Joe-Pinions: Sports

1 May 2014 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 3)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 01/05/2014

First off, it’s been a terribly long time since I last wrote anything in this blog.  A full year and one hundred and ten days, in point of fact.

The truth is, I’ve been quite busy.  I’ve been contributing to a tech website on a regular basis as a reviewer/editor, working on a still-evolving novella-length piece of fan fiction, and rediscovering a love for music and songwriting that had lain dormant for a decade or so.

Now that I’ve mentioned that, 1 1/3 years doesn’t seem too long, does it?

But I’ve digressed.

It’s time to continue this, my list of my top ten favorite F1 drivers.

I’ll admit something:  This list might need a little bit of revision, especially towards the rear of the pack.  During the last few years I’ve grown to admire some current F1 drivers enough to think that they might warrant inclusion in this list.  I think that it’s inevitable that a list like this would get revised.  I mean, I’m sure that every fan has a similar hierarchy of performers that he or she may hold dear, and that new names get added to that list all the time.

For now, though, this is how this version of the list stacks up:

10.  Nigel Mansell

9.  Jean Alesi

8.  Gilles Villeneuve

7.  Nelson Piquet

6.  Damon Hill

5.  Sir Jackie Stewart

4.  Jim Clark

We are now in the most hallowed portion of this gathering of F1 greats.  The top three finishers of any grand prix are, after all, feted on a podium of glory.

And so, my # 3 favorite F1 driver is:

3.  Ayrton Senna

Every single year, at around this time, I feel more emotional than usual about Formula 1.  Long-time fans of the sport will probably understand why, even without prompting.

Twenty years ago today, Formula 1 – indeed, all of motorsport – lost possibly its most charismatic participant ever when Senna’s Williams FW-16 smashed into the concrete wall on the outside of the mighty Tamburello corner at the Circuito Enzo e Dino Ferrari  at Imola in Northern Italy.

Even today, twenty years after his death, the name Senna is still as evocative as ever.  In some ways, the passage of time has only burnished his legend even further.  A similar thing happened to James Dean, to Princess Diana, to John Lennon; the phenomenon has also happened in F1, to Jim Clark and to Gilles Villeneuve, just to name two.

But Senna’s star appears to be inextinguishable.

Ask F1 fans today to name their all-time favorite driver, and chances are they’ll say “Ayrton Senna.”  Ask racing drivers today the same thing, and many will name him too.

Ayrton Senna's iconic bright yellow helmet:  Simple and powerful

Ayrton Senna’s iconic bright yellow helmet: Simple and powerful

To be honest, it almost feels somehow wrong if you think differently.

There’s no question that Ayrton Senna was a driver of immense talent.  His contemporaries all hailed him, almost to a man, as the fastest, most gifted driver on the grid.  I mean, how else can you conclude differently when he demolished the record for career pole positions, setting it at a stupefying 65 (almost doubling the previous record of 33 set by Jim Clark) from 162 races?  What else can you say about the man who was second in the all-time grand prix winners list at 41 victories at the time fate intervened at Tamburello?  Also, only a very select few have won as many as three World Championships.

However, I think it would be terribly boring to talk about Ayrton Senna and have the conversation boil down to a recitation of mere statistics.  As much as they are some measure of the man’s achievements in the top echelon of motorsport, Senna is far more interesting as a person.  And the biggest reason why Senna is so interesting is because he was just so imperfect.

Nigel Roebuck, who remains my favorite writer of all things Formula 1, once wrote that Senna is “a flawed genius.”  Personally, I cannot come up with a more correct description.  While most people only seem to remember Ayrton Senna as the transcendent talent and warrior on the race track that he undoubtedly was, I think that his untimely death also made too many people forget his various imperfections.

Alain Prost, Senna’s only rival, once told Roebuck that he felt uncomfortable talking about Senna.  Prost said during that magazine interview (and I’m paraphrasing here) that it’s impossible for him to talk about Senna because he (Prost) simply can’t win:  If he talks about Senna’s virtues, then Prost looks like a hypocrite.  Where were these platitudes when the man was alive?  Where was this appreciation when their rivalry was at its hottest and most hostile?  Yet if Prost aired his grievances, then he comes off looking like the ultimate complainer (which some in the press already see him as anyway), attacking a dead man incapable of defending his own reputation.  It’s really very easy to sympathize with Prost’s position.

But fans who still remember the sport pre-Senna would fully understand why Roebuck (and Prost, obviously) thinks that Senna, for all his brilliance and talent, was not the pristine exemplar of what’s best in motor racing.  Old school fans might appreciate the man’s abilities, but those of us who have a fertile-enough imagination for consequences for certain types of behavior maintain a reluctance to forgive certain transgressions.

Even before his arrival in F1, Senna (he was known as Ayrton Senna da Silva back in those days, incorporating both his parents’ surnames) was already establishing a reputation for ruthlessness, a penchant for intimidation, that truly has no place in an activity as potentially mortally dangerous as motor racing, especially when we’re talking about open-wheeled cars.  In Formula Ford and in British Formula 3, Senna had a reputation (especially amongst the track marshals, whose opinions of drivers and their behaviors are the most serious and valid, in my opinion) for being far too aggressive than appropriate.  Again, Roebuck says it best:  In his Grand Prix Greats, Roebuck wrote that Senna had a “let me through, or we crash” attitude when it came to overtaking a rival (again, I’m paraphrasing).  In other words, Senna always relied upon his rival’s giving way whenever he attempted an overtaking maneuver.  Resistance was futile, and often it was destructive.

Just ask Martin Brundle, perhaps the most famous of Senna’s pre-F1 victims.  The two had a major contretemps at the Oulton Park circuit in British F3 whilst dicing for the race lead.  The two were battling for the series championship that year, and after dominating the early part of that season, Senna felt increasingly desperate as Brundle cut into his points lead.

Just watch what happens when Brundle resists Senna’s attempt to pass (Brundle is in the blue and yellow Ralt, with Senna in the white Ralt) (their incident starts at the 1:06 mark) :

The immediate aftermath of the accident looked a bit horrific at first blush:  Senna’s car was literally on top of Brundle’s, mere inches from Brundle’s head.  How Martin Brundle escaped this crash uninjured is a mystery, but this was but one example of Ayrton’s unyielding aggression and seeming lack of imagination might have ended up in a bigger disaster.  For sure, though, the fact that Senna’s Ralt had become a surprise headrest for Martin Brundle is the sort of thing that should have deterred Ayrton from similar stunts in the future.

Ayrton, though, was never officially sanctioned for this incident.  It’s purely my opinion that escaping censure for this kind of ultra-aggressive behavior in the lower formulae may have given Senna the proverbial green light to continue conducting his racing in a similar way once he broke into Formula 1.  Lots of drivers ran afoul of Senna’s uncompromising style:  Keke Rosberg at the Nurburgring in 1984, Nigel Mansell (several times, including a wild affair at Spa-Francorchamps in 1987 and a near-disaster at Estoril in 1989), even Michael Schumacher (France 1992, South Africa and Brazil the following season).

Of course, his innumerable run-ins with his rival Alain Prost are the ones that stick hardest in most people’s minds.  It’s useless to recount every single time these two true Formula 1 Titans crossed each other’s path; inevitably, grands prix became a race between just the two of them.  This is especially true about the 1988 season, when the two of them won fifteen out of the sixteen races with their indomitable McLaren-Honda MP4/4s.

Perhaps it was inevitable, but having the two best drivers in the same team was a ticking time bomb; it’s just impossible to have two alpha males in the pack.  Each one would want to assert his own dominance, and fratricide was probably unavoidable.  But their two years together at McLaren wasn’t always hostile.  1988 was a fairly harmonious year.  Indeed, aside from Prost’s occasional unhappiness with Senna’s sometimes brutal racecraft (his aggressive overtake lapping Prost into Woodcote at a sodden British Grand Prix stands out as a clear example – another unnecessary display of “move over, or we crash”), the two conducted themselves as professionals with an obvious mutual respect.

The Portuguese Grand Prix that year, though, revealed the first fissures in their relationship.  These hairline cracks would later escalate to earthquake faults that would ultimately destroy their relationship, however temporarily.  The 1988 GP of Portugal actually had three starts, with the first two being aborted.  At the original start, Prost jumped Senna and, perhaps fed up with all the times Senna had tried to intimidate him, edged Ayrton towards the outside of Turn 1.  It’s hard stuff, but entirely fair.  Indeed, Senna himself was known to do the same (and even worse) to other rivals.  Because of another driver stalling on the grid, the officials called for a second standing start, which itself was also marred by another stall, this time resulting in a multi-car accident.  The third start proved the charm, though, and Senna jumped Prost for the lead.  Beginning the second racing lap, though, Prost, who had a stronger car that day, moved to the inside on the long Estoril pit straight attempting to overtake.  Senna violently pushed his teammate towards the pit wall, causing the pit crews to raise their pit boards out of fear that Prost’s car or helmet might clobber them.  Post-race, after he had won the Portuguese GP, Prost did not bother to hide his anger for his teammate’s tactics.  He said, “If he (Senna) wants to win the world championship that badly (that he would risk an almighty accident – with a teammate!), he can have it.”

In intra-team discussions post-race, Senna complained that Prost had done him hard by edging him onto the grass at the first corner.  Prost, though, pointed out that it was a fair tactic; this point is beyond dispute.  The guy in front, after all, always has the line.  Senna himself has used this defense, both before and after this particular incident.  But Senna’s response at the third start was over the top.  You simply do not squeeze rivals into a wall or barrier.  That kind of maneuver just has far too much potential for a true disaster.  Anybody who would defend tactics like this clearly has a bankrupt imagination; anybody who might argue the validity or rightness of “defending track position” in this manner simply doesn’t understand how lethal something like that can be if these drivers touch wheels going down a circuit’s longest straight.

Ayrton Senna in his McLaren-Honda MP4/6, at Monaco.  He won this most prestigious of Grands Prix a record six times.

Ayrton Senna in his McLaren-Honda MP4/6, at Monaco. He won this most prestigious of Grands Prix a record six times.

The relationship, though, completely disintegrated less than a year later.  At Imola, at the restart after Berger’s fiery crash at Tamburello, Senna violated a pact that he himself proposed to Prost:  He overtook Alain going into the Tosa hairpin despite an agreement between both McLaren drivers that neither shall attempt to overtake his teammate at the start.  Senna justified his pass on Prost was legal because, technically, it wasn’t the start; it was the restart.  Engaging in semantic fencing like this reveals Senna’s hunger for victory as well as his utter ruthlessness.  Nothing, not even a pact that he himself initiated with a teammate, would stand in his quest for victory.

Many people admire that about Senna; I, on the other hand, have a very difficult time stomaching such a Machiavellian approach.  Victory at all costs, even at the cost of ethics, goes beyond the realm of sport.  Indeed, Prost said that racing to Senna went beyond sport; racing for Senna was nothing short of warfare.  To me, this is a distorted way of looking at racing.  Even war is governed by rules, after all.  But the way Senna approached his racing (or, at least his racing against one specific rival), the rules were only valid if they applied only to his advantage.

This was never more true than the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, when he simply rammed Prost off the track entering a fast fourth-gear corner at the start of the race.  The arguments will rage forever between those who, like the producers of the Senna “documentary” (I refuse to recognize this film as a documentary because of the liberties it took – not once was Senna ever portrayed as a human being with faults or a capacity to misjudge), see Ayrton as an inviolate deity-like figure, and those who will never forget nor forgive all that he had done to damage the sport.  I remain steadfast in my stance that intimidation and a willingness to cause an accident with a rival whose crime is to be ahead of Ayrton Senna have no place in any form of racing.  I am sure that people who would argue that Senna was justified to crash into Prost because of what happened the year before at the same track, albeit at the Casio chicane.  Like James Hunt did at the time, I will always believe that Senna was in the wrong in that incident as well.  As Senna himself said many times, the guy in front (Prost) had the line; it is always the man overtaking the man in front who has to make sure they don’t collide.

Senna fans will, in all likelihood, crucify me for committing the heresy of criticizing their idol.  But nothing I’ve said is untrue; all you have to do is revisit history by re-watching footage and reading all of the accounts written during Senna’s entire career.  I’ve watched most of Senna’s races, either live or on video, and I’ve read so many writers’ work from that time.  He wasn’t short on critics back then, especially among the part of the audience who could still remember the days when (or appreciate the fact that) racing was an eminently dangerous way to spend one’s time.  And this is all the more true in Formula 1.

Ayrton Senna

Ayrton sitting in his McLaren-Honda MP4/5, wearing his trademark mask of intense concentration. This might be my favorite photo of the great man.

In all honesty, Ayrton Senna makes me feel a huge conflict.  On the one hand, there is no escaping his shadow.  While I obviously do not subscribe to the groupthink that Ayrton Senna was the greatest and most talented F1 driver of them all, there is no disputing his place amongst the giants of the sport.  His achievements alone guarantee his place in the Mt. Olympus equivalent of F1 greats.  The style and panache with which he practiced the art of driving a racing car is unique unto Senna; like Muhammad Ali, he is an original.  Unfortunately, his portfolio, while full of masterpieces and glory, is also filled with ignominy and infamy.  I can never forgive Senna for Japan 1990.  I say this primarily because of the damage done to the sport.  No one like to see a truly epic clash for the world championship settled in such a cynical manner.  Everyone who saw that race felt cheated out of the right way to achieve the result.

At the end of the day, you see, it should still matter how you win.  Racing is sport, not warfare.  The ends shouldn’t always justify the means.  And Senna’s flaws are just too grotesque to ignore, at least for someone who remembers them from when he committed such sins.  No amount of hyperbolic appreciation of his greatness – greatness at his level shouldn’t be so subject to so much hyperbole anyway – can make me forget.  And that is the greatest tragedy of Ayrton Senna, really:  He was just too good to have to rely on such a Machiavellian approach to his racing.



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