Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Back to the Future: Senna Signs for Williams

It feels as if there's a little bit of history repeating on the news yesterday that Bruno Senna has signed to drive for Williams F1 this season.

The timing for me is particularly poigniant. I recently watched the film Senna on DVD which chartered the career of Bruno's legendary uncle, Ayrton Senna.

Uncle Ayrton Senna with a young Bruno
As a connoisseur of Formula One and of its history and heritage in particular, the film was an absolute triumph. I was absolutely blown away at the raw archive footage and family sanctioned home videos that was used to guide us through the short-lived life of one of motor racing's greatest-ever drivers.

In places it reduced me to tears. Watching Martin Donnelly's career-ending crash at Jerez in 1990 sent shivers of horror down my spine. But watching the build-up to the San Marino Grand Prix of May 1st 1994 was heart-breaking.

I remember the moment vividly. I was on holiday that weekend with my parents in Cornwall and for once as a result, missed the race itself. I had begun watching F1 back in 1991 as a then 9 year old and Senna was for me the villain of the peace when up against my hero Nigel Mansell.

On the Friday of qualifying, April 29th 1994, Rubens Barrichello suffered a horrendous crash. Watching it in the film, it looked horrifying. How did Rubens survive that, like Donnelly did in 1990 I will never know. A day later however, Roland Ratzenberger was not so fortunate. On Saturday 30th April 1994, he became the first fataility in F1 since Elio de Angelis in 1986.

The next day, Senna, so the film tells us, went out to drive in only his 3rd race for the under-performing Williams with an Austrian flag hidden in his overalls. He had planned to unfurl it on the podium in memory of Ratzenberger at the end of the race. Senna never got to made that gesture.

Dad, Mum and I were driving back that Sunday afternoon from Land's End - the only time before or since that I have visited the British mainland's most south-westerly point. We were driving back listening to the radio news bulletin which to this day I recall announcing that 'the sporting world is mourning the death of...'. I can remember instantly thinking that it was surprising that they were still leading on the news headlines with the death of Ratzenberger a full 24 hours later. Then came the words that must've sent the coldest of shivers down mine and my father's backs - 'Ayrton Senna'.

Until I watched the film in recent weeks, I had never seen in the 18 years since, that moment when his Williams crashed at the Tamburello corner at Imola. I never wanted too. It was a rare race that I didn't watch live and I couldn't bring myself to watch the death of a superstar of the track after that. But the film, made with the permission of Senna's family, brought me to a head with that awful moment. As I watched it and the moments afterwards as the emergency services strived in vain to save him, I was moved to tears.

Now, only weeks later, the news is that Senna will race for Williams once more. In this case, the younger nephew will replace the Brazilian compatriot that was so fortunate to survive that crash on the Friday at Imola '94.

Ayrton and Rubens at Imola '94
After 19 distinguished years in F1, Rubens Barrichello looks set to bow out to the young Brazilian having started in an all-time record 322 Grand Prix. As a big fan of Rubenio, I will miss him if this does indeed mark the end of his F1 career.

Will Bruno Senna step-up a level at Williams in 2012? His form to date has been mixed and the very name that he carries must surely weigh heavily on his shoulders. But I'm sure he will do his best to do the family, and the memory of his uncle Ayrton, proud.

As for Rubenio, he can be thankful that he raced in the safest era of F1. The past decade was the first in F1 history in which there were no fatalities. 15 F1 drivers were killed in the 1950s, 14 were killed in the 1960s, 12 were killed in the 1970s, 4 were killed in the 1980s and 2, Roland and Ayrton, were killed in the 1990s. There have been no fatalities since but there have been some close scrapes.

So whilst Bruno races on, Rubenio, unlike the 47 who have lost their lives between 1952-1994 has at least lived to tell the tale of his career to his family. Ayrton Senna was the most recent in a sadly long-line of drivers who never had that opportunity.

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