Four years ago, when China hosted the Summer Olympics, the only thing I remember hearing about was people protesting in favor of Tibet, against China’s brutal invasion of that country. With the games in London this year, the situation slightly improved for me, sports illiterate I am. I know Phelps – the only man ever to hold nineteen gold medals – and the muscular girls of our women’s gymnastics team, who seem to be rocking and rolling too.
It is a much better environment now, when we are finally free (one can hope) of athletes born and raised in the bankrupted USSR and first cousin East Germany, who fed their super men and women tons of steroids – and God only knows what else – to prove communism produced superior human beings, impossible to be imitated in the capitalist West.
So I wandered through our Xfinity channels in the evenings after work this week, looking for the latest Olympic Games footage. I get my daily news from the Web, and yet, when it comes to watch a little bit of Olympic competition before bed, I still turn on the TV.
It was by chance, playing with the remote, that I came across a surprising documentary, broadcast on July 30 by ESPN 2 (channel 35 if you have Comcast) about a sports person who in a way, was an Olympic champion as well. The documentary, produced in the UK, was entirely assembled with pieces of home videos and interviews with people close to the man it depicts.
Before going into more details about the documentary’s hero, I would like to explain one little thing about the country where I was born: there were only three things that really mattered to Brazilians on weekends (order of preference may vary according to gender, age, and how close one is from the shore): 1. attending Mass (Saturday or Sunday, pick your preferred time and priest); 2. Skies blue enough for a day or two at the beach; 3. Soccer, and 4. Formula One racing on TV. I never liked soccer very much, always loved the beach, attended Holy Mass for a long time on Sundays at five PM, but watching Formula One on TV could lead me to suicide.
It is the most monotonous competition ever; potent engines roaring and tires screeching on pavement, lap upon lap, for two to three hours (as I recall, from eleven in the morning to one or two in the Sunday afternoon), punctuated by irrelevant remarks from the commentators behind the cameras. Who can blame them? I mean, there is only so much one can say about a competition where very little happens once the cars start off. Usually the race’s winner is defined in the very first minutes – whoever holds the pole position will be crossing the finish line first, unless he allows for the second driver to pass him, which rarely happens, no matter how good number two might be. That’s huge. An overtaking, when it happens, has the power to revive the commentators, giving the poor things material for another full three hours of Formula One broadcast. It’s like blood to Dracula. Like touch down. Only that it almost never happens…
Aside from bold and rare overtakings (which involve a lot of complex factors such as aerodynamic efficiency and bubbles of turbulent air), the only other source of excitement , sadly, is when someone gets hurt. Or worse. The few times I watched some of those unwanted episodes, replayed ad nauseam, I told myself we are all nuts. The ones behind the wheel and the ones in front of the TV alike. Those guys are driving weird, elongated and ugly things, with enormous engines, balanced on four exaggeratedly wide and tall tires – those things don’t look like automobiles at all – developing speeds as high as 370 km/h (230 mph) and we are watching them get hurt, burn in Hollywood-like explosions (Austrian F1 pilot Niki Lauda’s permanently disfigured face is an appalling evidence of how nasty his burns were ) – or perish. Then the race might get suspended, adjourned, and the torture continues on the following Sunday. If someone wins the race and no accidents happen thank God (who must be scratching His head in disbelief as well, having dispatched His elite Guardian Angels down to a Sunday at the tarmac ), another race will take place again in four or five weeks, in another country. In Formula One jargon each race is called Grand Prix (French for Great Prize): Australia Grand Prix, Japan Grand Prix, Brazil Grand Prix and so on.
On one of those Sundays – it was May 1st, 1994 – the then three times Formula One world champion was too fast even for elite angels. Brazilian F1 pilot Ayrton Senna da Silva died in the San Marino Grand Prix (Bologna, Italy), in a crash at the corner known as Tamburello, while leading the race. He was thirty-four.
I don’t remember the day but I know I was not particularly moved by his passing. To me, he was an air-headed celebrity, a bon-vivant; talented and skilled in driving ugly looking cars at maddening speeds, long divorced and always dating this or that top-model from Rio or Sao Paulo. Adored by the press and, goes without saying, Formula One hard core fans, but not the least bit inspiring to me. It took a British documentary to show me I was wrong.
If you Google SENNA, the acclaimed (now I know) 106 min documentary by English director Asif Kapadia, released in 2010, this is a summary of what the Web reports:
“It begins with Senna’s arrival into Formula One during the 1984 season, briefly covering his time at Toleman and Lotus before concentrating on his career at McLaren. The documentary concentrates on his time with the British team – namely his rise to global fame – becoming a World Champion, his rivalry with his team mate Alain Prost, and his political struggles with the then head of FISA Jean-Marie Balestre. The film covers the climax of the rivalry during the 1989 and 1990 seasons, when Senna and Prost were involved in controversial clashes which decided the drivers’ title. Following a brief overview of the seasons that followed and the technological domination of the Williams cars, the documentary reaches its finale as Senna moves to the Grove-based team in 1994, before covering the events of that year’s San Marino Grand Prix, which saw Senna lose his life. The film concludes with the Senna family and his close friends from Formula One mourning his loss at his funeral.”
As the movie flowed with undeniable competency by the director, I learned that Senna’s career started with karting at the age of thirteen – his dad Milton built his first kart, actually: a small 1 HP go-kart that used a lawnmower engine! Born in the neighborhood of Santana, in Sao Paulo, to a very wealthy family of Italian and Portuguese descent, this highly athletic young man excelled in gymnastics and other sports and had already given his heart to cars and motor racing at the age of four. Although Ayrton moved to England in 1981 to pursue the F1 pilot career, he remained concerned about poverty in his own country. It was not until after his death that it was revealed how Senna had quietly donated a large portion of his personal fortune . Shortly before passing, assisted by Viviane Senna, his sister, Ayrton planned a foundation, a charitable non-profit organization dedicated to assist Brazilian children, which would later be named The Ayrton Senna Institute:
To date, this charitable organization has helped twelve million kids in Brazil. The foundation is officially advised by Bernie Ecclestone, Frank Williams, Alain Prost (once Senna’s rival and arch- enemy), and Gerhard Berger – all Formula One personalities. The “Senninha” (“Little Senna”) cartoon character, born in 1993/94, was another means by which Senna extended his role model status in favor of Brazilian children.
A second web site reports how Senna was renowned for “his intensity and almost mystic qualities, often quoted using driving as a means for self-discovery and racing as a metaphor for life: ‘The harder I push, the more I find within myself. I am always looking for the next step, a different world to go into, areas where I have not been before. It’s lonely driving a Grand Prix car, but very absorbing. I have experienced new sensations, and I want more. That is my excitement, my motivation. ‘ “
Towards the sudden end of his career , Senna turned increasingly preoccupied with the dangers of the profession. On the very morning of his passing he outlined what would become the GPDA (Grand Prix Drivers Association) reformation, which he had intended to improve safety regulations.
A few more curiosities I found on the Web about his life:
“In the late 1980s, to take advantage of the close relationship Honda had formed with Senna, the Japanese company asked him to help fine-tune the Honda NSX‘s suspension setting during its final development stages. The tests were conducted at Suzuka Circuit with chief NSX engineer Shigeru Uehara and his engineering team present to gather Senna’s direct input. Senna found the prototype NSX initially lacked chassis stiffness to the level he was accustomed to, so the final production version was further reinforced to his satisfaction. Senna was also instrumental in bringing Audi cars into his native country, both as an import and manufacturing business. Audi entered Brazil in 1994 via Ayrton Senna’s company, Senna Import, founded in 1993. Sales began in April that year, just a month before his untimely death. In 1999, Audi Senna was created as a joint venture of Audi with Senna Import. Senna’s personal car in 1994 was an Audi S4.”
The son of a highly successful businessman, Senna had entrepreneurism too in his veins:
“Senna exercised his strong entrepreneurial spirit in the early 1990s by developing his own logo, the double S, after his full surname, Senna da Silva. The Senna brand was on apparel, watches (TAG Heuer), bicycles (Carraro), and boats. TAG Heuer and Hublot have created limited edition watches to honor Senna, both during his lifetime and after his death. Senna owned several properties, including an organic farm in Tatuí, Brazil, a beach house in Angra dos Reis, Brazil, and several other properties in São Paulo, Monaco, and Algarve, Portugal. Ayrton enjoyed a range of physical activities including running, waterskiing, jet skiing, and paddleboarding. He also had several hobbies, such as flying real and model planes and helicopters, boating, fishing and riding his favorite Ducati motorbikes. His private jet was a British Aerospace 125 (BAe HS125), and he also piloted his own helicopter between his residences in Brazil. He was left-handed. His nickname from childhood was “Beco”, and the Japanese Honda engineers would call him “Harry” because they had difficulty pronouncing Ayrton.”
“Many safety improvements were made in the sport following Senna’s death. These include improved crash barriers, redesigned tracks, higher crash safety standards (such as larger sills along the driver cockpit) and major cuts to engine power. Ironically, these knee-jerk measures resulted in further major crashes that year (e.g., at the Spanish Grand Prix). Also ironically, entry to the fatal Tamburello corner and other chicanes on the Imola circuit had been significantly altered for 1995. This was despite calls for action in 1989, after a serious high-speed crash that saw Senna’s best friend, Gerhard Berger, suffering burns to his hand. No action took place after that crash because, following an inspection by Senna and Berger, they ended up siding with officials who had, for years, claimed that the wall could not be moved further back due to a river nearby. (…) Soon after his death in 1994, the Brazilian World Cup winning team dedicated their victory to the great racer in order to recognize his contributions to Formula One.”
People literally hanging from light poles on the streets of Sao Paulo; crowds of thousands lining the long avenues of a city that houses a population of twenty million, struggling to catch a glimpse of the fire engine slowly moving ahead, with Senna’s coffin atop, covered by Brazil’s flag. The documentary simply plays back real footage at this point. Nothing the director, as talented as he is, could have artificially produced in a movie set , and perhaps combined with computer-generated images, would have been more impressive, touching and stronger than the scenes filmed in Brazil during Senna’s funeral. I do remember the country halted. And that’s all I remember. No school, people did not go to work. Had the Brazilian soccer team won the World Cup twice that week, the commotion would not top that of Senna’s body returning home. There were kids in tears, boys and girls. Men and women crying like babies, carrying posters autographed by Senna. We have all seen this type of demonstration once in a while, here and there, around the world. But what is strikingly powerful about the footage used in the Senna documentary is the sheer number of people on the streets; miles of roads and avenues in Sao Paulo lined with people, crowded balconies, people climbing on walls just to wave good-bye. I don’t think Brazil had ever witnessed such a public demonstration of love and admiration for one single individual.
Where was I when all this went on? I wish I could have known how humble Senna behaved in the meetings the documentary shows, where the pilots would bring their suggestions to the FISA (International Federation of Automotive Sports) managers in Europe, voicing their concerns. And how arrogant the FISA executives could be ! I watched those segments in disgust; the FISA top guys made me think of irresponsible horse race organizers – the cars were the horses, the pilots jockeys, and their lives did not matter much as long as FISA kept on making money.
I wish I could have known how Ayrton struggled against the new car the Williams team gave him in 1994; how worried he was, how unhappy he looked, his forehead constantly creased, complaining in a very low voice that something was wrong with the car, shaking his head to the mechanics; that the car shifted balance too harshly on the curves (I have no idea what that means, practically speaking); that all the electronics and computers added to control the engine were actually doing nothing positive and he did not trust any of the new devices. To him, the FW16 had speed but was very unstable and hard to control. And then his conflicts with French F1 pilot Alain Prost. How Prost criticized him in public, to TV show hosts and newspapers because Ayrton was always talking about God, and how God was with him, etc. That was sheer ignorance on Mr. Prost’s side, I thought. He had no idea Ayrton was just being Brazilian – that people in Brazil talk like that all the time; without meaning to preach or exalt themselves as one of God’s favorites as Prost complained.
In Wikipedias’ page about Ayrton Senna’s death, a short paragraph summarizes the accident’s technicalities:
“On lap 7, the second lap at racing speed, Senna’s car left the racing line at the 190 mph Tamburello corner, ran in a straight line off the track and struck an unprotected concrete barrier. He left the track at 310 km/h (190 mph) and was able to slow the car down by braking to 218 km/h (135 mph) in slightly under 2 seconds before hitting the wall. The car hit the wall at a shallow angle, tearing off the right front wheel and nose cone, lifted slightly with the nose as it straightened, and spun to a halt. After Senna’s car came to a halt, he remained motionless in the cockpit.”
Translated into images and emotions In Kapadia’s documentary though, those last few minutes made Ayrton Senna more human than ever: he died. I wish I had known of his long-time friendship with Dr. Sid Watkins, head of the Formula One medical team for twenty-six years; an older English gentleman, so nice and protective of Senna I felt like giving him a big hug. At one point, seeing how distressed over the new Williams car Ayrton was, Watkins told him he should quit. “You like fishing. And you already are the fastest man on the planet, three times. I like fishing too. Let’s quit.” To which Senna responded he could not quit.
It took Sid twenty-six seconds to get to Ayrton’s side after the crash. It is a very intense segment in the movie – all real footage. We can see Senna’s helmet inside the car, but he is not moving at first. Then his helmet turns slightly to one side, causing false hopes. Fire marshals rush to the crash scene – the cockpit looked intact, but the tires are nowhere to be seen and the FW16 lacks big chunks of metal or whatever high-tech fiber is used to build F1 cars. They are forbidden to touch the pilot though, until the arrival of qualified medical personnel. An ambulance arrives screeching tires and the group of paramedics (Professor Sid Watkins among them), super quick in their movements, proceeds to remove Ayrton from the car. In voice-over, Watkins describes how he, not being a religious person himself, nevertheless saw Ayrton’s legs gone limp, as he was laid on the ground momentarily, and knew his friend’s spirit had departed. As horrific as the crash appeared, there was not a single broken bone in Ayrton’s body, Dr. Watkins reports. A considerable amount of blood on the ground and later medical exams confirmed Senna had sustained a lethal trauma to the head. Senna’s death in 1994 was the last fatality to occur in Formula One races.
In a way, the fastest and fittest human beings on earth made me see with new eyes the circles in which life comes and goes, like an endless Formula One race. I was looking for news on Mike Phelps and our gymnastic girls and instead rediscovered Ayrton Senna. I should have seen years ago that the passion Senna inspired in millions of fans in Brazil could not have been based on celebrity fever only. I should have been able to understand why Senna moved both the young and the old, men and women; even the ones who didn’t care much about Formula One. Almost two decades later, writing about him felt appropriate, considering the show of human victories the Olympic Games brought us this summer. I’m paying Mr. Senna my respects now, so very late. He too was among the fastest on the planet one day, eighteen years ago.
(Included below is the link to the documentary trailer – SENNA – posted on YouTube . The documentary is available at Netflix)