Senna: the man and the movie


Ayrton Senna in Formula 3Do you remember where you were the day Ayrton Senna died? I bet you do. For motor racing fans, May 1 1994 is a ‘JFK moment’. Older readers vividly recall where they were on April 7 1968 and how they heard Jimmy Clark was gone. For younger generations, Senna’s death reverberated to the same shattering degree.

That May Day, I’d returned home from university for a family function. We had to leave the house during the race, but I knew there’d be time to watch the opening laps from Imola before I’d be dragged away.

In the wake of Roland Ratzenberger’s death the day before, not to mention Rubens Barrichello’s lucky escape on Friday, the tension of that weekend transported itself over the airwaves. You didn’t have to be in Imola to sense the unease felt by everyone in the Formula 1 world.

Images of the startline shunt, when Pedro Lamy’s Lotus slammed into the back of JJ Lehto’s stalled Benetton, remain vivid. It was immediately clear that spectators must have been hurt as debris landed in the grandstand. The weekend was turning into F1’s worst nightmare, but none of us could have guessed at the seismic shock that was to come.

The laps under the safety car, the aggressive attitude of Senna’s Williams as he tore away at the restart – and then the moment he hit the wall. I’d sat in the same living room five years earlier when Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari burst into flames at Tamburello, and apart from some burns to his hands, he’d been all right. Senna would be too – wouldn’t he?

The shots from the chopper hovering over the wreck live with all of us who love this sport. ‘Damn, a third win on the bounce for that bloody Schumacher’ – that was my first thought. Senna would really have his work cut out to claw back the championship now. And then the moment of realisation, as the camera panned in on the yellow helmet slumped in the cockpit.

Thankfully, the BBC cut away from the scene – and I had to cut away from the TV to join my family function. But I couldn’t really focus on anything on that sunny afternoon. From those helicopter images, I feared the worst. So this is what it was like to be a racing fan in the 1960s and ’70s…

I heard the news from Radio 5 Live later that evening. This was strange. Of course, apart from getting his autograph when I was 10 and watching him among the masses at various British GPs, I’d never had any personal contact with this man. So what right did I have to be experiencing symptoms of grief? On my return to uni the next day, I found my friends treated with me kid gloves for a while. I wasn’t even what you’d describe as a Senna fan – but the manner of his loss, and that of Ratzenberger too, shook those of us not old enough to remember the days of Clark, Rindt, Cevert, Williamson – and so on…

Today, Senna is far from forgotten. His legacy still looms large over Formula 1, which is why the release of the new Senna movie is such a major event. It helps that the film also happens to be breathtaking.

As Adam Cooper describes in his ‘making of’ story in the August issue of Motor Sport, the movie is so much more than the sort of TV documentary that pops up on BBC2 from time to time. Senna, which is released in the UK on June 3, is a stunning cinematic experience and I’d urge you to catch it on a big screen rather than wait for the DVD.

As Nigel Roebuck describes in our issue, those lucky enough to gain first-hand experience of the man discovered a character so much more complex than any film could hope to show. It does not – and cannot – tell the whole story, and Alain Prost fans might feel it is unfair. Yes, it is solely made up of fabulous archive footage, much of it never seen before – but this isn’t supposed to be a documentary, retelling history to the letter. It is a pure movie, and it’s a monumental achievement.

David Coulthard had the daunting task of taking Senna’s place at Williams. He meets Simon Taylor for lunch in the August issue and describes the experiences of 1994 from his unique perspective. In his early days in F1, Coulthard earned a reputation for being something of a PR robot in interviews. It was always an unfair tag. Coulthard took his job seriously and was the professional archetype, but he was – as he remains – frank, honest and very funny. And there were moments in his career of extreme bravery, too: surviving an air crash on a Tuesday and finishing second in the Spanish Grand Prix the following Sunday will always be my personal stand-out memory of his long career. His poise and stoicism that weekend was deeply remarkable.

Elsewhere in the issue, Eoin Young changes the pace with his entertaining diary tales of his first season in Europe, lived through 50 years ago this summer, and we’re particularly delighted to print some rare colour photographs of Le Mans in 1959 and ’60. They took our breath away when we first saw them. I hope they’ll have the same impact on you.

Enjoy the issue.

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