Everyone has his own favorite racer, and, likewise, his favorite candidate for racing demi-god. Brazilian F1 genius Ayrton Senna filled both slots for many fans during his brief reign at the top of the heap, and with good reason. He was not only supremely gifted, he was also a unique personality, a man who lived and breathed racing, and attached a near-mystical importance to his performance.
Senna once reported that during his stunningly quick qualifying runs at Monaco (which often left team mate Alain Prost scratching his head in amazement), he felt something akin to a religious experience. Now that is not your average racing driver.
Toro Rosso technical director Giorgio Ascanelli served as Senna’s race engineer at McLaren, and he has often described Senna as a perfect driver, in a class by himself. Whether any driver can be perfect is open to philosophical debate, but Senna certain formed a class of his own.
It might (or might not) surprise you that Ascanelli has now suggested that Sebastian Vettel should be mentioned in the same breath as the storied Brazilian. “I am very lucky,” Ascabelli told Sport Bild. “Twice in my life I have experienced perfection; once with Senna, again with Vettel.”
Paddock pundits love to hail the latest wunderkind to come down the turnpike as “the new Schumacher” or “the new Senna.” Often, these monikers fade as each new driver reveals himself to be a pretender to the throne. But of course, it’s hard to compete with the reputation of a great driver of the past. History burnishes our memories of the best and the brightest. (Witness the dilemma of Michael Schumacher, who is now, sadly, competing with his own reputation.)
Nevertheless, Ascabelli insists that Vettel is in Senna’s league, and he has a notable frame of reference: he also worked alongside of Michael Schumacher at Ferrari. Was Schumi not cut from the same perfect cloth as Senna and Vettel? Apparently not. Said Ascabelli, “In one respect Michael was different because he had to work harder for his success than did Senna and Vettel. With those two it was something else.”
Schumacher has always been known for his ferocious work ethic, and some have blamed his sluggish comeback on the fact that he’s had to contend with a limited pre-season testing window under the current rules. Remember, when Schumi was everyone’s yardstick, he tested like a demon, and was a major component in Ferrari’s ability to sort out their cars.
I also remember, however, that in the early nineties, when Schumi was actively racing against his Brazilian hero, paddock pundits began referring to Schumi as “the new Senna.” So clearly, there’s a certain faddishness to these comparisons.
Nevertheless, Ascabelli insists that Vettel has a level of natural grace and perfection that puts him, and him alone, on the same plane as Senna. That said, I would also venture to say that he’s nothing like Senna in terms of temperament.
Michael Schumacher has often been criticized for his on-track ruthlessness, but Schumacher was only copying Senna, whose idea of defensive driving was to aim his car directly at the car of whichever rival was foolish enough to attempt to pass him. For Senna, racing was a continuous game of chicken.
When Senna partnered Alain Prost at McLaren, and Honda supplied the powerplants, the Japanese manufacturer was said (mostly by Prost) to favor the Brazilian with the best equipment. Their engines came crated, sealed and labeled with the respective drivers’ names. Prost claimed that Senna’s engines were tuned to a different level of performance than his were. Possibly just Prostian paranoia.
That said, the Japanese did regard Senna as something of a latter day samurai warrior, and the affection for him in Japan is still evident to this day (witness the plethora of Senna caps worn each year by fans at Suzuka).
The point, of course, is that, regardless of how naturally gifted Vettel is, it’s difficult to envision him in samurai garb. Senna, on the other hand, seemed born to it.