Sunday, January 30, 2005

One of the World's Greatest Athletes, Ever

Ayrton Senna
Originally uploaded by Uncle Mikey.
One of my heroes was Ayrton Senna, in my mind the greatest race driver in history. He dominated Formula One racing when I was a fan, during the 1980s when motors were cranking more than 1,000 horsepower and the drivers were almost all fascinating characters. Alain Prost, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Senna, Keke Rosberg, and even second-raters like Andrea de Cesaris and Thierry Boutsen were engaging people who loved to race and did magic in firebreathing monsters that would have killed lesser men (one of my favorite articles Road and Track ever did was when they made an F1 pilot [that's what they call them in Europe] trade mounts with a Grand Prix motorcycle racer - the biker spun the F1 car twice from a dead stop while trying to get it rolling). They made enormous amounts of money, risked death regularly, lived in Monaco and other fabulous locations, and entertained millions of devoted fans. And Senna was the leader of that very elite pack, a national hero in Brazil and an international one everywhere else.

I've never liked Michael Schumacher because of his heartless comments after Senna's death at Imola, Italy in the Grand Prix of San Marino, which Schuey saw from directly behind as Senna hit the wall at 190 mph. "Senna lost it" is to my mind a slander of the worst and most offensive kind; Senna was the best of them all, despite Shumacher's unprecedented number of wins. Had Senna not died that day, Schuey's career would have been very different. The Brazilian had many more years of expert racing ahead of him when he died and would have given the German a serious challenge, something he has not always had since.

I cried when I heard about the crash. I don't remember crying for anyone's death before that, not having had a family member or friend die since before I was able to fathom what it all meant, and it really broke me up for a while. I watched the crash over and over, like so many others. It looked like he just never turned in at the fast 45-degree corner, impacting the wall almost head-on at speed. It was determined eventually that the steering column had broken at some point and that part of the car's suspension killed him, entering the face shield of his helmet and penetrating his brain, but there is much confusion and conspiracy theory around the circumstances. He was 34.

Although I saw many of his races on television, often getting up at odd hours of the night to catch live feeds on ESPN, I only saw Senna drive once in person, in Mexico City in 1986. F1 had not raced there for 30 years, and the track was a mess. The earthquake that killed so many there had just happened, and the streets and buildings were still rubble in places. While we were watching qualifying on Saturday, we saw the master at work. Senna was legendary for taking the pole in the final minutes of qualifying, and he did so that day. At the beginning of the long back straight was the start/finish line, and right before that was a mid-speed 180-degree sweeper probably the most important corner to get technically perfect. The bumpiness of the track was a real problem, and on the last qualifying run of the day, Senna came in a little hot and hit a couple of bumps just wrong, tossing his car up on the two outside wheels for a millisecond.

F1 cars are the most twitchy, dangerous vehicles in the history of mankind. What can be recovered from in any other car would take a miracle to survive in an F1 car, and when I saw that car rise up on two wheels I just prayed that Senna would live, having abandoned all hope that he could avoid crashing.

But Ayrton Senna was F1's version of Dale Earnheardt, having cowed other drivers with his driving and the force of his personality much as the Intimidator did, and in Mexico City that day he stared disaster down and disaster blinked. With a tiny, precise but utterly firm touch, he set the car back down without a twitch of the tires and crossed the line 2/10ths of a second faster than Nelson Piquet had moments earlier, securing the pole. Ten years later he is still the F1 leader in pole positions won, with 65.

He didn't win that race; Gerhard Berger won his first there in the alarmingly painted Bennetton car despite contracting Montezuma's Revenge before the race. My friend and I spotted him unstrapping himself from his car frantically after his warmup lap to sprint to the portable toilet, something I never saw before or since in 10 years of F1 watching, a driver leaving his car between warmup and race. I'm glad he made it. His driving suit looked awful enough without a stain on the seat.

Rest in peace, Ayrton Senna. I miss you, and I miss the old Formula One. Today's races are boring in the extreme, and I've never liked Michael Schumacher, who wins the title like clockwork these days, usually before all the races are done. There's not much racing any more, just the guy with the best car smoking everyone else from pole to pole. Senna would have hated it. Joe Saward of got it right in 1995:

If he had to die I guess he died at the right time - at the absolute peak of his ability, in the prime of his life, doing what he loved best and adored all around the world by millions and millions of fans. He will never grow old nor disappoint those fans.

I look around the paddock for that same fiery passion in the F1 stars who have taken his place but I do not see it.

And there are times when I wonder if I ever will.

Amen, brother.

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