Will Gray

Gray Matter: Remembering the great Ayrton Senna (1960-1994)

Will Gray

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It’s 20 years today since Ayrton Senna died at Imola but his legend still lives on as the inspiration of the current F1 generation – even though many of the latest drivers cannot remember him alive.

Senna was an enigma. He was everything a racing driver of his era had to be, but on another level. His natural talent was immense and his concentration, on and off track, was intense.

The Latin passion was, for the most part, harnessed to perfection, while his deep religious beliefs and his very private approach to public life added a mystery that allowed few to get to know the real man.

As a fierce competitor he was, of course, not universally loved - but like him or loathe him, he was a man to be admired. And remembered.

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[SENNA'S DEATH: Eyewitness account from Imola]

Speak to anyone in the paddock fortunate enough to have crossed paths with him and most will have a story that affected them, a personal memory, good or bad, which keeps that legend alive.

As time passes, memories fade and classic moments are forgotten. But true legends never disappear and even the current drivers, some of whom were too young to witness Senna in action, have still been encouraged to explore the history books and documentaries and been inspired by what they saw.

Jean Eric Vergne, who was four in 1994, recently said: “I remember nothing of (the Imola weekend) and it took me a few years to realise who he was and what he has done for the sport. I think everybody has a massive respect for this guy.”

[SENNA'S DEATH: Looking back at Ayrton's greatest race]

Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso were both young but old enough to remember Senna on track and as children they, like me, absorbed his legend through books, videos and watching races on television.

On the day Senna died, I remember watching the coverage on BBC and it cutting to a static shot of the pitlane soon after the incident, with confused pundits trying to make sense of the situation.

In the days before 24-hour news coverage made us used to constant chatter and analysis, before twitter posts and social status updates spread stories like wildfire, the reporting looked to protect the viewer and report the facts, not the rumours.

On Eurosport, the international feed showed continuous footage from the helicopter overhead. Nobody knew what was happening, but being able to see it seemed to give some kind of hope.

[SENNA'S DEATH: Timeline of a deadly weekend at Imola]

When that broadcast ended with no publicly aired conclusion, though, I recall putting on Teletext then going outside in the sunshine to stare blankly at the sky, returning every five minutes to hit refresh in the hope of receiving some good news.

Each time, it never came. Then, many hours later, it refreshed with devastating news. I, like many F1 fans, cried my eyes out.

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“On the day of his passing, his death was... it was very difficult for me to show my emotions in my family,” Hamilton recalled a few races ago. “I went off to a quiet place and it was very difficult for several days to really... your hero's gone.”

But not forgotten.

“(Senna is) an incredible legend and you can still learn things from how he approached racing and how he drove,” added Hamilton. “He kind of inspired me to even be a driver and of course, you like to think one day you may be recognised as someone that was able to drive similarly to him.”

Alonso added: “He was an inspiration. I remember I went to school, on my book, I didn't have (pictures of) girls... I had Ayrton there, and the same in my room. I had a big poster of Ayrton and even my first go-karts were in the colours of Ayrton's McLaren because my father also liked him.”

[SENNA'S DEATH: Practical joker whose laughter is still missed]

I am lucky enough to have my own first-hand memory of Senna – and while the races on TV demonstrated his skill and ability, it was that personal encounter that made him a legend in my eyes.

In 1990, Silverstone was a very different place. In the infield, there was an open area between the garages and paddock, which meant the drivers had to walk through crowds of autograph-hungry fans to get between locations.

As a young(ish!) child, I was in that mass when Senna decided to made a break for it, and the crowds went wild. Head down, he stormed through like a rock star, pushing his way past people and refusing to stop. I raced alongside my hero for his 200m or so journey, my programme and a pen hovering right under his face, but he never stopped.

Then he reached the gate and the sanctuary of the paddock. He stopped, turned around, waved, and, with a grin, he asked: “Now, do you want me to sign?”

He then spent a good 20 minutes with his loyal fans, chatting, signing and posing for photos.

A few hours later, having found my way into the paddock with my dad (there were gaps in fences back then!), I met Senna again – and a photograph of that moment, showing me walking alongside him just having a chat, is still proudly displayed in our family photo frame.

Racing talent is natural, dedication takes it to the next level, but it’s the little details that turn a star into a legend.

By Will Gray

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