Ayrton Senna: Life At The Limit

Ayrton Senna is arguably the greatest driver in the history of Formula 1.

His commitment to the sport and unwavering desire to win led him to 41 race victories and 3 world championships.

However, it was not Senna’s success that marked him out from the rest, it was the way he drove to earn those results that did.

Senna was renowned for squeezing every possible second out of his car and himself.

He would push himself to the limit multiple times, even when he was leading, to ensure he won.

His will to win knew no bounds.

One example that springs to mind is the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix.

Senna out qualified his teammate, multiple world champion Alain Prost, by a huge 1.4 seconds.

He was comfortably leading the race, when he crashed into the barriers on lap 67 of the 78 lap race. He did not need to push himself so hard when he was so far ahead, yet he did.

He did not know any other way.

To Senna, racing meant going at 100% for 100% of the time. Anything less, and he wouldn’t be a racer.

By pushing himself to the limit, Senna was able to eke out incredible driving feats that propelled him to greatness.

But, it came with a downside. He was prone to clashing with rivals, and his desire to win, would result in his untimely death at the age of 34.

Senna was an incredible competitor, but was it this competitive streak that led to his downfall?

The Limit

The limit is a mythical place in sport. One where athletes push the boundaries of the bodies, and depending on their sport, machines, to the absolute maximum in pursuit of success.

Not everyone can reach the limit. There are plenty of mitigating circumstances preventing someone from getting to this point.

Being on the limit conjures up images of being on the ragged edge, walking a tightrope over a sheer drop. The limit is not a place many of us are willing to tread.

To put aside risk and throw caution to the wind is not a common trait in humans. We are cautious creatures, a result of evolution.

Not all of us have what it takes to go the limit. Even less of us possess the ability to go back there again and again.

Ayrton Senna was one of those select few.

His Formula 1 career was built on pushing himself to the limit consistently, and sometimes, beyond it.

Senna was a fierce competitor and considered winning to be the ultimate. He would routinely go for gaps which other drivers would not dare to consider.

The other driver would be left in a dilemma. Do I leave the gap open and be passed, or do I block it off and risk an accident?

Invariably, the other drivers left the gap open for fear of causing a crash. senna’s prolicivity for trying audacious overtaking moves meant he was involved in numerous incidents during his career.

A famous interview with three time world champion Jackie Stewart, sums up Senna’s attitude to racing, and by extension, life.

The video of the interview is on Youtube and makes for fascinating viewing.

Stewart questions why Senna is involved in so many crashes compared to past champions.

Senna’s response is incredulous. He protests that to be a racing driver is to go for a gap if you see it. He goes on to state he is not designed to finish second, third or fourth. He is designed to win.

It is this line of thinking which set Senna apart. He tacitly implies in the interview that he is willing to risk it all for the opportunity to win.

Winning is all the consuming goal, anything less is failure.

This is the issue with being at the limit too often. The lines become blurred. You only see the end line, and are willing to do whatever it takes to get there.

Senna believed he had a god given right to win. In pursuing the limit to realise this goal, sometimes, he would push himself too far.

Flawed Genius

There is no doubt in my mind Aryton Senna was a genius. The way he drove a racing car to its absolute limit was a thing of beauty.

He was able to wring the maximum out of his car time and time again, and produce stunning drives to obilerate and demoralise the opposition.

As much as he was a genius, he was also a flawed one.

Senna’s huge desire to win was a significant factor in his success, but, at times, it would lead to incidents of the kind Stewart had hinted about.

The most notorious of these incidents came in the penultimate race of the 1990 season, the Japanese Grand Prix.

Senna led the championship by nine points from rival Alain Prost. There were nine points on offer for a win, and as long as Senna finished in the points he would secure the championship.

Senna qualified on pole position, but was infuriated that pole position would be on the dirtier side of the track instead of on the racing line.

A request to change pole position to the side of the grid on which pole was located was rejected. With Prost starting behind him in second place and on the grippier side of the grid, it was likely he would get a better start.

Senna vowed that if Prost got the advantage heading into the first corner, he would attempt to take the lead, regardless of the consequences.

At the start, Prost did indeed get the better start. Senna got off the line slower, but quickly gains ground heading into the first corner, and dives down the inside in an attempt to take first.

Prost doesn’t see Senna, and turns into the corner as normal. The two cars collide and skid off the track and into the barriers. Senna had secured the championship by virtue of his superior finishing record throughout the season.

Even with victory in the next race, Prost could not overhaul Senna.

Senna’s will to win had culminated in him causing an incident with his closest rival, it would seem, on purpose. That will to win, had led him down a dangerous path, one where winning at all costs was the only answer.

Once again, Senna had placed himself on the limit. Both men were lucky to escape unharmed. In pursuit of his goals, he was pushing himself to limits that were unsustainable.

There had to be some give. The issue with an intense desire to will to win, is that it can blur your boundaries between what you should and what shouldn’t do.

The pressure to win from internal and external factors is so intense, that it can lead you to do crazy things to get over the line.

Sometimes, you can push yourself too far.

Untimely End

I don’t feel I can write about Ayrton Senna without addressing his death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

The weekend is known as the darkest in the history of Formyla 1. Senna’s compatriot, Rubens Barrichello suffered a severe accident in Friday practice resulting in him being knocked unconscious.

The following day, Roland Ratzenberger lost his life during qualifying. Crashes were a normal part of Formula 1, but there hadn't been a death in the sport since Ricardo Paletti lost his life in 1982.

Many of the drivers, Senna included, wanted to stop the race, but it went ahead regardless. Senna had been struggling all season with his car, and went into the race 20 points behin championship leader Michael Schumacher, after scoring no points in the previous two rounds.

Older and wiser, Senna still had the desire to push himself to the limit, even at the age of 34.

Senna started on pole position, and with a good start was leading Schumacher. On the fifth lap his car veered off the road at the high speed Tamburello corner hitting the concrete wall, causing debris from the crash to fly across the track.

Senna was killed instantly upon impact due to head injuries suffered as a result of impact with his suspension and a wheel.

The sport had lost its greatest driver in an instant. Senna’s pursuit of the limit and his desire to win had led to his untimely death.

Whether this was the contributing factor is unclear. It’s more likely issues regarding the drivability of the car, along with his desire to win and beat Schumacher, combined to cause the accident.

It’s often said that if it could happen to Senna, it could happen to anyone. But, this isn’t true. Not everyone has the desire to push themselves to the extremes Senna did.

Senna pushed his body and mind, time and time again, to its absolute limit. As supreme a driver he was, he was always walking on a tightrope. What made him brilliant, was also his downfall.

Competitiveness is a useful trait to possess, but there comes a time when it needs to be reined in.

As great as he was, Senna found it hard to reel this side of himself in. For him, winning was everything. It didn’t how he got there, just as long as he got there.

Senna went to a place few of us dare to venture. It may have cost him his life, but to Senna, it was a risk worth taking.

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I like to write. I like to travel. https://www.thetravellingtom.com Join my email list -> https://tomstevenson.substack.com/

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