Let me put my cards on the table from the get go: as far as I’m concerned Ayrton Senna is the greatest racing driver of the modern era. Probably the greatest that ever lived, too, but how could I fairly make a valid judgement when there were so many before my time, which started in the early 80s.
How could I, in all conscience, compare him to Jim Clark, Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Jochen Rindt or Jackie Stewart ? Different cars, different eras, different demands. He was of their ilk or they of his, that’s for sure; a superlative athlete, ruthless racer, and highly intelligent individual.
The comparison with his contemporaries Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet and even the newcomer Michael Schumacher is entirely valid. Schumacher comes a tawdry second but I will cover that another time. The comparison with the rest is well documented. I find it frankly amazing anyone could rank Prost, for instance, above Senna, simply because he has more titles. Is a banana shake better just because it’s got more banana ? Or a crème brulee superior because a couple of extra vanilla pods slipped in ? It’s the taste, the mix, the complete concoction that counts. The result.
OK, I can’t claim any real knowledge of the man beyond working with him closely as his PR for a year at Lotus in 1987 and then interviewing him several times and watching him first hand thereafter as a Grand Prix reporter for the next seven years. But he has become an iconic figure, partially I believe, because he often did what he thought was right rather than what was popular. You could tell he cared. He really cared. And not just about growing his bank account or his win tally (but that too). He read the Bible, studied other religions, started a charity for destitute children in Brazil and stood up to be counted when something needed to be said.
On a trip to Scotland I came across his name in the visitor’s book at the Jim Clark museum. Apparently he had for driven hundreds of miles specifically for a children’s charity function (nothing to do with his sponsors) and then made an extra detour to the museum. On another occasion in his hotel suite in Adelaide after winning the world title he waved his arm expansively at the television and talked passionately about how motor racing was irrelevant compared to the horrible plight of so many children worldwide or the planet’s starving millions. He had great influence and he used it extensively.
Every race today bears the mark of Ayrton Senna because of his passionate fight with the, then, FIA President Jean Marie-Balestre to have the pole position changed from the inside of the track to the outside. He risked his life to push it through when he crashed with Prost intentionally at Suzuka to prove his point. The longer the driver has been in F1 the more heinous the crime, as far as I’m concerned. At the very least they could have questioned why other mechanics and engineers were risking their lives to get to the track even if their crew were fortunate enough to be in one of the hotels away from the trouble zones. Formula 1 has great power to do great good. And often does. That goes double for the privileged men in their racing machines. They can multiply a charities income purely by adding their name to the roll. And they often do.
Senna’s approach to his entire life is the reason his legacy burns so brightly this long after his death – not just because he could go around in circles faster than anyone else. The merchandising people tell me that year on year, no-one sells like Senna. Only Schumacher at his peak has sold more. Senna stood for something more than just being a superlative racing driver. The name is synonymous now with striving to be better, reaching for perfection. With passion and commitment he tried to improve the lot of all of humanity and today’s drivers could learn there is more to Formula 1 than just racing. The odd signature or charity run doesn’t really cut it. And, ashamed as I am to say it, I’m as guilty as anyone. It’s that old saying: it’s not what you do once in a while that counts. It’s what you do every day.
Senna is a blazing beacon in so many ways and I like to think that it’s not just because of the James Dean effect of his untimely demise at the height of his fame.
source | copyright © mirror.co.uk, by Byron Young