Today, March 21, marks what would be Ayrton Senna’s 54th birthday.
Born in a neighbourhood of Sao Paulo, Ayrton showed a flair for racing from an early age. Like most Formula One drivers he started in go-kart racing. At the tender age of 13 he won the South America Kart Championship.
Ayrton Senna started single seater racing in Britain in 1981. He was offered a drive and £10,000 for his second season in 1982. At this stage he was already back in Brazil having ‘retired’ from racing, to continue with his family’s business at home. He won the Ford 2000 British and European Championships, which propelled him to Formula 3 for the ’83 season.
After failing to secure a seat from several teams for the Formula One season in 1984, Senna signed for the new Toleman team. He secured three podiums in his debut season.
His rise to the top was nothing short of meteoric. Coming from a privileged background Senna was rarely in need of anything, but a desire to be the best was what drove him. He was incredibly intelligent and immeasurably competitive. After winning an exhibition race at the Nurnburgring in 1984 in an identical car to Niki Lauda, he was quoted as saying: “Now I know I can do it.”
He delivered his three World Championships in 1988, 1990 and 1991. He could have won the 1989 World Championship but was taken out by Alain Prost at the Suzuka Chicane. Senna exacted revenge the following year by taking out Prost in the first corner of the same track and clinched the title. These two events are only small reminders of one of the greatest rivalries in sport history.
What made Senna Special?
The thing that differentiated Senna from ever other driver was his intense passion. A passion that would see him strive to be better, faster, stronger. A passion which ultimately led to his untimely death at Imola in ’94. When he drove, he drove like a man possessed. Some people thought he was possessed by demons behind the wheel. The other drivers were fearful of his life. They guessed that wining was more important than living to him – he pushed his limits beyond what anybody could ever imagine. A testament to this was his pole position at Monaco in ’88. Already on pole position he pushed further and further. Suddenly staring in to the abyss, he saw himself looking back. He ended up a monumental two seconds faster than rival Alain Prost in an identical McLaren.
“Suddenly, it frightened me, because I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding. I drove back slowly to the pits and did not go out anymore that day.”
Apart from being phenomenally talented, he was compelling to listen to. When he spoke, every time he opened his mouth a soliloquy would sound. He saw racing as a metaphor for life. He was unwavering in his awareness of his own morality, and used fear as a method of control his boundaries.
“For me, this research is fascinating. Every time I push, I find something more, again and again. But there is a contradiction. The same moment that you become the fastest, you are enormously fragile. Because in a split-second, it can be gone. All of it. These two extremes contribute to knowing yourself, deeper and deeper.”
Clearly we can see the enormous genius behind the man. He was as talented with words as he was behind the wheel – but his generosity was unmatched. He saw a vision for a better Brazil where people lived not in poverty, but able to fend f
or themselves comfortably. He was a strong advocate of charity and donated an estimated $400 million when he died to help fund a better future for the underprivileged of Brazil.
When he died he received a state funeral in Brazil. Millions turned out to send off the great ambassador of life. Such was his popularity that the country went in to three days of mourning. The scenes of mourning are shown in the fantastic documentary ‘Senna’, in which I challenge anybody to watch and hold back the tears.
The streets of Sao Paulo during Ayrton Senna’s funeral procession.
In an age where public relations is as important as the lap times you set, this is a salute to the man who tore up the rule book, spoke from the heart, earning a mythological status in F1 and drove with one ambition in mind: to win.
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.”
Ayrton Senna (1960-1994)