Of Senna, Vettel and the Thrills of Racing

Written by  //  April 18, 2011  //  Sport  //  3 Comments

I have often wondered if the death of Ayrton Senna, by adding to his legend, has amplified his already iconic status, wrongly, into one of a magnificent hero. But a mere glimpse at the trailer of the upcoming film, ‘Senna’ – titled in a prosaic yet powerful manner – is enough to convince one of the boundaries of greatness that Senna transcended. It makes you yearn for a more innocent age when Formula One actually involved racing, when drivers battled it out, often wheel-to-wheel for primacy.

My initiation into the sport, sadly, did not coincide with Senna’s career. As a result, my opinions on him are tailored through a combination of reading about him – including Richard Williams’s book, The Death of Ayrton Senna – and viewing of old footage. By all accounts, he was a great champion, the champagne of Formula One – a chillingly aggressive driver who at his best was a sight for the gods. But his fearsome will to win seemed to border on the outrageous, very often going beyond the realms of what was perceived to be ‘fair racing’. Senna, though, saw it in more simplistic terms. If there was a gap to attack, as tiny as it may have been, he believed he had the right to seize it. In his own words: “If you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver.”

They don’t make them like Senna anymore and Formula One isn’t anywhere near what it once was. The mechanical workings of a car play an overwhelmingly crucial role in determining race results and concomitantly the end of season honours. But, I think, in Sebastian Vettel the sport may have found the driver nearest to Senna in his capacity to coalesce thrilling, racing skills with a temperament to win championships. His sheer virtuosity and his incredible talent for driving a racing car to its maximum potential, even while giving an impression that not an ounce of energy has been expended, makes Vettel an utterly exhilarating driver to watch. It seems he can never look laboured, stodgy or workmanlike. Driving to him is a form of art – something to be expressed with joy and splendour.

No doubt, success in Formula One requires elements beyond racing skills, not least the pace of the car, its overall reliability, and team tactics that include myriad technical details, the applications of which are no doubt fascinating. But it is the act of pure driving where the racers will against each other that makes the sport a compelling spectacle.

In the three races so far this season, Vettel has won two – at Australia and Malaysia – and finished second behind Lewis Hamilton in the recently concluded Chinese Grand Prix. At Albert Park in Melbourne, Vettel finished a whole twenty-two seconds ahead of second placed Hamilton. Quite astonishing, when one considers that this was achieved with minimum use of the drag reduction system (DRS) – introduced newly this season – and without the use of KERS, which has been reintroduced this year, at all. But the moment that was most reminiscent of Senna came during qualifying at Sepang. All weekend, through practice and most of qualifying, the McLarens of Hamilton and Jenson Button were quicker, making a Red Bull pole position quite improbable. But at the end of the third qualifying session, against the run of events, Vettel produced a flying lap of astounding pace, one that was sprinkled with greatness, one that overcame Hamilton’s time by less than a tenth of a second to cement his position at the apex of the grid.

Hamilton has sought to project himself as the next Senna, but the very fact that he has done so, showcases him in poor light. Vettel on the other hand is not one for such talk – he leaves it to us to make the comparisons. Indeed there is a long way to go before he matches Senna, not merely statistically but in terms of his overall realizations – accomplishments which he may never manage. But by constantly producing moments of ingenious craft and vision, he has been like a breath of fresh air in a sport increasingly devoid of excitement in recent seasons. He is the closest we’ve seen to Senna yet and this is notwithstanding Michael Schumacher.

Schumacher, statistically the most successful driver, and in the eyes of some, the greatest of them all is a driver of different ilk. No doubt he is as fiercely competitive as Senna was and has – although some would say had – a commitment to excellence beyond the ordinary, but his accomplishments were more a result of consistency than a preference for the breathtaking. This, however, is no criticism of Schumacher. If anything it is an affirmation of his greatness. Senna’s genius, though, was more flawed, making him a more likeable Champion. His ability to produce moments of brilliance in the most unforeseen of circumstances, perhaps, made for a more exhilarating exhibition – the class of which we haven’t seen since, although Vettel has showed a similar proclivity for the spectacular.

3 Comments on "Of Senna, Vettel and the Thrills of Racing"

  1. Arghya April 18, 2011 at 8:04 pm ·

    Hi Suhrith,

    I didn’t see the Sepang qualifying and nor do I dislike Vettel, but I think comparisons with Senna are premature. I think he’s a good driver, a solid driver, with a precision for detail, and most significantly a nice guy. Senna, on the other hand, was always a divisive character, a real polariser and people still love to hate Senna, as much as others swear by him. I can’t seem too many who love to hate Vettel or swear by him. 23’s very early and he may still be a Senna-in-the-making, given a few years, but for that he has to be a bit more flawed, a bit more adventurous and a bit more arrogant than what he is now.

  2. Suhrith April 19, 2011 at 4:09 am ·

    Hi Arghya,

    It wasn’t my intention to equate Vettel’s talents with that of Senna’s. Far from it. He has a long way to go before matching Senna’s achievements on a race track and he may not even end up doing so. And also as characters they are probably hugely dissimilar. As you say, Vettel does not polarise in the manner in which Senna did, although there are, it must be said, a huge number of people who dislike Vettel. In fact, over the course of the last season, I think Vettel made as many admirers as he did critics. He has an attitude towards victory which is unlike many other modern drivers – for instance his move on Webber at Istanbul last season (which eventually cost both drivers the race) was very Senna like.

    So Vettel is in my opinion the nearest we’ve seen to Senna , although he is still a long way from matching the Brazilian. Also Vettel has 18 pole positions from 65 races (33% of the time, he is on pole), which is the closest anyone has come to Senna who had an astonishing 65 pole positions from 162 races – (just over 40% of the time). And considering that he is likely to be a decent car for most of his career from here, I’d imagine this ratio improving for Vettel.

    As you say he is very young and its too early to be drawing comparisons, but I think he has a streak of aggression in him, which we haven’t seen since the days of Senna in drivers who can use that to win races. So he has the potential to become one of the all-time greats and most of all, I believe he has injected the sport with some much needed excitement.

  3. LIO December 5, 2011 at 8:15 pm ·

    Hello guys. First of all sorry for my poor english so sorry for mistakes.
    I’m a big fan of Ayrton, most talented driver but I think that vettel is already as good as he was and maybe better.
    At the time of Senna the opponents were not so good that the opponents right now.
    And nowdays the cars are all s good so close to perfection that it is even harder to make the difference like vettel does now.
    he’s got the record of fastest pole lap in history in almost 75% of the tracks.
    he did pole 6 times 0,400 faster than second driver. At melbourne and china it was 0,800, nowdays it’s pretty great to be abble to do it with these drivers even more.
    another point his 15th pole record this year it’s awsome. Mansell did 14 with a williams that had new electronic stuff at this time even senna could’nt anything against that. So I really think that vettel is like ayrton and maybe better. the takeover on alonzo at monza this year was pure senna stuff :-). good to talk with you about that

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