My path to becoming an insufferable gearhead began when I saw footage of Ayrton Senna. It was 2005. I had just moved to San Jose, California from New England and I was suddenly surrounded by a wealth of exotic vehicles.
Skip ahead to present day 2010 for a moment. I'm watching the BBC. Jeremy Clarkson is getting whacked in the junk by paint balls coming out the exhaust of a Red Bull F1 car, I'm queuing up a video of the Ferrari 599XX doing a hot lap of the Nürburgring, and my "light reading" at the moment is a technical manual on vehicle dynamics (I wish I could remember my college DiffEq course). Ahem. My friend and fellow motor sports enthusiast (previously employed by Formula One in Europe) drops me an e-mail with two words in the subject: Senna Movie. Whoa...I'll say that again: Senna Movie. Is this for real? This Fall a documentary of Senna's life is being released in theaters. My jaw literally dropped when I saw the trailer. By now I've become pretty saturated with the history of Formula One and, knowing all too well the triumph and tragedy that was Senna's career, the prospect of a documentary about his life is both thrilling and terrifying at the same time.
So back to California. When I started my west coast romp I attended the Palo Alto Concours d'Elegance at Stanford University. This was all pretty exciting: first time in California, new job at a start up, new outlook on life, and I was surrounded by over 10 million dollars of...CAR! I'd never seen anything like it. And it was there, under that brutal August inferno on The Farm, that I met my first true love: a red Ford GT with white racing stripes. With that unique body shape and my virgin eyes it was most certainly a pornographic experience. The engine bay was kept open with all the aluminum guts exposed as if being prepped for a highly invasive surgery. It seemed alive! I made a few glances at a silver Mercedes SLR McLaren over my left shoulder that I had little more than a passing interest for. I thought it was some awkward body kit trying (poorly) to mimic a late 90's Batmobile. Little did I realize what an amazing car I had just naively snubbed.
I was enamored with that alien looking Ford GT. I started researching as soon as I got home and discovered the GT40 Le Mans car from the 60's that inspired this road-going race car. The original design looks like something the Skunk Works division at Lockheed Martin came up with during a lunch break from building the SR-71. After more sleuthing, both historical and technical (what can I say, I'm a geek), I inevitably became interested in F1 (thanks in no small part to the Wikipedian Loop effect). At this point my interest in motor sports was still limited, a passing fancy. Then I found Senna and it completely changed my view on professional racing.
I watched all the footage I could find. The duels he had were amazing! The early part of his career was during that insane turbo era with engines the same displacement as those found in some motorcycles but making well over 1300 horsepower in qualifying trim. I felt like I was reliving this man's whole career within a few days. It was clear his driving transcended the mere technical motions. You could duplicate his telemetry for a lap but it simply wouldn't capture his intuition and bravado. And, of course, watching him tackle a wet track was just inspiring.
Somehow up to this point I had avoided seeing any footage of the infamous crash at Imola. I am not a crash junkie. There is no pleasure to be had in watching someone become horrifically injured or even killed. I will admit, though, that I've respectfully watched crash footage and seen how casual and downright negligent the safety precautions were back in the 50's and 60's (and even onward in some cases). It's a miracle the sport wasn't banned!
With hindsight being what it is, the two fatal crashes that occurred at Imola in 1994 (Ratzenberger and later Senna) were all the more tragic in that they could have and should have been avoided. The manner in which Senna's crash played out was all the more callous and gruesome. In an instant it was over. The greatest F1 driver of all time and, dare I say, one of the greatest and most beloved athletes of all time was gone. I was living a moment through cyberspace that literally hundreds of millions of other people had lived 10 years prior and the emotional impact of that crash had a profound effect on me.
Maybe it seems silly that I was there welling up over the death of a man who I didn't even know existed until a day or two earlier. But that's how compelling he was. His charisma and intensity still radiate just as strongly now as they did in '94. It isn't just Senna the driver that I admire. I was touched by his devotion to his home country of Brazil and his passion for helping the less fortunate. His overwhelming generosity only came to light after his death and a foundation in his honor continues to donate large sums of money to those in need.
The director of this upcoming documentary, Asif Kapadia, had his work cut out for himself. How can you be true to the subject matter but at the same time be tasteful and respectful to Senna's loved ones and fans? The crash is all over the Internet. We've seen it. I imagine the event itself will take place off screen. We'll hear the alarming sounds of an accident but remain focused on the spectators. Let the faces and reactions of the crowd show the panic, confusion, and distress. I for one can't wait to see this film. But I'll make sure to bring tissues.
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