I first went to Monaco in 1982. I’d been to a host of non-championship British Fl races since the late Sixties, but this was to be my first Grand Prix. I couldn’t wait to see Gilles Villeneuve in action through the streets of the Principality. He’d won the year before in the awful 126C1 Ferrari, and now he had a halfway decent chassis in the C2.
And then came Zolder.
I still went to Monaco, but it was not what I had expected it would be. How could it be? The anticipation had evaporated. Instead, I watched the morose faces of my friends, who had known and loved Gilles, and 1 felt for them. I watched everyone that weekend, how drained and down they all were as they struggled to get on with life, desperately wishing a wretched weekend to be over.
It was deja vu in Monaco this year. The utter desolation of an F1 fraternity once again shattered yet united by grief. Once more, as when Jim Clark died, motor racing is a sport without a king.
You do a lot of walking in Monaco. And on every street another image would spring to mind. Was Senna’s eagerness to shake hands properly with Prost on the morning of the race a sign that he was reaching out for the comfort of friendship at a time when his emotions were in turmoil?
Ever since he left McLaren everything had seemed to go wrong. The speed of the Schumacher, Benetton and Ford Zetec-R package had rewritten the status quo in Brazil where Ayrton had spun in ragged edge pursuit. And then TI Circuit Aida had underlined that the ground so suddenly lost to Benetton would not easily be won back.
There came that first corner bill from Hakkinen and then at Imola, where Renault power should have told, there was Schumacher and that damned Benetton, again within striking distance. “I believe that the challenge is to learn and to improve yourself,” said Senna in February, upon joining Williams. “Having won three championships it becomes more and more difficult to motivate yourself. Therefore this change in my career is like moving home getting to know your neighbours, making new friends. It is a great change and a good way to motivate myself further at the level that Formula One requires from you.”
“Normally I think a natural tendency for a driver, as long as he is able to do his job with the team and continue learning, is to feel that you are driving as well as ever, if not better, in order to keep your motivation up. And I think that is the case for me almost every year of my career since 1984 always just a little bit better, not necessarily faster, but more consistent, more accurate, less susceptible to mistakes.”
At times we were moved to question his absolute motivation in 1993, and there was just a smidgeon of doubt about what had gone into the preceding few races when Mika Hakkinen bounced into the spotlight at Estoril and really got him going again. He walked the last two races. His last two victories. His last helpings of championship points.
He was optimistic about 1994, felt his fires had been well and truly relit. “1994 should follow that pattern too, except maybe a little bit more motivation with the change so big, and the feeling that I can learn a lot more now because it’s going back to a passive car. It’s a different way of setting up and driving in a way so you have to learn a bit more than during 1993. So right now I am more motivated.”
He spoke too, on pushing himself right to the limit. “I hope I don’t have to. Nobody wants to expose themselves to unnecessary risks, but if necessary I will do it.” And he gave a now chilling answer to a question about refuelling increasing risk. “Certainly the risks are high. How much greater they will be remains to be seen…” Well, we have been reminded of how great the risk can be, and the national media has had a field day.
Since Imola much has been written about the point of sport, at a time when not only were Ayrton and Roland killed violently, but when boxer Bradley Stone perished, along with flat jockey Steve Wood, and when jump jockey Declan Murphy now mercifully recovering suffered serious head injuries. Then came Karl Wendlinger’s accident in Monaco qualifying.
We’ve heard all the talk of banning motorsport or boxing or horse racing but to do that is simply and unforgivably to deny everything in which our fallen heroes believed. And in its own way to betray the strengths and qualities which so attracted us to them in the first place. There’s been a lot of provocative twaddle, too. In the Evening Standard Nigella Lawson suggested: ‘Everyone is as hardened smokers often remind us, entitled to go to hell in their own way. Who are we to complain if people like Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger are happy to sacrifice themselves? Of course we feel like complaining: life is precious, too precious to be wasted in the name of sport. But perhaps the way to look at it is to say that those who hold their life so cheaply are the very ones to sacrifice: Very touching.’
Bruce McLaren once said: “Doing anything well is so worthwhile that dying trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy.” We prefer that more enlightened view, and echo the view of the Standard’s Michael Herd who suggested that courage can be the key to life.
Ms Lawson’s unusual dogma is matched only by the mind-numbing ramblings of Jeremy Clarkson in The Sunday Times’ Style & Travel supplement. Since Clarkson on this occasion exhibits precious little style, it is to be hoped he will instead be prevailed upon to travel, preferably a very long way. Some carefully manufactured ‘stars’ believe that endless posturing endows their leaden prose with the charisma of Hemingway, and some prefer to slag off a subject from the comfortable distance of an armchair.
Such ill informed, half-cock pseudo-philosophising is an insult to the memories of people many admired, and symptomatic, even afraid, of what passes for humour in some circles today. The only amusing thing I can immediately recall about Mr Clarkson of late is his own effort behind the wheel In a ‘Celebrity’ support race at the British Grand Prix in 1992.
How much more refreshing to see Autocar & Motor’s Steve Cropley summarising thus cries to change everything in the sport that Ayrton and Roland loved: ‘Neither man would have wanted his demise to damage its fabric.’
Is sport a danger to life? Life itself is the most hazardous pursuit any of us undertakes, with but one ultimate conclusion. The right to risk it, and perhaps to seal the manner in which one leaves it, is surely the greatest of the freedoms God has granted us.
Sport is always the choice of the participant. Nobody held a shotgun to either Senna or Ratzenberger’s heads. They took part because they had a deep love for what they were doing, and because the doing of it heightened their lives. They knew the risk, calculated it, and accepted it with the blitheness of all of who share the belief that it will never happen to us. Those of us who admire (though not necessarily like) these men who operate on a very high wire for which there can never be an ultimate safety met, draw great inspiration from their deeds, and sometimes we find in them guides to the way we run our own lives.
Those who are prepared to push beyond the limits of normal beings provide a fascinating insight to the human spirit, for those enlightened enough to see it.
There will always be cries to slow the cars in the aftermath of an accident, but as ever we must do so with care and consideration if we do so at all. To simply slow them down is again to deny everything that drivers of the calibre of Ayrton Senna held dear. He once summarised his life with utter succinctness when he said: “My desire is to go faster and faster all the time.”
His tragedy is that he was mellowing as an individual. Adriane Galisteu had exerted her mesmeric influence upon him, helped to show him that there was indeed life beyond the cockpit and the steering wheel. Perhaps with that handshake at Imola he was indicating a willingness to embrace more of the non-racing side of life. Unknown to most, he had pumped an awful lot of money into setting up a charity for under-privileged children in Brazil.
Fatalities, rightly, are far less acceptable than they used to be in the sport’s harder days. What we have to accept is that those who take up that challenge must be given as much chance of doing so without having to pay the ultimate price for risk. By what other means can we define progress?
It is a very fine line that we draw between emasculation of what gives a sport its edge and the presentation of unnecessary risk.
Images, images. In 1991 Ayrton Senna gave a now poignant counterpoint to his critics, when he described the situation in which he believed he existed. “If you are ahead most of the time, if you are on pole position more than anybody by far, if you lead races more than anybody by far, you are always focussed. You are always the focus of attention by the TV cameras and by consequence the world, and by the stewards, the teams, the spectators and so on and any single mistake that you make and anything wrong that goes with your car or anything wrong that goes where you are, is well noted.
We have to do what we believe is right not what other people would like or expect you to do, because they are competition. They are not on your side. Therefore you have to aim for what your mind tells you, what your heart tells you, and whether you get it right most of the time but sometimes wrong, you have to be prepared to pay the price.
And people must be prepared to see that and accept it because motor racing is dangerous by definition. ‘Motor racing is exciting, motor racing is a sport that brings people to the limit man and machine and it must be seen as that.
And people that are on the limit and equipment that works on the limit are bound to go wrong from time to time and that must be taken into consideration to be part of the deal,” That is as apposite an epitaph as one can think of for a man of such majestic and occasionally ruthless power behind the wheel.
Perhaps now, too late, those words will provide further insight into the intensely complex character of a man, for all his faults, whose ability we admired and respected immensely. As somebody said, the man has gone, but the myth has just been born. – D J T
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