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A tribute: Remembering the inimitable Ayrton Senna

Senna would have been 56 on March 21. He's a great of the sport. A king rather. But, what made him a master of his craft? An earnest tribute

Feature 24 Mar 2016, 09:23 IST
Ayrton Senna Brazil 1991
The man, the legend, the icon – Ayrton Senna

Have you ever thought about what constitutes a legend? Most of us would stick with the classic answer –  where greatness meets hallmark achievements, a legend is born. Isn't it? And truth be told, while it isn't wrong, one would be doing a bit of an injustice to think that's all there is. You become a legend when you can marry courage and intelligence to daring and guile to emerge at the top of your game.

And in so doing, if you can keep your head above despair and rise to be the best you can be, you attain near perfection in your craft. Or, shall we say, you become Ayrton Senna!

Ayrton Senna helmet
His now iconic helmet has been paid tribute to by Lewis Hamilton, Felipe Massa and Senna’s own nephew Bruno


The exuberance of Ayrton

Away from the obscurity of the present day Formula One and the crisis that the sport finds itself in, there was once an icon of speed – Ayrton Senna, who continues to thrill and dominate discussions even today, just as he did then in his heyday.

In the 80s and early 90s regardless of the circuit, challenge or competition Senna was the one name on everyone's lips. Intense yet composed, intelligent and constantly thinking about Formula One, his lifeline: a sport he lived to rule and ruled whilst he lived, Senna and his magnificent achievements lifted the messy world of F1 to great heights and rescued it from the crux of obscurity and from being a one man show.

While there's no denying that there are more drivers who garnered greater heights statistically than the mercurial Brazilian, few could match the exuberance and flair that Senna demonstrated in the sport.

His mammoth impact

Setting fastest laps at will – 19 in his case, was a quality only bettered by his contemporaries such as Prost (41 fastest laps) and Nelson Piquet (23 fastest laps), the former having entered the sport 4 years prior to the Brazilian and the latter, also Senna's compatriot from Brazil and a legend in his right having started his career in 1978.

But when it came to pole positions, Senna was the undisputed king. He would begin from the very top of the grid and frequently so at the Monaco street circuit, Japan's Suzuka or the Interlagos at his home, Brazil.

ayrton senna alain prost mclaren
Teammates and fierce rivals, Prost and Senna were firm friends in the final years of the Brazilian's life

While both Prost and Nelson Piquet garnered 33 and 24 pole positions respectively from a 13 year stint in the sport, the Frenchman doing so from the period of 1980-93 and the Brazilian over the period of 1978 to 1991, Senna, who captured a massive 65 poles did it in just 10 years of him being in F1. Sadly, the ill fated events at Imola of 1994 would cut short a spectacular career.

But it has to be said, as a man he wasn't the shining light sent by almighty to do the undoable despite Senna thinking of himself as a godsent who had a ‘right to win’. While his aggression and overzealous attitude led to several collisions and other occasions, caustic fallouts with McLaren teammate Prost, earning him the ire of F1 critics, his determination, to go the extra mile in the F1 car made him an all time legend. He would secure victories under terse weather conditions and, amidst assault of opponents like Mansell, Hill, Piquet and Prost himself. Where there was no possibility of attacking, Senna would overtake with ease and lead and when none expected the Brazilian to rise, he downsized the competition with his exceptional skill in the F1 car. 

In the tumultuous decade that Senna made his own, starting out in 1984 at Jacarepagua to Imola to last racing an F1 car at the San Marino Grand Prix of 1994, Formula One went from being a sport that was looking for an icon to represent the glamorous contest with skill and achievements, such as the likes of Sterling Moss, Fangio and Keke Rosberg to being a Mecca shining on the ecstatic achievements of its new poster boy: Ayrton Senna.

With 80 podium finishes, 65 fastest laps, 3 world titles and 41 race victories resulting in 610 career points, some garnered under tense on-track battles and others under extreme weather conditions with the rains of Monaco, Suzuka and Interlagos often bowing out to Senna's commendable handling of his McLaren MP4/4, Formula One as a sport attained glory in Senna's meteoric rise.

A comet of limitless energy: the original 'Regenmeister’?

2010 documentary Senna aptly pointed out that there was this energy about the mighty Brazilian which not just filled racing stands around the globe but fueled the hearts of fans with passion at seeing unarguably the best driving talent of all time competing in a contest of unmatched skill and thrill.

An intensely private man and also a deeply religious one, Senna, who enthralled spectators at countless showings such as the memorable Portuguese grand prix of 1985, Brazilian Grand Prix of 1991, the European grand prix of 1993 at Donington and his spectacular showing at Silverstone, would go to the final mile in being part of his car development.

He was motivated where others failed, driven to outdo rivals with whom he controversially shared a laconic exchange at the most (picture Prost) and charmed by the possibility to finish on top of the podium when it seemed least likely that he would.

Offering an olive branch to mediocrity and those who questioned his belief, there was something about rains that stoked Senna's inner genius. Schumacher, the seven time world champion has left behind a legacy that few can match. The "Regenmeister" was revered for his dominant show under rains, a thorny condition for any racing driver competing at the highest level.

But long before the iconic German made headlines, Ayrton Senna had already swayed fans at Monaco and Japan's Suzuka in the late 80s and early 90s under the elaborate threats of the unsparing rains that none save for the Brazilian would come to tackle.

The world often remains divided on who fundamentally reigns the sport coveted by world championships and international appeal, but when it comes to Senna, the opinion is unanimous on who the finest talent is in a sport where even a little margin for error can spell doom.

Can he ever be equaled in his reach for greatness?

The Brazilian, who started out with Toleman in 1984, moved to Lotus, rose to prominence at McLaren and ended with Williams claimed not one but three podiums in his debut year. But, when you compare the reach and ability of Senna with the high ranking stars of present day Formula One, such as both Nicos –  Hulkenberg who debuted in 2010 and Rosberg who debuted in 2006, double world champion Fernando Alonso who debuted in 2001, and 2009 world championship winner Jenson Button who also debuted in 2001, you would find that none managed to grab a single podium in their debut season.

Greatness is an expression that goes beyond the awe of statistics. It is a rare quality in today's highly technical world of Formula One where aerodynamics and tyre compounds lead discussions rather than the individual skill of a driver?

You would be unwise to denounce a Hamilton just because he won majorly due to the superior skills of his Silver Arrows of the 2014 and 2015 season.

Similarly, Alonso, the only man who visibly took to the challenge of containing an unstoppable Vettel in his raging Red Bull Renault of 2011, 2012 and 2013 seasons cannot be doubted.

But all said and done, let's address a different perspective.

It remains to be seen which contemporary driver today, from the likes of Nico Rosberg, in the sport since 2006 without a single championship under his belt, the young daring Max Verstappen from Toro Rosso or Williams' new Flying Finn Valtteri Bottas can demonstrate the reach to scale the heights Senna captured with gusto?

While the Sebastian Vettel's and Lewis Hamilton's of the sport have already done the game a world of good thanks to their extraordinary showings by capturing 7 world Championships between them, a question looms large on the F1 galaxy: do they have in them to go past the timeless wonder from Brazil, whose statistical conquering of the sport precedes his almost insane drive to emerge on the very top, going past mental demons, pressure and whatnot?

While many can derive awe from going past Ayrton's tally of world titles and truth be told, Seb and Hamilton already have, the latter on par with the Brazilian's incredible 3 world titles.

Still, it has to be said that Senna rose at a time when racing highlighted Formula One not mechanical rulings, technical additions and the commercial absurdity of present day Formula One. Where glitter and commerce rule, you will have the Bernie's leading the charge.

But where pure driving, pure racing is concerned, there will always be the inimitable Ayrton Senna, an immortal legend.

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