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'I've got you': Belfast man Joey Greenan on racing legendary Ayrton Senna at Mondello

 

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All smiles: a young Ayrton Senna at Mondello Park

All smiles: a young Ayrton Senna at Mondello Park

Great memories: Joey Greenan at his home in Belfast

Great memories: Joey Greenan at his home in Belfast

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

All smiles: a young Ayrton Senna at Mondello Park

The shrine in Joey Greenan's hall in Belfast takes him to a place soaked in much more than foolish nostalgia.

True, one of the pictures is of that European FF2000 race at Mondello Park in which he committed the unpardonably rude act of overtaking Ayrton Senna. But there are other images of the lost champion too. One of Senna alongside Alain Prost; another of Greenan's daughter, Andrea, sitting next to the Brazilian in a Honda NSX supercar at Spa.

There's a Senna hat too. And a statue of the Virgin Mary.

They became friendly after that September day in '82, Senna "bursting into life" once the race was over. And - years later - when the Greenans went travelling around Europe in a motorhome, they met him at Hockenheim, the Nurburgring and again that day at Spa.

Offered a chauffeured blast through Eau Rouge, Joey chose to demur. "I'm a very bad passenger!" he chuckles sheepishly. "Left the daughter off, but I prefer to be in control!"

Joey won multiple races in his time, but needs no telling now that he'll always maybe be best known for one he lost.

Google his name and it's the only story Greenan seems to encounter. Images of that No.11 Van Diemen in the colours of Brazil. The scratchy YouTube download of all 20 laps (the race was shown live on RTE), Senna's display drawing superlatives from the commentary team of 'Plum' Tyndall and David Kennedy.

Greenan can't really say when the shrine began taking shape in his head, but it would have been unimaginable to him that Sunday 38 years ago when he felt the eyes of this young superstar on his every move. Their garages were opposite one another in the paddock and Senna (or da Silva as he was called at the time) would sit, staring wordlessly across.

He was 21, European FF2000 champion and already coveted by the world's top F1 teams. Joey? He was 10 years older, had secured the Irish title and was now franking his dominance all over the weekend. But the Euro race, Greenan knew, was what the crowd had come to see.

To this day, he argues that he could, maybe even should, have won. Greenan had a plan that day and, for almost three glorious minutes, it seemed to be coming riotously to the boil.

A great roar filled the old Mondello grandstand when he took that early lead. "We'd the same qualifying times, but they gave Senna pole on the basis of him setting it first," he recalls. "It didn't matter. I was transfixed on what I wanted to do.

"I knew what way I was going to spring the car off the line and, when I got past him between the first and second corners, I could hear the roar from the stand. I was thinking, 'That's it, I've got you!'"

He hadn't though.

On lap three, Senna swept past, thereafter leaving the great labyrinth of colours far behind to win by 19 seconds.

Joey remembers: "People say he got past me on a corner. He didn't. He got past me on a straight when third gear popped out.

"I had to stop using second in the end because the problem was when I went from second to third. And I ended up driving parts of the circuit one-handed, just to hold the gear in place.

"If I hadn't that problem, I'm sure we'd have battled the whole race. But once he got away, I did what I had to do because I didn't think the car would make it to the finish."

How Joey commits the day to memory is his own business, but most others present believe they were simply witnesses to a Brazilian masterclass.

Michael Lyster, covering the race for RTE radio, remembers watching Senna drift his car into the corner at the top of the straight every time, "just opposite lock the whole way around".

Fergus Brennan, working as a marshal, had helped push Senna's car out of a sand-trap during Friday's practice. "Push, push, you have to push," roared the young superstar.

"Senna," he says flatly now. "He was like nothing I'd ever seen before. I couldn't wait for each time he came around because it was just mesmerising to watch. It's a brilliant thing for Joey Greenan to have on his CV. But, as we subsequently found out, Senna was just on a different planet."

For those three minutes, Joey was absorbed in what felt a subversive act. Like skinning a sacred bear. But the bear was already looking beyond him.

Plum Tyndall remembers Senna as somewhat "aloof" that day, a young, moneyed kid already tuned in implicitly to the value of his talent.

Tyndall interviewed Senna three times in his life, each one a profoundly different experience.

"The second time was at Monaco when he put the Lotus on the front row for his first F1 pole," he recalls. "Working for RTE, we were way down the line but he still agreed to talk.

"The third time was at Spa when I was working for Eurosport. It was the day he signed the enormous contract with Ron Dennis for McLaren, the biggest contract ever in F1 at the time. Murray Walker and I were waiting for him for hours on top of the Marlboro bus.

"When he came up, he was in a really good mood. He'd have talked until the cows came home. But in Mondello, he was in a hurry to move on."

That same year, Senna had burst into the Van Diemen office in England, accusing Tommy Byrne of stealing the wheels off his Alfasud road-car.

Byrne, a self-christened "knacker from Dundalk", was driving F3 by then, having dominated FF2000 in '81 just as Senna was doing now. They were the two luminous young motor-racing talents of the day.

Senna's moneyed upbringing meant he was paying Van Diemen for the drive. Tommy, on the other hand, was being paid.

Enraged by this, Senna had announced that he was retiring one year earlier, just before the end-of-season Brands Hatch Festival. So Van Diemen put Byrne in Senna's car. And Tommy won, securing himself that F3 drive.

Joey Greenan describes himself as the man who first "spotted" Byrne.

And one month after racing Senna at Mondello, he became a key witness to arguably the most famous test-drive in F1 history. Byrne, having now graduated to Grand Prix level with the cripplingly uncompetitive Theodore team, drove a McLaren around Silverstone faster than either of their drivers, Niki Lauda and John Watson, even came close to in that year's British Grand Prix.

But Joey reckoned Byrne was quicker than McLaren were willing to acknowledge.

"I ran over to the Van Diemen transporter for a proper stop-watch," he remembers. "And Tommy was being given a time a second slower than what he was actually doing."

This is no urban legend. Watson himself would describe Byrne's performance that day as "unbelievable", rating it "actually a more impressive performance than Senna did in the equivalent test the following year, which everyone still raves about."

The difference? Tommy Byrne never drove an F1 car again. Ayrton Senna would win his three world titles with McLaren.

Greenan never did get badly hurt in a racing car, but - perversely - almost lost his life on a bicycle.

On May 7, 1991, he hit a stone wall in Kilronan on Inishmore "coming downhill, going very fast". He was on life-support for five months, but suggests "it took me about 10 years to recover".

In more recent times, he's overcome cancer too, his faith now deeper than ever.

The day Senna died, Joey was watching the race in a crowded room in the Carrigart Hotel in Donegal.

It had already been an eerie weekend at Imola with Roland Ratzenberger's death and an horrific crash involving Rubens Barrichello's Jordan.

And Greenan says he had a premonition of what was coming.

"All of the people in that room are still alive and will vouch for this," he says.

"Around 40 minutes before he died, I stood up and said, 'Senna's going to be killed here!' This feeling just came over me. And when I saw all the medics crowding around his car, I had no hope for him at all."

The emotion of that day has, he insists, never left him.

"I live with it every day," he says. "Look, Senna was over the top, there's no doubt about that. When he'd go out to qualify, all the team managers would go out to the pit-wall to watch.

"He could wring the neck out of a car. You knew he was something special.

"I just feel privileged to have driven against maybe the greatest driver the world ever had."

Belfast Telegraph