Nobody gave you the impression that he was born to do what he was doing, as convincingly as Ayrton Senna did, writes Nirmal Shekar
Sport can seldom make for emotional neutrality — even if you have watched, and written about it in a professional role for well over three decades. This is precisely why this columnist has always sidestepped the question — sometimes rather awkwardly — of which sportsperson has made the greatest impression on him.
“Oh well, you know, I have watched so many of them over so many years and it's hard to pick one out,” would be the stock answer.
Yet, occasions arise when it does seem appropriate to bare your heart. Sunday's inaugural Formula One Indian Grand Prix is an event that finally settled the issue in my own mind. For, no sportsman has managed to pull on my emotional chords with quite the same effect as did a tragically short-lived Brazilian genius in the late 1980s and early 90s.
Diego Maradona, Pete Sampras, Steffi Graf, Sachin Tendulkar, Shane Warne and Roger Federer come close. But Ayrton Senna is still well ahead simply because there were times — while watching him race — this writer truly felt that the experience could not be expressed in words. There was an ineffable joy in watching him on the track. You almost felt that it was an emotional secret best kept to yourself.
That is scary, especially for a person whose job it is to report the onfield drama to his readers the next morning. Then again, most things transcendental are borderline scary and don't lend themselves easily to metaphorical representation — unless you had the gifts of an Ernest Hemingway.
No other sportsman offered the impression that he was trying to overcome something that cannot be overcome — mortality. In the event, it is the cruellest of ironies that this very man lost his life, aged 34, while racing on the Imola circuit in Italy in May 1994.
‘I don’t race for fame’
Watching Senna in a Formula One car, you often thought that the man was not after something as trivial as sporting glory. This is precisely why he transcended not just his sport, but sport in general.
“I don't race for fame, or for money. It's a question of passion. It leaves me little time to think about my reputation, but I am prepared to pay the price,” Senna said in 1991.
And before he paid the ultimate price, the great man turned that passion into a near-hermetic pursuit of his own version of nirvana. He operated on an elevated mental plane where the ordinary thrills of motor racing did not seem to matter. And what many saw in him as arrogance was no more than a contempt for lesser mortals, who had no idea of — or the desire for — the kind of perfection he pursued relentlessly.
An obsession with perfection is relatively risk-free in most spheres of human activity. At worst, you might be forced to visit your psychiatrist a few times or end up in a yoga retreat for a few weeks.
Striving for perfection
But it is another thing striving for perfection at Formula One speeds week after week after week — especially when you know that it is not your input alone that would make for perfection. If one little thing has gone wrong with the setting up of the car, if one small mechanical problem crops up, the cost is not perfection, but life itself.
In his era, Senna did achieve greater perfection at greater speeds than any other driver. And he did it for more than 10 years without a single serious accident until that killer weekend in the San Marino Grand Prix.
As a driver, he was the ultimate Natural. Nobody gave you the impression that he was born to do what he was doing as convincingly as Senna did.
If his driving style was aggressive, then Senna was no maniac with his foot on the self-destruct pedal. He just had that extra bit of genius that not only set him apart from his competitors, but also allowed him to take that extra bit of risk. He liked living on the edge.
It was Senna's extraordinary sense of judgment, poise, intelligence and subtle manoeuvring skills which helped him seek out overtaking space that simply did not seem to exist for the other drivers.
Since his death, Formula One has become a much safer sport, without a single casualty in 17 years.
In a way, without being aware of it, Senna may have saved many lives by giving his own to the sport that he pursued with such extraordinary passion.
“Cowards die many times before their deaths.
The valiant never taste of death but once.”
— Shakespeare, Julius Caesar II