IT may seem a tragic irony. But there are times when death itself becomes the greatest life-defining moment, heroically capsulising everything that preceded it — the ultimate exclamation point.
Exactly 20 years ago today, death arrived at 310kmph for Ayrton Senna at the Tamburello corner in a northern Italian town called Imola; and that moment entombed the man’s legacy as nothing ever did in the history of his chosen sport, or anything else in the case of any other great sportsman.
“Taken from life when life and love were new/The youngest of the martyrs here is lain…’’ wrote Oscar Wilde in his unforgettable poem The Grave of Keats .
Senna was neither motor sport’s youngest martyr nor its first. But nothing shook the world of Formula One as much as the fatal high-speed crash that took his life.
The tragic demise of the gifted, charismatic and preternaturally self-assured driver brought about significant changes to safety regulations in Formula One racing. And the sport itself will forever be divided into two eras: Before Senna’s Death and After Senna’s Death.
Many great tragedies are part of the narrative of the human rage for perfection — a rage which is a kind of rebellion against our natural limitations. Senna’s was one such.
Then again, for many Senna fans, the era-defining moment of his death may have nothing to do with the sport’s now-enhanced safety. It has to do with what was before May 1, 1994, and what remained after that Where-Were-You-When-It-Happened day.
A few months after Senna’s passing, a young German won the first of his record seven world championships. And that man — Michael Schumacher — is now fighting for his life in a French hospital after a banal skiing accident.
But what connoisseurs of the sport have missed the most is the searing intensity of the viewing experience that Senna provided when he was behind the wheels. The fire in Senna was so animated that it appeared at once life-enhancing and life-threatening.
“Have you ever experienced a period of grace/When your brain just takes a seat behind your face,’’ wrote Paul Simon in a 1982 song.
What Simon tried to capture in verse is the sort of moment in which you lose yourself, when nothing else in the world seems to matter; a moment that needs no definition, one that simply is.
If Roger Federer is a poet among athletes, and Lionel Messi a master composer, then Senna was not so much a sportsman as he was a missionary. For the devout Roman Catholic from Brazil, Formula One was not a sport or a profession, it was a calling.
“I don’t race for fame, or for money,” said Senna in 1991. “It’s a question of passion. It leaves me with little time to think about my reputation, but I am prepared to pay the price.”
In the event, he ended up paying the ultimate price. But if he were to look back from some parallel universe, striking his patented pensive, Rodinesque pose, Senna would be the first to say it was well worth it. That was the level of his commitment.
When death precedes the process of inevitable ageing and the slow-but-steady erosion of skills, when a sportsman goes out in his prime, he attains a certain mythical status that eludes his longer-lived peers.
The Special One
But then, Senna was a man who always seemed to be aware of his own sense of specialness, of his destiny, even perhaps his ultimate fate.
“These things [racing success] bring you to reality as to how fragile you are; at the moment you are doing something that nobody else is able to do. The same moment that you are seen as the best, the fastest and somebody that cannot be touched, you are enormously fragile,” Senna once said.
He couldn’t have summed up the human condition — even when occupying the peaks — better. But Senna was that kind of person; one so special he also knew he was an everyman.
It was not without reason that Niki Lauda — himself a great champion who defied death and made a famous comeback — called Senna “the greatest driver ever.”
In an era when the toughest Grand Prix to win was the Monte Carlo street circuit, Senna triumphed six times at that venue, winning five in a row from 1989 to 1993.
And to watch the three-time world champion drive in adverse conditions, in the rain, was to watch a great symphony reaching a crescendo. The first time he made the podium was in wet conditions in Monaco in 1984.
But his most memorable victory — and one in which he left a definitive stamp of his genius in the rain — was at Donington Park in England the year before he died. It was a Grand Prix in which Senna lapped every single driver in the field barring Damon Hill, who finished second.
In the 450th year of the birth of The Bard of Avon, you have to wonder “when comes such another” in Formula One racing.
Ayrton Senna’s rage for perfection will never be matched, writes Nirmal Shekar