As you read these words, in the lead-up to the 2013 Brazilian Grand Prix, which will be run at my beloved Interlagos, the circuit on which I learned to race as a boy, I find myself thinking of my great friend Ayrton Senna, who was killed nearly 20 years ago and whom I loved and admired in equal measure.
I think of Ayrton whenever I go to Interlagos, not least because it was at Interlagos that I first met him, in 1976, when he was just 16. I was testing my Copersucar Formula 1 car there, and he and his father, Milton, were watching.
Ayrton had been racing his kart on the Interlagos kart track next to the F1 circuit that day, and as usual he had won. He had been winning everything in Brazilian karting recently, and I had therefore heard all about him. I knew his dad, too. Milton was a successful man, who owned factories in and around Sao Paulo.
Milton approached me and asked me for some advice, and I answered straight away. "Get in touch with Ralph Firman," I said. I did not mean Ralph Firman junior, the driver who drove 15 grands prix for Jordan in 2003. No, I meant his father, Ralph Firman senior, who in 1973 founded Van Diemen, the legendarily successful manufacturer of Formula Ford cars based near the Snetterton circuit, in Norfolk (UK), and who had been my mechanic when Jim Russell had invited me to race his Lotus 59 F3 car in the 1969 Guards Trophy at Brands Hatch – my first ever F3 event. I was unclassified in heat one, but I won heat two and I finished third in heat three: not a bad F3 debut.
So I knew Ralph pretty well, and I rated him very high, and I was certain that he would be the right guy for Milton and Ayrton to get in touch with in their efforts to take the next step, namely the all-important stride from Brazil to Europe, the giant leap that I myself had tentatively trailblazed seven years before. It was good advice, by the way: Milton duly contacted Ralph, they did a deal, and Ayrton drove successfully in Van Diemen’s cars for some years, winning the British Formula Ford 1600 Championship in a Van Diemen RF81 in 1981.
But I already knew that Ayrton was special long before he had become a champion of Formula Ford, and for some time I had been meaning to find a way to help him further. In 1980 I got my chance. At the Osterreichring that year I was racing in F1 and Ayrton was racing in the Formula Ford 2000 support race. He was 20 by now, but still very shy. I was in my last year of F1, driving my and my brother Wilson’s own Fittipaldi car.
Anyway, one day that weekend, I walked Ayrton from one end of the Osterreichring pitlane to the other, introducing him to every single team boss. "This young man will be world champion; maybe he’ll be world champion many times," I told them all. Perhaps they thought I was crazy – or, more likely, they thought I was simply offering biased support to a fellow Brazilian – but I knew already that what I was saying was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
People often ask me who I think was the greatest racing driver of all time, and they frequently suggest that my answer should be Ayrton. It is extremely difficult – maybe impossible – to compare drivers across different eras, which is why I do not really like doing it.
My heroes are guys like Tazio Nuvolari, the so-called ‘flying Mantuan’ of the 1920s and 1930s, whom Ferdinand Porsche once described as "the greatest driver of the past, the present, and the future", and who drove so imperiously for Bugatti, Alfa Romeo, Maserati and finally Auto Union; Achille Varzi, Nuvolari’s great friend and rival, who won more than 30 races for the same four marques during the same period; Rudolph Caracciola, who triumphed in the European Drivers’ Championship (the precursor to the F1 Drivers’ World Championship) for Mercedes-Benz in 1935, 1937 and 1938; Bernd Rosemeyer, who was almost unbeatable for Auto Union at the daunting Nurburgring in the 1930s, once winning there at high speed in thick fog; Juan Manuel Fangio, who took 24 grand prix victories and won five F1 world championships in the 1950s, from only 51 grand prix starts; Jim Clark, who won two world championships and 25 grands prix for Lotus between 1962 and 1968, but finished second in only one grand prix, a telling numerical tribute to his and my future boss Colin Chapman’s incredible win-or-bust culture at Lotus; Jackie Stewart, who won three world championships and 27 grands prix from 99 starts, and whom I would name as the rival I held in highest esteem during my own F1 career; Michael Schumacher, who won 91 grands prix and seven world championships, a magnum opus that may or may not be beaten by Sebastian Vettel, F1’s current megastar, who must also now be ranked with the greats I have just enjoyed listing for you.
Undoubtedly, Ayrton also belongs on that list – and, perhaps because he was a Brazilian, like me, and perhaps because he was my friend, I am happy to name him as, yes, in my opinion the very best of all time.
He was unbelievably good. He is famous for his incredible natural speed, and understandably so, but his prodigious work ethic is often under-rated. He trained assiduously, he was therefore extremely fit, he studied data with his engineers with infinitesimal care, and he thought deeply about his craft. Yes, he had been gifted by God with a sublime ability, but he knew that that alone would not be enough, so he worked on that talent, polished it and perfected it, and that is why I use the term ‘craft’ about his driving rather than ‘skill’ or ‘art’.
Yes, he was skilled; yes, his driving was artistic; but the reason he was so supremely successful was that he was a craftsman in and out of the cockpit, leaving no stone unturned in his efforts to be the best. He suffered to earn his successes, make no mistake about that.
Which was his greatest ever race? I cannot say, but the one that springs most readily to my mind is the 1993 European Grand Prix at Donington (UK). He had qualified his comparatively underpowered Cosworth-engined McLaren MP4-8 only fourth, behind Michael Schumacher’s Benetton B193 in third and the all-conquering Williams FW15Cs of Alain Prost and Damon Hill, who had locked out the front row; but on race day, in torrential rain, Ayrton was untouchable.
The Search for The Perfect Lap
I watched the race on TV in my house in Miami (USA), and I was utterly mesmerised by Ayrton's first lap. He made a poor start, dropping back to fifth place, but over the next 45 seconds what I saw on my TV screen was pure genius. There is no other word.
If you have never seen it before, type ‘Ayrton Senna’s greatest lap in F1’ into YouTube and prepare to be truly amazed. He found grip where no-one else even knew that it was there to be looked for, and he stormed past Karl Wendlinger (who had pipped him at the start), Schumacher, Hill and Prost, one after another, and was leading the field comfortably by the end of lap one.
The next day I telephoned him. "Ayrton, that was just unbelievable! You’ll never drive another lap quite like that ever in your life!" I told him. In my mind’s ear I can still hear his reaction, an embarrassed but happy chuckle, as I write.
Just over a year later, he was gone. On May 1st 1994, the day he died while leading the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, I was testing my Penske-Mercedes Indycar at Michigan. I had just begun a flat-out full-tanks run, which consisted of 28 laps of that wonderful super-speedway, where average lap speeds of 230mph-plus were the norm in those fantastic 1000bhp single-seaters. I was focused, pumped, doing what I was put on Earth to do, on the limit, in the zone, happy.
And then my crew chief suddenly came on the radio: "Emmo, come in," he said.
That was a very unusual instruction, especially during a flat-out full-tanks run, so I asked, "Why, is there something wrong with the car?"
"No, no, no, just come in now please," he repeated.
So I backed off, drove down the pitlane, brought the car to a stop in front of the Penske garage, and said, "What’s the matter, guys?"
"Your wife wants to speak to you on the phone," my crew chief said.
I felt a terrible coldness in the pit of my stomach. I assumed that something dreadful must have happened to one of our children – I could think of no other reason why my wife’s call was being treated by the crew as so urgent. So I jumped out of the car and sprinted across the pit apron to the garage, where one of the guys was holding the phone in his extended hand, ready for me to take the handset from him.
"What is it? Is it one of the kids?" I asked my wife.
"No," she said, "it’s Ayrton. He’s been killed at Imola today."
I had no words then. In truth I have no words now, no words at all.
But I will try, now, nearly 20 years later, to express what I felt, then. I felt the most profound sorrow, the most intense sadness. Okay, I knew racing was dangerous, of course I did, but, other than poor Roland Ratzenberger, who had been killed at Imola the day before, F1 had not suffered a fatality since Elio de Angelis had been killed in testing at Paul Ricard in 1986, and no-one had died during a grand prix since Riccardo Paletti had perished in a startline accident in Montreal in 1982.
Moreover, the chassis of 1990s F1 cars were already of super-tough carbonfibre construction, and I guess perhaps we had been lulled into a false sense of security. We expected drivers nonchalantly to climb out of their wrecked cars after even big shunts, and usually they did just that, as indeed they do now. But, as I say, racing is dangerous, in our hearts we knew that then and know it still, and even a driver of Ayrton's brilliance was and always will be powerless to prevent himself being injured in an accident as freakish as the one that befell him at Tamburello corner at Imola in 1994.
I looked at the Penske crew, lined up in sheepish sorrow in the garage at Michigan, and I said, "I can’t continue, guys. Sorry. Not now. Not today."
They understood. Ayrton had tested a Penske-Mercedes Indycar just a year before, so the guys I was standing among knew Ayrton, because they had crewed his test. That helped me. I felt lonely but not alone. Others around me shared my sadness, even if their loss was not as grievous as mine was, coping as I was with the news of the death of a man whom, as I say, I both loved and admired.
I called Roger Penske. "I’ve got to go home, Roger," I said.
"I understand, Emmo," he replied, and I flew back to Miami that evening. On the flight home, I felt numb.
The memory of Ayrton’s funeral, which took place in Sao Paulo a few days later, and which followed three days of national mourning, as ordained by the Brazilian government, will stay with me for ever. Three million grieving Brazilians lined the Sao Paulo streets through which his cortege passed – many of them openly weeping – and I am told that it is still the largest single gathering of mourners in modern times.
I was accorded the honour of being one of Ayrton’s pallbearers – alongside Jackie Stewart, Alain Prost, Gerhard Berger, Damon Hill and Rubens Barrichello. We buried him in the Morumbi cemetery, in Sao Paulo, and on his gravestone is engraved the legend "Nada pode me separar do amor de Deus" ("Nothing can separate me from the love of God").
I have never been able to bring myself to visit his grave since that fateful day.
I loved Ayrton, I admired him, and I was proud of him, too: proud that Brazil had produced such a champion. In 1969 I had arrived in England from Brazil, and I had achieved success relatively quickly, winning F1 world championships in 1972 (for Lotus) and 1974 (for McLaren).
My greatest tracks
I retired from F1 in 1980, and my ‘Brazilian champion’ mantle was immediately inherited by Nelson Piquet, who won world championships in 1981 and 1983 (both times for Brabham) and in 1987 (for Williams).
And then, no sooner had Nelson’s star begun to fade, than onto the F1 stage had marched the greatest of us all. Ayrton won all his world championships for McLaren, in 1988, 1990 and 1991, and his name and aura will always be synonymous with those superb red-and-white machines.
The result – the legacy – is a culture of Brazilian F1 awareness that I hope will never die. The three of us won eight world championships in just 20 seasons, which is an extremely impressive strike-rate, and my brother Wilson and our friend Carlos Pace, who died in 1977 and after whom the great Interlagos circuit was then named, should also be honoured for their contributions early on. Ditto: Rubens Barrichello and Felipe Massa, who won 11 grands prix apiece, and in Felipe’s case may yet add to that tally; I hope he does.
But, as I say, Ayrton was the greatest of us – and, nearly 20 years after he was taken from us, he is still loved with frenzied devotion in Brazil. And, on race day this weekend, as I walk into Interlagos, and as I wave to the cheering crowd, I will be waving not only for myself but also for Ayrton, who won two grands prix at Interlagos, in 1991 and 1993, both times for McLaren: two of the proudest days of his life.
I feel Ayrton’s presence every day. I pray for him often. One day I know we will meet again.