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F1 Midweek: 30 Years Later, Ayrton Senna Continues to Transcend F1

As Lewis Hamilton was interviewed after his dramatic win in the 2021 Formula 1 Brazilian Grand Prix, he couldn’t help but smile as he gestured to the moderator that he couldn’t hear him.

Hamilton had qualified on pole, but lost it after a new engine was put in his Mercedes. Starting plum last in the Saturday Sprint, Hamilton drove to fifth by the time that race ended.

Starting the main race the next day in 10th, Hamilton would end up overcoming and overtaking the nine drivers ahead of him, including championship rival Max Verstappen.

But the source for Hamilton’s distraction during the customary interview was the crowd. I couldn’t quite make out what the crowd was chanting, but what I heard both now and then seems clear enough:

“Ole, ole ole ole! Senna, Senna!”

It wouldn’t be the first time at Interlagos.

Was Ayrton Senna the greatest? No; the man himself would likely say Juan Manuel Fangio was. But in death, Senna has gone into being in a different tier.

Senna once said this about Fangio: “Every year there is a winner of the championship, but not necessarily a world champion. I think Fangio is the example of a true world champion.” It’s fair to classify Senna in his time as a true world champion, but in death he’s ascended beyond just that into a mythical being.

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Throughout his career, Senna waged a fierce war with rival Alain Prost. There is a clear argument that Prost has to being the best driver in the history of F1, as he won four championships and came just a combined 12.5 points from winning eight.

And yet, Prost is almost treated as an afterthought. A great champion, sure, but he was the machine for Senna to beat. Senna was the last of the romantics, in a sport that would eventually give way to the coldness of classicists such as his late-career rival Michael Schumacher. Today’s F1 driver is a highly tuned, highly capable individual whose lone true goal in life is to be world champion.

Prost was the first of these. He spent every moment on and off track with the thought of how to become world champion in the back of his mind. Senna, on the other hand, wanted simply to be the fastest. In practice, in qualifying, and in the race. Become one with the car.

Many racing drivers drive their cars. The best actually race their cars. Senna became his car. That’s really the only way to describe it.

It would be trite to simply slap a quote by Senna here to describe it. There are plenty about his relationship with driving, which take on an almost spiritual philosophy.

But they are also all accurate. Few had the car control that Senna possessed, especially amongst his peers. Nobody could touch him in qualifying, and even today he ranks third in all-time poles in spite of his relatively small amount of career starts.

No driver was better at Monaco, the track that even back then required absolute concentration. He was always a very viable threat there, and his six wins is still the record in the 95 year history of the event.

As the conditions on a track worsened, Senna only got relatively better. After the 2022 season, a poster on Reddit created a list of F1 drivers ranked by number of wins when at least 10% of the race was ran in wet conditions. Not only did Senna rank third on the list, but he won 10 of the 18 wet races in his career- a remarkable 55% win rate.

Senna was not infallible, however. He won the 1990 championship in the extremely controversial way of crashing into Prost in the penultimate round of the season at Suzuka. This gave way to a now infamous quote that is almost always used without the knowledge of its context as an excuse by young drivers for their aggressive driving.

Just to be clear, the quote in question is: “Being a racing driver means you are racing with other people, and if you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver.”

Few drivers are more worthy of study than Senna is, even today. But so many people just look at this one quote, a quote that Senna made in order to attempt to justify winning the world championship by driving his rival off-track in only the second-to-last race of the season, and decide: yes, that’s all we need from him.

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When we talk of him, don’t talk about the gap. Talk about Monaco 1984, where he rose to the occasion as the rain came down and put himself on the map. Talk about Monaco 1988, in which he out-qualified Prost by 1.4 seconds. Heck, talk about 1988, in which he scored 13 poles in 16 races.

Those are just a few of his moments of greatness. I didn’t even bring up the Lap of the Gods at Donnington in 1993. The man was more than just quotes on a website or even just a list of feats and figures. His will to win, to be the very best. To never quit. That was what Senna was, and is.

His legacy has lived on not only through his actions on the track, but through his passion for his people as well. The Instituto Ayrton Senna is a Brazilian NGO dedicated to improving the education of Brazilian children and giving them the chance to reach their full potential. Senna never once forgot the people in his home country, secretly donating hundreds of millions throughout his lifetime to charity. In the months leading up to his death, Senna and his sister began to plan to give his giving more organization with the founding of the Institute.

This column will be published on the day of Senna’s death, but it should never be forgotten that there was another death, just one day earlier, during that tragic weekend in Imola.

Roland Ratzenberger was an Austrian who, in 1994, had finally accomplished his dream of being on the F1 grid. The Le Mans class winner from the year prior was 33-years-old, an unusually late age to start in Grand Prix racing. But that never stopped Ratzenberger from accomplishing that goal, and as brief of a career it was, he will always be known as an F1 driver.

About the author

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.

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Thanks for this reminder of the greatness of Ayrton Senna. I’ve loved F1 racing ever since 60’s, especially after seeing the film Grand Prix. Even before I started attending the USGP at Watkins Glen in the 70’s, I followed every GP by reading about them in the old racing newspaper, Autoweek and Competition Press.

In the 80’s I was crewing for a Trans Am team and we were a support race for the USGP in Detroit. I was lucky enough to see Senna race there a few times. Detroit seemed to suit Senna, I think he took 3 poles there and won 3 times in a row.

I remember sitting in shock watching the San Marino GP on TV and to this day I can still see the wreck in my mind. Later that afternoon Dale Earnhardt won the Cup race at Talladega, and paid tribute to Senna and his fans, when being interviewed after his win. Earlier this year Lego released a very nice replica of Senna’s McLaren MP4/4, complete with a Senna mini figure.

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