GOD SPEED

The appeal of Ayrton Senna transcended the glitter of the grand prix circuit; one year after his death, millions still mourn a man who was implacable, obsessive - and sure in his conviction that he had been touched by the divine
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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE balloons in the branches of the single ipe tree that stands over the grave of Ayrton Senna in Sao Paulo. Many yellow, green and blue ones flutter in the autumn breeze, cheerfully echoing the colours of the bandeira, the Brazilian national flag, which he was accustomed to carrying on the lap of honour after a grand prix victory. And hanging next to them, more balloons, perhaps a dozen, red this time, in the shape of a heart.

They were tied there last month for three reasons: to commemorate what would have been Senna's 35th birthday, on 21 March; to mark the return of the Formula One circus to Sao Paulo for the first time since the previous year's Brazilian Grand Prix, which had been his last race on home ground; and to anticipate the first anniversary of the accident that killed him.

Senna's death, which occurred a few hours after his car hit a concrete wall at the Imola track in Italy on 1 May 1994, transfixed an audience far beyond the confines of his sport. It was not just a matter of the demise of a man of high achievement. The three world championships and the 41 grand prix victories made him exceptional, but not unique. What marked him out, the characteristic that compelled the attention of millions who never watched a grand prix from beginning to end, went deeper than career statistics. It was a special quality of the spirit, which somehow revealed itself in the way he expressed the skills of his trade.

Men find beauty in racing cars; they stand and stare at them for hours. But that is not what will draw around 100,000 people back to Imola next weekend for the San Marino Grand Prix, a race sure to be overshadowed by the memory of the man who died there last year. The appeal of motor racing, the trigger that releases the audience's emotion, is the sight of a man visibly fighting the machine, operating at the very limit of control, venturing just beyond it and returning to tell the tale. And in his ability to express a remarkable gift in terms that the ordinary fan could see, Senna was out there by himself.

Some great drivers explicitly combined extreme speed with naked courage: from Tazio Nuvolari in the Thirties to Nigel Mansell in the Nineties, these men were accustomed to pushing a car beyond its limits, trying to overcome unfavourable odds through sheer force of will. They could take an inferior machine and wring out the last drop of its speed, and the crowd could see it happening. Others achieved their speed by a different method, avoiding drama for its own sake in the belief that calmness and neatness were more likely to prevail. Juan Fangio, the only man to win five world titles, was like that, and Stirling Moss, usually, and the two great Scottish champions, Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart, and above all Alain Prost, Senna's great rival, his brain so cool and his temperament so lacking in a natural instinct for drama that he was nicknamed "The Professor", which is perhaps a funny thing for a racing driver to be called.

As a racing driver, Ayrton Senna combined a flawless technique, a calculating brain and an unshakeable belief in his own superiority with a ruthless aggression and a readiness to use intimidation to defeat his rivals. These were the weapons he brought to bear on Prost, eventually reducing a once formidable champion to a condition of near-impotence. But what made Senna really different was his intellectual capacity, in particular the spiritual dimension that emerged whenever he spoke in general terms about the demands of his vocation.

He believed in God, and read the Bible on the long flights from Sao Paulo to the race tracks of the world. "There is no end to the knowledge you can get or the understanding or the peace by going deeper and deeper," he once said. "I pray regularly, not because it is a habit but because it has innovated my life." (The unfamiliar application of the verb is not without significance: Senna's English was fluent enough for him to create a shade of meaning that normal usage would have denied to a native speaker.) But his God went one-on-one with the man who sought guidance and strength. "I hardly go to church," he explained, "because the only time I feel good in a church is when there's nobody there."

The place where he really met his God was in the cockpit of a racing car. In pure sports terms, his motivation - his "focusing", to use the jargon - was unsurpassed, not just in its intensity but in its consistency. Senna never cruised, never backed off, never settled for what fate had given him that afternoon. And sometimes his relentless concentration took him to a special place. Most memorably, he told the Canadian writer Gerald Donaldson about his experience during the final qualifying session for the Monaco Grand Prix of 1988, when he threw his car around the streets with a crazy virtuosity. "Suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously," he said. "I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel. Not only the tunnel under the hotel but the whole circuit was a tunnel. I was just going and going, more and more and more. I was way over the limit but still able to find even more. Then suddenly something just kicked me. I kind of woke up and realised that I was in a different atmosphere than you normally are. My immediate reaction was back off, slow down. I drove back slowly to the pits and I didn't want to go out any more that day. It frightened me because I was well beyond my conscious understanding. It happens rarely but I keep these experiences very much alive inside me because it is something that is important for self-preservation."

You can listen to that, and dismiss it. Or you can say, yes, perhaps this is the sort of thing that can happen to people who operate at a very high level of mental and physical activity, where the intellect and the body combine and it becomes hard to say which is pulling the strings. To me, Senna's words echo the experiences of improvising musicians who reach the point at which conscious technique falls away and the execution becomes virtually automatic, leaving no barrier between the artist and the expression, between thought and act.

Because he chose to speak of these things, it was easy to get him wrong. Even easier to take a dislike to what seemed like piousness, or poke fun at pretensions which appeared hopelessly out of context in the cold-eyed world of grand prix racing, where a word (or a promise) can mean whatever you want it to mean. Sports people are supposed to go no further in philosophical terms than the practised one-liner: "Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser", or "Nice guys finish second." But Senna, unafraid of showing his sensitivity, would talk with his characteristic, limpid seriousness about anything, answering a mundane post-race question about a mechanical problem with a digressive but always lucid 10-minute answer, or tackling the tricky subject of death head-on, with something more than the well- rehearsed romantic fatalism usually thought appropriate to post-Hemingway heroes. "If you have God on your side," he said, "everything becomes clear. I have a blessing from Him. But, of course, I can get hurt or killed, as anyone can." And this: "It hurts me if things come out such as I have a feeling that I am immortal or unbeatable because of my belief in God. What I said was that God gives me strength, but also that life is a present that God has given to us and that we are obliged to handle it carefully."

The aspirations that guided his life held a meaning in terms of something other than his chosen sport. Here was a man born to an easy, privileged existence, yet who had chosen to make it more difficult in order to find some sort of truth for himself, because that truth could not be attained without the experience of struggle. And if, in the process, he became perhaps the best the world has ever seen, that was not enough for him. One world championship or even (to beat Fangio's all-time record) half a dozen: they may have been the target, but they were never the point. No matter how exalted or complete the triumph, it contained within itself the imperative to achieve more, and along with that came a sense of the suffering involved if he were to continue to surpass himself.

All this was sensed by many of the people who only glimpsed him on the television or in newspaper photographs. To the thousands of mourners who visited the Cemitrio de Morumbi during this year's grand prix week, his memory was so fresh that they were still bringing flowers and cards and keepsakes to lay on the lawn around the simple bronze plaque recording the site of his interment.

These signs of mourning recalled the great display of grief witnessed by Sao Paulo during the days after his death, when a couple of million people turned out to line the boulevards and the overpasses as his coffin, draped in the flag and carried by a fire engine, travelled from the airport, and more than 200,000 people had queued for several hours to walk past his coffin, its lid closed to hide his dreadful injuries.

Senna's death was lamented throughout Brazil, and the world. But in Sao Paulo last month the expressions of grief seemed curiously muted. True, part of the highway along which his mortal remains made their journey home in the dawn light of last May has been rechristened the Rodovia Ayrton Senna. Outside the Interlagos circuit, there were Senna baseball caps and T-shirts on sale from a loose cordon of unofficial street hawkers. Inside, some spectators put up fond banners: "Senna Lives", "Senna - What Sadness", "Farewell Senna", "Senna - Our Hero", "Thank You, Senna". Across the sky on race morning, a small plane trailed a message: "Senna For Ever". And an hour before they buckled on their helmets and climbed into their cars, the drivers hopped aboard a flatbed truck and paraded round the circuit, each holding a bandeira in honour of the dead champion.

Yet no member of Senna's close-knit family was present at the race. Not his father, Milton da Silva, a businessman (motor parts and farms) who built the four-year-old Ayrton his first go-kart as therapy to help him overcome a slight difficulty in walking; his adoring mother, Neide Senna da Silva, from whom he took his nom de piste; his older sister, Viviane, a psychologist whose advice had formed his own extraordinary philosophy; or his younger brother, Leonardo, a slight, pale-faced man who had acted as the family's spokesman during the tragic events of the previous year, conveying their grief and anger with great dignity.

The residue of that anger, in fact, was said to underlie their absence from Interlagos. Rumours surfaced of continuing ill will between the family and the two Englishmen who run Formula One racing: Max Mosley, the president of the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, motor sport's governing body, and his friend and vice-president, Bernie Ecclestone, an enigmatic former south London car dealer who has spent 30 years turning grand prix racing into a television spectacle watched by billions around the world.

Last year in Sao Paulo, Ecclestone was preparing to attend Senna's funeral when a call came through from Leonardo da Silva. His presence, Ecclestone was told, would be considered "inconvenient". Mosley, too, took the hint. In the heat of their emotion, many Brazilians were blaming the duo for various aspects of the tragedy: Mosley for the dangerous nature of the Imola circuit, Ecclestone for the supposedly contrived delay in the announcement of Senna's death, which allowed the race to continue and thereby meet its commitments to the world's television networks and to the sponsors. "Assassinos Mercenarios Queremos Justica," a blood-red banner had screamed outside the 9th of July Palace as the thousands streamed by to pay their last respects: money-grubbing assassins, the people demand justice.

But what justice could there be, for the death of a man who perished in pursuit of a goal given its meaning by the inescapable presence of mortal risk? A year after the accident, the Bologna magistrate in charge of the judicial inquiry has yet to report his findings into why Senna's Williams might have left its appointed line and shot off on a delinquent trajectory towards an unforgiving concrete wall. No one thinks that Senna made a driving error; but his engineers would like to be told whether or not they were at fault, while the family, which swiftly appointed an eminent English engineer to shadow the official inquiry and produce his own findings, would also like to know how and why their golden boy met his end.

In the meantime, they pursue the vision of the Instituto Ayrton Senna, a charitable foundation created posthumously to help the children of Brazil. Senna was a rich man in a poor country, earning about $20m a year directly from his racing and sponsorship activities, and perhaps as much again from other commercial projects. In life, he had given millions of dollars to charities: to a children's hospital in Sao Paulo, for instance, and to an organisation devoted to health-care for rubber plantation workers in the hinterland. There is no doubt that Senna had a special affection for children, not least Viviane's small son and daughter. In his last few months he presided over the launch of Senninha e sua turma ("Little Senna and his gang"), a children's comic. Now Viviane runs the foundation, which has headquarters in Sao Paulo and London, collecting revenue from the sales of the comic and from the licensing of Senna's name and image to the makers of T-shirts and other merchandise. According to Julian Jakobi, Senna's business manager and a trustee of the foundation, the proceeds already amount to several million dollars, which have been channelled towards two projects: the distribution of food to undernourished children throughout Brazil, and the provision of school places for 500 street kids in Sao Paulo, the ingenious lure to hold their attention being the chance to spend every afternoon at a sports clinic, on condition that they turn up every morning for formal lessons.

The more we saw of Ayrton Senna (and, maybe, the older and wiser he grew), the easier it became to appreciate his personal qualities. Occasionally he cheated and lied in pursuit of his sporting goals, which made it hard to view him with unmixed feelings. But he knew the meaning of Browning's words: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what's a heaven for?" This was his version: "Many times I find myself in a comfortable position, and I don't feel happy about it. It is... an enormous desire to go further, to travel beyond my own limits." For him the last enemy was not death, or the opponent revving up next to him on the grid, but himself.

! Adapted from `The Death of Ayrton Senna', by Richard Williams, to be published on 1 May by Viking Books (£12.50).

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