Ayrton Senna’s death 20 years on – How 1993 finally made me a Senna Fan

I’ll be honest. When Ayrton Senna was killed at Imola, May 1st, 1994 my opinion of the racing driver and the man changed completely, from being almost hated and despised to respected. Why? He wasn’t the enemy anymore.

I’m comfortable with this admission. 20 years on I am happy to discuss how at the time I was just of starting to appreciate to the Brazilian driver.

I was 14 when he died and I was far from his biggest fan. His loss was more profound to me than that the loss of a generation’s greatest F1 driver. His passing that day was that of a famous person being injured severely live on TV while I watched from the comfort of my living room. Something I was Ill prepared for mentally.

I became an F1 fan in towards the end of the eighties. When exactly, I’m not sure. I remember from an early age than Nigel Mansell was the British hope to get behind and whenever I seem to watch F1 at home with my Dad, Nigel’s grit and determination captured my imagination.

However at the end of the eighties to be a Mansell fan was seen as a joke. He wasn’t winning and was starting to look like the typical “British Lion” that was destined never to win the championship.

That, mainly was in part due to the fact that the Senna and McLaren partnership from 1988 to 1991 won 3 out of 4 championships.  The Brazilian in the red and white car was the man to beat every race, every year.

Don’t get me wrong. Alain Prost was also a key figure in the sport at this time, but Senna, at the height of his powers with his on the limit, aggressive and utterly ruthless driving style was the bench mark for the rest of the F1 during this time.

Senna had driven his way in to the top team in F1 at the time, yet when he got to Mclaren he turned the aggression and speed up to 11, this never more evident that his qualifying performances and wheel to wheel battles with Prost and Mansell, with Senna more so than not, winning through.

However, Senna seemed to have little or no understanding of where the line was for sportsmanship, this never more on display than his 1990 incident with Prost in Suzuka.

From afar, I watched the Senna v Prost era as an impressionable young man. These two racing giants seemed to disregard their responsibility as sporting role models as for two years running they were unable to fight on the track without colliding in two one another and from1990 onwards my perspective of Senna was tarnished. I’ll admit to thinking that Senna has no class, despite his all his speed and skill.

He’d happily take off another driver to win a race or championship. That’s not a wild statement from me, Senna admitted so in 1991. Because of my support towards Mansell I almost by default had no affinity with Senna back then, so it was to easy criticize and get on my high horse and more often than not, that is what I did. To me, despite being the number 1 driver in F1, I saw Senna as reckless and to an extent, out of control.

In 1992 for the first time Senna found himself not driving the best car and his early performances of the 1992 season were telling, confirming to me that Senna was still an incorrectly “programmed” and flawed sportsman.

Take Brazil in 1992: Senna was driving a McLaren that was rushed in to action in response to the dominant Mansell-Williams partnership that had wiped the floor in the early rounds of the season. Shortly in to the race Senna was experiencing difficulties with the McLaren and backing up a large train of cars deployed desperate weaving and blocking tactics as early as lap 5 or 6 in an attempt to keep the others behind.

There were other low key events in 1992 for Senna; Montreal and Adelaide to name just two, with both ending in collisions with Nigel Mansell.  Remember, I will be bias here because of my affinity to Nigel, but it seemed more than coincidence that my favorite driver was once again taken out by the Brazilian. It seemed to confirm my assumption. Senna was the dark side of F1.

However Monaco 1992 was a game changer for me.  I was able to respect the driving skills of both these two fierce competitors without either resorting to crashing in to each other during the race. I really wanted Nigel to win at Monaco, he had never won there (and still hasn’t) but as the pair took the chequered flag I was full of praise for Senna for that drive.

By this time the performance difference between the Williams and McLaren was evident, Nigel was enjoying a huge car performance that Senna had previously for the last 5 years. For the first time Senna was an underdog in battle and proved that racing could indeed be conducted at the highest level without the inevitable contact.

As Mansell and Senna were out maneuvered by Prost for the Williams seat in 1993 and Senna was left to drive a Ford powered McLaren meaning that for the second year running the Brazilian was the underdog yet again and was the 16 races that year turned my opinion about the Brazilian.

1993 was a watershed year for me and my understanding of Senna, mainly because there was no Nigel Mansell. F1 seemed empty from the start of that season. To me I was left with the two drivers I had no personal affinity to, Prost and Senna. One had taken my favorite driver’s seat at Williams, the other who spent that last two years trying to get in to it. For the first time in F1 I was a neutral with no clear favourite, but then came Donington Park and the European Grand Prix.

I went to my first Grand Prix that day. It wasn’t with my Dad, but a friend of my Mum’s and his son. I remember almost backing out the night before, thinking I would enjoy it. To be honest up until the green light I wasn’t. Standing on the boggy bank down at the old hairpin in the cold rain that grey Easter Sunday seemed to be the worst decision I had made as a 13 year old, but then came Senna’s now legendary performance.

I was transfixed for lap after lap. How could Senna in an inferior car walk all over both Williams in such a dominant fashion. Senna looked on the limit,he was flying. Prost and Hill less so, pedestrian almost. The qualities in Ayrton I had become ignorant to a few years before were now brought together in a masterful performance of the highest level.

I knew as I was driven home that day that my perception of Senna was going to change, it had to change. How could you deny the man’s brilliance in such tricky conditions?

1993 was tough on Ayrton, he probably had the third fastest car to the Benetton of Schumacher and Prost’s Williams, who were both enjoying factory engines, so the final couple of race wins from Senna in Japan and Australia capped off a year that despite not winning the title he had probably won many admirers for his performances.

As we know, Senna got his move to Williams in 1994 and with Damon Hill as his team mate due to Prost’s retirement, Senna was the only “heavy weight” driver left in F1. An opportunity had been made for a younger breed of drivers to step up to the mark. Senna would be the hunted, expected to win while the hot shots of Schumacher, Hakkinen and Hill would have a clear opportunity to put pressure on the established Senna. Senna was a marked man again.

Throughout winter testing in 1994 as pictures broke of the new Rothmans Williams in its now iconic livery, it seemed a perfect fit for his destiny and his 4th World Championship. How different it was.

Both the Brazilian and Pacific Grand Prix’s couldn’t have gone worse for Ayrton. I’ll admit that yet again it was mildly amusing to see the championship favorite stumbling early on but by the time the championship reached Imola I now didn’t want Schumacher to win, the narrative I wanted for that weekend was for Senna to get back on track in the championship and for the early lead that Schumacher had built to start to be eroded.

Imola 1994 was the first race I actually wanted Senna to win. I remember watching Friday practice on Eurosport and seeing Senna struggle and fight the car. I knew and understood  at that point that Senna had a massive fight on his hands just to keep the car on the track. His determination and skill were now being tested to the maximum. I was backing the underdog again.

The events of the San Marino Grand Prix have been written and re written many times, and this 20th anniversary will provide another opportunity to go through the terrible events that day yet again, but for me his death had an impact on me not because of the relative loss of the driver or the legend, but it was in fact the first time I had been exposed to real life death.

The vulnerability of life was my overriding emotion on the Bank Holiday Monday, the day after as I sat with my family reading through the papers. I had never had any reason to believe that racing drivers could killed. Sure, it had happened in the past. It happened in the books and magazines I read. Giles Villeneuve died in a book I read, it was never on live TV.  The Senna accident and aftermath were broadcast live for hours and endless news reports went on for days after.

This was the moment the fragility of life and death hit home as a 14 year old.

As the tributes and the emotions from Imola 1994 have been reflected upon I came to fully appreciate the multiple facets of Ayrton Senna.  As a Mansell fan I had been on the wrong end of his driving style many times but thankfully 1993 presented an opportunity for me to appreciate the man’s skill for what it was. The highest. The pinnacle of the sport.

Now with countless films, books and documentaries F1 fans are allowed to see Senna in a romantic way. A racing God if you like, and I am certainly not one to argue that statement, however I spent most of the time he was alive driving unappreciative of the man because of his cold hearted ruthlessness, yet just before his untimely death I was a convert.

20 years on, there hasn’t been a driver to divide my emotions. Schumacher came close but the advantage he enjoyed over his competition in the early 2000’s brings his achievement down, in my opinion.

I did miss Senna as a racing driver after Imola 1994 and really felt the impact of his death on the sport, not just the changes to safety and circuits but in the driving spectacle he brought. I feel, however that I would have liked Ayrton Senna the man, the human even more had he made it round the Tamburello in’94 and we’d all been able to see him take the fight to Schumacher.

Vettel the Villain

Sebastian Vettel’s dominant win at the Singapore Grand Prix on Sunday was a masterful drive. He dominated both qualifying and the race, putting all the rest to shame, giving him an almost unassailable points lead and puts him well on course for his 4th consecutive championship.

However, despite his stunning drive, the now standard pantomime booing of Vettel while on the podium once again emphasizes a nasty habit that F1 fans seem to have developed this year.

The Malaysian Grand Prix and the ‘Mult-21’ situation between Webber and Vettel 6 months ago was undeniably the catalyst for the ‘boo boys’ and despite plenty of clean racing since then, F1 race fans are still labelling Vettel as the F1 Villain.

I believe it’s a combination of factors, not just the Red Bull team orders row from the Malaysia Grand Prix. I believe the booing fans are actually making a bigger statement, that they are finally bored of Vettel’s dominance of F1 over the last 4 years.

Let’s be 100% clear, if this is true, it has nothing to do with Sebastian Vettel. The fault here lays with the other team in not doing a job as well as Red Bull team and Vettel.

Hypothetically I ask the question, if Vettel was currently 3rd in this years’ championship and behind say, Alonso and Hamilton in the championship and he picked up say, his second win of the year in Singapore, would there be the same reaction to a Vettel win? Unlikely I say.

So what can the German do about it?

I noticed both Sky Sports F1’s Martin Brundle and Ted Kravitz supporting Vettel over the weekend, with Kravitz saying in his Notepad summary s that he felt it was for Vettel to show what a likable and nice character he was and that he isn’t as evil as the crowd make out. I find this view interesting, not least because it is essentially blaming Vettel again: His fault – he needs to change. This is a rather odd opinion if you assume he is actually guilty of the above charges in the first place.

Why isn’t it for the FIA, Teams, Drivers and Circuits to educate those race day fans who are booing him to stop? Help shape the culture and behaviours that we expect from the F1 community while at the race trace, but ultimately the blame lies with those who are the booing and it is them that need to change their reaction to him.

While Vettel is winning races and closing out the championship, the fans perspective of him will not change and no charm offensive from Vettel will nip this in the bud.

Vettel is no Villain! Nothing he has done on the race track in his career comes close to what Ayrton Senna or Michael Schumacher did on the track to win championships. In fact he is largely impeccable most of the time, on and off the track.

Time will tell if the F1 fans are aware of how poor it sounds to the global public when the winner of a Grand Prix is greeted with a chorus of boos. I wonder what the sponsors of Red Bull or prospective sponsors to the sport make of it? Is it worth the negative press on live global TV?

I have a feeling the F1 public will only be happy when Vettel leaves Red Bull and joins a lesser team to take that new challenge F1 fans seem to demand of multiple champions, before they finally seem to accept the greatness of a top driver.

People seem to forget though, Vettel won in a Torro Rosso and has contributed hugely to the success of Red Bull, who had never won a race before he joined the team.

Vettel the villain – Vettel the legend more like!

Modern F1 car launches are rubbish: They should be ditched!

Sauber-C31-launch-Sutton_2713949

F1 fans are a passionate lot. No sooner has the chequered flag dropped on the final race of the season in Brazil do the F1 fans start their countdown until they can get their next fix of F1 fever, and as we move through the dark winter months all eyes become transfixed on the F1 teams’ car launches for 2013.

Many see this as a chance to see how hard the teams have worked over the winter, to see the new driver line ups, to evaluate how the new car looks and to identify where a team has developed a competitive advantage or more importantly take it as a chance to predict just how the teams 2013 fortunes are going to pan out based on the new derivative car that they present to the public.

But these new car launches are a waste of time. Utterly pointless! So I ask the question; should F1 even bother with them.

Why?

Because these launches do not serve the F1 community with anything meaningful other than to see how the marketing and graphic design departments have conjured up the teams latest branding and colour schemes that emblazon the car and drivers overalls, and that is all. In a pioneering technical, mechanical and aerodynamic sport, these critical elements that determine a cars performance are all hidden away with deliberate act of smoke and mirrors.

Red Bull epitomised this perfectly this year. Their launch was in a room that resembled a sleazy night club, the invited press were forbidden to take any photos and no sooner were the covers off the 2013 challenger where they whipped back on again. To add insult to injury for all the disappointed fans that tried to streamed the event live over the internet, as a parting gift Red Bull presented the worlds audience with a hand drawn rendition of the 2013 car! I mean come on!

But let’s put ourselves in the position of Red Bull or any of the leading F1 teams, why on earth would you use your launch event to reveal all or any of your hard work and secrets to the public and other F1 teams in one fell swoop?
That’s right, that genius diffuser configuration your team had painstakingly drawn up, modelled, built, tested, revised, tested and then fitted to the new car in time for launch day which included many man hours and late nights has just been sold down the river in go or broadcast live on SkySports News! Bosch, there goes your 0.5 seconds a lap advantage as all the other teams find it, copy it and have it on their car in time for the first race of the season.

It is this hyper competitive environment that means F1 team will never openly display what their real 2013 challenger looks like and why we should not even bother to look at the car on display at a F1 launch. Yet, they continue to persist with the format of inviting the world’s media to travel to each team headquarters to enjoy lunch while F1 fans get to watch the event over a crappy buffering web streams.

In my view we should just ditch this futile exercise all together and just skip to the track and testing. F1 should hold a standard launch day on the afternoon/evening prior to the official first day of testing. Each team is given a slot whereby they roll up their car, pull off the cloth their latest model, say the nice things to camera, let the photographers take the pictures, then just get on with testing, where we really start to learn something.
The concept of a united F1 launch event for the team was banded around a few years when cost saving was being driven through by Max Mosley in his fight with the FOCA, but that seems to have died a death as the strength of FOCA has slowly dwindled.

Currently the F1 cars are testing in earnest in Jerez and slowly we will begin to see a picture of how the season is going to pan out. Testing reveals how the cars will look, how the concepts from the drawing board will play out, how contenders are shaping up. Modern F1 launches are pointless because the need for secrecy is paramount. They should be ditched but instead the teams should spend more time in coming up with better ways they can engage in a meaningful manner with their fans for the year ahead.

Vettel wins third World Championship in amazing final race

Wow! Just Wow!

The Brazilian Grand Prix on Sunday served up some of the most captivating sport I have ever experienced.

For a championship decider, this race had everything. Absolutely everything!

From the moment the rain began to fall around 10 minutes before the light went out, this race took every twist and turn and placed the two championship protagonists under the most extreme pressure.

No one would deny that Alonso, because of the gap he trailed Vettel in the championship, would have wished for some bad fortune to strike Vettel in some way in the race, well, Alonso’s prayers were answered almost immediately as on Lap 1 Bruno Senna spun Vettel round and then was thumped hard by the Sauber of Perez.

An unbelievable turn incident and one that gave Alonso with an wide open goal to win the world championship, but somehow Vettel’s car was not seriously damaged and re-joined the race dead last and set about delivering the comeback under extreme pressure.

As the rain intensified and then eased and then intensified again, and through multiple pitstops for tyres, Vettel was able to storm through the field to work his way back in to championship winning position and when the second and final Safety Car came out on the last lap, Vettel was crowned champion for a third time.

Throughout Vettel’s career, he has been criticised for not being a true racer or being able to overtake, but the last 6 months have proven way beyond any doubt Vettel can do this. He is truly world class, a deserved winner and if winning 3 world titles makes you in affect, a legend of the sport, then that hat sits perfectly well on the young German.

Alonso fought valiantly throughout the year and it was a noble achievement to get his Ferrari in to a position where he could have won the championship at the last race, but his Ferrari fell short in pace over the course of the whole year.

Alonso should take massive credit from his 2012 performances, which should cemented his position as the best driver on the grid and that easily elevates him in to the realms  of being one of the best F1 drivers ever.

It is easy to forget Button won the race, but only after losing out in an exciting battle with his team mate. Hamilton then lost out when he was caught up in a silly incident with Hulkenburg who was driving, in my opinion, the race of his life, having taken the lead before the safety car and mastering the tricky conditions. Hulkenburg spun and took Hamilton out of his final race for McLaren.

It was a frantic and pulsating end to the 2012 championship, a race which defined the pattern of the whole season, and I am sure many of us F1 fans are already counting down the days until lights out in Melbourne.

Congratulations Sebastian.

Hamilton to leave McLaren: A racing relationship turned sour

So, as James Allen reports today, Lewis Hamilton is likely to sign for the Mercedes team for 2013. His move away from McLaren would see him cut the ties to the team that grew and nurtured him from a young unknown kart driver, to the peaks of being the 2008 world champion.

For all the messages coming from the paddock, Hamilton, it seems wants to leave McLaren for “commercial reasons” which is fundamentally the salary his is paid and his potential to control his earning ability through his own image rights and sponsorship. I say seems, because on the face of the decision it cannot be one down to purely racing factors. Mercedes have won just one race this year and have struggled to develop the car around its ability to use the Pirelli tyres.

However, that tells just one side of the story, for Hamilton has endured a generally unhappy season with McLaren, who have underperformed after early promise despite recently turning there fortunes round by winning two of the last three rounds.  Hamilton has managed to create a number of awkward PR ‘situations’ from within the McLaren team as he struggles to show respect to some of the team’s recent performances on track.

But let’s be clear, the issues in the last paragraph are fixable, far quicker than the issues that the Mercedes team are confronted with, so why has there been this feeling of negative inertia from Hamilton that has brought him to the point on closing the door on his motor racing family at McLaren.

Truth is Lewis Hamilton has endured 4 grotty seasons in F1. Since winning the title in 2008, Hamilton has consistently been on the wrong end of under performing McLarens, race steward decisions through over aggressive driving, press and media errors and a draining celebrity personal relationship that have come together over this period that I think means Hamilton’s mind set right now is that he has had enough with the way things have been going for him and that a change is what is needed in his life.

From the outside he seems joyless and devoid of and real pleasure. Massive credit where credit is due, his performances on the track recently have not reflected this and he has driven superbly, so we know his mind-set when his visor is down is fully committed to racing, it just seems that he has lost the love and respect of the management team around McLaren and he cannot see an end to the dark clouds that follows him around the F1 paddock.

I think a move away from McLaren on a personal level will benefit him in the long term. He will be stepping out of the shadow of  Ron Dennis and Martin Whitmarsh and like a young teenager does when he leaves for University, for the first time in his life he will be fully responsible for his own actions. This will hopefully change Hamilton, who constantly seems to be pushing the boundaries and patience of his team.

He will have to develop a resolve that is much stronger than he has now, knowing that the Mercedes project is still a work in progress because for all of McLaren’s faults, they know they will be there or there about in 2013, and Hamilton probably knows that too.

It is a shame, as both parties seemingly don’t want the partnership to end. Mclaren are stronger with Hamilton in the team, but would like him to evolve his personality slightly, and Hamilton wants to be where he can win the title next year, but wants the freedom to be who he feels he wants to be.

Who knows what the long term future will hold for both parties and who will have made the right choice, one thing is for sure, neither party will be truly happy about a split in their racing relationship

Thoughts as we head to Spa

It seems like an age ago that there was an F1 weekend, and this year the races have come and gone thick and fast while having to compete for headlines with the Olympics and the European Championships. Truth be told, the recent break at times, has felt far too long. But, there is a positive, it has given me reason to pause and contemplate something I believe a lot of of us F1 had taken for granted, that we are in the middle of what could potentially be a magical year.

Who would have thought in March that Fernando Alonso would be sat on top of the championship come the half-way point? What odds would you have given for there being 7 different winners in the first half of the year, with the promise of maybe more to add to that list? And as we turn in to the final 7 races of the series there are at least 5 drivers who have a possibility of the title.

There are 7 more rounds to go, 2 more in Europe before the long haul races wrap up the season. Writing this sounds like we are in to the final throws of the championship, but in reality that’s nearly 3 months away so much is yet to happen.

What the title contenders must do is leap-frog Ferrari and in particular the amazing Fernando Alonso. The contenders have to as a group, force Alonso off the top 3 places in the majority of the races to come. To use a cycling analogy: they have to form a high speed leading peloton that puts Alonso out of contention for the big points, and that must start this weekend in Belgium.

Lotus will be bringing their DDRS, McLaren will be hoping that Lewis Hamilton’s return to form in the Hungarian Grand Prix is there to stay for the remaining 8 races and Red Bull with the super team of Vettel-Webber-Newey will be able to find consistent race pace to put them back at the front.

So many questions left to be answered, so many more thrills and spills, incidents and accidents before we crown surely the most deserving world champion in what has been a golden era of F1.

Thank you summer break, for rekindling my love of F1 again!

Schumacher shows poor level of driving standards!

In quite frankly the worst piece of driving standards of the season so far, Michael Schumacher is refusing to accept his move on Rubens Barrichello in the Hungarian Grand Prix was any thing but a normal racing incident.

As Rubens pulled up alongside Schumacher in the battle for 10th place, Schumacher continued to force Barrichello wide  and drive him up to the pit wall giving the Brazilian just inches from safety.  I am sure most of the F1 public agree that what Schumacher did was very dangerous and could have resulted in a high speed accident with the barriers.

After the race Schumacher refused to acknowledge his forcefulness and insinuated that Rubens always complains.

The move is being investigated by the stewards and my own personal opinion is that they should punish Schumacher with a 1 race ban.  It would send out the right message that dangerous moves to defend positions have no place in the highest level of the sport.

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