Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger: 15 Years On

Today Ayrton Senna would have been 50 years old. This is a piece that I wrote for his 15th anniversary – I felt it was apt then and still feel that it is apt now.
It feels so long ago, yet it still haunts. Today is the fifteenth anniversary of Ayrton Senna’s Death – a day that virtually transformed the face of motorsport forever. It was a weekend that also claimed the life of the Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger during Saturday qualifying for the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix and left Rubens Barrichello hospitalised following a severe Friday practice crash.

It’s odd that their deaths actually feel like they happened longer ago. Formula 1 (and motor sport in general) has changed beyond recognition in the past 15 years – it had too. The safety of drivers, fans and mechanics have become paramount and the days of 180 mph corners lined only with concrete walls are gone.
Where once the drivers were fairly exposed, they are now cocooned in their cockpits; where mechanics once wore shorts and t-shirts whilst hanging around the pitlane, they now all wear fire protective attire and for better or for worse where fans once could get relatively close to the action and leave messages on the track for drivers and teams (dead or alive), they are now sat behind distant fences watching sporting royalty from afar.

There will always be people who watch motor racing for the thrill of seeing a big accident, but even then everyone wants the driver to jump out and walk away – how cruel that in the apace of twenty-four hours, the motor racing world received two very real warnings as to why it should never be so complacent.

Ayrton Senna “The Whole Story” (by Christopher Hilton)
A few days ago I mumbled on about how Franz Ferdinand’s new album felt like a cheap biography – there would be an excellent opening section that would inform the reader/listener about the subject’s youth, determination and ultimate motivation. The next chapters would tell of the struggles as well as the success’ and eventually the next section would dwell on the peaks before the inevitable epilogue.
The very best biographies will weave stories continuously throughout a book, while some lamentable efforts slot into a recession of stop/start storytelling that relies specifically on blow-by-blow, date-by-date entries. It is possible that it’s just me, but biographies are a lot less fun when they steer away from the subject as a person and instead follow a path of results and short quotations.

While Ayrton Senna: the Whole Story is not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, it does fall ever so slightly into statistical storytelling during the latter half of Senna’s career rather than regaling the reader with tales of Senna’s powerful personality. While this in itself isn’t too bad, it means that closeness of the subject is lost. After a time, it begins to read a little like a memo and as a result detaches itself from the reader somewhat.
Inevitably, the tragic weekend of Imola 1994 is covered in great depth, covering, not just the many accidents of the meeting, but also the feelings of around the paddock over the course of the four days and it is in these chapters that Christopher Hilton excels. The book covers Senna’s near obsession with religion with a deft hand and avoids any temptation to be overzealous in favour of subtlety.

Although I already admired and knew a great deal about the man, many of the interviews show a much greater insight into Senna and reveal the passion and intelligence through which his mind worked. To be honest, I don’t think any words that I can come up would ever truly describe Senna, but hopefully this two-part interview with Steve Rider in February 1990 can delve ever so slightly into his person.

May the 1st, 1994 is a date that is burned deep into my head. I remember getting up on Sunday morning and I remember the picture of Roland Ratzenberger on the back of the Sunday World (killed the previous day in Qualifying – followed by imagining the spluttering morons claiming the motor racing was a disgrace and should be banned – let’s not forget the gobshites that chose to speak following Richard Hammond’s Top Gear accident). There was the start-line accident between Pedro Lamy and JJ Lehto and fifteen-minutes later, the accident.
I remember my Dad and I used to go for drives to the Curragh on occasional Sunday’s as soon as the race was over – but I recollect that on this particular Sunday, we didn’t watch the rest of the race. A time later my Dad turned on the radio in the car and it was the death of Senna that governed the conversation of the weekend sports show (Ireland doesn’t have weekends – it has 48-hour long Sundays). I also remember another neighbour coming out that evening playfully announcing that “…your mate got in the head, just like that guy yesterday…”

This year will be the 15th anniversary of Senna’s death; however this book did not remind of his death – in fact, it reminded me of a wonderfully passionate life. I often look at modern musicians and racing drivers and so many look devoid of passion for they are more often than not PR controlled – in order to offend no one, you must show no passion.
There is a moment, a facial expression and a feeling that is frozen time time. I had the same feeling when I stayed up all night listening to reports of Princess Diana’s death (although I am no royalist, it was such news) and that feeling emerged again when I learned of Joe Strummer’s death, but nothing burns quite like that accident.
I will never forget that day as long as I live.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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