that I go deeply into it and concentrate and try to do everything properly. It’s part of my personality.”
His public personality has been called remote, ruthless and arrogant, accusations that began shortly after Ayrton Senna da Silva came to England at the age of 20, following several successful years in kart racing. He soon shortened his name (in the interests of brevity and clarity for journalists) and his reputation for a willingness to sacrifice anything on the altar of motor racing began with his divorce in 1982.
When he came into Formula 1, with Toleman in 1984, appreciation of his obviously superlative skills were leavened by those detractors who maintained he was prepared to win at any cost. He was accused of reneging on his Toleman deal (he bought out his contract) to join Lotus where he refused Derek Warwick as a teammate but accepted Johnny Dumfries because, the cynics said, he was worried about Warwick’s competition. (Senna’s reasoning was that Lotus couldn’t field two equally competitive cars).
Certain of his peers joined in the disparagement: Mansell attacked him physically after one on-track encounter, Piquet did it verbally, and the word along pit lane was that Senna was dangerous and not to be trusted in close racing situations. More recently there was the trouble with his McLaren teammate Prost which caused Prost to leave the team.
These conflicts have contributed to what for Senna is the worst part of his profession. “The most difficult time is when you have to put up with people that you don’t really enjoy. When you have to live with people that you cannot trust, or people who you know by previous experience are just waiting for a small mistake from you, to beat you. That is the worst, that is the most difficult time.”
Here, Senna is not speaking just of those drivers with whom he has had much publicized feuds, but of others within the Formula 1 environment with whom he finds himself at odds. When his public criticism of FISA and Jean-Marie Balestre in late 1989 led to a demand for an apology or the governing body would take away his license, it caused him to come within a phone call of retiring from the sport. He returned out of a sense of loyalty to his team, particularly his mechanics and those at McLaren who depend on Senna to earn their living.
“If I had pushed for what I think was right, and what I thought was true, I would have created a major problem with everybody on the team. I practically gave up racing. Then I had to face up to it and give in, not for myself, but in the interest of a whole group of people, particularly those who really work, day after day. They need their work, so I gave in. But for no other reason than the responsibility I felt to those people who gave me the chance to win races. It was the least I could do for them.”
Though he has never had to work for a living he feels his privileged upbringing in Brazil provides him with a special perspective. “I think I am in a very fortunate position. First of all, I had the opportunity to be in a healthy family environment. It was very positive. I had love at home which is important for later development. I had the opportunity of being well educated. I grew up doing all kinds of activities, sports and intellectual things. So I had what I consider a perfect environment to create the basis for when you are an adult.
“On top of that, on the material side, I had anything I wanted. My father is a self-made man who was always able to give me and my sister and my brother whatever we wanted. And I came to racing because it was my desire, my dream. I made it my profession but it was always first my hobby. Money has never been my motivating factor. I don’t need racing for any material reason.
“I only need Formula 1 for the pleasure it gives me. Once you have that self-confidence, to throw it all away at any time, you are in a much stronger position. I am not the only one, but few have that situation. It is very unique, generally speaking, in terms of drivers, engineers, mechanics, team owners, managers, sponsors. Perhaps that makes me a little bit different in being able to stick to my principles and not compromise them in my profession.
“I think Formula 1 is very superficial, generally speaking. Formula 1 is today a very strong business, a way of promoting names and products…and people. Of course, there are a few special people here, but as much as I try to find those few special people, and to get through to them, I find it very difficult. Because consistently I find problems and troubles that I go through which tend to drive me away from personalities. So it is a very difficult environment to be part of. It is almost impossible.
“The competition naturally already makes life difficult for everybody, not only drivers but team managers, press people, sponsors. Anybody that is in here, somehow he is competing, and the nature of this competition means the ego is always being tested. When you have your ego being tested all the time, it tends to bring out lots of problems in terms of relationships among these people. And as a direct link to the ego fights, you can naturally find difficulties.”
When those difficulties are chronicled in the motor racing press Senna feels he is too often made the villain of the piece. After confiding in certain journalists he felt his trust was betrayed, the truth distorted. He became suspicious of interviews and retreated into a shell of silence.
“I got hurt badly and the only way I could continue, and remain healthy, was to stay away from interviews. You may pay an expensive price on some occasions by not answering some criticism, not giving your version of factors. Then people write only what they are told. But I am of the opinion that if you have principles in your mind, if you have good character and you have a clean mind, a positive and constructive mind, time will bring things to reality by itself. On the other hand, it is no good for me just to be nice to people and keep smiling if I don’t feel like it. Because if I don’t feel like it, I will not do it properly. I must be true to myself, to my beliefs, to be at peace.
“So it is very difficult to find someone in this environment with whom you can have a constructive conversation. And that is frustrating in a way because I have always a desire, it is in my nature again, to share with people that I like some of the special feelings I have, that I get from doing what I am doing here. It is the only thing I can give that has some value, at least for me. And I find it frustrating not to be able to share those things with the public in general, with the fans.
“After all, the public are interested in the people. OK, they follow the racing and the fighting on the circuit, but the racing and the fighting are done by people: the drivers. They are the ones that by their personality, by their character, by their instinct, end up making the show boring or exciting. That is what gives the show some shine or some darkness. People are interested all about the driver that is in the car. The way he looks, not only physically, but the way he looks through his eyes, the way he speaks, by his voice being soft, sharp. The way he makes his answers, the contents of his answers, the enthusiasm he passes on, the instincts of fighting, all those things.
“And we are all different. Therefore what holds people, what gets people and holds them in admiring you, is what you are. Not just because you win. They are after winners of course, and there are several winners in a season. But there are maybe one or two that really shine and the rest are just winners. There is a difference between a true champion and just another champion, The true champion who shines is one who people love to see, love to know, love to think about and to be with in their minds.”
As Senna was speaking his mind during this interview a fan broke through the circle of onlookers which perpetually surrounds him. The man shyly presented the superstar with several gifts, among them a piece of ceramic sculpture with Senna’s name on it. Speaking in Portugese, the fan respectfully explained that the Brazilian was his hero. Senna was deeply moved.
“I think to have lots of people after you and showing that they admire you and they like you, it is super. I have never seen the guy before and he comes with a piece of art, something that he made himself. And his wife has baked a cake for me. It…it makes me feel embarrassed and humble. It does, because it shows how much you can touch people without knowing, without ever talking to them, just by your behaviour publicly. What they see on TV, what they hear you saying personally in some interviews, what they read about you.
“In many ways we are a dream for people, not a reality. That counts in your mind. It shows how much you can touch people. And as much as you can try to give those people something, it is nothing compared to what they live in their own mind, in their dreams, for you. And that is something really special. Something, really, really special for me.”