Silence of the lambs: Why Formula 1 misses Ayrton Senna’s spirit as much as his superlative driving

Ayrton Senna with garland (

A Great Driver with a “SOCIAL CONSCIENCE” – one who cared deeply about humanity, his fellow human beings!

Silence of the lambs: Why Formula 1 misses Ayrton Senna’s spirit as much as his superlative driving


1 May 2012 21:06

On the 18th anniversary of his death Byron Young considers how Ayrton Senna would have behaved in today’s circumstances.


18 years on: Senna’s spirit is missed as much as ever


Let me put my cards on the table from the get go; as far as I’m concerned Ayrton Senna is the greatest racing driver of the modern era.

Probably the greatest that ever lived, too, but how could I fairly make a valid judgement when there were so many before my time, which started in the early 80s.

How could I, in all conscience, compare him to Jim Clark, Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Jochen Rindt or Jackie Stewart ?

Different cars, different eras, different demands. He was of their ilk or they of his, that’s for sure; a superlative athlete, ruthless racer, and highly intelligent individual.

The comparison with his contemporaries Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet and even the newcomer Michael Schumacher is entirely valid.

Schumacher comes a tawdry second but I will cover that another time. The comparison with the rest is well documented.

I find it frankly amazing anyone could rank Prost, for instance, above Senna, simply because he has more titles. Is a banana shake better just because it’s got more banana ?  Or a crème brulee superior because a couple of extra vanilla pods slipped in ? It’s the taste, the mix, the complete concoction that counts. The result.

I am writing this column on the occasion of the 18th anniversary of Senna’s death at the request of The Mirror.

Recent events have caused me to mark the landmark by reflections of a slightly different hue.

Friendly rivals: Senna and Prost at the Australian Grand Prix 1988



The first is the Bahrain Grand Prix just past. It was one of those weekends from which, if you have a conscience, you emerge thoroughly ashamed of your sport.

Next we will be racing, without a care, through the slums of Soweto, or flatten a children’s home in Moscow to make a bigger run off area for the new track.

What about racing across some no-man’s land as a war rages and if someone in F1 gets hurt – well then, hey, sorry about that.

Let me hasten to say, there are plenty of people in F1 who care but that week they were either too scared, too involved, or too self-involved, to speak up.

Some, I appreciate, had their jobs on the line and silence was the only option.

But there were some who could have said more without any censure: they include the sports senior figures; Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button to name but a few.

Of the senior drivers involved that weekend not one of them said anything of significance until the death of a 36-year-old villager a few hundred yards from his own, modest, home.

Local politics aside, what would have been the harm in pointing out F1 rank and file were risking their lives unnecessarily?

That alone was reason not to go. No-one signed up for that.

I don’t believe for a second any of the drivers would have lost their jobs or got anything more than a mild ticking off for putting their position.

The reality was that the sport was hurled into the middle of an island conflict (complete with petrol bombs, stun grenades and teargas) for dubious political reasons and the powers-that-be simply decided to gamble with the lives of everyone in F1.

Ecclestone was doing his job of getting races and staging them, FIA President Jean Todt should have stepped in but was as ineffective as usual.

Without continuing to bang any of those particular gongs any longer I have to say that I don’t think Senna would have been so silent.

Iconic: Senna relaxing for a Daily Mirror photoshoot


OK, I can’t claim any real knowledge of the man beyond working with him closely as his PR for a year at Lotus in 1987 and then interviewing him several times and watching him first hand thereafter as a Grand Prix reporter for the next seven years.

But he has become an iconic figure, partially I believe, because he often did what he thought was right rather than what was popular.

You could tell he cared. He really cared. And not just about growing his bank account or his win tally (but that too).

He read the Bible, studied other religions, started a charity for destitute children in Brazil and stood up to be counted when something needed to be said.

On a trip to Scotland I came across his name in the visitor’s book at the Jim Clark museum. Apparently he had for driven hundreds of miles specifically for a children’s charity function (nothing to do with his sponsors) and then made an extra detour to the museum.

On another occasion in his hotel suite in Adelaide after winning the world title he waved his arm expansively at the television and talked passionately about how motor racing was irrelevant compared to the horrible plight of so many children worldwide or the planet’s starving millions.

He had great influence and he used it extensively.

Conscience: No driver made a stand as Bahrain burned



Every race today bears the mark of Ayrton Senna because of his passionate fight with the, then, FIA President Jean Marie-Balestre to have the pole position changed from the inside of the track to the outside.

He risked his life to push it through when he crashed with Prost intentionally at Suzuka to prove his point.

In that context, the silence of the sports stars of today in Bahrain was craven. They bent their knees before the power of the dollar – or was it oil? – and blindly focussed on making sure their car was fastest.

“Don’t ask me guv, that’s someone else’s responsibility”.

The longer the driver has been in F1 the more heinous the crime, as far as I’m concerned.

At the very least they could have questioned why other mechanics and engineers were risking their lives to get to the track even if their crew were fortunate enough to be in one of the hotels away from the trouble zones.

Formula 1 has great power to do great good. And often does. That goes double for the privileged men in their racing machines.

They can multiply a charities income purely by adding their name to the roll. And they often do.

But Bahrain was one weekend when they have reason to be less than proud of themselves.

The other reason for the particular bent of this column is my experience over the last few days of my own mother’s dementia.

Much missed: Senna’s funeral in 1994 with pallbearers Alain Prost and Gerhard Berger


It’s a horrible, cruel, affliction I’m only just learning about: you are increasingly left with the corporeal self but not the character, personality or soul. You are stripped of all the special things that made them who they are. Effectively, just the body and a scrambled, troubled mind – particularly if, like my mother, Tessa, a former journalist, you had a keen, active and inquiring intellect.

My father, a boxer in the army, had a more direct method of getting what he wanted. My mother was always gentle and charming and no less successful.

Senna’s approach to his entire life is the reason his legacy burns so brightly this long after his death – not just because he could go around in circles faster than anyone else.

The merchandising people tell me that year on year, no-one sells like Senna. Only Schumacher at his peak has sold more.

Senna stood for something more than just being a superlative racing driver. The name is synonymous now with striving to be better, reaching for perfection.

With passion and commitment he tried to improve the lot of all of humanity and today’s drivers could learn there is more to Formula 1 than just racing.

The odd signature or charity run doesn’t really cut it. And, ashamed as I am to say it, I’m as guilty as anyone. It’s that old saying: it’s not what you do once in a while that counts. It’s what you do every day.

Senna is a blazing beacon in so many ways and I like to think that it’s not just because of the James Dean effect of his untimely demise at the height of his fame 18 years ago this week.

With Grand Prix racing finally findings its feet and actually providing genuine entertainment I miss him less as a driver but more as a force for greater good beyond the confines of the cockpit.



A Great Driver with (perhaps even more importantly) a “SOCIAL CONSCIENCE” – a man who cared deeply about humanity, his fellow human beings!!


Ayrton (Japanese GP 1989)



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6 Responses to “Silence of the lambs: Why Formula 1 misses Ayrton Senna’s spirit as much as his superlative driving”

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