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Opinion

How the Senna myth has been transformed

OPINION: Public perceptions of Ayrton Senna have changed in the 30 years since his death, and myths around him have grown. Do some elements of how Senna has been deified actually do his legacy a disservice? Autosport revisits a column originally published in May 2019 to mark the 25th anniversary of his passing

Ayrton Senna (BRA) Williams FW16 ran for most of the race in 2nd position until he spun out and retired on lap 55.
Brazilian Grand Prix, Interlagos, 27 March 1994

Photo by: Sutton Images

During the three decades since the sickening image of the blue-and-white Williams striking the Tamburello wall was broadcast to a global audience of millions, Ayrton Senna has been transformed.

On May 1 1994 he was already a racing superstar, regarded justifiably by many as the greatest of his generation, but since then the name Senna has grown into so much more. It's a global brand, a name on countless T-shirts and caps in every corner of the globe that stands for something, even for those who've never so much as watched a racing car in anger.

Those five letters, S-E-N-N-A, have become iconic, an idea, a philosophy of racing that transcends the name of a mere mortal. He has become less a man, more a god who walked among us for 34 years before his very public ascent to the heavens.

For a generation, Senna is not merely a great racing driver but so much more than that. Senna has escaped the limitations of his own sport to become a hallowed figure. The legend has overwhelmed the memory.

It didn't happen instantly. The day Senna died he was perceived almost universally as one of the great racing drivers, but he was also a divisive and controversial figure.

Over the years, the life and sporting achievements of a very human character have coalesced into a canon of moments and images. His second place in Monaco in 1984, the first victory at a sodden Estoril in 1985, those Suzuka collisions with Alain Prost, his pole lap in Monaco 1988, Easter Sunday at Donington Park in 1993... these have become the venerated stories that comprise the legend of this almost holy figure.

Venerated moments like Senna's 1988 Monaco pole lap have elevated his perception beyond that of a mere mortal

Venerated moments like Senna's 1988 Monaco pole lap have elevated his perception beyond that of a mere mortal

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images

If you had to zero in on the biggest factor in this process, it's surely Asif Kapadia's documentary Senna. The film, which premiered in 2010, has become the bible of the Senna cult.

It's a well-constructed piece of film-making, one that focuses on the key moments of Senna's career and sets them in stone. It's all there - the heroism, the superhuman skill, the will to win and the dark forces that conspired against him. It's a compelling piece of storytelling, one that codifies the myth and builds on it.

Prost, one of the key antagonists in Senna, exists solely as a mechanism for the rivalry. In the film, there is no mention of the moment when hostilities between the two began with Senna shoving his team-mate towards the Estoril pitwall in 1988, or Senna defying a team agreement not to overtake at Imola in 1989. In an intensely personal battle where both were guilty of transgressions, Prost is portrayed as the villain.

Everyone, no matter how great, makes mistakes. But for the mythological Senna, these mistakes are cast as rare and almost as a reflection of his brilliance

At times he was - the collision caused when he turned in on Senna at the Suzuka chicane in 1989 was unacceptable. But did that really justify Senna ploughing into Prost at the first corner a year later at great speed at the start of the race? The Senna myth would say yes, but reality is muddier than this.

Prost lived on to become a failed Formula 1 team owner, this flesh-and-bones man no match for the Senna myth. While Senna stays immaculate, undimmed by time, Prost at 69 remains a familiar paddock figure - respected but not deified.

Senna also offered holy wisdom that is passed down through the ages. His reminiscences on the purity of kart racing against old rival Terry Fullerton have become emblematic of the purity of competition.

"If you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver" has become Senna's great commandment. Senna said that in response to a question from Jackie Stewart not about a specific incident, but about his propensity to get involved in clashes with rivals. It has now become the touchstone for a racing philosophy Senna encapsulates, one that's been used both for good and bad in the years since. Some abuse it as a manifesto for recklessness.

Senna was not above misjudgements, such as his move on Prost at Suzuka's first corner in 1990 to settle the world championship

Senna was not above misjudgements, such as his move on Prost at Suzuka's first corner in 1990 to settle the world championship

Photo by: Sutton Images

The mistakes Senna made have also been distilled into one moment of fallibility - crashing while leading in Monaco in 1988. This is where the Senna myth can become problematic because he did make mistakes. One example is at Monza in 1993, where he rear-ended old Formula 3 rival Martin Bundle's Ligier under braking. Today, a driver would be mercilessly pilloried on social media for such an incident, but it's almost forgotten.

Senna did have it in him to make misjudgements. Everyone, no matter how great, makes mistakes. But for the mythological Senna, these mistakes are cast as rare and almost as a reflection of his brilliance.

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He crashed in Monaco in 1988 because he was so far ahead, not because he was under pressure. It's simplifications like this that do Senna a disservice, because Senna was not a god, but a human being. There's nothing wrong with admitting that, and there is something so much more magical about how a flesh-and-blood person, with the flaws and limitations all of us are lumbered with, could do what he did.

No one would deny Senna a place as one of F1's fastest. As a qualifier, arguably only Lewis Hamilton can stand comparison for virtuosity over a single lap. As a racer, Senna was outstanding but ruthless. Again, ruthlessness is to be admired in great champions, but on several occasions he did stray beyond the boundaries of what is, or should be, acceptable.

That's what makes him such a fascinating character. We talk about the self-belief of the great sporting champions, but in the case of Senna it wasn't just will to win - it was his certainty that he should win that made him what he was.

This is why it's so much more valuable to appreciate Senna the human than the myth. Look at the way he inspired a nation, in Brazil. It's not hard to grant a god that status, but for one of us to become that important to the identity and wellbeing of a nation of, at the time of his death, around 160million is a far more compelling story.

So too is his wet-weather virtuosity. This is addressed more often, but how much more fascinating is the reality that Senna was once poor in wet conditions, so took to the track in a kart in such conditions whenever he could to master his craft? A driver who simply has superhuman powers is one thing, but to have the sheer will to take a weakness and make it into a strength - to date, only Michael Schumacher and Hamilton have more victories in rain-affected grands prix than Senna's 13 - is so much more enthralling.

Senna became known as a wet weather master, but it wasn't always a strong suit

Senna became known as a wet weather master, but it wasn't always a strong suit

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The Hamilton comparison is a fascinating one. He's often cast as the modern Senna, understandable given his speed and success - especially given that Hamilton cites Senna as his hero. But in recent years Hamilton has made good on a desire to win in the right way and prove that the ruthlessness of a champion need not overstep the bounds. Hamilton today is the epitome of clean on track, something Senna could not lay claim to.

And now we come to the sacrilege. The more convincing modern reincarnation of Senna would be Max Verstappen - sensationally fast, stunning in the wet and surely destined to win more than his current Senna-matching tally of three titles. But he's also a divisive figure. Imagine the reaction to Senna on today's social media - it would be divisive in the extreme.

The deification of Senna takes that complex, compelling, contradictory and fascinating character and makes him into something one-dimensional. That does him a disservice.

Instead, the Senna we see online is the godlike one. The same videos, the same quotes, the same stories are recycled again and again like a holy text. In that sphere, Senna is not a person, but an idea - and a wonderful idea for all who love racing.

The real Senna was more complicated than that. He had more than his fair share of abilities and had a global impact that the rest of us can only dream of. But like all of us, he had his flaws. The deification of Senna takes that complex, compelling, contradictory and fascinating character and makes him into something one-dimensional. That does him a disservice.

Ayrton Senna the legend will endure. But it's important that the man behind the myth is not forgotten. Yes, he was a great racing driver, an icon in his native Brazil and across the globe - but that he achieved all of this while battling the same human frailties we all must overcome makes his legend all the greater.

The man behind the Senna myth was fascinating and should not be forgotten

The man behind the Senna myth was fascinating and should not be forgotten

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

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