Belfast Telegraph

New book gives fresh insight into the life of tragic Ayrton Senna

By Sammy Hamill

Maurice Hamilton may "not have known Ayrton Senna particularly well" but he has met and interviewed a lot of people who did.

Which is why the Bangor-born journalist, broadcaster and author has gained a unique insight into the complex character that was Senna, the triple F1 World champion who died 20 years ago this month in a violent accident during the San Marino Grand Prix – a tragedy witnessed by millions live on television.

The result is a book simply titled "Ayrton Senna – McLaren" which goes behind the scenes at the Woking team to tell the story of the six years the Brazilian spent with them.

Although he also drove for Toleman, Lotus and finally Williams, it is with McLaren that Senna is inextricably linked. They were, says Hamilton, his Formula One family.

And it was the management at McLaren who approached Hamilton to write the book as the 20th anniversary of his death neared. Surprising to some, perhaps, remembering his relationship with the team had been frosty following another of his books, "Chequered Conflict" covering the contentious duel between Alain Prost and the Williams duo of Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet for the 1986 World title.

But it principally centred on the 2007 internal conflict at McLaren involving Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton followed by the "spygate" scandal.

"Quite a few bridges have been built since then," laughs Hamilton, "and, in fact, they have co-operated with me on two other books, including 'McLaren: 50 years of racing'. But it was a nice surprise when they asked me to do it."

However, he was then faced with the challenge of bringing fresh perspective to a story that has been told many times. "There are probably more books on Ayrton Senna than any other driver and the question was how do you make it different," he says.

"I didn't know him particularly well and although we had a professional working relationship, I found him quite prickly and not easy to interview.

"But there are people who knew him intimately and because the book is in association with McLaren and also with the approval of the Ayrton Senna Foundation, I was given access to all the people that worked with Ayrton at McLaren.

"So basically they are the voices that haven't been heard before and they have wonderful stories to tell – like the storeman, applying for the job, couldn't find anywhere at the shiny McLaren headquarters to post his CV.

"As he peered through the smoked glass windows, he saw a figure inside beckoning him to squeeze the envelope between the sliding doors. It was Senna. He pushed, Senna pulled and they got it through, resulting in a 'thumbs up' from the champion and a successful job application lodged.

"There are countless stories from people like that which show a side of him that no one outside McLaren would ever see. What I found was that there were two Sennas – the brilliant, ruthless, obsessive driver and a gentle, caring family-orientated man."

Hamilton recalls Senna's fatal crash vividly. "I was commentating for 5 Live with Simon Taylor and we knew immediately it was serious – from the violence of the accident and the body language of Sid Watkins and the medical team.

"But we had to stay neutral, tread a delicate line and try to keep emotion out of our voices. It was the most difficult day I have ever experienced at a race circuit."

The fact that he was driving for a rival team, Williams, did not dull the overwhelming sense of loss felt at McLaren.

Hamilton says: "When a driver leaves a team, the need to hide weakness and emotion means that his departure is dealt with in a formal manner. 'It was great working with Carlos and we wish him all the best. Now, have you met Luigi? Brilliant driver. We're so fortunate to have him join us.'

"There was none of that when Senna left McLaren. The impression you have is of the team losing a member of family. And the important point is that these memories are not rose-tinted. There was huge affection for a driver who could be difficult, did not suffer fools, expected 100 per cent commitment and yet genuinely cared about each person working not for him, but with him.

"The sense of loss expressed at McLaren to this day refers to more than the terrible events on the May 1, 1994 and helps explain why Ayrton Senna da Silva remains unique."

About the author

'Ayrton Senna – McLaren' is published by Blink Publishing and is Maurice Hamilton's 25th book. Originally from Bangor, where he attended Bangor Grammar School, he now lives in Surrey. Formerly the F1 correspondent of the Guardian, the Observer and the Independent, and editor of Autocourse, the F1 'bible', he has also provided expert analysis for Radio 5 Live. His other books have included Race Without End, Inside Ferrari, Racing Stewart, Frank Williams and Green Races Red, the colourful story of fellow Ulsterman Eddie Irvine's climb from Kirkistown to Maranello, the home of Ferrari.

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