Atlas F1

Absent Friends

Kenneth Coffey, Ireland

I will remember '94 for a number of different reasons. There was the new job, the special woman, the sad nights on the town with Guinness, chat and clubbing before another one of the contemporaries left to seek employment and something that passed for a life in a different land. Emigration is a fact of life in Ireland. '94 was a time when you would wake up the morning after, worse for the night before and wonder when you would see that departed friend again? Chances are it would be a funeral that would bring them back from the US, Australia or wherever. Things were bleak, then in April of the that year Kurt Cobain committed suicide. I remember at the time thinking that this was my generations Jim Morrison. This was the guy who had created the soundtrack for my College days, another friend gone....

The European races were always around lunch time. The season had been good so far then Imola came. Ratzenbergers death the day before hung like a cloud. Schumacher had set the pace that season and was setting the target for all. Senna was unhappy with the Williams, even though he had obtained pole twice so far. Imola would be where the real championship started. The startline accident delayed the real business, I went and had lunch. I remember entering the room - coffee in hand - and seeing the picture from Schumacher's on-board camera. Senna was tearing away in to Tamburello. I watched by the door in anticipation of the classic race which awaited. Schumacher Vs Senna, now we will see who's best..., no that's not right the car should be turning, following the arc.....damn he's off, another 10 points for Schumacher. Murray Walker was hyper, the Williams bounced off the wall and came to rest on the track. I remember the head moved, it was OK, he had survived. Then the Marshalls came, the Ambulance came and finally the Helicopter came. At that point I knew. You should be able to walk away, Barrichello was OK and that looked worse. I began to think, what's going to happen without Senna. Will we still have those brilliant last minute qualifying runs, the breathtaking overtaking manoeuvres, the - at times - childish and frank attitudes ? At 4pm it was confirmed, head wounds from a high speed collision. He knew the odds, he went for the 50/50 odds, that was why he was one of the greatest. Meeting friends for a drink that night it struck me how affected and shocked people - who would normally never watch F1 - were over that afternoon's events. Some of my friends who thought my interest in F1 was just another peculiarity were asking me if I thought Senna was the greatest, was it driver error, is it true that Senna thought he was related to God, etc ? Everyone seemed to be talking about it and I imagine that a bar in Dublin was no different from anywhere else in the civilised world at that time. The effect was global, they say it was the most public death since Kennedy.

So what was it about Senna. Well personally it was about the time when I was the one with only a passing interest in F1. The mercurial Brazilian in the black Lotus who drove like a demon and annoyed the hell out of Messers Piquet and Prost. Estoril in the rain was spectacular, the move to McLaren was the anointing of the champion. Three titles and much controversy followed. During those times Senna was F1. His battles with Prost and Mansell will live forever with any fan. When the move to Williams was finally confirmed for 1994, it was the dawn of a new era for those who followed Senna. No one doubted his ability, but the very best, the likes of Fangio and Prost had won the world title in more than one marque. This would be the season when Senna would confront the young German pretender and confirm his greatness. It never happened and we will now never know.

I for one felt a loss that we never got to see Senna and Schumacher head to head over a season in relatively equal cars. Some recent authors have postulated on alternative histories, what would have happened if the US stayed out of World War II, etc.. Recently I have thought about the alternative history of recent F1 if Senna had not perished on that first Sunday in May. They are my simple thoughts, similar to those on an absent friend.

Lets start by pretending Senna was just injured in Imola. He was out for the next 6 or 7 races and decided to take a break for that season. Schumacher won the title in controversial circumstances from Hill in Australia. There was much speculation in the press about Senna's ability to return to his old self for the '95 season but he quashed these doubts early on and spoke of how he had come to terms with his mortality, all in all this was a changed though more mature and thoughtful Ayrton. Despite Schumacher's and to a certain extent Hill's best efforts the championship was decided in Monza. Senna was crowned champion for the fourth time. Then in an emotional press conference, he told the world that he had done all he could at Williams and had won the championship in the best car available to him. It was time for a new challenge, he wanted to finish his career as he had always dreamed - in a Ferrari. The deal was struck within a week. Senna would test in December following the Australian Grand Prix. In the meantime, Williams had snapped up Schumacher, Hill joined Alesi at Benneton and in a shock move Prost decided to give it one last fling and move from test driver to number 1 at McLaren. The '96 season was one that would never be forgotten. The Williams dominated early on as Senna found that Ferrari was far from the dream he had expected, his new found patience and peace with the world helped turn Ferrari around. By Monaco the Ferrari was hitting pole and lost out to Prost by 10ths of a second in a thrilling race that saw the lead alternate between Senna, Schumacher and Prost, though Senna was the only one daring to overtake on the circuit. There was talk of Mansell making a return......but then he found the Benneton cockpit a bit on the comfy side and decided to practice his putting instead. The title race went down to the line, reliability had let the McLaren down and Prosts only chance was if the Williams and Ferrari both crashed out....not beyond the bounds of possibility given the two protagonists history in season finale title deciders... In the event Senna had to win and finish ahead of Schumacher to be crowned champion for the fifth time, equalling Fangio and winning the title in this third marque. Schumacher lead with 10 laps to go but in move reminiscent of the old Senna he dived in at Suzuka's first corner. Schumacher tried to retake the lead and the two touched monetarily. All of this oblivious to Prost who was over 30 seconds behind at this stage. But, they did not go off and Senna pulled away to immortality. His fifth championship, standing on the podium 3 of the greatest and possibly the greatest ever.

As for the season after, well that's when alternative history turns in to the present. Maybe Prost and Senna retired to team management and Ferrari technical director respectively. Williams swapped one German for another and Hill decided to give Arrows a go. Who knows? Playing around with history like this is all very well; it's just a game. For the family and friends of Ayrton Senna da Silva there has been no alternative history since May 1 1994. I like many a fan around the world miss the man in the yellow helmet and the excitement he brought the sport. Sunday afternoons were not the same for a long time after. His memory lives on, to some he is the greatest there ever was, others - like some of my friends - will remember him as the reason they found out just why yours truly was always not connectable on a Sunday afternoon, indeed some of them even embraced this particular peculiarity and are now known - after too many Guinness - to debate with those of like mind, the advantages of Bridgestone over Goodyear. Around this time of the year I just raise my glass and give a silent to toast to the great man... absent friends... God speed where ever you are.

Kenneth Coffey
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