The man behind the famous grin, Ayrton Senna, was a complex and cultured human being, still remembered for his humble and generous spirit. And as one of the best Formula One drivers of all time, Senna won three World Championships (1988, 1990, 1991), more than any other Brazilian driver.
But more than anything, during his races, Ayrton was a showman – he wanted to win, and he wanted people to see him winning. He brought artistry to the sport and made it more interesting for the public with his engaging persona. And he was an excellent ambassador for Formula One away from the track.
In the world of Formula One, speed is the lingua franca, the sole currency of worth. But even in this world, there emerges, once in a rare while, a figure who transcends the barriers of tracks, cars, and pure velocity. Ayrton Senna, the prodigious Brazilian driver, was more than just a blur on the racetrack; he was a veritable symphony in motion.
Brilliance of Senna
In a way, it’s relatively easy to explain the brilliance of Ayrton Senna. In his tragically short career, he won the Formula One Driver’s Championship three times. A feat that is something many drivers can only dream of doing. But such greatness isn’t brilliance.
Senna is significant as an artist athlete because he is a symbol of excellence in all areas of his life. He was a champion not only on the racetrack but also in his personal life. He is remembered for his humility, passion, loyalty, determination, and love for God.
Senna’s success in Formula One was down to a combination of innate ability and drive. He had an incredible knack for reinventing himself when it mattered, to stay ahead of the game. Even as a child, he was racing go-karts before he was 16.
He was a master at reading a situation, knowing when to apply pressure and when to ease off. And when he did apply pressure, Senna did it with devastating effect.
He had a unique combination of aggressive daring and subtle finesse. Senna’s precision and technique were so spectacular; his reflexes appeared nearly inhuman. He was a man able to make a McLaren dance with a touch of the foot. And Senna had a preternatural ability to read a race, to see the whole picture from a distance.
Rivalries bring out the best and worst in athletes.
Senna and Prost were both great drivers, but they were very different from each other. Prost was more of a technician, while Senna was more of an artist. Prost was technical and meticulous; Senna more instinctive and reactive.
And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension.Ayrton Senna
It wasn’t just one thing that caused friction between them. It was a combination of things, including Senna’s drive to be the best, Prost’s natural competitiveness, and the fact that they were in fierce competition with each other at every race.
Prost had been the champion for four years in a row before Senna joined McLaren. When he did arrive, it was like he came in with a mission to take Prost down.
Leaving Lotus behind
To the layman, Senna’s career might be a string of impressive statistics and accolades. Wins, pole positions, world championships. But to the true enthusiast, or to anyone with a modicum of sensitivity to the human spirit, he was emblematic of a profound communion between man and machine. There was a near-spiritual quality to the way Senna navigated his car, as if he was in tune with every hum, every quiver of his vehicle. The car was an extension of himself, and he of it.
For the 1988 season, Lotus had developed the Ford V6 turbo engine, which gave them the power to compete for wins and titles. The Lotus 99T was anticipated to be the best chassis of the year, and expectations were that Senna would deliver at least one title. However, Prost got the better of him as Renault-powered cars were very fast on the straights.
And Ayrton did not seek to renew his expiring contract with Lotus at the end of the season. He could have signed a new deal with Lotus, but McLaren had offered him more money and a better chance of winning. Not to mention that a particular Honda engine was also a part of the deal.
Senna influence on Formula One and Beyond
So, Senna’s sudden death at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994, at the age of 34, stunned the motor racing world. But it devastated Brazil.
Brazil, in the late 20th century, was a nation in search of heroes. Economic strife, political upheaval, and a keen sense of its place in the larger world made the nation yearn for figures of unequivocal greatness. In Senna, Brazil found not just a sportsman, but a beacon of hope. Every time he stepped onto the track, it wasn’t just for personal glory; it was an act of carrying the aspirations of a whole nation on his shoulders.
Yet, it’s perhaps in the nuances of Senna’s persona where we find the most fertile ground for examination. It was said he drove with the passion of someone who believed, truly believed, in the transcendence of the moment. Each race was a dance with mortality, a flirtation with the very limits of human capability. The racetrack, for Senna, was not merely asphalt; it was a canvas, and each race was a masterpiece painted in rubber and gasoline.
As his career began to take off, Senna remained humble. He never forgot his roots, and he cared about his people above all else. His talent and commitment were a beacon of light when Brazil was suffering from great poverty and unrest.
Despite growing up in somewhat privileged circumstances, Ayrton Senna recognized the hardships that many of his countrymen faced. He was most concerned about kids and their future. His family adopted Ayrton’s passion and, after his death, established the Ayrton Senna Institute, which has helped to educate more than 12 million Brazilian children with funds from his estate.
Today, many drivers still consider Ayrton Senna their favorite driver, with Michael Schumacher still holding up Senna as his role model a generation later. And when Schumacher learned that he had tied Senna in race wins, he was overcome with emotion, a rarity for the typically stoic German.
The profound tragedy of his untimely death underscored the intensity with which he lived. In Senna, we find a parable of ambition, of human potential stretched to its zenith, and the stark realities of our ephemeral existence.
And so, when one reflects upon Ayrton Senna, it’s not as a figure confined to the annals of Formula One history, but as a cultural phenomenon. A symbol of what it means to truly live, to chase after greatness with an unquenchable thirst, and to inspire generations to believe in the beauty of the chase.