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Jack: 20 years after his death, my memories of Ayrton Senna

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Kristian Jack
5/1/2014 12:10:40 AM
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Back in the autumn of 1985, a seven-year-old child stood by a bridge waiting.

There were no large crowds around him and, for early October, the south of England was beautifully warmer than anyone expected.

This was a much simpler time. A time when sports stars had to make their way through some of the public areas to get to speak to the awaiting media, but they were able to do so without being mobbed.

Each year, the winner of the pole position for the Grand Prix, on the Saturday, was required to make the journey behind the public grandstands on the front straight.

In a few years, more and more professional autograph hunters would put a stop to such a simple passage and not much long after the entire complex was seen as being way below par to host a Grand Prix.

But on this day, October 5, 1985, Brands Hatch circuit was the centre of the Formula One universe.

The next day Alain Prost would become World Champion for the first time but today was all about that gorgeous black Lotus-Renault that popped and demanded your attention thanks to the yellow helmet belonging to a star in the making, 25-year-old driver, Ayrton Senna.

Already it was plain to see that the young Brazilian was remarkable on a fast qualifying lap and an hour or so earlier he had taken his sixth pole position of the season.

The boy waited to see if he could get a glimpse.

And then he appeared, in his civvies, and just like that he was gone. In between he had taken a second to write his autograph in the book held tightly by the young fan.

The next day the boy and his father stood on the final turn of Brands Hatch and watched with their very eyes as Senna, leading the race, collided with the Williams car of Keke Rosberg while battling for the lead. The crash, which for an added bonus knocked the easily unlikeable Nelson Piquet out of the race, forced Rosberg into the pits.

When he returned he did so right in front of Senna and the charging Englishman Nigel Mansell. It was the kind of plot a moviemaker would think up, yet this was really developing in front of the eyes of stunned seven-year-old. An incensed Rosberg held Senna up, Mansell saw his moment and overtook the Brazilian.

The crowd erupted immediately, like a football stadium reacting to a late goal. Mansell would go on to win his first-ever Grand Prix, joined by Senna and Rosberg on the podium.

The boy was hooked.

These days it will take you less than five seconds on Google to find an article preaching to its readers to not make a sports star your hero.

One of the biggest issues surrounding this notion is that it is being told to you by an adult who has grown to know no one is perfect and feels the need to protect people from being let down.

Children don't have much of a voice when it comes to adults but they certainly can teach us a thing or two about the innocent beauty of admiring a sports star for what he/she does in their chosen field, regardless of what they are like otherwise.

That day, back in 1985, the seven-year-old boy who cried when the race was over, and spent the five-hour car ride home with his mind full of race cars driven by gladiatorial figures, didn't have a platform to write about what those drivers meant to him.

Today, he does.

I still have that autograph, now proudly placed in a frame beneath a painting of Senna's first win in Portugal, achieved in that gorgeous black Lotus.

When I glance at it, I am reminded of that weekend in 1985. As we made the journey north towards home I didn't do it as an Ayrton Senna fan, after all, an Englishman had captured the hearts of thousands, completing a rags-to-riches story by winning his first ever Grand Prix.

I was a Nigel Mansell fan. However, the beauty of youth and the sport, meant I could be much more than just that. This was not like football where you were taught to love one and despise all others.

Grand Prix racers, with the exception of Mansell's nemesis in Piquet, were to be admired and as the years went on, even during epic Senna-Mansell rivalry seasons, I feasted on the epic greatness from both.

I'd witness Mansell winning the British Grand Prix in 1986 and 1987 and in 1991 I was on the track when he drove by with Senna, hanging on his car as a passenger after retiring late in the race.

By then I was old enough to know Senna was better than Mansell and that was what made his victories even sweeter; knowing he had beaten the ultimate standard set by the greatest racing driver I had ever seen.

I'd watched from my couch, in the middle of the night, Senna's titanic tussle's with Prost in Japan when the pair clashed for the 1989 and 1990 World Championships.

The drama was incredible and the plot's main character, Senna, was an enormous figure in my life.

I never missed a race and the sport back then gave me memories to last a lifetime.

The way my dad talked about Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier to me is how I can talk about Senna-Prost to my children.

I'd eventually hear the Brazilian anthem played for Senna at a Grand Prix in Belgium in 1991, the day Michael Schumacher made his first career start, but nothing came close to what I saw in 1993.

This time the weather was far from nice. It was absolutely awful, in fact. We were no longer in the south either. My family's love for the sport had taken us to Donington Park, in Derbyshire, in early April. Remarkably, the crowd was very low, with the nation suffering an F1 hangover from Mansell packing his bags for Indycar.

Those lucky enough to get absolutely drenched that day witnessed true greatness. Senna would win 41 Grand Prix races but his best happened that day as his McLaren danced in unison with the rain at the European Grand Prix.

It is hard to put into words what he did, just watch his opening lap on Youtube and see for yourself. The rain master obliterated the field that day giving the fans and his rivals a lesson in perfection, every single lap.

It was what all sports fans crave. It's one thing to witness a group of sports stars doing something we could never dream of, but it is quite something else to see someone take that standard to another level.

To this day when I think of Senna I think of Donington Park for two reasons. I was there the day he won that race and I was there on May 1, 1994 when we lost him for good.

That day he was in Italy for the San Marino Grand Prix, where ten years earlier I had been to see a race, the only one in Senna's career he failed to qualify for.

A decade on he had different troubles. Troubles with his new Williams car and troubles with the sport's safety after witnessing brutal, violent accidents on the Friday and Saturday of that race weekend. Young Rubens Barrichello survived his on Friday, Roland Ratzenberger wasn't so fortunate on Saturday afternoon, becoming the first F1 driver to be killed at a Grand Prix in 12 years.

I'd heard of his death on Saturday night on the new BBC Radio Five Live station and remember to this day how they teased it with 'Formula One loses its first driver since 1982, coming up we'll tell you who'. I sat alone terrified, waiting for the answer.

I was sixteen now but had been fortunate enough to watch these incredible men drive these amazing machines without ever getting the news that all motorsport fans fear. They were immortals, to me, true heroes inside their helmets guiding rocketships on wheels and leaving you with the most wonderful sound as they blasted by.

I was part of the lucky generation. My dad, who had gotten me into the sport, had watched many of his favourites perish in years gone by but, for kids like me, we never faced such heartache.

Until that weekend in 1994.

That night I did what many teenagers in England did on Sundays - I listened to the Top 40 charts. Each song that came on provided background music to the career of Ayrton Senna da Silva that played out on my mind.

I was overwhelmed by many different feelings, sadness being one of the main ones, of course, but, to this day, I remember the strongest emotion of all was pure disbelief.

I kept wondering in mind, over and over, what it was going to be like to go to a Grand Prix without him being there.

Twenty years on, the answer I got that night remains the same. The truth was it was never, ever the same.

I had watched true greatness at a time when I was allowed heroes. After that, nothing could come close.

Ayrton Senna in 1990 (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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