I am sure some of you reading this are fanatical about Senna. He was without a doubt one of the fastest drivers ever in Formula 1. I think sometimes people place him on a pedestal that made him more than he was. He was a man, a champion to be sure, but still a man, with all the conflicts that go along with the human condition. Alain Prost was Senna’s, teammate, his fiercest rival and also his friend. Here is what he has to say about Senna 20 years later.
Prost’s view is interesting, if only for the fact that he does not idolize Senna like so many others do. He can see his faults, and his strengths from the all important view as his primary rival. Even Prost admits that Senna had a special talent, but also an extreme ruthlessness about him.
My friend Steve had this to say: “This was always my issue with Senna. He was without question one of the two or three most talented ever. But Suzuka was typical of the issues I had with him. Last race, Senna leading in the points, Prost 2nd, they qualified 1-2. Senna’s solution to winning the championship was to purposely take Prost out at the first turn. The FIA should have penalized him. So I have issue with the FIA on that matter as well. I think the FIA is in part to blame for the tactics of some of the modern drivers. Many learned from watching Senna and the lack of response to his tactics. If the FIA held the line, we wouldn’t have a problem.”
I also think the FIA is in part to blame, but they are to blame in two ways. On the one hand they did not punish Senna for his obviously ruthless actions on track. We almost take driver safety for granted these days. In the late 80’s and early 90’s driver death was much more prevalent. Punishing ruthless or unsportsmanlike tactics was and is within the FIA’s authority, yet at the time they chose to do nothing. (Now maybe they intervene too much, a debate for later). On the other hand they also penalized him for completely trivial things, such as disqualifying him for driving through a chicane after he stopped and gained no advantage from doing so.
I wonder if Senna’s need to prove his worth, and his “belief” as that he was always “in the right” gave him more confidence in his driving ability than other drivers of his era possessed. In that short moment in time, he was the best in the world, maybe not because he was more skilled, but because he believed he was better, and this belief enabled him to achieve his exceptional performances.
Sam Posey’s monologue in this video provides some insight into the man, and his capabilities.
Further on in Prost’s article he states that he spoke with Senna on that fatal weekend in 1994. Prost states that Senna “was much softer, very down somehow, without the same power as before.” Was Senna’s confidence shaken? We will never know, but Prost’s account might lead us to believe that it was. In the movie “Senna”, Dr Sid Watkins, Neurosurgeon, head of the F1 on track medical team, and personal friend of Ayrton Senna, recounts a similar conversation that he also had with Senna on that same weekend. These are not the type of conversations that a person would have with a driver who was confident in his ability, or in his car.
The cause of Senna’s crash 20 years ago has been the subject of many articles, debates and inquiries. Mechanical failure, too low ride height, low tire pressure, whatever it was, it doesn’t matter. His death, along with the death of Roland Ratzenberger and Rubens Barichello’s near fatal crash brought about a sea change in Formula 1 and motorsport in general in terms of safety.
Driver confidence is a key factor in driver performance. In my experience it is more important than outright skill behind the wheel (obviously a high level of skill is also required). The belief that you can perform is a significant factor in the level of the actual performance. Doubt leads the mind to wander away from the task at hand. It takes the focus away from the process and places emphasis on the result, or lack thereof. The minimal consequence of which, is a bad day.