Sunday, March 25, 2012

Remembering Ayrton Senna

An astounding fact about the current Formula One season is that six erstwhile world champions (Vettel, Button, Hamilton, Alonso, Raikkonen and Schumacher) would be racing together aiming for a top finish. This has never happened before in the history of Formula One. Well, not for argument sake but for mere fascination, the six champion drivers were posed a question - Who is the best driver to have donned the racing gear ever? Most and even the great Michael Schumacher had the name of irrepressible and street smart - Ayrton Senna on their lips. With 80 podium finishes, 41 wins and 162 races – the three time world champion stands tall amidst many could-have-been best-drivers to have raced so far. Moreover, to the aficionados as well as the armchair enthusiasts, Senna simply provided the joy of watching Formula One.

The best of all times

What are the ingredients of a best driver in Formula One? The answer to the question is probably someone who is very quick; one who has a superb control over his car and of course the number of titles he has won. As far as Speed is concerned, Senna proved umpteen times that he was a better driver then others in spite of riding a car with similar or better features then his own. In one of the races at Monaco, Senna simply kept going faster even after knowing he was on pole. He confessed he was riding into the unknown and a sudden fright slowed him down. Secondly, when it came to driving in difficult conditions, his control was second to none. His best race perhaps was the wet race at Monaco in which he drove with superb control and even though he finished second, it was evident that the result was tilted in Prost’s favor as an act of favoritism. And the three titles he won were against the best drivers like Prost, Mansell, Hakkinen etc. at that point in time. In addition to the above variables, he was a wonderful human being as well. Driving to him was a personal voyage to discovering self and he put his soul in driving as if he was beseeching himself. Once he was 16th on the grid and later made a spectacular recovery to win the race. He later claimed to have a soul stirring experience of watching God. Such claims were ridiculed by many. However, with an uncompromising pursuit of victory, he simply raised the bar every time to stamp his authority of being the best ever.

A trip back to time

Senna made his debut with Toleman in 1984 where he won few and lost few but the mind of his was always above the difficult calculations of the sport he was in. His stretched ambitions brought him to Mclaren in 1988. This move brought him along side Alain Prost, his long time rival. One of the abilities of world beaters is to remain cool and calm under pressure. In the F1 world, Michael Schumacher is such cool head. But Senna was the opposite. He let out his fury on his opponents because to him winning was everything. He always said – I am not designed to come second or third. I am not designed to win. Such a statement tells us that he was a bit arrogant. There was absolutely no reason for him to do that, but sport produces such characters. And then it sets an example to tell others such behavior is justified. Hence when it came to conducting self, the resemblance between Schumacher and Senna was quite apparent.

Senna Vs Prost

Intrinsic to my visualization, Alain Prost – nicknamed The Professor always had his pockets full of accolades for his driving abilities. He is third only on the list of most number of titles but does not find his mention in the list of the ‘All time great drivers’. While Senna was quite the chauvinist, Prost had a powerful presence on the track. But, to Senna life beyond a podium finish was of no value and in his corner stood perseverance, aggression and dignity. On skill and ability alone, Senna and Prost were equal, but Senna was determined and tenacious too. Prost was aggressive and on a few occasions he let it out on his rivals after the race. Senna, on the other hand had an elusive quality to release the aggression only when it required during the race. While Prost accused the Brazilian of caring more than living, Senna simply enchanted and entertained.

Off the track

Senna was proud to be a Brazilian. After each win, he would take a lap of honor waving the Brazilian flag. He loved children and his heart went out to the destitute children of his country. He donated millions to their well being. In a charity event, he was once asked why he chose Malboro as his sponsors. Senna remained quiet for a moment and later said that he was being paid a lot by the tobacco manufacturers with which he can help a large number of children in Brazil. Such incidents thus prove that he was the best not only when seated in the car but off it as well. Apart of being a compassionate human being, one of the key variables to his personality was his attitude. Unlike Prost, he forged relationships. Taking a cue from Jackie Stewart’s efforts to make Formula One safer, Senna in 1994, took an initiative to form the Grand Prix Association of Drivers which would strive to improve safety in the Formula One. He didn’t live to do that, however such acts made him timeless.

1994 and the death of Ayrton Senna

The year 1994 saw the retirement of Alain Prost and emergence of another phenomenon named Michael Schumacher. That year, Senna lost the first two races to the new kid on the circuit. Later at Imola, there were omens for him to see which of course he ignored. At the qualifying, Rubens Barrichello’s Jordan was air bound but he miraculously escaped only with minor injuries. The next day Roland Ratzenberger – an Austrian rookie was killed in a devastating accident. It not only bruised Senna’s concentration but also moved the ones close to him. The incident made him restless. Thoughts of quitting the sport began crossing his mind. He, by now was already a three time champion and was looked upon as the best. His decision to not to quit the Formula One arena, can perhaps be summarized in the words of the great English mountaineer George Mallory. Mallory when asked about why he kept climbing the Mount Everest again and again famously said – Because it’s there. Unlike the hackneyed, adventure is synonym with Formula one too. Both the sport itself and risks go hand in hand. Senna probably found the rewards too intriguing perhaps as identical as his needs to drive past his own barriers. And moreover there was the quest of a landmark, a curiosity of going into the unknown. Warding off the inevitability, Senna decided to concentrate on the race.

The race began with great trepidation and was completely doomed. JJ Lehto's crashed his Benetton into Pedro Lamy’s Lotus at a full speed bringing the safety cars on the track. Once they dispersed, Senna took off with Schumacher closing on his heels. A little later, his car was thrown into an upheaval and off the Imola track to hit a concrete wall at the Tamburello corner. He was air lifted to the hospital and later he was declared dead. The entire F1community was plunged in deep mourning. There was a deafening quietness around. The fans as well as the organizers rubbed their eyes in disbelief and were aggrieved. The stewards, from the debris of Senna’s car, found out an Austrian flag, which Senna wished to wave at the podium in memory of Ratzenberg. Time stood still and Formula One shed a tear for its favorite son.

Senna once announced with finality “I want to live fully, very intensely. I would never want to live partially, suffering from illness or injury. If I ever happen to have an accident that eventually costs my life, I hope it happens in one instant”. Unbelievable but true! fter Senna’s death, the FIA had no option but to acquiesce on improving the safety standards. Since then there have only been minor skirmishes. Senna, fortunately or unfortunately remains the last driver to die on a Formula One track. He however is not dead, but is living in his deeds.