26th April 2013: I’m reposting this in enthusiasm for Senna, and for the current F1 season, which seems like one of the most interesting so far. Since I wrote this in 2011 I took my kids to see the film Senna, where in-car footage of the man driving flat out had them riveted to their seats. Senna is still one of the most widely celebrated individuals in sport, and worth remembering, 19 years on from May 1, 1994.
In his lifetime, Ayrton Senna was acknowledged as the greatest F1 racing driver in the world. Gifted with immense natural skill and technical understanding, he rose to the top of the sport and became world champion three times, an astonishing achievement. Even his detractors admitted he had no equal inside a racing car, and though his professional methods were tough, that was the nature of the sport he was in: to finish at the top you needed to have utter faith in yourself. Privately, he gave millions away to the poor, and once risked his life – pulling his car over and getting out to run across a track during a race – to help a fellow driver who had crashed.
He did not come from a humble background, but still had to work his way up the ladder in the most competitive sport imaginable. He classed himself as a Christian, but of his beliefs, he said:
“There is no end to the knowledge that you can get or the understanding or the peace by going deeper and deeper. I pray regularly, not because it is a habit but because it has innovated my life. I hardly go to church because the only time I feel really good in a church is when there’s nobody there.”
An intellectual subscription to religion is not exactly remarkable, but Senna was a highly gifted individual, certainly within the realms of genius. Genius is, evolutionarily speaking, close to the threshold of mystical experience. A short step or sudden experience can carry such an individual from one state to the other, and even if only momentarily, give a glimpse of altogether different world of intelligence. Consider this description of events at the Monte Carlo Grand Prix of 1988:
“..the last qualifying session. I was already on pole, then by half a second and then one second and I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel. Not only the tunnel under the hotel but the whole circuit was a tunnel. I was just going and going, more and more and more and more. I was way over the limit but still able to find even more.
“Then suddenly something just kicked me. I kind of woke up and realised that I was in a different atmosphere than you normally are. My immediate reaction was to back off, slow down. I drove slowly back to the pits and I didn’t want to go out any more that day. It frightened me because I was well beyond my conscious understanding. It happens rarely but I keep these experiences very much alive inside me because it is something that is important for self-preservation.”
Two seconds is an eternity in a sport where thousandths of a second are the usual measure of skill. The difference is especially surprising as Senna’s team mate at the time, Alain Prost, was widely regarded as one of the smoothest and fastest drivers of all time, and also became a multiple world champion. From his own words it is clear that Senna – a supremely clear thinking, pragmatic, hard-headed individual, not prone to wishful flights of fancy – after developing the capacity for intense concentration rivalling that of the mystic, occasionally crossed the threshold between his own consciousness and a greater one beyond his understanding.
Senna had an intuition which extended into the heart of the machinery he was driving. During one high speed practice for Mclaren, he pulled his car into the pits and instructed the mechanics to replace his engine. Ron Dennis was not amused – this was a serious waste of time, and he put it down to “brain fade” on Senna’s part. Senna insisted, whereupon the chief mechanic pointed out all the electronic and mechanical sensors showed perfectly normal readings. Again Senna insisted; such was his authority within the team that they complied and after a lengthy inspection found a tiny hairline fracture in one of the components which would soon have resulted in a blown engine.
On the last weekend of his life, for the first time ever, Senna did not feel he should drive in the San Marino Grand Prix on the Sunday. The Williams he had envied and longed for was now his, but the previous year’s car had been designed with traction control. This meant that normal design considerations for oversteer and understeer could be sidestepped to some degree, as the car would automatically balance the load on the suspension and avoid wheelspin for maximum grip. But these devices were suddenly banned – perhaps because Prost, in the Williams, had walked away with the championship in 1992. The Williams Senna stepped into was now unbalanced and unpredictable – when pushed to the limit it understeered into some corners, and snapped into oversteer in others.
There had already been a fatality during practice, and another serious crash involving Rubens Barrichello. After a long phone conversation Frank Williams convinced him to drive, but Senna had an omen about it. In the race, Senna was chased by Schumacher, driving for Benetton and with the advantage of outlawed electronics and traction control devices hidden in the software. By depressing the clutch and following a certain sequence of events on the grid, a hidden menu option appeared which allowed Schumacher to choose launch control and activate the electronics for the race.
In fact Briatore’s team had already been caught taking the filters off their fuel rig, which enabled 12% faster refuelling at the risk of incinerating the driver and mechanics, as almost happened when fuel spilled out all over Jos Verstappen’s engine. It was blamed on a rogue mechanic who valiantly accepted blame, an unlikely culprit who stood to gain nothing except endangering his and his teammates’ lives in a fireball.
Much later, Briatore and Schumacher would show how far they were willing to take cheating – even endangering other drivers’ lives. Briatore made history by talking Nelson Piquet jr. into deliberately crashing, flooring the car into oversteer and keeping his foot down until disintegrating into the wall, allowing Fernando Alonso to take advantage of the safety car and get an extra pit stop. Schumacher would also gain fame by parking his Ferrari in the middle of a Monaco turn, pretending he was unable to steer out of the corner at about six mph, in order to call a halt to the qualifying of his rapidly gaining rivals.
But in the Pacific Grand Prix in April of 1994, Senna, having retired, stood and watched the remainder of the race to listen to the engine sounds. He became convinced that the Benetton had illegal traction controls, something Damon Hill had already noticed, referring to Schumacher’s magical flying carpet as “that cheating car”.
After that race, the manufacturers who came 1st, 2nd and 3rd (Ferrari, Mclaren and Benetton) were required to submit their engine management source code to the FIA for inspection. Ferrari did so straightaway but Benetton only did so three weeks after the FIA’s deadline – giving them about enough time to hide any illegal cheats – for which they were fined $100,000. Business as usual.
This was the nature of Formula 1: win at any cost. Before the race, Senna was photographed sitting in the car but strangely without his fireproof head protector, as if savouring his last taste of fresh air. Chased by Schumacher’s finely balanced machine, somehow Senna lost grip at the fast Tamborello corner, where the immense torque actually snapped the steering column: on impact with a solid concrete wall the front wheel assembly separated from the chassis and, complete with suspension, flew backwards at 300 km ph, crushing Senna’s skull. The force of the car’s deceleration alone was equivalent to a 30 metre drop onto a solid surface: either circumstance would have rendered him brain dead immediately.
In-cockpit video in the moments leading up to the crash show the steering wheel’s arc of travel, by the motion of a bright yellow button on its left hand side not following a constant radius but swaying wildly from left to right as if the steering column was made of rubber, until the car suddenly flies off the track like a missile.
Sid Watkins, a world renowned neurosurgeon, and the head of F1 medical team, performed the emergency tracheotomy in an attempt to re-start breathing, and was with Senna when he passed away: “..he looked serene. I raised his eyelids and it was clear from his pupils that he had a massive brain injury. We lifted him from the cockpit and laid him on the ground. As we did, he sighed and, although I am totally agnostic, I felt his soul depart at that moment.” In the sleeves of his overalls they found not just the Brazilian flag but the Austrian one as well – he had intended to wave it on a victory lap in honour of Roland Ratzenberger, who had died in the previous day’s practice.
Such is the hardness of the sport that, after death, not a single member of the Williams’ team went to see the body. Brazil declared a three day period of mourning to mark the passing of the country’s greatest ambassador; the funeral attracted six million people and full military honours, with a 21 gun salute. Brazil was grieving the loss of its beloved son. More than 15 years later he is still referred to as the greatest F1 driver of all time. Lewis Hamilton, a veteran of modern 600 hp F1, once drove Senna’s turbocharged 1100 hp Mclaren for a BBC TV special. After an exhilarating few laps of Silverstone he freely admitted it was impossible to understand how a human being could race such a machine on the limits of its performance, with such fragile bodywork, no carbon fibre protection or any modern electronics, and with one hand darting back and forth constantly to the gearshift.
Genius represents a genetic point of mental capacity in which mystical experience is a definite possibility. Religion, the ages-old legacy of mystical experience, has kept this possibility before the mental eye of mankind, as also the lifestyle most useful to the evolving brain. The modern brain already has the potential of attaining access to a higher dimension of life, and the modest alterations to behaviour and attitude required to assist the evolutionary forces have been repeatedly marked out in the spiritual scriptures of mankind, which is why they have been instinctively held dear since the earliest days. Far from being outdated, abstract or irrelevant, the experiences of Ayrton Senna show how intimately mysticism is woven with human life, and why it has such an irresistable appeal to the human mind.