There are some sportsmen who are understandably great and then there are those whose greatness surpasses all understanding. Ayrton Senna da Silva was one such Formula One racer who belonged to the latter category.
Senna held three World Drivers’ titles and a phenomenal set of F1 statistics and records that any mortal would boast of. But this man’s greatness was never in his numbers. His magnitude lay more in the depth of his character as a racer than in the records that he etched against his name. It lay in his unparalleled resilience, his single-minded devotion towards winning and in his boundless desire to know and understand the sport.
The Brazilian had a few distinctive traits that very few drivers possessed. His intensity, determination and passion for racing surpassed any that the Formula One fraternity had seen before. Senna was racer’s racer and he never thought twice before trying to get ahead of the car in front of him. He once famously said that being second is to be the first of the ones who lose! He was one of those rare drivers who literally put every ounce of strength that he possessed into winning a race. There were times when he stood on the top step of the podium after an exhausting triumph and he was so drained that he barely had the energy to lift the winner’s trophy.
Through his 11 seasons in the sport, Senna raced for teams like Toleman, Lotus and Williams but he spent his days of glory at Mclaren winning three world championship titles with the Woking outfit. The Senna-Mclaren union in 1988 also spelled his coming together with French World Champion Alain Prost. This association between two of the most talented racers that F1 had seen, consequently resulted in the most intense rivalry in the history of the sport.
Despite their mercurial relationship, the McLaren teammates did mange to win a phenomenal 15 of 16 races that year, completely dominating the rest of the grid. It was almost as if the field was divided into two parts: 1) Senna-Prost and 2) The rest! The Brazilian took the championship and won ‘Round 1’ of their battle in ‘88 but the following year, things got more heated up as their altercations grew more severe than ever. This time around, “The Professor” won the battle by taking the title, but not before several distasteful incidents including a controversial tussle between the two on the Suzuka circuit which caused a crash that Senna was blamed for. But the Brazilian was adamant and repeatedly claimed that he was not ‘solely responsible’ for the incident. By this time, Prost had been drained beyond recognition, by the intensity of the rivalry and moved to Ferrari for the following season, a switch that he would later regret.
Livid and hurt by the Suzuka incident and powered by the raging V-10 Mclaren-Honda engine, Senna tipped Prost to the 1990 title in a thumping manner. The following year, the maturity that comes with experience seemed to show, as the man in the trademark yellow helmet crossed the finish line of the Australian Grand Prix (the final race of the season) in first place to become only the fourth man in history to win back-to-back Formula One World Championships.
The Brazilian had unmatched car control in wet weather. Although there are a host of examples of this talent from his career, the 1993 British Grand Prix at Donington Park is a priceless case in point. Starting fourth on a soaking wet grid, Senna used his dexterity to achieve the unique feat of overtaking four drivers – including one world champion (Alain Prost) and two future world champions (Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher) – in the opening lap of the race. Later, as the rain came pouring down, the drivers on grid seemed to slide around uneasily. But not even an unforgiving downpour could soak the confidence of the ‘master of wet weather’. Like a hot knife through butter, he glazed through the race track with consummate ease, while the others struggled to match his pace. So dominant was he in those conditions, that he lapped the entire grid, barring second place man Damon Hill who finished 80 seconds behind him! Senna’s exploit at Donington is often referred to as one of the greatest individual drives in Formula One history.
The aura that Ayrton Senna possessed was a further mystery that the F1 fraternity could never solve. The profundity behind his glazy eyes and the expressionless countenance that he carried around on a race weekend often left his observers perplexed. He gave nothing away to his rivals, critics or fans. He was very, very withdrawn and often appeared cold and indifferent to the people around him. But the truth was that Senna was always so deep in thought that he forgot the world around him. Perhaps he was running the race over and over in his head. He was possibly contemplating on how many different ways there were for him to win. Or maybe he was just taking a moment to drift away from himself to transcend human boundaries; for he often appeared to be possessed by a supernatural power when he was on the race track.
Another interesting fact about the three-time world champion is that he was so married to his sport that he didn’t feel the need to indulge in his fame or the powers that came with it. He never even had the time to wed or to have a regular personal life.
Senna was a unique racer who led a unique life both on and off the track. In death too, he remained unique. On the 1st of May 1994, on race day of the San Marino Grand Prix that year, Ayrton Senna da Silva became the last Formula One racer to lose his life on a race track in the middle of a race. Leading the grid at Imola – like he was so used to doing – he took a speeding turn at the Tamborrello curve and his car crashed uncontrollably into the wall bringing his life to a grinding halt. Onlookers observed that even in death they could see what a fighter Senna was. Lying motionless in the cockpit of his car in the final moments of his life, it is said that his bloodshot eyes still looked as determined as ever with no sign of a fear of death.
Just like his life, Senna’s death remained an unsolved mystery. After a lot of speculation about whether it was human error, a malfunction or an attempt at manslaughter (a charge imposed on Frank Williams and later withdrawn), the ‘Senna files’ were closed with little clarity on what exactly went wrong on that black weekend.
Senna was ‘born to race’ many people had said, and although tragic, his end showed the world that Formula One was his Alpha and Omega; his beginning and his end.