Skill had been killing Formula One. In the early Nineties, Frank Williams and Renault had together been producing cars that were superior to the rest. The superior drivers wanted to be in them. Williams made more money, and their cars got better. The result was increasingly predictable processions round the circuits. Nigel Mansell won the championship in a Williams-Renault in 1992, Alain Prost in 1993. The interest in the past thirty races or more had been reduced to seeing whether McLaren or Ferrari or Benetton could change their tyres more quickly, and how many of those jostling in inferior vehicles at the back hit each other, ran off or broke down. The television audiences, which had risen to extraordinary heights by the mid-Eighties, were falling. Bernie Ecclestone, vice-president of the controlling Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, was said to be determined to stem the loss of income. Last year, Max Mosley, the FIA’s president, announced some changes. Williams’s advantages, which only one or two other teams could afford to emulate, would go. There was to be no more electronically controlled suspension to keep the cars level over bumpy tracks, no more traction control to stop their wheels spinning at the start or in the wet, no more automatic boosts to the throttle during gear changes, no more anti-lock brakes, and no more telemetry to allow technicians to adjust running cars from the pit. The top teams were furious. The rest were delighted. Competition, it seemed, might return to the track.
It did. Ayrton Senna, the supreme talent of the moment, everyone agreed, and maybe the greatest of them all – although that’s impossible to judge, so much has changed in the forty years since his hero Fangio dominated the circuits – had moved into the Williams team at just the moment at which the FIA had forced their car to lose its edge. It still had power in its Renault engine, a crucial 10 percent or so more at the end of last years’ season. But the engines in at least three of the others, Benetton-Ford, Ferrari and what is now McLaren-Peugeot, had been catching up. And Benetton had Michael Schumacher, ten years younger and the one driver whose talent was now close to Senna’s own. Senna was openly anxious at the start of the year. He went out of the first two races in incidents that could have been caused by nerves. He was the only driver who actually went to look at the place on the Imola circuit where Roland Ratzenberger had been killed in practice the day before. He started his own fatal race in a car whose engine wasn’t transmitting its power very well at slow speeds and which, without its gadgets, twitched on bumpy bends. ‘This car is more physical to drive than the one I’ve been used to,’ he’d said, ‘and not only because we’ve returned to conventional, passive suspension. It has its own characteristics, which make me uncomfortable. That’s when you feel tense and stressful.’ Above all, he knew that Schumacher had won the first two rounds in Brazil and Japan and was already as far ahead in the championship as he could be.
Schumacher was in Senna’s mirror the second before he hit the wall on the Tamburello corner. It’s a notorious place – Gerhard Berger hit it in 1989, at a survivable angle – but anyone of experience would have known that. It’s impossible yet to be sure what it was that caused Senna suddenly to brake before he crashed there. To his family and many other Brazilians, however, there was no doubt. The circuit was responsible, and the FIA is responsible for the circuits. Mosley did not go to Sao Paulo for the funeral. Ecclestone did, but the family let it be known when he got there that his presence at the ceremony would be ‘inconvenient’. Senna, a young Brazilian woman told the Independent’s Richard Williams, ‘was our hero. Our only one.’ Senna’s triumph, like Pele’s before him, was to have beaten the North at one of its own games. And the North, angry Brazilians wanted to believe, had killed him.
A million or so of Sao Paulo’s 15 million turned out to watch the fire engine take his coffin from the airport. One hundred and fifty thousand came to pay tribute in the hall of the state Legislative Assembly. The first was a lady of 84, but most were young. Girls wrote his name across their foreheads and painted the colours of Brazil on their cheeks. President Franco, falling in the opinion polls five months before a presidential election and perhaps alarmed at the division that’s since opened up in one of the parties on which he depends, had closed the schools and declared three days of national mourning. The national aerobatics team drew a great heart in the sky and put an ‘S’ in the middle. Saudade, Senna. He was the perfect Brazilian hero. Nigel Mansell, rash, brash and cheerfully informal, suited the British. Alain Prost’s articulate reasonableness fed a French self-image. Senna was good-looking, ruthless, remote and intense. He was a touch spiritual – he would read his Bible on flights back and forth to Europe and was not averse to attributing his more inspired moments to a force greater than his own – and fiercely patriotic. He had an elegance and a personal power that none of the others could match. And he held out for the highest pay – about a million pounds a race in his last years. (Only the top dozen drivers can expect to earn that in the whole season this year.) To the professionals, to many in McLaren, for whom he drove until this year, and to those in Williams, he was, if not congenial – ‘when you work with him,’ a colleague said, ‘he is even less nice than you think’ – much respected. Above all, he could drive. Mansell would take terrifying risks. Prost, nicknamed ‘the Professor’, was almost visibly working everything out. The chances that Senna took, however, and his own evident intelligence, were of a piece with his speed. His, it seemed, was a seamless skill. When he was in his ‘office’, as the drivers call their cockpits, it was difficult to watch anyone else. His overtaking of everyone else in the rain at Donington last year, for instance, on slippery smooth tyres in an unsatisfactory car, was something that perhaps no other driver ever could have done. ‘The ice-cool bit,’ the British driver Martin Brundle said of him earlier this year, ‘is part of his make-up. He’s totally single-minded, selfish even. That partly explains his success. But emotionally he can be caught out.’ Perhaps that’s what happened at Imola. At any time, his loss would have been terrible. At the moment when skill could be returning to the office, his loss is all the greater.
It’s certainly thrown the sport into disarray. Until the Nineties, Formula One was a straightforward enterprise. Manufacturers tried to produce ever better cars. Drivers tried to push them ever faster. And everyone tried to make more money. There had not been a fatal crash for 12 years. It was great fun for all until Williams managed to get themselves into an all but unassailable position. In trying to redress this by prohibiting the more expensive devices – and for some reason which no one seems able to explain, also re-introducing refuelling in the middle of the race – the FIA have undoubtedly made it less safe. In response, McLaren, Benetton and Ferrari have been working through the winter on trying to match the 800 bhp (brake horse power) of the Williams-Renault engine. Having taken away active suspension, having, Ron Dennis, the boss of McLaren, explained recently, taken away ‘the ability to innovate’, the FIA has made Formula One depend now on power.
This increases the hazards. The aerodynamics of the modern cars, which would allow the best to drive upside down at 150 mph, are designed to stop them taking to the air at 200 mph when the right way up on the straight and to give the drivers an even chance of taking them round corners. They press the vehicles’ flat bottoms down to a millimetre or two above the track. This is fine so long as all the wings and ailerons stay on and stay true, if the track is flat and free of rubbish, and if the mechanics know how hot the tyres are going to be and so where to set the height of the car. But wings and things can come off, as a bit did for Ratzenberger at Imola. The pieces often lie about. Tracks, not only at Imola, although notoriously there, and nowhere more notoriously than on the Tamburello corner, are not perfect. And tyres can change their temperature during the race, as Senna’s may have done after he’d had to follow the slow-circuit car for four laps. (Schumacher noticed that the Williams hit the ground at Tamburello a moment before Senna braked. Cool tyres could have caused this.) It’s for these reasons that the electronic devices were introduced in the first place. Without them, even in the most skilled hands, the cars can easily go out of control.
The first public reaction to Senna’s crash, in a poll taken by Italian radio, was to say that the season should stop until something was done. One or two of Berlusconi’s new deputies said the same. The prosecutor at Imola even declared that he’d charge the circuit’s manager with murder. There are doubtless more changes soon to come. The drivers themselves, whom Mosley could never persuade to talk about safety, have revived their association. And the FIA itself has responded. It’s now announced that it wants teams to reduce the downward force of the cars’ aerodynamics by more than half by the end of this year’s season, and just as the engineers are working on how to get even more out of 3½ litres, to start reducing the effective bhp so that by the start of next year’s racing it’s three-quarters of what it is now. If this continues, one can almost imagine that by 2000 the drivers will be sitting in offices not unlike those in the grand old Mercedes that Fangio – five times world champion against Prost’s four and Senna’s three – used to race with such distinction in the Fifties.
This exposes the question now about Formula One. What kind of sport can it be? Wittgensteinians would be wrong to say that all games are constituted by their rules. Many, including this one, are about people taking themselves and their ever improving technology to the limit. Rules are imposed simply in order to allow a modicum of competition, and given the exposure that the money from television and television advertising has brought, to make sure that the financing isn’t too openly crooked and the self-destruction too offensive. In Formula One, however, there’s now an unavoidable choice. If the cars go on improving, competition can’t. (But if improvement’s ruled out, half of what’s been taken to be the point of the sport – the technology – is lost.) To the top designers and manufacturers, and to the armchair connoisseurs of four valves as opposed to five, this is a crisis. To most of the rest, however, to the tifosi on the slope above Tamburello and the Sunday television audiences around the world, it matters less. There may never be any sense in placing blame for Senna’s death. But the fact that the one performer of real beauty has gone might now concentrate minds again on the driving. That’s where the excitement is.