Ayrton Senna: A Complicated Genius

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Much has been written about the myth of the late Brazilian star. He was an enigma in so many ways, and left die-hard fans scratching their heads at some of the decisions he made on and off the track. With a manic drive to succeed, Ayrton Senna was a slightly unbalanced man whose life could’ve gone many ways, but his karting hobby quickly became an all-consuming passion, for which he would dedicate his life entirely.

From the tender age of four until thirteen, Senna practiced his karting skills on the weekends, and from thirteen on, his competitive streak was sated with formal racing. His obsession with karts would eventually take him to Europe five years later, but it was no simple task getting there.

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Senna in his early days.

Though the man would be known for his prowess when the heavens opened up, he was not a natural in the rain. His first wet race, as legend has it, ended terribly. If anything could be said about Senna, it was that he was a perfectionist. After that frustrating race, he went to the track to practice every time it rained. Even from a young age, Senna was wholly, almost desperately, committed to his craft.

This urge to perfect his driving and support from his wealthy father carried him through to the Karting World Championship – an event he never won – but it was a willingness to sacrifice personally that helped him jump the gap into the world of full-sized cars. After a recommendation from Emerson Fittipaldi, Senna crossed the Atlantic with his father’s support to race Formula Fords in England, the Mecca of motorsport.

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The familiar yellow helmet atop a Formula Ford 1600.

In doing this, the 20-year-old left behind family and friends, warm weather, and his wife-to-be. Liliane Vasconcelos joined Senna in England during his first season in Formula Ford, and immediately realized the life of a racing driver’s fiancee was dull, lonely, and worrisome. The two agreed to part, and so Senna began a solitary, self-involved experience far away from home. Willing to forgo healthy relationships in the name of his career, Senna was clearly a tough man, and possibly a very lonely one. Perhaps that was what allowed him to go to dangerous lengths at times.

Young and happy: Senna and Vasconcelos share a moment.

Young and happy: Senna and Vasconcelos share a moment.

Talent and tenacity saw him through the lower formulae with little difficulty, though his towering self-belief and commitment would occasionally get the best of him. While leading the Formula 3 season, he careened off-course at the 10th round at Cadwell Park. After leaving the track, he kept his foot flat to the floor, insistent he would somehow get back to the track in one-piece, but crashed violently into the barriers and nearly killed himself. This confidence took him into territory some drivers would avoid for the sake of their own mortality, and though Senna was aware of the dangers, he seemed to disregard the risk and push his limits consistently.

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Senna celebrating in his Toleman at Monaco.

After winning Formula Three, Senna cleverly took a seat at Toleman to assure a smooth entry into F1 with less financial pressure. It was at the Monaco Grand Prix in 1984 that he showed the world his talent. During a shower of biblical proportions, Senna used his superhuman sensitivity to pilot the mediocre TG184 – a car with an all-or-nothing, turbocharged power delivery – through the unforgiving Monte Carlo streets, passing the likes of Lauda and Prost and ultimately finishing second.

He had formally arrived. For 1985, he joined Lotus, and became known for his incredible pace; gaining seven pole positions and winning two races: Estoril and Spa. Not only were his wet-weather skills incredible, but with his Renault engine cranked up for qualifying, he seemed able to harness 1,200 horsepower in a way one or two others could. Especially when the grip level was low, he could simply dance with the car; making it look alive as it slithered and hopped.

After a few successful but not-successful-enough years with Lotus, he moved to McLaren to take the seat beside Alain Prost – a man respected by all and someone who Senna had set his sights on beating as far back as his F3 days. Prost cemented himself firmly in the middle of the English team, which did not faze the young Brazilian, who had been told to play second fiddle to the established Prost. Instead, Senna used his charisma and political maneuvering to shift the focus towards himself. Self-absorbed and completely self-confident, he began usurping the Frenchman’s throne. Within two years, the team was his own.

That manifested with a dangerous shove at the 1988 Portuguese Grand Prix. Barreling side-by-side down the front straight, Senna nearly pushed Prost into the pit wall. Senna’s reckless attempt at intimidation did not make Prost flinch, but showed everyone that he was not content with remaining the number two driver, and was willing to put others at risk to reach his aim.

His aggressive, attacking, all-consuming approach took him to the title that year after an epic final race at Suzuka, where, after stalling at the start, he clawed his way through the field on a rain-soaked surface and eventually passed Prost for the win. The next year would end in acrimony. At the finale at Suzuka ’89, Prost violently closed the door on Senna at the Casio Chicane, and the two collided. Prost left the scene, but Senna continued for a new nosecone and went on to win the race, only to be disqualified. Political chaos ensued, and for the first time, the public got a chance to see the indignant, infallible Ayrton Senna.

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Senna’s controversial pass attempt on Prost ended in political mayhem, and Senna considered leaving the sport altogether.

His complex character was given further insight the following year in a tit-for-tat move against Prost. Again, the finale was held at Suzuka, and now Prost had to finish to win the title. Feeling shortchanged after his pole position had been moved to the dirty side of the track and sensing politics at work, Senna rammed Prost at the start. The two cars spun off at 160 mph. For years after, Senna denied his culpability, claiming Prost had turned in on him in the first corner.

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Telemetry later showed Senna had indeed knocked Prost off the track.

Opinions were then divided on Senna. Some saw him as an overly aggressive, reckless man who believed God was on his side. For instance, he punched Eddie Irvine off his chair after being blocked at the ’93 Japanese Grand Prix. Gerhard Berger plying him with whiskey beforehand might have contributed somewhat to that. However, others saw him as a saint; his contributions to Brazil’s poor, his insistence on improving safety, and his concern for certain drivers made it hard to get a clear take on the complicated man.

To some he was petulant, and to others, wise and determined. The reclusive superstar, now twice world champion, continued his success; winning the championship again in 1991, and moving to Williams once the McLaren could no longer carry him to the title. The Williams was not an easy car to drive, thanks to an abrupt change in regulations that removed the electronic devices and made the car unpredictable at speed.

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The tension from a poor start to the ’94 season was visible on Senna’s face.

It was at Imola ’94 that his car, without warning, veered off into the wall outside the Tamburello Corner. A suspension arm pierced his helmet, and the injury would take his life shortly thereafter.

It was a wholly inappropriate death, an almost routine accident, for someone who had flirted with danger so often and so successfully, and seemed almost invulnerable thanks to his prodigious talent.

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Senna’s funeral brought thousands of admirers to the streets.

Senna had become a bonafide legend in Brazil. His funeral was a national affair, and even to this day, the nation sees him as their foremost sporting hero, perhaps even more so than Pele. His controversial behavior would always leave the astute fan perplexed. He was charitable, sensitive, compassionate, and yet, could be a ruthless competitor. A complicated man, Ayrton Senna drove himself to abnormal lengths to achieve the monumental success he did. It made him a supposed madman, but also a warm soul, and even today, that duality of character attracts fans the world across.

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About the author

Tommy Parry

Tommy Parry has been racing and writing about racing cars for the past seven years. As an automotive enthusiast from a young age, he worked jobs revolving around cars throughout high school, and tried his hand on the race track on his 20th birthday. After winning his first outdoor kart race, Tommy began working as an apprentice mechanic to amateur racers in the Bay Area to sharpen his mechanical understanding. He has worked as a track day instructor and automotive writer since 2012, and continues to race karts, formula cars, sedans, and rally cars in the San Francisco region.
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