It’s been 17 years since the death of Ayrton Senna. That his name is still spoken in tones of reverence says something of the impact he had on the sport. Both Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton have looked up to him as an idol.
Schumacher actually raced against Senna, and watched the Brazilian race when he was still in karts. When Schumi equaled Senna’s number of race wins at Monza one year, he broke down and wept during the post-race press conference.
Hamilton, of course, never raced against Senna, but he wears a yellow helmet aping the personal livery of his hero. He has adopted an aggressive driving style, somewhat in the manner of Senna, but there the similarity ends.
Senna was absolutely unique. To listen to him discuss racing, you’d think he was describing a mystical experience. In fact, there were times, he said, when he pushed himself up to and past the limit, that he felt as though he’d slipped into a different realm of consciousness.
When Lewis Hamilton talks about his passion for racing, he sounds like a high school student talking about the Big Game. When Michael Schumacher holds forth on his chosen profession, he sounds like an engineer. Senna, on the other hand, was part poet and part warrior.
The Japanese, who supplied him with Honda engines when he was a McLaren pilot, lionized him as a latter day samurai. The power plants they shipped for Senna and his fellow champion team mate, Alain Prost, were crated, sealed and labeled for each driver. Prost always claimed that Senna, more beloved by the Japanese engineers, got the better engines.
Credible? Doubtful. In any event, it’s true that Senna used his engines like no one else on the grid. Prost would look at the Brazilian’s trace telemetry and curse. Senna’s signature throttle blips, which he used to steer the car i high speed corners (now oversteer, now understeer) were inimitable — as was Senna himself.