Essay: On the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of Senna’s Death
It’s an easy sell to get motorsport fans to watch Senna, but it’s the remaining population I want to convince to watch the biopic, twenty-five years after his death at Imola, Italy. It is a movie that applies to everyone in the classic underdog – who happens to be incredible at racing – battling the establishment for supremacy. As the movie progresses a hint emerges about Senna’s fate that may have slipped by. Specifically, my competitive cycling audience owes it to themselves to follow Senna’s struggle. And it finishes itself off with a move only Senna was capable of.
I admit I have vague memories of Ayrton Senna, the charismatic Brazilian Formula One driver who shook up the FIA organization by simply being incredible. I also remember the phone call from my dad, a time when I was away at school, to tell me Ayrton Senna had died. Regrettably I remember responding with something less than respectable. If I am correct, I received his call amidst a cold, rainy day in Upstate New York. It was May 1. It all made sense. I associate Formula One with dark early mornings, coming downstairs only to find my dad awake drinking robusto coffee, watching and listening to the live coverage of Formula One on ESPN. When he called that day, he was probably looking for someone to break news to, and I’m sure I let him down. This was the pre-internet days.
Ayrton Senna could drive the hell out of a racecar. He immediately made the move from go-karts to a Formula One team. Despite driving an also-ran car, he piloted it to victory in the principality of Monaco, a course that would become synonymous with Senna. The next year he moved to Lotus where he installed fear into the grid by driving a car visibly at its limit. Racing’s next savior had arrived and many recognized it. Not all were welcoming though of this South American disrupting a purely European establishment.
Shortly after his stint at Lotus, his career took off piloting a beastly McLaren. Also launching was his career-long super feud with Alain Prost, a French champion who wasn’t looking for new friends. Their antics on track led to three crashes in three separate years that eliminated the other. Curious side note: each crash led to one of them getting the championship. They were willing to crash each other out for the ultimate trophy. Senna was a purist driver, but he still wanted to win. As Alain Prost once said of Senna, “He never wanted to beat me, he wanted to humiliate me. He wanted to show the people he was much better.”
As the movie progresses an uneasiness settles in for both the audience and Senna. We know how this ends, but does Senna know too? Either the producers provide a level of suggestion or Senna knew his demise was approaching. At a certain point we want to hold on to each Senna moment as that fateful weekend at Imola approaches. We so badly want Ayrton to heed Dr. Sid Watkins recommendation. Experienced Ayrton Senna de Silva got into his Williams and proceeded to race into eternity.
Interviews with Ayrton Senna are full of quotables solidifying his precise approach to racing. He was never satisfied with anything less than winning, and when winning he demanded to be celestial and otherworldly. This is the personality competitive people can recognize. This specimen of a competitor demanded perfection of him and expected everyone else to do his or her job. That was the void that was left when he died. Here is where the cycling connection is made.
I have often found inspiration in Senna’s words for numerous expectations across life. His words ring true in tough times and in searching times. I watched Sennadirectly after the loss of a close loved one and it put things in perspective. I don’t know why I gravitated toward it at that time, but I did. Twenty-five years after his loss, I still find inspiration in his quotes to consider rejoining the racing field. It is his ‘dare to knock me down’ mentality that we aspire to. Who doesn’t want to be the perfect world champion?
The part that sticks with me most is the movie’s final maneuvering of an interview, the same interview that starts the movie. It is wonderfully located at the end, after the shock of Senna’s death, which hints at a sort of posthumous interview to give us closure. Ayrton Senna has clearly been asked who he enjoys racing against the most. It is a loaded question. Friends and foes alike geared up to accept his nomination. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see one or more presumptuous drivers start walking up to the microphone, grinning at being named by the world’s greatest driver’s challenger. But in true Senna fashion, he throws an obscure name to the press that sends them scrambling. The European fraternity had denied Senna so much; he was going to deny them much more.
Senna’s most enduring quote is one that applies to cyclists most. After being pressed by former world champion Jackie Stewart for his propensity to crash out other drivers, Senna finally snapped back, “…if you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver.” I hardly need to translate that for the criterium and track racers reading. Maybe Ayrton Senna has inspired another person?