The Bookworm Critique
By Richard Williams;
Published by Bloomsbury
by Mark Glendenning,

Click here to buy this book I'd guess that there have probably been more books written about Ayrton Senna than any other racing driver in history, and it largely comes down to the nature of the celebrity at the end of the twentieth century. Reach the pinnacle of any high-profile field, be it motor sport or figure skating, and publishing companies will be falling over themselves to pump out books about you. If you die while at your peak though, then it's time to stand back and really watch those new titles bursting forth.

The "quality vs. quantity" idiom applies as strongly to Formula One books as it does to anything else. I'd bet that many of us have read a couple of really excellent books about Senna. But I'd also be surprised if a few of us haven't come across some absolute shockers. Given that there is already such a proliferation of printed Senna material, it's probably fair to ask whether any more books about the Brazilian are really necessary. Well, as Richard Williams' "The Death of Ayrton Senna" demonstrates, yep, they are. Here's why.

The biographical details of Senna and his life have been pretty much exhausted by the onslaught of books that appeared in the aftermath of his accident at Imola in May 1994. Occasionally somebody might produce good results by putting a new spin on an old topic, as Christopher Hilton managed to do with his book "Ayrton Senna: As Time Goes By"; but for the most part there is little about this aspect of Senna that remains unsaid. The most important thing about "The Death of Ayrton Senna", then, is that it is not a biography, nor is it an account of his racing career. Instead, Williams is trying to place Senna and his accident into some kind of context. That Senna was an important figure in both motor racing circles and as a national hero in Brazil does not need to be said; and his impact upon both his sport and his country was amplified beyond measure after the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

So exactly what role did Senna play in Formula One as a whole? Why did he mean what he did to his fans and detractors? To what extent was he a product of modern Formula One, and to what extent is modern F1 a product of Senna? What are the effects of carrying the population of an entire nation with you every time you step into a racing car? These are the types of issues that Williams is trying to get to the bottom of.

Had it been written by anybody else, "The Death of Ayrton Senna" would have been a very different book. Not necessarily a better or worse one, just... different. There is a curious depth to the way that Richard Williams explores his subject; as anybody who has read his other F1 offering, "Racers", will attest. An exceptionally perceptive and intelligent writer, Williams seems to have almost cornered the market in books that strip the multitude of external layers away from Formula One and reveal its most basic essence.

"The Death of Ayrton Senna" was originally published in 1995, but was reissued in revised form this year. The new edition has been updated to include details of the manslaughter charges against various circuit personnel and members of the Williams team that arose from Senna's crash. The coverage of the trial itself is fairly good -perhaps not as comprehensive as some other accounts have been, but a good overview nonetheless. More interesting are Williams' reflections upon the necessity of the trial itself, and the war of words between the Italian press, who defended their legal process, and the FIA, who at one point suggested that a disagreeable outcome in the trial could spell the end of Formula One in Italy.

The only real disappointment in this section was the minimal reference to Simtek driver Roland Ratzenberger, who suffered a fatal accident the day before Senna's crash. Williams mentions that Italian prosecutor Maurizio Passarini had decided that there was no case to answer with regard to the Austrian's death and also makes the comment that had it been Ratzenberger and not Senna that had died during the race then there may have been no legal response whatsoever. Unfortunately, he takes it no further. I was particularly interested to know why Passarini felt that there was a case to answer with regard to Senna's death but not Ratzenberger's; however Williams left the question unanswered.

The good far outweighs the bad, though. Particularly great was the balance that Williams managed to strike between contributing his own thoughts on a certain issue, and drawing upon the comments or experiences of others. What's more, the quotes that Williams includes are brilliantly chosen and placed - nothing is there without a reason, and the result allows the reader to construct a picture of who Senna was and what he meant in a way that few other books could touch. This could be demonstrated in the passage that sees Williams discussing the question of Formula One as a contact sport; an issue that can be linked to a study of Senna with very little difficulty. The author states that:

"...motor racing, head to head and in hot blood, presents a test of manhood Uniquely, the car becomes a weapon: encasing the driver, armour-plating him, it responds exactly to his bidding. Its capabilities are a direct reflection of his power - either his purchasing power, in the case of a road car, or the power of his talent and reputation, in the case of a Formula One car ... And if such factors can lead the drivers of saloon cars in the morning rush hour to mad rage, with nothing at stake beyond momentary pride, it does not take much to imagine the degree of emotional intensity involved when the contest - the race - becomes the whole point of existence." (pp 44-45).

Williams goes on to discuss the appearance of the "brake-test" in modern Formula One, referring in particular to the incident between Senna and Nigel Mansell at Adelaide in 1992 (where the Brazilian hit the rear of Mansell's Williams, putting both drivers out of the race). Davy Jones, an American who competed against Senna in lower formulae in the 1980s, said:

"I wonder if his (Senna's) thinking in a race isn't so far advanced that his mind is not relating to the incident that's actually happening. Maybe if Nigel lifted a bit early, Ayrton just wasn't prepared for it, because his mind was already two or three corners ahead. You know, when you take a corner, your mind goes to the turn-in, then to the apex, then the exit. You're always a step ahead of what you're actually doing. But maybe Senna is always three steps ahead. Maybe that was it. And maybe that's why he's such a great champion." (p.47).

Whether you choose to accept or reject it, it's an interesting thought.

Also fascinating was the section that dealt with the legality of the software that the cars carry onboard. Williams was making particular reference to the controversy that surrounded Benetton during Michael Schumacher's championship campaigns, and he includes details of a really intriguing conversation that he had with an unnamed programmer from another Formula One team. Unfortunately the passage is too lengthy to be included here, but it essentially reveals just how easy it is for the teams to run illegal systems, and why such indiscretions are virtually undetectable. I found this to be one of the most interesting passages in the book; and given the topic's perennial status as a subject for debate on the Atlas F1 Bulletin Board, I suspect that a good many other people would also find it intriguing.

All in all, this is a superb book. Williams has a unique perception of how all the pieces fit together in Formula One, and this is of great benefit to the reader. Rather than bombarding you with facts, Williams tends to make you re-evaluate the way you view F1 yourself. This does not necessarily mean that you'll agree with everything that he says, but you may find yourself looking at something in a way that may never have occurred to you otherwise. As far as I'm concerned, that can only be a good thing. This is compulsory reading if you're a Senna fan; and even if you're not it still borders on being indispensable. Plus it's cheap. What more could you want?

Mark Glendenning© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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