Ayrton Senna

Being Ayrton Senna 01
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It has a deeper meaning than similar driving ability or comparable speed. It means receiving a ticket to that exclusive circle of talented men who with their hands at the wheel are capable of going beyond the technical capabilities of their car. And it's a passport to an even more restricted group of drivers who fly in the face of danger because, in any given moment, danger is simply not an issue: thinking it about it just doesn't make any sense. Yet it's not just that. Being compared to Senna conjures up a feeling of something otherworldly. It suggests a certain kind of motivation, of going so fast, beyond every rational limit, that it can only be justified by some distant, hidden connection. 

Senna knew that the questions regarding some of his behaviour on the track were about more than his lap times. Asking him for an explanation for certain driving exploits came naturally. And he played with it: he would look you in the eye with that often-distant gaze and would answer with an almost embarrassed smile, as if to say:"How could I ever explain it to you?".

Right now, the ‘new Senna’ is Max Verstappen. The boy from the Red Bull team - whose talent became so apparent so quickly that he made his Grand Prix debut before he was old enough to have a driving licence – won in Spain at his first race with Red Bull, finished the 2016 World Championship with an incredible performance in Brazil on a wet track, and has been pushing the limits ever since in 2017, despite some very bad mechanical luck.

But let's leave Max Verstappen in peace for now: he's still very young, with the whole world ahead of him, and he will write his own story. Let's get back to Senna. Why him? Why, when the history of Formula 1 racing is packed with great personalities and high speed drivers, is this Brazilian champion, 23 years after his decision to join Williams and his death, still stuck in the head of motor racing enthusiasts? The answer, very briefly, and simply: because he didn't want to race, he had to race. He didn't want to win, he had to win. Since he was a boy, his entire personality was consumed by this single objective. Starting with karting where, like most drivers, he gained his first track experience, soon winning at every level. He passed through the pre-Formula 1 junior formulae before making his F1 debut in a Toleman in 1984. Though the car was hardly a bolt of lightning, Senna pulled off a near miracle at Monaco, gaining several seconds a lap on Alain Prost, who had dominated the season with McLaren. It needed a chequered flag unveiled early by an over-zealous race director, to rob him of a victory that would have immediately catapulted him into the history books.

Anyway, that podium in the Monaco Grand Prix, the way he interpreted the Nouvelle Chicane at best, made of the Brazilian an instant hero for all the F1 fans.

Being Ayron Senna 02

Senna had begun a special relationship with the rain and with Monaco. With wet asphalt, it was simply a question of training: the young Ayrton felt weaker driving on water and so began a special programme of study which would result, a few years down the line, in him becoming the absolute master of these conditions. With Monaco, it was simply a question of feeling. At the risk of sounding clichéd, in Monaco the circuit and the casino obey the same rule: odds or evens, red or black, fortune or disaster. As far as racing goes, with the guard-rails that line the track on either side, the difference lies between brushing past them and slamming into them. Senna leaned into them. He used them as a measure of containment, touching them just enough to not cause any mechanical damage while leaving not a single millimetre of the track unexplored. For Senna, that alley between the barriers became a blind tunnel: inside, marking time; outside, the world – which at that moment had absolutely no interest whatsoever. A piece of film recorded in the cockpit of his McLaren in qualifying in 1989 provides further insight. It's still available on YouTube: it would appear to be on fast forward, except for his right hand, which switches constantly from the steering wheel to the gear stick, making you realise that the speed of everything is insane, but very real. "From the box they were telling me to slow down, that I already had pole," Senna explained. "But for me that was impossible: I could only keep going, corner after corner, gear change after gear change. I felt I was getting faster and faster and I couldn't stop myself..."

Senna was possessed by speed. Before going against the other drivers, before winning and getting pole position, first he had to challenge himself. A personal confrontation with the very idea of speed, with its rational limits. Limits to be conquered, regardless of what he found in his way. Such as Alain Prost, coldly hit by Senna at the first corner at Suzuka during the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix in order to make mathematically certain that the Brazilian would be world champion (he admitted it a year later). A decision, he confessed in a whisper to a group of stunned journalists, which had been authorised by God. 

One year later, Senna’s victory in the famous 1991 Brazilian grand prix of Interlagos, in front of Prost on a Ferrari, led him and his Mclaren to the championship title and to the history books of Formula 1, making of him and the race itself, a legend.

The three-time champion, one of the fastest drivers ever seen in a cockpit, won his last title in that year, 1991, and left us as a successful champion, and a symbol of sports in general.

In 1994, in Imola, behind the wheel of a Williams, after starting first from the grid and after three deadly accidents during the weekend (in which even some fans were wounded), happened the accident that ended his glorious career of races and victories.

McLaren, in 2018, to commemorate its legendary driver and the three titles won with the house of Woking, produced a supercar named after him, the McLaren Senna.

That's why being like Senna means more, much more than being fast or even super-fast. Being like Senna is a question of spirit. Of madness and genius. Of a dimension beyond our understanding.

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