It’s been 20 years since the last driver death in Formula 1. We know this because it was the tragedy of Ayrton Senna’s crash at the San Marino Grand Prix that served as a wake up call for the sport. So much has been said of Senna over the years that it is hard to add any praise or focus on his life that hasn’t already been voiced or implied.
Perhaps one of the more sobering views of Senna is his death and the stark reality that it took this tragic event to usher in real, meaningful efforts for safety in F1. Along with Roland Ratzenberger, Senna’s death that weekend was so galvanizing that the sport has still not fully recovered from the emotional scarring it endured.
That weekend, the specter of Death was hovering over the entire circuit cloaked in black with his scythe. He tried to take Rubens Barrichello and having failed, he turned to Ratzenberger but that wasn’t enough. He wanted the star. He wanted the man who was the most alive and lived life to the fullest. He wanted Senna.
There was fear, trepidation and prophetic comments made that weekend. Many of those words and comments were lost in the wind but on Sunday May 1, 1994, the world was shaken into harsh focus at the Tamburello corner.
When I think of Senna, I’ll be honest and say that I don’t think of his death and the safety this tragedy ushered into the sport. If there is a positive to be found, perhaps the lack of driver fatalities since 1994 is something to be thankful for. Instead, I tend to think of Senna in a different light.
There is little secret that I was an Alain Prost fan and that was simply because I was a Jacques Laffitte fan when I was young boy and that was simply because I first heard a Matra V12. It was pretzel logic but for a small boy who loved the sound of the V12 and, by proxy, the French driver in the Ligier, Prost was a natural knock-on effect for me.
Having offered mea culpa, I will always admit that I truly was amazed by Senna and had the utmost respect for him and his talent. I wanted Prost to win in my heart but in my mind, I knew Senna was the man.
Having faced my own battle of the heart and mind, I tend to think of Senna in that light. I believe he was a man of fierce intelligence and not just one kind of intelligence. He had divergent intelligence that exposed his creative 3rd and 4th dimensional thinking. He could visualize the world around him and see dimensional advantages that other drivers couldn’t.
He also had practical intelligence that allowed him to navigate the political and draconian world of F1, FISA and Jean-Marie Balestre. It allowed him to make deals from karting to the pinnacle of motorsport and he worked the system and possessed the charisma and intelligence to get to the top.
He also possessed technical intelligence that allowed him to recant car measurements such as oil pressure, temperature, fuel loads, RPM’s, shift points, clutch settings and every technical detail the crew wanted to know simply from his photographic memory. His ability to setup a car was uncanny and he had an engineer’s mind.
His mind was a complex, singular machine with multiple kinds of intelligence but his heart would not be outdone.
In his heart, he was a passionate man who did everything at ten tenths. He lived life to its fullest, he relaxed at the maximum rate, he drove with fierce intensity and hunted his prey with vengeance. His heart compelled him to drive beyond what other drivers could or would do in search for victory. His “zone” was much deeper than many others. He didn’t think it so much as he felt it. His heart-felt passion bred intense emotion.
He had immense compassion as well and was always concerned about the safety of other drivers. He took time to coach and teach and had insight he imparted on those he took a liking to. His compassion for others and for life itself was intense. He was a terrific friend to those lucky enough to call him one.
In his head, he knew he participated in a very dangerous sport and when the lights went out, it was all or nothing but in his heart, he also knew that he was driving with other men who had lives and families and it weighed on him. He knew that life was precious and he lived and honored it as such.
This battle between his heart and mind may manifest itself as an internal tempest in some but his faith in God was the bridge that kept the heart and mind at détente. He was comforted by his strong faith and knew he was a man for whom redemption had been imputed to him. His debt had been paid and his life was a gift that he made the absolute most of.
When I think of Senna, I think of the man he was, the legacy he had on not just Formula 1 but also the world. His impact on Brazil, his outreach and charitable heart and yes, his lethal and cunning manner in which he stalked his prey and the intense focus at which he found success. He was not a man without detractors or faults but then who amongst us is?
Senna will always be a singular impact on the world of motor sport but I tend to think it isn’t for the most tragic of reasons so much as for the most inspiring ways in which he lived, loved and inspired all who knew him and the many generations that followed him.
Senna navigated his world where the heart and mind raged and perhaps his greatest ability wasn’t in the car but in his ability to managed his intelligence and his passion in a way that transformed the sport and gave us a tangible example of just how good one man could be behind the wheel of the world’s most advanced form of racing.
Mario Andretti said that great drivers have to be able to get 100% of what the car is capable of giving—I argue that Senna always got 110% of what the car was capable of providing and his heart and mind—and the battle that raged between them tempered by the grace of God—was the reason.
For me, he will long be remembered by his life and not his death.