The Bookworm Critique

By Christopher Hilton; Published by Haynes
by Mark Glendenning,

Click here to buy this book The loss of any star in their prime invariably prompts a flood of dodgy biographies and 'tributes'. We saw it after John Lennon was killed. We saw it after the death of Kurt Cobain. And we saw it after the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Most books of this kind are B-Grade at best - hastily and insincerely written, usually by somebody with no real interest in the individual whose life is being recorded, and padded out with zillions of the most poignant photos available.

It is partly for this reason that I approached 'Ayrton Senna: As Time Goes By' with so much apprehension. My other cause for concern was that Christopher Hilton is not among my favourite Formula One authors - while his books are always informative, I feel that he has a tendency to be a bit melodramatic in his writing, and maybe even a little patronising on occasion. Hilton has written a number of books about Senna in the past, and I have to admit that his latest offering sees me proven wrong. 'As Time Goes By' is by far one of the best driver biographies to have been produced in the past few years.

Senna's years in Formula One have already been exhaustively documented. But in writing 'As Time Goes By', Hilton has shifted the emphasis to the rest of Senna's life: the prologue to his F1 years - growing up in Brazil, the early years spent racing in England; and the epilogue - the aftermath of Imola.

This is a strong book on several fronts, but the backbone of the whole thing is the quality of the research. Hilton has apparently left no stone unturned in his effort to build a picture of who Senna was as a person, what motivated him, and what set him apart from his opponents.

As far as possible, the author has tried to find people who were connected to Senna during various stages of his life, and allowed them to describe their experiences with him. This can sometime be a little dangerous - it is easy to fill a book with waffle from people who barely knew the biographer's subject, but are determined to make the most of some tenuous association with the person from years ago. In this case though, it works exceptionally well. Virtually everybody that Hilton spoke to had something interesting to say, and the end result provides the reader with a great opportunity to develop some understanding of how Senna's mind worked.

Also great are the extra bits and pieces of paraphernalia from Senna's early years that Hilton has reproduced in the book. Included among these are circuit maps, record sheets, contracts, and an assortment of other bits and pieces. Material such as this is brilliant - the study of such documents can tell the reader so much more than an extra chapter or two would have been able to. They also help to bring the narrative to life. Reading about a particular contract from Senna's karting days, for example, is interesting. But being able to see it - the terms and conditions, the odd typo, Senna's signature (from the days when he signed his name as 'Ayrton Senna da Silva') is something else altogether. This is possibly just me getting over-excited, but I felt that this stuff was almost worth the purchase price alone.

The shockwaves after Imola 1994 took years to subside. Indeed, motor racing as a whole is still dealing with the events of one of the blackest weekends in its history. Formula One and its worldwide following had to come to terms with the loss of one of its brightest lights, a process made even more prolonged and painful by the manslaughter charges that were laid against principal members of the Williams team. For the next couple of years, magazines were saturated with reports about steering columns, safety cars, debris on the track, and regulation changes. To describe the whole mess in a succinct and accessible manner must have been a monumentally difficult, but Hilton has pulled it off superbly. This is particularly true of the way in which the author compares the prosecution and defence interpretations of Senna's crash at Tamburello.

Also worthy of note is the way Hilton deals with the accident itself. Starting from the moment that Senna crossed the start/finish line to begin that vital lap, the author breaks the incident down into sections, each of which describes, hundredth by hundredth of a second, what Senna's car was doing at that precise moment. It is done without any real fuss - the crash is not sensationalised, nor is it milked for cheap emotional appeal. That is not to say that it is not moving - it most certainly is. Hilton somehow manages to keep his account of the approaching impact incredibly informative and interesting, while maintaining a huge degree of sensitivity and respect.

'Ayrton Senna: As Time Goes By' is a brilliantly informative and insightful biography of the multiple World Champion. While Hilton's respect and admiration for Senna is evident throughout the book, he refrains from indulging in any form of hero-worship. Senna's flaws are as evident as his positive qualities. Such even-handedness carries across to other aspects of the book, too - the description of the manslaughter trial is an excellent example of this. This book will undoubtedly become a prized text for Formula One historians of the future. In the meantime, it is a highly recommended reading for any Formula One fan, Senna devotee or not. I don't give star ratings to the books that are reviewed in this column; but if I did, 'As Time Goes By' would get lots of them.

Mark Glendenning© 1999 Atlas Formula One Journal.
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