The man in the yellow helmet

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Ayrton Senna was the most committed man I ever met. The sheer depth of his approach to his profession was something few ordinary people could truly understand. We speak of breathing, eating and sleeping a subject; well, Ayrton did just that. Nothing else mattered so much to him in the world. He even subjugated his first marriage, and for a long time thereafter avoided serious relationships, just to pursue the on-track excellence that he so often displayed and which was so vital to him. His need for it was like a religion. And the commitment he brought to achieving it was fearsome and, at times, frightening.

Writing these words, I keep recalling times when his passion would bring tears welling into those deep brown eyes, which could sparkle with warmth at you, or rake you so coldly and disdainfully that you felt touched by an Arctic wind.

In Adelaide in 1989, when he pleaded for the media’s help to battle the VISA ogre Balestre, the tears were there. “You leave a lot of things behind you when you follow a passion.” he said. “Anyone who prevents an athlete from going to the highest place strikes a major blow to his mind and motivation. In that situation everything goes against you in your heart.”

It was an uncomfortable feeling to watch a man so plainly exposing his feelings, and not even his detractors drew any satisfaction from seeing him so vulnerable.

At Jerez in 1990 he was literally spellbinding as he spoke of why he visited Martin Donnelly as he lay crumpled on the race track, and how he then went out and lapped faster than ever.

Later that year in Adelaide I asked him why he had done that. Had he deliberately ventured to the edge of the pit and looked over to learn something, to prove something to himself?! have always believed that he literally went out determined to rape lerez, to take it by force and to humiliate it, almost as if to teach it that no mere circuit could suppress a man’s desire to conquer it, nor try to take his life in his attempt.

There was a long, long pause, and again his eyes grew damp. Finally, his voice was just a croaky whisper that you had to strain to hear. “For myself,” he said. ‘I did it because anything like that can happen to any of us. I didn’t see anything and 1 didn’t know how bad it was. I knew it was something bad, but people just go crazy and say all kinds of stupid things. I wanted to go to see for myself.

“Afterwards I didn’t know how fast I could go. Or how slow.”

There was another long pause, and asked him if he felt he had to be brave to do that. His mind was totally focussed on the grim events of that afternoon, and by now his eyes were swimming.

“As a racing driver there are some things you have to go through, to cope with Sometimes they are not human, yet you go through it and do them just because of the feelings that you get by driving, that you don’t get in another profession. Some of the things are not pleasant, but in order to have some of the nice things, you have to face them.”

Whatever personal test he put himself through that day in Spain, he came through it with honour.

The unenlightened may say a driver should never perform in such a condition, but what Senna did that day was abnormally brave. It was Neville Duke breaking the Sound Barrier at Farnborough in 1952, to keep the crowd from panicking immediately after his friend lohn Derry had plunged to his death when the experimental De Havilland DHI 10 had broken up. It was Jimmy Carruthers standing on the gas in his Eagle for 10 miles at 195mph at Indianapolis in 1973 the day his friend Art Pollard perished.

It was pure, cold anger and courage combined to produce an almost supernatural performance. I never admired Ayrton more than I did that day.

The trouble was, there were two Ayrton Sennas. The one, and sadly I never did more than scratch its surface or peek within its shadows, was an intense, funny, loyal and warm character. But the other could be a monster, the bully of the track. The intimidator.

I met him in 1982 when he came into Formula Three and walked away with the non-championship race at Thruxton on his first run for Dickie Bennetts. But when his championship campaign got under way the following year I illustrated my report with a photo of him spinning. Both caption and text explained that this was the sole mistake he made all weekend, the rest was appositely complimentary. Ayrton didn’t like that. A little note went in his mental card index. As race followed race, there was nothing one could write but how brilliant he was; it was clear from the outset that he was destined for greatness, and after we’d done the usual cautious bit about waiting for everyone else to reveal their natural pace after the first few races, it was clear that only Martin Brundle had the ghost of a chance of staying with him. The trouble was that Ayrton often felt that the British press was against him even then, not because he was paranoid, but because he was a shy, unworldly kid who was learning about life in a tough environment. As it happened, he was wrong, but he was the sort of person who could not really take criticism. Either you were with him all the way, or you weren’t. For or against. If you were critical, he became suspicious of your motives. Thetrust began to break down.

In the middle of 1983 I interviewed him at Silverstone for our British GP meeting buildup. We stood by his modest silver Alfa Sud and he struck me then as a vulnerable character who would cloak that inner sensitivity with a hard outer shell. When things got tough on the personal front he would retreat into that shell, and over the years and as he became ever more successful, it became more and more impervious.

Though we had our spats, I liked this first Senna immensely. It was impossible not to. Time spent in his company was never wasted, was always interesting. He had that way of considering every word, not because he was unfamiliar with the English language (God knows, he was so fluent he could use all sorts of complicated expressions), but because he wanted to get his thoughts across precisely. You began to understand what he must be like at debriefs, By legend, his went on for hours at McLaren.

The second Senna I didn’t like, the arrogant character who could completely blank from his emotions people that he didn’t like or trust. But if I’m honest his was the forceful style one would subconsciously adopt whenever racing karts or whatever. I’m not talking about speed, but about aggression and stealing a rival’s track space. Mentally you would want to be Prost, all smoothness and grace; actually you were a very pale (virtually transparent) Senna, of course lacking his skill, but intimidatory, fire breathing. Hypocritical maybe, but true. That’s the way it was.

But I was always saddened that a man who was so clearly possessed of an awesome talent should resort to such tactics. Tuggers might, yes, as a means of trying to hide their basic inadequacies, but he really didn’t need to, and that was the awful thing. He will be remembered as a wonderful driver, a man whose sheer artistry at the wheel could be a joy to watch, but also as the one who set the tone whereby hard driving and at times, it has to be said, dirty driving has become an acceptable part of motor racing.

At Estoril in 1988 he had demonstrated the dark side of his character by deliberately swerving at Prost as they raced wheel to wheel down the pit straight at 190mph. Afterwards Prost told him: “If you want the World Championship badly enough to die for it, you are welcome.”

Time and again Senna’s blend of impetuosity and self-righteousness led him into trouble. He railed against exclusion from victory the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix after that famous collision with Prost, accusing the sport’s governing body of cheating him out of a second title. He was forced to make an apology of sorts to Jean-Marie Balestre before he was granted a licence for the following year. By then Prost had left for Ferrari. and the two fought for the championship again at Suzuka. There, in the move that prompted many to question his equilibrium and the depths to which his sheer competitive intensity would drive him, he smashed into the back of Prost’s Ferrari when the Frenchman beat him to the first corner. With both retiring on the spot, he clinched his second championship at Prost’s expense.

Two weeks later when I showed him a series of photographs of the incident, and asked him why he had apparently driven Prost off the road, he refused pointblank to accept the damning evidence in front of us, denying even the physical positions of the cars despite what the photographer had recorded.

A year later, in an extraordinary. expletive-peppered outburst following victory in the Japanese Grand Prix which had clinched his third World Championship, he finally admitted what we all knew: that he had deliberately driven Prost off the track, that it had been tit for tat for what he had seen as Prost’s role in his 1989 downfall.

Born of wealthy parents in Sao Paulo in 1960, Ayrton Senna da Silva began racing karts when he was four, with the encouragement of his father Milton. Such was his progress through the motorsport ranks that he was one of those rare individuals: a man so clearly marked for greatness that a World Championship was inevitable.

When he arrived in Britain in 1981 he raced with the colourful Denis Rushen. “He was so quiet,” Rushen recalled, that he was always the guy you found standing shyly in the kitchen at parties.

He remained thus for many years, although it was only a short time before his English improved to the point where he no longer could be duped into greeting fresh acquaintances with earthy Anglo-Saxon that the team had coached him in…

Such was that extraordinary level of commitment that he brought to his motor racing, that clashes with fellow rivals and the media were inevitable. He had a towering self-belief that sometimes bordered on zealotry. The first manifestation of that came at Cadwell Park in 1983. He’d won nine consecutive F3 races, but crashed heavily in practice for this 10th round. But even while his car was out of control, he kept his foot hard on the power. He would never surrender anything without a fight.

He won the championship that year and immediately sprang into Formula One with the Toleman team for 1984. He scored his first World Championship point in only his second Grand Prix, when despite heat exhaustion he brought his car home sixth in South Africa. Two races later he would have won Monaco in the wet if there had been any justice in the world.

Later that year came the more signs of the other side of his nature, when he left the team in acrimonious circumstances to join Lotus. Alex Hawkridge was the manager of Toleman, and once the news of Senna’s impending defection had been revealed, he suspended him from the Italian Grand Prix before the end of their relationship. Senna was stunned. “I did it.” Hawkridge revealed, “because it was important to teach him that for every negative action you perform in life there is a penalty.” It was a lesson that Senna never forgot, even if he never came to approve of any sanction against himself.

With Lotus he won his first Grand Prix, in Portugal in 1985, but by 1987 he had lost patience as he covetously eyed Alain Prost’s situation at McLaren. Their partnership there in 1988 would eventually make all other sporting feuds look like kindergarten kids scrapping over Lego blocks, but by the end of that season the first World Championship had been delivered, in true Senna style, he stalled his car at the start of the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, before storming home to win on a track rendered greasy by rain. On the way he beat Prost soundly. The rest, of course, we know.

Without question Ayrton Senna was an extraordinary individual. The kinder Senna was the sort of man who would give up his seat to usher an old lady down the stairs while once waiting for an appointment with Professor Syd Watkins, that great character who admired him so much and for whom we all felt so much as he ultimately had to administer to him at the Tamburello corner which claimed his life.

In his homeland Senna was lionised, and he made significant charitable donations which he never remotely attempted to publicise. He loved children, too, “They are the honest ones,” he once said.

If he didn’t like you, you knew it; in 1986 he was at war with the British press after preventing Derek Warwick from joining him at Lotus. Over the years that animosity mellowed, but often the feeling he nurtured that his trust had been betrayed caused flare-ups. He was roundly condemned last year for striking rival Eddie Irvine — almost inevitably, at Suzuka — and the cold war began again.

But whatever some of his failings may have been, he was a man with whom you always knew where you stood, and though his tactics on the track were frequently and deliberately intimidatory, he was without question one of the greatest racing drivers the world has ever known. To see Senna on a quick lap was to be awed by majesty.

On Friday afternoon he took pole position for the race in which he died, to increase his record to 65. With a commanding success in his last race for the McLaren team in 1993 he had taken his total of Grand Prix victories to 41, second only to archrival Prost. It still seems utterly inconceivable that more will not follow.

When Jim Clark died at Hockenheim in 1968 his passing stunned the motor racing world. Chris Amon, one of the few men with the talent to challenge the brilliant Scot, summarised every other driver’s feelings when he said: “We were all left feeling totally exposed, vulnerable. We all felt, ‘If it can happen to Jimmy, what chance have we got?” Jackie Stewart said that his death was to motor racing what the atomic bomb had been to the world.

The cruel events of the Imola weekend have set the sport back 30 years in terms of the public’s perception of its safety, and have plunged it back into such nightmares. Ayrton Senna’s death during the San Marino Grand Prix has had precisely the same effect as Jimmy’s. People are genuinely frightened for the same reasons, for Ayrton had always exuded such an air of mastery and total invincibility, and been able to command the best equipment, that we had always expected him to defy the sort of odds that took Gilles Villeneuve, who so often had to drive beyond the limit to make his cars competitive.

Cruelly, it is as if Ayrton’s career ended when he left McLaren, for 1994 had already been a nightmare before he went to Italy. Some will say he was rattled by the progress Schumacher and Benetton had made, that he was pushing just that bit too far. But that was precisely his make up. Push, push, push. Never give up. “I am not designed to finish second or third. he once said. “I am designed to win.”

He never gave an under par performance in his life, and would never do anything less than reach out for a new ultimate. That was why he set that record of 65 poles, which may never be challenged. Why he took those 41 Grand Prix triumphs. Why he was out front, pushing, when he died.

Alain Prost was the only man in Formula One who could truly match him at times on all levels, not just sheer speed but smoothness, car control and the depth of technical feedback and analysis. All he lacked was Ayrton’s sheer aggression. Of course they had their differences, many of them laced with bitterness, but Prost was in tears as he commentated for the French TFI network on the afternoon of Sunday May 1.

Senna had the mind of a computer and the emotions of a Latin. He was still the yardstick by which all other racers were judged. More than that, he was the yardstick by which they judged themselves. To the real stars, matching or even beating Senna was the greatest possible triumph. An endorsement of one’s own greatness. Few could ever achieve that, let alone aspire to it. Prost could. Mansell could. Berger. Schumacher and Alesi could. At times. But more often than not he had a race won before it had started. To lesser lights, finishing second to him was as good as a victory.

When he and Frank Williams finally consummated their long-running romance for 1994, he spoke of the need for a fresh challenge, and at Imola he was determined to redress the points imbalance between himself and Schumacher that had made the season so exciting after the first two races. His outstanding ability to relate to his engineers precisely what his machinery was doing at any given point on a circuit, on any given lap, has passed into Grand Prix legend, and he was making progress.

At Suzuka last year we all went to a small gathering where Honda was giving out books to commemorate its Grand Prix involvement. We asked several of the guys there to sign them. This was pre-Irvine. but at times our relationship had again been uneasy in 1993. I proffered my book and smiled, and said “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.” He smiled back, relaxed, carefree. forgiving. “Time,” he said as his left hand went to work, “is the big thing.” How little we knew.

Perhaps we never really knew him at all, perhaps we knew parts of him too well. I’m just grateful that we were acquainted, and that in my dotage I will be able to tell my grandchildren with pride and misty eyes, “Yes. I saw Senna race.”

A flawed genius he undoubtedly was, but at Imola, just as in 1968 and again in 1982, motor racing lost one of the greatest kings it will ever know. To many — especially those with whom he worked — Ayrton Senna will always be the greatest. DJT

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