12 Aug – The Senna Movie/The Fragility Of Life

This past weekend (at least in Los Angeles) was the opening of the movie “Senna.”  I don’t know as much about Senna as the European F1 community does since his career happened at a time that I was still figuring out high school. It was rough going, trying not to fail Chemistry and Algebra 2, not to mention dress cool and perfect my skill-set at talking to girls (I passed that last one, no problem). [Editors note: Our fact-checkers could not verify this claim.] So racing wasn’t really on the radar for me at that time. I do remember that at some point Senna was winning everything under the sun (and rain for that matter), and that he was spoken of in almost superhuman terms.

So even though I wasn’t a race fan yet, I knew who Senna was and all about the battle that developed between him and Prost.  And I recall his untimely death quite vividly. My father, who took me to the Long Beach Grand Prix in ’77 and ’78, was very emotional when Gilles Villeneuve died (1985) and even more so when Senna collided with the barrier.  It’s a real testament to Senna how many people, even in the US, knew of him and felt such a connection to him and recognized his ability.

As I watched the film I kept saying to myself, “This doesn’t really feel like a racing film”, despite the fact that the story is being told in that context.  About halfway through it dawned on me why. There’s a ‘before Senna died’ and ‘after Senna died’ experience for racing fans, and mine is ‘after Senna died’. Because since I have been avidly following the sport there have been zero driver fatalities. Zero. Some spectacular and horrific accidents and crashes, sure, Michael into the back of David Coulthard; Mark Webber in Brazil and then Fernando into one of his wheels–parts and cars all over the place; Kubica in Montreal a few years back completely destroying his chassis; of course no one will forget Massa’s coming together with a metal spring that sidelined him for the second half of ’09; Perez at Monaco this year, need I go on? But never death. In fact, the worst accidents to befall F1 drivers in the last several years have happened off the F1 track: Webber’s bike accident, Kubica’s rally car crash. I find myself getting frustrated or upset when an engine expires, or a gearbox fails to shift, or the hydraulics go south. I never really worry about an accident or crash that will result in a death because it just hasn’t happened in so long, 17 years to be exact. Zero fatalities in 17 years. To put that in perspective, Jackie Stewart in his autobiography points out that he lost 57 of his friends/colleagues in his 10 years of racing. 57 deaths in 10 years! Stating the obvious, too many lives were lost in the pursuit of a trophy and a race win during that era.

I personally was lucky enough to get close to a car from that era several years back at a Ferrari challenge weekend here in Los Angeles. Ferrari brought Michael’s car from the previous season, a much older car of Gerhard Burger and a car of Gilles Villeneuve from the 70’s. I was right next to Gilles’ Ferrari with the the top part of the body work off. It looked like it was being held together with zip ties, common hose clamps and sheet metal with some rivets.  I’m not kidding, like a death trap is what comes to mind.  And by the way, no protection for the driver worth mentioning. Obviously things have changed a great deal. Does this mean racing is now a safe sport? Absolutely not. The film, in addition to allowing me an insight into this very powerful personality, (so much has been said that there is no way I can really add anything new), really drove home how absolutely precarious these drivers’ lives become once they get in the car and what they risk. The on-board footage of Senna driving is just so telling of what a race car driver is really going through, in Senna’s era and today.

Even after attending a Grand Prix (Belgium ’09, on my honeymoon no less, I will post about that at some point), even after watching the cars fly right by like jet planes, you just can’t wrap your mind around how fast the cars are, what the cornering speeds are, not to mention the braking power.  And TV cannot convey these acts of defying physics because it’s difficult to have a reference point while watching on TV. This past weekend I watched NASCAR at Watkins Glen (I know, I went to the dark side, it happens when there is no F1 on)  and the cars looked so slow driving around the track, right up until there was an accident and then time and space, and the rate of objects became very defined. And by defined I mean it becomes apparent that the rate of these objects is: very very very frickn’ fast, bitches. (That’s a technical phrase.)

So while racing might seem ‘safe’ in this era, or at least ‘safer’, we racing fans know deep down that it is not safe. Danger will always be part of the sport, the draw, the sexiness, the fact that flesh and bone will tame and guide metal (and carbonfiber) to the ultimate reward–what we as humans value more that anything–WINNING, despite the consequences, and against all odds.  I think the turning point for me in the film comes when Dr. Sid Watkins retells a moment between Senna and himself that took place that fateful weekend in San Marino after the horrible accident that claimed Ratzenberger’s life.  Shortly before Senna got in the car for his last drive, Dr Watkins says to Senna, who was a little freaked out by Ratzenberger’s death, “You have three championships, you like to fish, so do I, lets both quit today and go fishing.” (paraphrased), to which Senna replies simply, “I can’t”.

This is the somewhat dark part of the true nature of man, the fact that in light of what we know to be the logical choice, we choose the not-so-logical one, for good or for bad. And this exact paradox is also what is so compelling about Formula One as well: If you get in the car you can win, but by winning you may also die. It was true in the time of the Romans as a gladiators, the time of King Arthur’s court with knights of the roundtable, and it is true now, as modern day knights wear racing suits as armor, display helmets with their nations colors, and do battle over the course of 60 laps. And that is what makes race car drivers so fucking BAD-ASS!! And that is why we watch.

I’m going to take driver safety a little less for granted since seeing the Senna documentary. I hope I never see anyone in any discipline of racing in a crash that results in a lost life. I hope the FIA and the sport keep up the other pursuit, the one called safety. And so far, since Senna, so good.   jp.

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