When you discuss the greats of Formula One; the legends that revolutionised the sport, all answers will have one name in common.
Ayrton Senna, the mercurial Brazilian, had his sights on racing since he was a mere four-year-old. At the age of 13, the young maestro won his first race and by the age of 17, he had won the South American Karting Championship.
A win at the 1983 British Formula Three Championship earned him tests with Williams, McLaren and Brabham. But it was the relatively small Toleman team that gained the services of Senna in 1984.
When Toleman entered their fourth season, yet to finish a race higher than fourth place, they had hopes that the 23-year-old Brazilian would work some magic. And soon, Senna proved why Williams and McLaren had made a mistake by not signing him.
Dreadful conditions at the Monaco Grand Prix were Senna’s true calling. He guided the agile TG184 Toleman at a soaking wet track and was significantly ahead of the pack. The race was red-flagged at the 75% mark, but it was enough for him to display his raw talent at the wheels and his ferocious attitude towards harsh conditions.
Senna finished with two podiums in the three races he competed in that season with Toleman, but soon he felt his ambitions lined up more with Lotus, who bought him off his contract the following season (1985). It was here that the brilliant Brazilian justified his talent.
It took Senna just two races to record his first win with the Formula One outfit. Portugal was the venue, and he once again proved how fearless he was in torrential conditions, winning the race by over a full minute. Seven poles that year made Senna the sport’s quickest man on the grid.
The reliability issues of Lotus and the efficiency of the Renault engine made Senna work harder for his finishes; but his time with the team soon came to an end after a mere two years as he was lured away by Mercedes.
McLaren now had two of the greatest drivers in the history of Formula One and perhaps the biggest rivalry in the sport to date — Senna was allied with Alain Prost, the former’s future archrival.
Prost, a two-time world champion by now, was the man to beat and the 1988 world championship showcased the utter dominance of McLaren. It was only Prost and Senna who were in contention throughout the season as the duo won 15 out of 16 races in total. But it was Senna who proved his mettle, emerging as the world champion in his debut season with McLaren; the highlight of his illustrious career.
It was not the Brazilian’s talent that made him a scary challenge for rivals; it was the sheer lack of respect for his own safety and the will to push the limits that made him the most famous man in Formula One history. Such was the case that Senna could never distinguish the line between fast and dangerous driving.
“I continuously go further and further learning about my own limitations, my body limitation, psychological limitations,” said the Brazilian. “It’s a way of life for me.”
The 1989 title defence was when the Prost-Senna rivalry heated up. A maneuvering clash with his teammate in Japan, which handed Prost the world title, and a feud with International Automobile Federation administrator Jean-Maire Balestre, added fuel to the fire.
After 12 months of gruelling encounters – call it revenge or a statement to Balestre – Senna drove Prost off at the first turn and succeeded in winning his second title in Japan. The 1990 crowning made Senna’s personality more controversial as Prost, signing for Ferrari, went berserk in the media and blamed the loss of a title entirely on Senna.
“What he did was disgusting,” said Prost after the incident. “He is a man without value.”
The year 1991 was a little less controversial as Nigel Mansell’s Williams was the only answer to Senna’s dominance. But even the legendary Brit could not match up to the Brazilian as Senna recorded his third and final world championship title. But Williams was on the ascendancy and the next season saw Senna struggle to find a grip on his McLaren.
A move to Williams was ideal for Senna, but a clause in Prost’s contract made it impossible for the Brazilian to join his archrival. Calling Prost a coward, Senna had no choice but to race with McLaren and another season saw him come second to his main challenger. It was about this time that one of the most successful drivers emerged in a Benetton.
Michael Schumacher’s career started with outfoxing Senna and the Brazilian was fading into the veterans category with little or no results. The 1994 season saw Prost promptly retiring and Schumacher dominating at the helm. Senna didn’t quit trailing behind Schumacher’s car and then, at Imola, Senna led Schumacher at the early stages. He pushed hard at the corners and as he took the Tamburello corner in the second lap, the car veered right and hit a concrete wall.
The world was shocked as perhaps the most fearsome driver in Formula One history took his final breath at a racing track. Senna and his fans always had the feeling that it was inevitable; the Brazilian was too unrestricted to care for his safety and it’s what killed him.
Twenty years later, and the legend of the Ayrton Senna is still fresh in the hearts of the Formula One fan-base.
‘The fastest driver to have ever lived’ became a revolutionary figure. Even his death had a positive impact on the sport as modern safety regulations were a consequence of the sport’s prodigal child taking his final breath doing what he was known for; being the hot-blooded coyote who ran rampant on the circuit.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 20th, 2014.
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