I’m not going to regurgitate the same tales and facts that every dedicated motor racing publication worth its salt has displayed leading up to today, they’ll be nothing new to you, and if they are you probably aren’t interested anyway and have moved on to a cookery website or blog about knitting by now.
What I will do, on this, the 20th anniversary of Ayrton Senna’s death is explain what he means to me, a simple fan who was barely four year-old when the world champion hit that wall at Imola on Sunday May 1st 1994, for the emotions surrounding Senna can be quite personal and revealing…
Twelve years after that black weekend, a month before my twelfth birthday, having shown the slightest interest in Formula One, my uncle woke me from a slumber shortly before 2am to watch the 2002 Australian Grand Prix, the first of the season and the first I would come to watch in its entirety.
Within moments of the start I was hooked; the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end and I daren’t blink through fear of missing even the slightest moment. That afternoon whilst eating one of the worst roast dinners of my life, I pestered my uncle for more information about this sport that had so comprehensibly captured my imagination. Between tentative bites of cold vegetables and over-cooked meat, he explained some of the rules and details of the cars. But it was the drivers I was interested in; who were those miraculous sportsmen who could tame such powerful machines?
Michael Schumacher was the undisputed King of the era but David Coulthard and Jenson Button held British hopes. I was an instant Mark Webber fan for he had hustled a Minardi to fifth place on his GP debut that day and I was enthralled by the ensuing celebrations.
It wasn’t until much later that I began to research and learn of previous generations of grand prix drivers, finding an instant fondness for Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio and later, Graham Hill and Gilles Villeneuve. Then, with the discovery of one name I felt that same feeling I had had when watching my first grand prix – hairs stood on end and blinking seemed impossible; just from reading one name I became gripped; there was an inexplicable connection between my new-found passion for motor racing and this one name: Senna.
Even now, seeing it there, typed by my own hand it has the same effect. And before I knew anything of the man other than his name, something told me he was special.
With further research it wasn’t long before I discovered just how special, how important Ayrton Senna from Brazil was to Formula One, how spectacular he was, how intense, respected, idolised and successful. That drive at Monaco 1984 in torrential rain! That first win in similar conditions at Estoril a year later! The bitter Prost/Senna rivalry! The 3 World Championships! The controversy, the crash, his death. All of it built the undisputed legend that is Ayrton Senna, the man whose mere name sparks within me that feeling of unbridled excitement of watching my first Grand Prix, the moment that sparked my passion. For me, Senna personified what it was I loved about the sport.
I loved the speed, the intensity, the fact that it all seemed so distant from anything I had encountered before; the money, colour and noise all seemed so other-worldly, mysterious even. And now I had discovered a man within that world that fit the bill too.
I watched for countless days that yellow helmet bobble from the cockpit of a Toleman, Lotus, McLaren or a Williams, eyes fixated on the archive footage afforded by YouTube and the like. Never once fearing that I might come to idolise him too much and become blind to his flaws.
I know now that the line between confidence and arrogance was often blurred, that his intensity often sparked flames between himself and others and that his fierce belief in God allowed him to be misunderstood and perhaps misguided. But flaws in his genius only add to the intrigue.
Then there’s the film, where new discoveries were made. The unseen footage, interviews and quotes all building to the end; Sunday May 1st 1994.
Without an ounce of shame I admit to shedding a tear, despite knowing already how the film would end, such was the remarkable way Senna was portrayed. I admit too to rarely blinking throughout and noticing every hair stood on end, doing little to mask goosebumps. When the Williams crunched the concrete wall at the infamous Tamburello corner and that yellow helmet bobbled for the last time, I felt a shudder ascend my spine. I blinked and relaxed, goosebumps gone and hair settled as if part of my passion had left me, the same feeling I had when that first race in 2002 ended.
Shortly after I gasped at the sight of the 3 million people who attended Senna’s funeral his name flashed up on screen, the goosebumps returned and the spark was back. For me, figuratively, Senna is still very much alive.
I never met Ayrton Senna, never saw him race and only became aware of him and his story 12 years after his death, yet still his name can ignite such strong emotions, in part due to his extraordinary talent behind the wheel of a racing car and partially because of his enigmatic persona, that intensity and intrigue. Others my age and younger will feel the same way; such is his legacy and reputation that he still inspires generations only just discovering his name: Senna.