A lot has been said, written and debated about the man who is hands down considered the best to have ever graced the sport. Not all of it good though, he had and still has people who do not approve of the way he raced or his attitude. Yet what they cannot dispute is the unique status of Ayrton Senna which transgresses the confines of Formula One racing.
In Formula One there are great drivers, there’s legends and then there’s Ayrton Senna.
What justifies his position is the philosophical element he brought to racing. From adamantly asserting that he has a “God-given right to win” to emotionally replying “I cannot stop, I’ve to go on” to Sid Watkins’s request to stop racing right before Formula One’s black weekend. The characteristics of his personality creates an aura of mysticism that has its allure even today. But above all the man had the skills to back up his claim as the number one. We all remember the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix, the staggering 1.4 sec faster pole lap in 1988 and that opening lap at 1993 Donnington Park.
But they say the devil’s in the details and that’s where his strength lay. His racing limits were way beyond the others and achieved them by his articulate attention to details. In 1984 racing for Toleman at the Dallas Grand Prix when Ayrton Senna crashed on lap 47 into the wall, he argued with Pat Symmonds ruling out that the crash was his error and instead blamed it on the concrete wall. When the team finally went to the spot to inspect they were amazed to find that it was true! The concrete block that formed the wall had indeed moved by a mere 4 millimetres because someone else had crashed in the same concrete block before Senna causing the block to move by just that much and he was racing with so much precision that only 4 millimetres was the difference between crashing and not crashing.
Drivers like Senna are a ‘once in a generation’ kind of talent. It’s true that Formula One drivers are a cut above the rest, their cognitive abilities and reaction times are second to none and concentration levels that at times match up to those of a fighter jet pilot. However these are quantifiable terms, what’s not quantifiable is a certain feel that a driver has, a certain ability, a sixth sense if you may, to feel the car, the tires, the track at speeds north of 150 MPH, to place it exactly where he wants to place it, to know the limits of the car as well as of his own and to constantly drive on the razor edge of this limit. Underachieve and you’re not fast enough, go overboard and you ruin the lap or worse put the car into the wall.
It is this innate unquantifiable ability or talent that separate the best amongst the best on the grid and this is exactly the reason that sets Senna on a pedestal higher than the others. For him, the exercise of this talent was the expression of the right that God himself had bestowed upon him. Senna spent his life exercising this talent and especially from the moment he arrived in F1. Even before his on-track performances had raised eyebrows, he had announced his arrival by winning the Celebrity race in Mercedes Saloons organised by the promoters of the newly constructed Nurburgring track. The race featured the new Mercedes 190E 2.3-16v and 20 drivers including big names like Alain Prost, Niki Lauda, James Hunt, John Watson, Jody Scheckter and unknowns like Senna. In equal cars and on equal machinery, Senna did what he wanted to do, he took the lead at turn one and left everyone following his wake and finished in that order to grab everyone’s attention.
Senna was and always will remain a benchmark for other drivers to be compared with, be it for his heroics on track or his generosity off it.
If you go by statistics then the numbers do not paint a magnificent picture but they do not capture the essence of this legend either. In F1 fraternity, he is not just another driver with a tally of a certain number of wins, championships and pole position, he is beyond these numbers. He is a mystical figure whose charm towers above everyone else’s and that is his magic.