AYRTON SENNA: A REAL MODERN HERO
by Maximiliano Catania/FUNO
Buenos Aires (AR), 21 Mar 2004
Ayrton Senna da Silva was born on March 21, 1960 in São Paulo (Brazil). He is regarded as one of the best racing drivers of all time. He had a whole life into motorsport, he conquered the support from people and he was respected by Formula 1 pundits. He had a gift for driving in easy way and for being the best everywhere. His charming, young smile made of him a real modern hero...
Ayrton's story about his romance with cars brings us back to his childhood, when his father - a rich businessman and landowner - built a little go-kart for him at home. Then, Ayrton's mobility-related problems seemed to disappear for sake so he could get in motorsport world. Supported by his father, he took part of a Brazilian Karting Championship race in 1973, and he did not delay so much on proving his driving skills: he managed to first-ever win on July 1, at Interlagos.
Being South-American Karting champion and World Karting vice-champion in 1980, Senna went from Brazil to Europe, where major Formulae had reserved a place for him. Ayrton got a deal to drive a Van Diemen of British FFord 1600 (1981) thanks to his father's backing. He crowned as champion in his maiden season. Then, he was champion of both British and European FFord 2000 categories scoring hat-tricks with marvellous simplicity. Next step of his career was that of British Formula 3 (1983); there were exciting racing duels with Martin Brundle, and Senna drove his Ralt-Toyota to another clear championship win. After his win in F3 Macau GP, Senna was asked by Frank Williams to test an F1 car. He then tested other machines, such as McLaren and Brabham, but his entrance to Formula One (1984) was by driving for humble team Toleman.
Rio Jacarepaguá circuit, at his home Brazil, was the place of Ayrton's first F1 race. It was not a good start: he started from the last tiers, and had an early retirement due to the turbo-related problems of his Hart engine. Nevertheless, he did not give up. Couple of weeks later, at South Africa, he had a similar performance in qualifying but he scored his first one single point by placing his Toleman number 19 in sixth position. Mid-season highlight by Senna (2nd) in rainy Monaco GP would be his first F1 podium, alongside Alain Prost (1st). That race would be discussed from then on because of being stopped very soon. Ninth in the championship at the end of season, Ayrton was recruited by Team Lotus to drive with Italian Elio de Angelis.
Ayrton, in his second GP for the British team, got his first ever F1 win, at rainy Estoril (Portugal), with a one-minute gap over Michele Alboreto (2nd). Brazilian driver returned to win later on in Belgium GP, closing the year with two wins and seven pole positions.
Next year, car racing pundits already considered Senna as one of the best four drivers of that time, alongside Alain Prost, Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell. His breathtaking win in Spain against Mansell would prove that Senna's inclusion into top-four was not a mere fact.
In 1987, Lotus would be powered by Honda (during 1985 and 1986 engines were by Renault) and Ayrton got the first of six wins at Monte Carlo; he saluted to mechanics euphorically and then on the podium he threw champagne to the Royal Family. At the end of season, Ron Dennis announced, that Senna was contracted by McLaren to team with Alain Prost as of 1988.
During that season, McLaren-Honda alliance was astonishing: 15 wins out of 16 races. It was the year of Ayrton's first championship, thanks to his 8 victories against 7 wins by Prost, although the latter got more championship points. But 1988 season was not only the best year of McLaren's history, but also the first milestone of the most attractive and exciting F1 story ever.
Proof of that was, in 1989, an infringement of a supposed deal between Senna and Prost to not overcome each other at San Marino GP. That was said to be the beginning of such a rivalry. Next stage would be Suzuka race, where controversy reached unsuspected limits. French driver was leading the race being chased by Brazilian and with few laps to go, Senna attempted to overcome him at the chicane which is prior to main straight, but both cars collided each other and as a result they went out of the race. Although Ayrton managed to restart his car (thanks to race marshals) and in fact then won the Grand Prix, he was later disqualified so championship went to Prost. 'I was robbed by the system,' Ayrton said. The president of FISA, Jean-Marie Balestre, imposed a fine to Senna due to those declarations and in addition his F1 driving licence was temporally disallowed.
Ayrton Senna got back his licence by paying a millionaire fine and apologising to the heads of FISA. It was 1990 and Alain Prost flew to Ferrari, saying his departure was because McLaren played in favour of Brazilian driver. Fate determined the championship to be defined among them again and, after one more collision at Japan, Senna got the championship for second time.
Next year would be that of Ayrton's third championship. Nigel Mansell of Williams failed to get the championship once again. Brazilian driver started the year with four wins in a row at USA, Brazil, San Marino and Monaco, while Briton had a mid-season bouncing back. A spun-off of the latter at Japan GP helped things to look good for McLaren driver. Senna had offered a victory to Brazilian torcida at rainy Interlagos, his first win after 7 failed attempts there. Ayrton got into three-time champions' list: Brabham, Stewart, Lauda, Piquet, Prost...
Things turned out to be different in 1992, thanks to a formidable work of Frank Williams' team, so Mansell won his single F1 championship, by winning 9 out of 16 races that year. Ayrton Senna suffered with his car, but got three deserved wins: Monaco, Hungary and Italy. The first of them, at the Principality, was obtained thanks to a tyre problem in Mansell's car with ten laps to go...
Without Honda engines, and full of internal problems, McLaren had to use Ford engines for 1993 season. Prost returned to category after one sabbatical year, now driving for Williams. Senna, though some forecasts, would be a honest rival to French driver and a flashback of former duels was the result of that. In spite of that, championship would be for Prost. Senna won 5 races and Williams' driver scored 7 wins. Two remarkable victories of Ayrton were that one at Donington (Europe GP) because of the excellence in his driving, and that one at Interlagos (Brazil) when he was saluted euphorically by Juan Manuel Fangio on the podium (Argentine five-times champion pointed Brazilian as his successor). Senna said farewell to McLaren with a win - the last of his career - at Adelaide (Australia). Frank Williams contracted Senna to drive one of his cars for 1994 season, alongside Damon Hill.
'The best driver with the best car cannot have other result but the championship itself,' it was said. Nevertheless, the year started with difficulties to Ayrton with two poles and two retirements in Brazil and Pacific, while his challenger, Benetton's Michael Schumacher won both races. Next episode, final episode, would be that of San Marino. Things were complicated from scratch because of the spectacular accident of Rubens Barrichello during Friday session, and then the death of Roland Ratzenberger on Saturday. Senna, visibly worried, had a foreboding but he entered to race the same. He started from pole, and it was on lap seven at Tamburello curve where he said goodbye.
Lot of things were said since that 1st of May. Brazil cried for his idol. Even Alain Prost was very sad.
Ayrton Senna got 41 wins, 65 pole positions (record) and 19 fastest laps during his F1 career. But mere statistics do not build an idol. The relationship between him and the people was beyond any single Grand Prix participation. Brazilian driver had unlimited talent inside the tracks, and he was tender-hearted and had a gift to get on with people outside them.
A research done in Brazil (2000) revealed that Senna is considered to be the greatest hero of his country. One more proof to say Ayrton is a real modern hero.