Profiles in Heroism: Ayrton Senna (#hero)

Ayrton Senna was a Brazilian F1 driver, three time world champion and former go-kart racer who died in a crash during a race at the San Marino GP (May 1st, 1994). Tragically, he was the second driver to die at the track that weekend, the first being Roland Ratzenberger during qualifying earlier in the weekend.

Senna was a devoutly religious individual who attributed much of his success to the influence and providence of god. This may have been an irrational flaw of his, but it seemed balanced by his rational characteristics– humility, honesty, discipline, perseverance and determination to continually improve himself both as a driver and as an individual.

Senna was fiercely competitive and hated the politics of the F1 world, which put many drivers like him at risk all in the name of making the sport more entertaining and sensational. His original relationship with teammate and former world champion French driver Alain Proust quickly turned from a seasoned pro mentoring the young upstart rookie into a battle for survival and supremacy that ultimately resulted in a nasty and dishonest move by Proust in an attempt to deny Senna a chance at the championship title. Secure in his points leadership so long as Senna did not finish the race, Proust forced a collision that disabled his car and nearly eliminated Senna from the race several laps before the finish, pushing both cars off a chicane and into a safety tire barricade.

Undeterred, Senna restarted his vehicle from a standstill, navigated around the tire barrier and back onto the track and ultimately won the race. Still, he was denied the championship by inside F1 politics revolving around technical interpretations of the governing regulations whose interpretation had no prior precedent.

Senna got his revenge the following season when the roles were reversed. Secure in the points lead himself so long as Proust did not finish, and having won pole position in qualifying but having been relegated to the outside of the track at the start of the race because of insider politics, Senna took matter into his own hands by forcing a collision between he and team mate Alain Proust moments after the start. Proust was finished and Senna claimed his title at the end of the day, though he would’ve preferred to win in an honest fashion.

A proud Brazilian, Senna finally won the Brazilian GP in 1993 despite a failed gearbox which locked his car into 6th gear for the final few laps of the race. Luckily, his lead was so great that even with the inability to utilize any other gears, Senna was able to achieve victory. He was so excited upon finishing that he first passed out, then suffered debilitating shoulder weakness that caused him to be almost unable to raise the trophy above his head in the winner’s circle. The lesson to be learned? Never take the lead for granted, push for every marginal advantage you can find because you never know when you’ll be incapacitated and have to rely on coasting to the finish for victory.

Senna was not perfect. He attributed part of his success to a faith in a make believe entity in the sky. He was not above playing dirty if that was what it took to get revenge against those who had done the same to him.

But he was still a hero. He followed his passion in life– to be a championship racer. He refused to give up. He spoke his mind about the realities of F1 politics and the dangers of his profession and was not afraid to defend his understanding of justice. He was committed to personal excellence because he realized that even if his career would be short, his life might be long, and self-improvement was a journey he could carry on with for his entire life no matter his circumstances.