Thursday, July 2, 2009

Pep's Message for Ayrton

I can’t believe that it’s been 20 years since we lost you.

The first Formula One race I ever watched was the 1986 Australian Grand Prix. It was won in spectacular fashion by Alain Prost, a man who would of course become your great rival. That day I was instantly hooked on F1.

At the time you were a rising star, a winner of 4 Grand Prix already. Those 4 wins were all in that beautiful and elegant black Lotus Renault. What a fantastic looking F1 car that was! I was to read much later about how you got into F1, your time at Toleman plus all about those first 4 wins. You were known as a super quick and single-minded racer with plenty of determination and talent. Already you were being called a master in the wet ... a fighting spirit. So in 1986 I was watching a rising star, taking up the challenge to drivers like Prost, Mansell and Piquet. And I knew, as the world did, that much more exciting things were to come from you.

I am not sure how you were perceived in Brazil at that time. What I mean is that the next year in 1987 Piquet took his 3rd world title. But Piquet was polarising while I suspect you were already universally loved. The next great Brazilian charger!

In 1987 you took another 2 wins, this time in a yellow Lotus with a Honda engine, but it wasn’t until 1988 that things really got exciting. That was an awesome season. You joined McLaren with Alain as your teammate and during the season you both systematically destroyed the competition winning every single race except one.

As a fan of Prost I remember during 1988 my dad asking me after each race; “How did Prost go?”. My answer so many times was – “He got second”. You won 8 races that year with Prost getting 2nd 7 of those times. While I supported Prost – I respected and admired you. I enjoyed the battles and remember wanting that McLaren MP4/4 to win every race. My attitude was – “May the best man win”.

And Senna my friend you did win! 1988 was your first F1 title despite Alain scoring more points. But only 11 of the 16 races actually counted to the title. A stupid rule in my opinion born from the terrible reliability F1 cars had back then. And that McLaren MP4/4 was pound-for-pound one of the most beautiful F1 cars I’ve ever seen ... and probably the most dominant.

In 1989 the rivalry continued and intensified. You took 6 wins and Prost only 4 however Alain was more consistent over the season and had less retirements than you. All this came to a head in the penultimate round of the season, the now famous Suzuka race. I’ve seen the footage many times and I still believe this was a racing incident from two drivers who would not give an inch. You came from a long way back and put your car on the inside at turn 15 ... just as Alain was turning in. The circumstance of your disqualification from this race and losing the title must have been a bitter disappointment for you.

The next season in 1990 Prost went to Ferrari and were joined by Gerhard Berger, a man who would become your friend. His personality and practical jokes seemed to bring the 2 of you together. Despite retiring from the final 3 Grand Prix of the season you took the title but there was controversy again, again at Suzuka – this time at turn 1. You admitted later that this was “payback” from the year before. Your single mindedness and need to win was showing through. You were now a double world champion. And I was by now a massive Senna fan.

Then in 1991 you won the title again! You had joined the greats of triple World Champions. Like everyone else I expected you to win more titles after this, but tragically this was not the case. The battle was with Mansell for this season and but you won it with ease – 7 wins.

For 1992 and 1993 the Williams Renault dominated. But you still managed to take 3 wins in 1992 and had to watch Mansell’s storming run to the title. This season you finished 4th. Then in 1993 it was a better season ... you finished 2nd to Prost who had returned from his sabbatical. There were 5 wins that season including that phenomenal victory in the wet at Donington.

1994 and you joined the team that was dominating F1 – Williams Renault. Ever since Toleman you always wanted to drive the quickest car. Team loyalty was less of a priority - winning was everything and I respected that. A young charger Michael Schumacher won the first 2 Grand Prix in his Benetton and Williams clearly had some work to do. It was then that the GP circus arrived for the 3rd round of the championship in San Marino.

Imola May 1st 1994 - a day I will never forget. Your tragic death was an absolute shock and a dark day in Formula One. When Ratzenberger died in qualifying the day before, I was surprised but I never imaged that 24 hours later the biggest name in Formula One would also be dead. As I watched the race live and saw your accident, I was immediately reminded of Berger’s accident on the same corner in 1989 which looked just as bad but also involved fire. Your accident was serious but I was not initially worried... after all Berger survived and your car didn’t look that damaged.

It was in the minutes after the accident that I became very concerned. First of all there was the frantic gestures and body language of the marshals and medical staff. Also, you were not moving and they had to remove you from the car.

Things looked very grim and as the race finished late Sunday night Australian time, I remember going to bed that night feeling very concerned that there could be bad news in the morning. As soon I woke Monday morning, I turned on the news and heard that the worst had happened. You had died.

It’s difficult to describe how I felt hearing this news. It was like a close relative or family member had died. There was a sense of the unreal - that it wasn’t happening. F1 had been such a big passion for me for 8 years and I admired and respected you so much. And now, the biggest and brightest name in F1, a man at the top of his game, was gone.

In the weeks, months (and even years!) after you died there were enquiries and court cases into exactly what happened that day. For me there was only one answer – a technical failure of the Williams FW16B. It was very clear that the steering column was unstable at the time of the accident. The steering column broke and you went straight off at Tamburello. Other theories about cold tyres, low pressures and the car bottoming-out were just ridiculous.

And now 20 years later, the name Ayrton Senna is revered around the world – as it should be and as it always will be.

Since your death I’ve learnt so much more about your life and passions outside F1 ... family, religion, your homeland. And the enjoyment you gained from water sports, model planes and of course go-karts. Things like the houses and organic farm you were building for yourself and the workers around the lake. I learnt about your values and your determination to give something back to people less fortunate than yourself. I am glad that many of these values were continued by your sister Viviane through Instituto Ayrton Senna.

Your legacy in Formula One is also clear. Not just your 3 world titles and record 65 pole positions, but the way you went about racing, your philosophy, your intense need to win. Your death also brought about many improvements in F1 safety - cars, redesigned tracks and barriers, higher crash safety standards.

Nowadays I have several things around my home which remind me of you everyday. I enjoy reading books and watching the DVD’s about you over and over. Footage such as the incar lap at Monaco just mesmerize me! These things I especially do every May.

Você é o melhor. Obrigado e eu sinto saudades