Monday, April 18, 2011

Of Senna, Vettel and the Thrills of Racing

I have often wondered if the death of Ayrton Senna, by adding to his legend, has amplified his already iconic status, wrongly, into one of a magnificent hero. But a mere glimpse at the trailer of the upcoming film, ‘Senna’ – titled in a prosaic yet powerful manner – is enough to convince one of the boundaries of greatness that Senna transcended. It makes you yearn for a more innocent age when Formula One actually involved racing, when drivers battled it out, often wheel-to-wheel for primacy.

My initiation into the sport, sadly, did not coincide with Senna’s career. As a result, my opinions on him are tailored through a combination of reading about him – including Richard Williams’s book, The Death of Ayrton Senna – and viewing of old footage. By all accounts, he was a great champion, the champagne of Formula One – a chillingly aggressive driver who at his best was a sight for the gods. But his fearsome will to win seemed to border on the outrageous, very often going beyond the realms of what was perceived to be ‘fair racing’. Senna, though, saw it in more simplistic terms. If there was a gap to attack, as tiny as it may have been, he believed he had the right to seize it. In his own words: “If you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver.”

They don’t make them like Senna anymore and Formula One isn’t anywhere near what it once was. The mechanical workings of a car play an overwhelmingly crucial role in determining race results and concomitantly the end of season honours. But, I think, in Sebastian Vettel the sport may have found the driver nearest to Senna in his capacity to coalesce thrilling, racing skills with a temperament to win championships. His sheer virtuosity and his incredible talent for driving a racing car to its maximum potential, even while giving an impression that not an ounce of energy has been expended, makes Vettel an utterly exhilarating driver to watch. It seems he can never look laboured, stodgy or workmanlike. Driving to him is a form of art – something to be expressed with joy and splendour.

No doubt, winning in Formula One requires elements beyond racing skills, not least the pace of the car, its overall reliability, and team tactics that include myriad technical details, the applications of which are no doubt fascinating. But it is the act of pure driving where the racers will against each other that makes the sport a compelling spectacle.

In the three races so far this season, Vettel has won two – at Australia and Malaysia – and finished second behind Lewis Hamilton in the recently concluded Chinese Grand Prix. At Albert Park in Melbourne, Vettel finished a whole twenty-two seconds ahead of second placed Hamilton. Quite astonishing, when one considers that this was achieved with minimum use of the drag reduction system (DRS) – introduced newly this season – and without the use of KERS, which has been reintroduced this year. But the moment that was most reminiscent of Senna came during qualifying at Sepang. All weekend, through practice and most of qualifying, the McLarens of Hamilton and Jenson Button were quicker, making a Red Bull pole position quite improbable. But at the end of the third qualifying session, against the run of events, Vettel produced a flying lap of astounding pace, one that was sprinkled with greatness, one that overcame Hamilton’s time by less than a tenth of a second to cement his position at the apex of the grid.

Hamilton has sought to project himself as the next Senna, but the very fact that he has done so, showcases him in poor light. Vettel on the other hand is not one for such talk – he leaves it to us to make the comparisons. Indeed there is a long way to go before he matches Senna, not merely statistically but in terms of his overall realizations – accomplishments which he may never manage. But by constantly producing moments of ingenious craft and vision, he has been like a breath of fresh air in a sport increasingly devoid of excitement in recent seasons. He is the closest we’ve seen to Senna yet and this is notwithstanding Michael Schumacher.

Schumacher, statistically the most successful driver, and in the eyes of some, the greatest of them all is a driver of different ilk. No doubt he is as fiercely competitive as Senna was and has – although some would say had – a commitment to excellence beyond the ordinary, but his accomplishments were more a result of consistency than a preference for the breathtaking. This, however, is no criticism of Schumacher. If anything it is an affirmation of his greatness. Senna’s genius, though, was more flawed, making him a more likeable Champion. His ability to produce moments of brilliance in the most unforeseen of circumstances, perhaps, made for a more exhilarating exhibition – the class of which we haven’t seen since, although Vettel has showed a similar proclivity for the spectacular.

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