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The True Champion

Being second is to be the first of the ones who lose

My first post on Formula 1 and I only find it befitting that it be dedicated to one of the greatest, nay greatest chap ever to get behind the wheel of a Formula 1 car – Ayrton Senna. Anybody even remotely interested in the sport has probably heard the name of the Brazilian who captured the attention and the hearts of everybody around the globe for ten eventful years that he drove at the highest level.

Had Ayrton Senna lived, he would have turned 50 this year. But as in life, he died on his own terms. When medical personnel from the GP transferred him to a hospital, he was declared dead.

Ayrton Senna was born on 21 March 1960 to a rich Brazilian landowner and began his driving career at a very young age with a 1HP kart. At the age of 13 he began racing karts competitively and won his first Kart World Championship in 1978. Successive wins in the next two years and runners-up finishes in the next two were enough to prompt a shift to England for single-seat racing. Facing pressure from his family to join the family business, Senna still tested for Formula Ford 2000 teams and in 1983, after two successful years at that level, he got his first opportunity at Formula 3 racing.

His exploits in the championship that year attracted attention from Formula 1 teams – Williams, McLaren, Brabham and Toleman all offered him test drives. His birthday gift for his 25th birthday was a chance to debut in Formula 1 at his home GP – the 1984 Brazilian GP. This was the flag-off to a storied career that would be brought to a sudden and abrupt halt almost 10 years later.

Senna earned his first points in his career’s second race itself and soon started moving up the classification tables race after race. Two podium finishes later he was signed on by the Lotus Racing Team for the next season. The alliance with Lotus got off with a bang when Senna won his second race of the season. Mixed fortunes followed with a couple of podium finishes and another race win but Senna had arrived on the big stage. He turned out lap times that were far lesser than his nearest rivals and was quickly proving that he was the quickest around the track and the only thing that stood between him and better result was an inadequate car. In 1987, Lotus Racing’s decision to go for the same Honda engines as used by Williams proved a blessing for Senna who developed a very close relationship with Honda. This paid off dividends when, at the end of the season, McLaren, also on Honda engines, picked up the young prodigy. However in his last year at Lotus, Senna won the first of his record six Monaco GPs.

In 1988, Senna joined McLaren to drive alongside first-driver and then double world champion Alain Prost. The foundation was laid for one of the fiercest rivalries ever in the history of the sport – a rivalry that only ended with Prost’s retirement from motor sport in 1993. The team however was very fruitful for McLaren as the two drivers among themselves won 15 of the 16 races in that season. More importantly, Senna won his first World Championship this year. The year 1989 brought with it increased intensity between Prost and Senna as the drivers raced against each other more often than against opposition drivers for the top spot. Prost’s settings provided him distinctive speed on straights but the more wily Brazilian used higher downforce settings that allowed him to go faster in corners – virtually flying through most of them. Both drivers went into the penultimate race of the season at Japan with the championship in the balance. Senna needed to win the race to stay in the hunt and when he attempted to overtake race leader Prost on the 47th lap the senior driver promptly closed the door on Senna. Not one to be easily shaken off, Senna tried again and on the last chicane of the lap Senna exploited his higher cornering speed to dive inside. In an attempt to shut this attempt again, Prost swerved to block the onslaught, in the process getting involved in a crash that took both the cars off the track and onto the chicane escape road. While Prost immediately unbuckled and walked off from his stalled car, Senna had the marshals push his car down the escape road and used the forward motion to restart his stalled engine. With a heavily damaged nose cone, Senna navigated around the temporary bollards before lamping back through almost a complete lap to his pit. He had his nose cone replaced and then came back out to overhaul race leader Alessandro Nanninni to win the race. He was however disqualified by race control for cutting through the chicane and this handed over the championship to Prost. At the end of the season, Prost, frustrated of racing with Senna, quit McLaren for Ferrari.

If at all, 1990 was even more eventful than the previous year. Previously team mates, Senna and Prost were now officially rivals and the rivalry heightened quickly as Senna raced to 6 wins in the first 11 races. Prost replied swiftly with 5 wins and the Championship again hung in the balance as both the drivers headed again to the penultimate race at Suzuka. This time, however, Prost needed to win this one. Senna qualified at pole position and Prost at P2 but the arrangement of the starting grid in Suzuka meant that Senna would start on the right side of the track while Prost in second would start from the left side on the racing line. Prost protested against this and wanted the pit positions to be changed suitably. Though the race marshals agreed to this, the decision was reversed by the then FIA President. Senna was furious and vowed that if Prost (starting second) got the advantage going into the first corner he would never make it through. As was expected, Prost got off the line and quickly headed to the first corner. And the mercurial Senna, true to his word, went for the racing line ignoring Prost and his car. At the entry of the turn as Senna tried to take the race line and Prost tried to turn in, both the cars got into a high speed collision that resulted in both cars skidding off the track onto the gravel and ominously close to the gravel. With Prost’s race finished, Senna clinched the championship that year. A furious Prost went on record to call Senna “a man without values” and said he had seriously considered retiring immediately after the incident.

A sorry performance from Ferrari in 1991 saw Senna clinch his third and last championship. The season also saw a changed Senna. He steered clear from controversies and went about the job of winning races with a dogged determination. Nigel Mansell in his Williams challenged Senna and one of the most memorable moments of the season was with both the drivers racing down the main straight during the Spanish GP at speeds exceeding 200mph with inches between the cars. In the British GP a different incident caught everybody’s attention. Senna’s car stalled on the final lap while Mansell drove to the victory. However, he did not leave Senna stranded out on the track instead pulling over in his victory lap and allowing Senna to ride the side pods of his Williams back to the pits. Senna also became a hero later on when he gifted a race win to his co-driver Bergher as a thank you for a fantastic season.

The year 1992 saw a dismal performance from Team McLaren as their cars failed to match the performance of the superior Williams machines. Though Senna won only three races he gave the year one of its most memorable moments. In the Belgian GP, Frenchman Erik Comas had a violent crash during practice session. With no concern for personal safety (or that of his fellow drivers 😉 ), Senna promptly parked his car in the middle of the track and sprinted across with oncoming traffic to reach Comas. He promptly hit the kill switch in the car to prevent a fire and then held Comas’ head in a stable position till medical help arrived probably saving the driver’s life and career in the process.

Next year, Senna again displayed his supreme human spirit. As luck would have it, again in the Belgian GP, Italian Alex Zanardi crashed his car during qualifying and again resulting in Senna executing a mid track sprint to reach the driver in trouble before any other medical help. On the professional front, however, McLaren went through another bad year failing to obtain the dominant Renault engines and as a result having to settle for the inferior Ford V8s. Senna managed to win his sixth and last Monaco GP and completed the season with McLaren but shifted to Williams for the next year. In the 1993 Australian GP, Senna showed exemplary sportsman’s spirit when he pulled long-time rival onto the top step of the podium for an embrace at the end of what was Prost’s final race.

At the prospect of having to again partner his long-time rival, Senna, Alain Prost left Williams with one year still remaining on the contract. With the ban on electronic driver aids coming in force, however, the double championship winning Williams car was in trouble and pre-season tests confirmed the worst fears that the car didn’t handle too well often showing a loose rear. Senna, however, took up the challenge but had a very poor start to the season not finishing in the first two races of the season.

The third race of the season was the San Marino GP slated to be held on 1 May 1994. The race weekend had an ominous start when Senna’s Brazilian protege, newcomer Rubens Barichello, crashed headlong at high speed into a tyre wall swallowing his tongue and fracturing his nose and arm. The next day, as though a harbinger of things to come, was even bleaker. Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger was driving in qualifying with a broken front wing and coming into a high speed corner, the wing broke off and went under his car. Ratzenberger failed to turn, instead crashing into the concrete retaining wall at nearly 200 mph. Ratzenberger was killed on the spot and his death caused all other drivers to reform the GP Drivers’ Association. Senna, as the seniormost driver, took the lead and promised the other drivers that he would work tirelessly towards better safety regulations. He started the race from his 65th pole position and immediately a starting line crash brought out the safety car. On lap 6, Senna’s considerably heavier car, bottomed out causing him to leave the track at over 300 km/h. The car understeered heavily before crashing into the concrete wall at almost 200 km/h. Senna remained motionless as medical teams rushed to his side. He was promptly evacuated by helicopter to a hospital but he had suffered grave head injuries and one of them proved fatal as he was declared dead in the hospital.

The world went into shock. The black weekend had claimed the lives of two race drivers, one of them no less than the great Ayrton Senna. Even in his death, an incident elevated him to a height which may be impossible for any to ever achieve. While investigating his car after the crash, authorities found in his car a furled Austrian flag. Senna had intended to unfurl the flag after winning the race in memory of compatriot Ratzenberger who had died the previous day. In Brazil, his death was a national tragedy. He was accorded a state funeral and the government declared a three day national mourning  in memory of Senna. His greatest rival, Prost, turned up to be one of the pall bearers at his funeral which was attended by noted Formula 1 personalities. Three million people turned up in the streets to bid their final farewell to the great man.

His legacy remains today in the form of the extensive safety norms that ensure the safety and security of all drivers as well as other people involved in the races. It is a fitting tribute that his is the last death behind the wheels of a Formula 1 car.

I am sure this post will not do justice to the greatness of this man. It is only effort to bring this to the attention of at least one person who didn’t know of the man and his legacy. My humble effort to introduce you to the one and only True Champion.

RIP Ayrton Senna. You shall be missed.

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

Categories: Formula One, Sports
  1. 30 July 2010 at 20:23 IST

    Hey, I can’t post any comment on this one. 😦 but please do visit me at the new site cybernag.in I miss your comments too!

    • 30 July 2010 at 20:27 IST

      Why can’t you post a comment?
      Btw saw the new site but couldn’t get around to posting comments…. and there is a WC2010 post also…. since i posted two writeups on subsequent days the 1st one got buried….

      • Nisha
        7 November 2010 at 02:10 IST

        Tooo goood,,:)

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