Matt Butler: Better to recall Ayrton Senna through Irish eyes with celebration not clichés

View From the Sofa: The Day Senna Died BBC 5 Live
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The Independent Online

To borrow a phrase from Alan Partridge (and Jeremy Clarkson, no doubt), if you think the following sentence is racist, you're wrong.

Wouldn't it be good if people were a little more Irish in their memorials of sports people? Anyone who has been to an Irish wake will know where we are coming from. Speaking from experience, post-funeral bashes Irish-style tend to be marked with a lot of drinking, noise and hilarious stories. What there is hardly any of is wailing, hand-wringing and morose mentions that the dead person is actually dead.

In other words, it is a celebration of the person's life, rather than a mourning over the fact that the person's life is over. The rationale goes that the person is dead; there's nothing we can do about it – we may as well remember how he or she lived.

The Day Senna Died, BBC 5 Live's programme to mark the 20th anniversary of the Brazilian Formula One driver's death, set a suitably celebratory tone – James Allen reported from the memorial events at Imola and described the proceedings as "very human" and "light". "It's so nice not to be talking about fuel flow and tyre degradation," Allen said. "Today was about glamour, charisma, speed and danger, and all the brilliant things about F1 that makes people's hair stand up at the back of their neck." You could almost taste the Sangiovese as the hubbub went on in the Bologna background.

Sure there were some downers in the two-hour show, which was held together excellently by Jennie Gow. Manish Pandey, the writer of the 2010 documentary Senna, sounded like he was still in mourning, while Ron Dennis, the McLaren chief, admitted he "misses his friend every day".

But a programme dedicated to an iconic driver whose life was cut short is bound to have some lump-in-the-throat moments. Simon Taylor, who was calling the fateful race for BBC radio – his chilling commentary, where he trips over his words as he tries to take in what he has just seen, was played at the beginning – was a studio guest and gave some crystal-clear reminiscences about what went on in the immediate aftermath.

The most depressing – and pointless – parts were Gow's reading of texts and tweets from listeners. All the clichéd "I still feel so empty" missives did was sum up the self-referencing public grieving that blights social media.

For genuine insight, Richard West, then sponsorship manager for Williams and the last man to interview Senna, gave us a new understanding of the man, after a week of being bombarded with information about his Jekyll and Hyde persona and his unquenchable desire to win. "I asked how he was, if he was all right," he said of a pre-race talk with Senna about Roland Ratzenberger, who died the previous day in practice. "He said 'Not really, but I will race anyway'."

We needed a little light relief. And we got it, from Senna's nephew Bruno. "I remember him at the beach house, racing around on jet-skis," he said. "I like to focus on celebrating the life he had, not on the sadness that he is no longer here." The Irish in us was smiling.