Quoted by DSJ in Motor Sport, April 1991
One final thought, could it be that Ayrton Senna is not that good, he only looks good because the rest are so bad?
Few things are guaranteed to get the paeans or the venom flowing faster than mentioning Ayrton Senna da Silva. He seems to be a topic on which there is no middle ground -- saint or sinner. The emotional context which always seems to surround any discussion of Senna is an outgrowth of his tragic death at Imola in 1994. Whatever the opinion many held about Senna prior to that moment, there was little doubt what it would be from that point forward.
The almost complete lack of any real discussion on Senna on this forum -- or elsewhere for that matter -- is that any dissent from the prevailing view of Senna as The Greatest Or At The Least The Greatest Of His Era becomes tends to become visceral in a heartbeat.
There is also a view that his driving talent and any personal "problems" need to be kept separate and the latter viewed only in passing if at all. Indeed, the arguments seem to take their point of departure on the issue of whether talent alone should be the focus of such discussions or should a slightly more holistic view be taken. Not an easy question and one for which the answer does not come easily.
As a matter of truth in advertising, I admit up front to being among those with difficulties when it comes to Senna. Apparently, this a small minority and, understandably, not a very vocal one.
This thread leads off with a statement which Denis Jenkinson used to close something he called THE "Formula One Scene" in the April 1991 issue of Motor Sport. He also includes this sentence: "But like Senna or not, no-one can deny he has remarkable driving talent." This is a fair enough statement, but one that also gets into the heart of the subject at hand.
For the sake of consistency, I decided to use Motor Sport as my point of departure. As many are aware, the Japanese Grands Prix of 1989 and 1990 are still among the more notable rounds in the annals of the FIA F1 World Championship. In 1989, Prost became the Champion after a coming together with Senna and then in 1990 the roles were reversed, Senna getting the crown as the result of a crash involving Prost.
Here is what was written in the December 1990 issue by DSJ:
But it was not to be, for exactly 9.2 seconds after the start of the Japanese Grand Prix Prost and Senna collided and the FIA's 'sacred' World Championship ended in a cloud of dust as the Ferrari and the McLaren spun of across the wide run-off area of the first corner. While the marshals cleared the wreckage out of the way Senna walked back to the pits as the 1990 World Champion, and Prost prepared a whingeing campaign that was to continue for two weeks.
If you have always viewed the World Championship as a bit of a farce, or at least since 1958 when Stirling Moss was not World Champion as I have, this unhappy ending to the 1990 Championship was about par ofr the course. Since October 21st when the 'the world and his wife' saw what they thought happened in those critical 9.2 seconds on television they have been joined by 'every man and his dog' in taking sides, explaining what happened, making judgement on both drivers and banging on about the rights and wrongs of the incident which appeared to be a motor racing accident that was all over in a few seconds, as was the Japanese Grand Prix for the media and the casual observer.
DSJ responded with "Alberto Ascai, Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Gilles Villeneuve, and Ayrton Senna" when asked for his list of great drivers -- which he defined as those he actually saw in action and knew. This basically is the extent with which the issue is ever addressed by DSJ. Part of the reason is clear from his remarks about the WDC, but the true menace to Society at that time -- indeed, for the remainder of his life -- in DSJ's worldview was the issue of "fakes."
Whereas DSJ passed from making much comment on the collison at Suzuka, the editor "WB" -- William "Bill" Boddy -- headlined his "Matters of Moment" this way: Bang-on Champion.
Here are excerpts from that editorial:
Ayrton Senna is one of the top F1 drivers, perhaps the greatest of all time, and few will wish to deny him the 1990 World Championship; the pity is that it went out with a bang, of the unwanted kind, at Suzuka. A bang that will line on in motor racing history and continue to be discussed and argued about for a very long time.
Did Prost deliberately 'shut the door' on his rival or did he have a right to that crucial first corner? Surely Senna did not clinch the Championship by deliberately ramming Prost?
....What was unfair was that, in a post-race discussion of the dramatic Senna/Prost coming-together on British TV, Senna gave his views and later Ron Dennis was in the BBC studio, but not Prost nor Ferrari-Fiat.
In today's racing 'closing the door' on a rival has become commonplace but it does lead to too many shunts while the very safe modern cockpits prevent a driver from injury in most cases and so perhaps encourage this habit, one has to consider how much pursuit of Championship points promotes such driving methods. It happened to Prost and Senna last year and has already done so to many lesser drivers; how many shunts has Senna had? F1 racing must not take on the mantle of a Saturday night's stock car bumping match at the local stadium! Such random thoughts occur after considering how this year's World Drivers' Championship ended with a bang.
But nevertheless, congratulations Senna.
Up to this point, the 1989/1990 season, I was rather inclined to agree with most about Senna and thought that perhaps he was indeed the genuine article. Certainly, the various squabbles and so forth off the track raised an eyebrow a tad, but only a tad. Although not following F1 very closely at this point, I tended to think that the great Prost/Senna rivalry was becoming more of a liability than an asset with the slicing across the track and the collision at Suzuka in 1989 symptoms of a serious problem in F1 -- I tended to blame that most convenient of stooges, J-M Balestre, rather than Senna or Prost.
But, my opinion started to change after the 1990 Suzuka collision. I watched the start on TV and barely had the announcer said something to the effect that if Prost wrecked at the first corner the Championship was Senna's when exactly that happened! To my disbelieving eyes, it appeared that Senna simply ran Prost off the road. The replays convinced me more and more that my first impression was correct.
I was amazed, bewildered, and a bit dumbfounded. The 1989 incident was so much like a true racing accident that I was inclined to see it that way, although I tended to think that the fault lay more with Senna than Prost, although it was the aftermath that tended to shade my opinion towards it being a racing accident -- that Balestre and the FISA handled the disqualification so poorly was, as DSJ said, "par for the course."
Whatever large seeds of doubt were planted at Suzuka in 1989 and 1990 sprang into full flower at Suzuka in 1991. It was at this point that my opinion about Senna became completely colored and any consideration of his obvious driving talent became at best secondary. His tirade at the press conference only confirmed what I had already begun to believe -- albeit with the greatest of reluctance -- about the true nature of the matter.
The correspondent sent by Motor Sport (December 1991) to the 1991 Japanese GP, was "DJT" -- David Tremayne. I will spare you the blow-by-blow which appears there on pages 1100 & 1101, but after both catching part of what he said on TV and then reading that (and other information on what Senna said that day), Senna was toast in my book. Here is a quotation from Senna:
.... So I said to myself, 'Alright, tomorrow I'll tell the EXPLETIVE DELETED truth, the 100 per cent truth.' If Sunday at the start, because I am in the wrong position, Prost gets the jump and beats me off the line, at the first corner I'll go for it. And he had better not turn in, because he's not gonna make it. And it just happened, I guess. I just wish it didn't happen. I really wished that I could have had the start, because then we could go and go. It's unbelieveable taht it had to happen. He got the jump and he was turning in and I hit him. We were both off and it was a shit end of championship. It was not good for Formula One. It was the result of the wrong decisions and partially from the people inside that make the decisons. I won the championship, so what?
Keep in mind that the issue that Senna is discussing that of J-M Balestre to not relocate the pole position at Suzuka.
Here is what DJT wrote in the paragraph immediately following the comments above:
At no point did it appear to strike him that it was also a badend to the championship for Prost, nor that his red mist, fit of pique, temper tantrum, call it what you will, might not only have endangered the pair of them, but also 24 drivers following them into the corner. Nor did he mention what might have happened later in the race had he led and Prost tried to overtake.
I took a few a steps back, took a closer look at Senna in light of what he said and came away not so much disillusioned, but wondering why I had failed to notice it before. Senna was a master of controlling a press conference. As mentioned by DJT, several who were initially pointing the finger at Senna at Suzuka -- John Watson being one of them -- were by Adelaide pinning the whole fault on Prost.
So, there you are. While virtually everyone on the Earth will agree with my opinion about Senna, at least you have an inkling of an idea where it came from. At this point, any talent -- regardless of how wonderful and so forth, becomes irrelevant. To me, Senna was beyond the pale and excommunicated from my realm of consideration.
Balestre and the FISA -- actually Max Mosley since he had just beaten JMB for the presidency -- completely dropped the ball and let Senna off the hook and get away with what he did scot-free. Had he been punished or shown remorse or something other than "...so what?" perhaps my opinion whould be different. But he didn't and so be it.
I actually prepared this as a Rear View Mirror column, but decided that perhaps discretion was the better part of valor. So, since opinions are indeed like body orifices and we all have them, this is mine. It would be nice to have a civilized discussion about Senna for once. He was certainly a sinner, but by no means a lost soul. He did indeed do much in his native country which warrants praise. He was certainly a man of great talent in an F1 car, but "...so what?"
Interesting how I keep coming back to that quotation from DSJ that I led off with and find myself nodding.....