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Wednesday, 29 December 2010

A tribute to Ayrton Senna

My thoughts entirely with this name today. After a certain documentary I watched last night.


I had heard a lot about him. How he would have gone on to become the greatest ever in the blitzkrieg world of formula 1 had destiny been but a bit more rewarding. Little did I know that well before the disaster at Imola which claimed his life, Ayrton Senna had established his name as the greatest already.

He didn't have the statistics on paper. He had raced for 10 years and had won 3 championships. Juan Maunel Fangio (with 5) and later on, Michael Schumacher (with 7) would go on to become the greatest F-1 racer of all time, but the ones who know the sport, tell a different story.

Ayrton Senna's greatness laid, not on paper, but on the sheer way he drove. Formula One experts including Schumacher himself have openly admitted that a driver like Senna, has not, does not and will not exist in motor-sport history.

The documentary I saw yesterday was all about what exactly made him all that great. Martin Brundle, an F-1 great, who had raced alongside this genius went into details about his driving style which he considered would give enough reasons to consider him the "ultimate driver's driver".

Speed
Senna was not just a fast driver. He was just the fastest driver one could race against. While others would set lap-records and fastest times with a margin of a few tenths of a second from the existing record, Senna would settle for no less than a whole second or at least three-quarters of second. "He had this God gifted talent," as Brundle put it, "a sixth sense, which gave him full knowledge of where in the track the grip would be before he went into a corner. The moment you see him do a lap, you're bound to say, "I can't do that." As simple as that." He was known to drive completely on the limit and set some of the most blistering lap times in his ten year career. "He used to emerge out of corners and overtake a whole lot of other drivers with the most consummate ease. Other drivers wouldn't even have him in their mirrors a few seconds back, but suddenly .. poof! He's gone past them." The fact that he won 65 pole positions in 162 races when pitched against Schumacher's 68 pole-positions in 269 races more than cements him as the speed overlord. His qualifying greatness reached it's epitome in Monaco 1988, when he out-qualified his arch-rival and team mate Alain Prost by a staggering 1.5 seconds. Brundle recollects that "Nobody in the end wanted to spoil Senna's pole lap. When the day-glow McLaren and the very bright helmet of Ayrton Senna would come through, we'd literally jump out of the way. You didn't one to be the one who'd blown the lap of the one everybody was talking about, the lap that entire Grand Prix venue was looking forward to."

Senna in his epic McLaren in Canada 1988

Attention to detail
It wasn't just speed that made Senna what he was. As David Coulthard, yet another F-1 legend who started off as Senna's test-driver recollects his dedication."A certain test session when he (Senna) had tweaked his neck, and that was it. Test was over that day but as far as he was concerned, "I recommend the following day" and he was there the following day! In the morning I thought that ... OK .. he must have made a miraculous recovery ... but no, he was just there to listen to what I was telling the engineers. So that he could trust my feedback." I mean other people whom I've been test driver for would just listen to the lap-times and bugger off to the golf course!"

Ruthlessness
one of the numerous corners Senna (in the red and white McLaren) aced
Yet another and one of his best wielded weapons, was his utter ruthlessness. As Brundle explains, Senna would often put them (his rivals) in a position where you'd have an accident and he would leave it up to you to decide whether you wanted it or not. If you let him through, you wouldn't have the accident, if you did not, you would. During a certain Formula 3 race, Brundle says, "he suddenly came up from behind me and before I knew it, his car was upon mine." He would always put his rivals in a compromising position at every corner, and wage this psychological warfare every single time. You would either run into him, which would mean, your race is over, or you would lose this mind game. And   if you did run into him, he would ensure that the next time such a scenario repeated you would jump out of his way. He was easily the toughest driver, and the most ferocious driver to protect his area of space. His ruthlessness and will to win reached the peak in the Japanese Grand Prix of 1990, when he would emerge world champion of the season provided his arch-rival Alain Prost (now racing for Ferrari) failed to finish the race. This makes for a throughly gripping tale.

Senna and Prost were 1-2 on the starting grid respectively. Senna's McLaren however was on the dirtier side of the track and despite his asking the officials to change the side they hadn't. No sooner had the race been flagged off than Prost's scarlet Ferrari took lead ahead of Senna's McLaren. And for Senna to win the world-title, Prost would have to not finish the race.

Barely had ten seconds gone when the first corner came up. And Prost went into the corner ahead of Senna. But Senna accelerated through the corner reaching a speed of 270 kilometres an hour, without even bothering to brake, as the gap between his and Prost's car disappeared. Suddenly Senna's front left tire had hit Prost's rear end. And Prost's rear wing fell off as both cars skidded off into the turf.

In the very first corner of the very first lap Senna thus made sure that Prost indeed failed to finish and secured the world title for himself.


Senna's McLaren hits Prost's Ferrari
and the state a few seconds after ... Senna, secured with his Championship title
Prost was so disgusted with the turn of events that he publicly slammed Senna's tactics and even considered retiring from F-1. After the crash Senna however showed absolutely no remorse for what he done. "When there is a gap," Senna said later, "you either permit yourself as a professional racing driver who is designed to win races, or you come second or you come third or you come fifth. And I am not designed to come third, fourth or fifth. I race to win."

Senna's aggressiveness; his ruthlessness can be well summed up in his own words. "If you no longer go for a gap which doesn't exist ... well, you are no longer a racing driver."

Strangely however, Senna had a heart of gold. A devout Christian he was capable of incredible compassion. When in Spa 1992 his rival Érik Comas had a fatal crash, Senna stopped his car, leapt out, stopped Comas' engine and held his head in a comfortable position before doctors arrived. An incident which made Comas retire from F-1 after his inability to help Senna after his life claiming crash.

Senna parks his car and runs to help Erik Comas
This paradox in Senna's behavior shows that he was an incredible human being. He would donate for his  poor children in his country Brazil. he would help his rivals out of difficult situations. He was morally broken when Ratenberger died the night before he died. But then it was the same Ayrton Senna who would crash Prost's car out of a race, putting both their lives at risk.

The Wet Weather Master
What really set apart Senna, all the more from other F-1 drivers was his driving wizardry when it rained. Referred to as "the Wet Weather Master" by commentators, his driving prowess would really come in the limelight in such circumstances.
Senna mastered the art of wet-weather driving
Donnington Park, 1993. The track was wet and it was drizzling. Senna was having trouble keeping up in his inferior McLaren from the beginning. He had dropped to fifth position when a new lap had begun, behind the likes of Michael Schumacher, Damon Hill and Alain Prost. A couple of corners later, he had muscled his way to third. And yet another couple of corners later Alain Prost was eating his tire marks and Senna was leading the race, which he went on to win. This historic lap, which saw Senna taking the lead within a half of a lap of running fifth, established him as an all time great wet weather driver. After the race he said that the driving pressure in such conditions is tremendous and it's like gambling; taking chances where it might pay off. And that his team gambled well that day.

The cars back then
Senna gambled. Senna gambled in cars which were like untamed wild beasts. Racing regulations weren't as stringent then as they are today, and Senna belonged to the era of F-1 when cars had turbochargers (needless to say, they are illegal in F-1 now); he belonged to the age of Formula -1 when cars produced 1200 horsepower, which was a mind-boggling 450 more than an F-1 car of today. Inferior aerodynamics back then, as compared to today, ensured that cars had a lot less down-force and was at higher risks of flying off. Also safety levels were far worse which made Senna's job all the more difficult.
Senna's epic McLaren Honda MP-4/4 :
the machine in which he won eight races in one season
and his first world championship title
Yet Senna aced. He drove on the edge without a care in the world. He drove to win. Which he did. And would have won more had he been luckier.

Imola, San Marino 1994.

An event already riddled by disasters. Ratenberger's death the night before the final race had shaken the entire F-1 community. The night before that, a serious accident involving Senna's protégé, Rubens Barichello had broken Senna down, all the more. The final race as well, was plagued by misfortune. It was interrupted in the very beginning when J J Lehtto's Benetton-Ford had stalled, and Pedro Lammy's Lotus-Mugen Honda had rammed into his rear at nearly full speed. A wheel tore off and flew into the grandstands, injuring eight spectators and a police officer. The race went into yellow flag, and the safety car, which was on Opel Vectra for that year, was deployed. The slow pace maintained by the Vectra was later questioned and suspected for the lower-than-normal tire pressure in the race cars.

When the race restarted, Senna immediately shot off and set the third-fastest lap of the race, followed closely by Schumacher. In the next lap, as Senna approached the super-fast Tamburello corner, his car left the track ...

That would go down in his history as the last corner he ever took, and the first one, he never came out of. Alive.

... his Williams ploughed into the concrete wall in excess of 215 kilometres an hour.

His right front wheel had broken off and shot through into his cockpit, hitting his helmet and pushing his head against his head rest. A piece of upright, attached to the wheel had penetrated his helmet made a big indent in his forehead, and a jagged piece of the upright had penetrated his visor just above his right eye.

He died almost immediately owing to fatal skull fracture. Track officials, upon investigation found a furled Austrian flag in his cockpit, which he had planned on unfurling and waving in honour of Ratenberger in the event of his winning the race.

Senna's Williams at the moment of impact
The cause of his accident, as later revealed was steering column failure which had resulted in this fatal under-steer (what happens when you turn your steering wheel, but the wheels don't turn). Patrick Head, of team Williams, who had been responsible for the "bad-design and badly executed modifications" of Senna's steering column, was proven guilty of omitted control by the Italian Court of Appeal on 13th April 2007.

His death at Imola, San Marino was probably the greatest tragedy in the history of motor-sports. Brazil declared a national holiday in honour of their greatest sportsman and set aside three days for mourning. Three million people lined up to see his funeral march and offer salute to their hero.

Senna's funeral saw many F-1 greats participating.
Including his arch rivals Alain Prost and Damon Hill
His grave bears the epitaph "Nada pode me separar do amor de Deus" which means "Nothing can separate me from the love of God".

To you, Ayrton Senna. Never was. Never will be.

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