WHEN Jim Clark died after crashing at Hockenheim, in Germany, in 1968 his passing stunned the motor racing world. Chris Amon, one of the few men with the talent to challenge the brilliant Scot, summarised every other driver's feelings when he said: 'We were all left feeling totally exposed, vulnerable. We all felt, 'If it can happen to Jimmy, what chance have we got?' '
On a weekend when motorsport plunged back to the nightmares of the Sixties, Ayrton Senna's death after crashing during the San Marino Grand Prix yesterday has had precisely the same effect.
Though he had been beaten in the first two races of 1994 by the German prodigy Michael Schumacher, Senna was the yardstick not only by which all other racers were judged, but by which they judged themselves. To the real stars, matching or even beating Senna was the highest possible triumph. An endorsement of one's own greatness. Few could ever achieve that, let alone aspire to it. To lesser lights, finishing second to him was as good as a victory.
Born of wealthy parents in Sao Paulo in 1960, Ayrton Senna da Silva began racing karts when he was four, with the encouragement of his father, Milton. His phenomenal progress through the motorsport ranks marked him clearly for greatness; a world championship was inevitable.
When he arrived in Britain in 1981 he raced with Denis Rushen, a colourful owner of a Formula Ford team. 'He was so quiet,' Rushen recalled, 'that he was always the guy you found standing shyly in the kitchen at parties.' He remained thus for many years, although it was only a short time before his English improved to the point where he could no longer be duped into greeting fresh acquaintances with earthy Anglo-Saxon.
Senna brought an extraordinary level of commitment to his motor racing, to such an extent that clashes with fellow rivals and the media were inevitable. He had a towering self-belief that sometimes bordered on zealotry. The first manifestation of that belief came at the small Cadwell Park track, in Lincolnshire, in 1983. Senna had won nine consecutive Formula Three races, but crashed heavily in practice for this 10th round. But even when his car was out of control, he kept his foot hard on the power. He would never surrender anything without a fight. He won the championship that year and sprang into Formula One with the Toleman team for 1984. He scored his first world championship point in only his second grand prix, when, despite heat exhaustion, he came home sixth in South Africa.
Later that year came the first signs of the other side of his nature, when he left the team in acrimonious circumstances to join Lotus. Once the news of Senna's impending defection had been revealed, Alex Hawkridge, the manager of Toleman, suspended him from the Italian Grand Prix before the end of their relationship. Senna was stunned. 'I did it,' Hawkridge revealed, 'because it was important to teach him that for every negative action you perform in life there is a penalty.' It was a lesson that Senna never forgot, even if he never came to approve of any sanction against himself.
With Lotus he won his first grand prix, in Portugal in 1985, but by 1987 he had lost patience as he covetously eyed Alain Prost's situation at McLaren. Their partnership at McLaren in 1988 made all other sporting feuds look tame, but by the end of that season the first world championship had been delivered, in true Senna style. He stalled his car at the start of the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, before storming home to win on a track rendered greasy by rain. On the way he beat Prost soundly.
Earlier that year he had demonstrated the dark side of his character by deliberately swerving at Prost as they raced wheel to wheel down the long straight at the Estoril track in Portugal. Time and again Senna's blend of impetuosity and self- righteousness led him into trouble. He railed against exclusion from victory in the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix after a collision with Prost, accusing the sport's governing body of cheating him out of a second title. He was forced to make an apology of sorts before he was granted a licence for the following year. By then Prost had left for Ferrari, and the two fought for the championship again at Suzuka. There, in a move that prompted some to question what his sheer competitive intensity and his feeling of being wronged could push him to, Senna drove into the back of Prost's Ferrari when the Frenchman beat him to the first corner. With both retiring on the spot, Senna clinched his second championship at Prost's expense.
Two weeks later, when I showed him a series of photographs of the incident, and asked him why he had apparently driven Prost off the road, Senna refused to accept the damning evidence in front of us, denying the physical positions of the cars, despite what the photographer had recorded. A year later, in an extraordinary outburst following victory in the Japanese Grand Prix which had clinched his third world championship, he finally admitted that he had deliberately driven Prost off the track, that it would be tit-for-tat for what he had seen as Prost's role in his downfall in 1989.
Without question Ayrton Senna was an extraordinary individual. Over the years his relationships were often like a roller-coaster, but to his friends he was intensely loyal. In 1983, when he was racing in Formula Three, he struck me as a lonely man who felt that the British press preferred his rival Martin Brundle. And to an extent he remained a vulnerable character despite his overt aggression on the track and the occasionally disdainful manner that his successes had developed. Much of it seemed like a protective wall, and there was another Ayrton Senna deep within.
This was an altogether kinder man, the sort who would give up his seat to usher an old lady down the stairs while once waiting for an appointment with Professor Sid Watkins, of the London Hospital, the regular chief medical officer at grands prix, and the man who yesterday administered to him at the Tamburello corner which claimed his life. In his homeland he was lionised, and he made significant charitable donations which he never remotely attempted to publicise. He loved children, too. 'They are the honest ones,' he once said.
If he didn't like you, you knew it; in 1986 he was at war with the British press after preventing Derek Warwick from joining him at Lotus. Over the years that animosity mellowed, but often the feeling he nurtured that his trust had been betrayed caused flare-ups. He was roundly condemned last year for striking his rival Eddie Irvine - again, almost inevitably, at Suzuka - and the cold war began again.
But, whatever some of his failings may have been, Senna was a man with whom you always knew where you stood, and though his tactics on the track were frequently and deliberately intimidatory, he was without question one of the greatest racing drivers the world has ever known. To see Senna on a quick lap was to be awed by majesty.
On Friday afternoon he took pole position for the race in which he died, the 65th time he had been fastest in practice for a grand prix. With a commanding success in his last race for the McLaren team in 1993 he had taken his total of grand prix victories to 41, second only to that of his arch-rival Prost.
When he finally joined the Williams team for 1994, he spoke of the need for a fresh challenge, and he was determined to redress the points imbalance between himself and Schumacher that had made this season so exciting after the first two races. His outstanding ability to relate to his engineers precisely what his machinery was doing at any given point on a circuit, on any given lap, had passed into grand prix legend, and already last weekend it was clear that Williams had made significant progress in developing its car.
To all who witnessed him at work it seemed that Ayrton Senna's artistry and air of invincibility would always protect him no matter what befell him. In a weekend when motorsport was thrown into despair, it lost one of the greatest kings it will ever know. To many, especially those with whom he worked, he will always be the greatest.