James O'Neill's Blog

March 21, 2010

The 50th birthday that would have been

Filed under: Photography — jamesone111 @ 2:42 pm

If you believe in the parallel universes then there are ones where Ayrton Senna is celebrating his 50th birthday today, having won 6, 7 or 8 world championships. 

Senna and Mansell - click for a bigger versionIn this one, the 50th anniversary of his birth is marked a more sombrely. It’s not quite 16 years since he died with 3 championships to his name and last week when his nephew flipped open the visor on a very similarly patterned helmet to reveal very similar looking eyes I felt like I had seen a ghost – and heard Martin Brundle articulate the same thought on his TV commentary. I said pretty much all I wanted to about Ayrton on fifteenth anniversary  of his death. But since I’ve posted recently about scanning pictures and I have another post in draft about that , I thought I’d share a couple of successful scans.

In 1991 Senna looked like he was going successfully defend the title he won in 1990 – he won the first 3 races before Nigel Mansell had got a finish, and he wasn’t even the leading Williams driver until 7th race. The 8th was the British Grand Prix, and I was there. To cap a perfect day for Mansell and a partisan crowd, Senna ran out of fuel on the last lap. Mansell on his victory lap stopped and gave his adversary a lift back to the pits. In this picture you can see how much more exposed the drivers heads were in those days – which was to be the death of Senna in another Williams, 3 years later. Riding back like that is forbidden now, and that too speaks of the attitudes to safety. But it says something to me about the nature of sport that drivers could fight for everything on the track, yet offer help and not be humiliated by accepting it. Senna at Silverstone

The cheap film, second-rate lenses and my own technique limit how good the scan of the photo can be – but I hope the story explains why I treasure it. Far better from a technical point of view is this second picture – but sometimes the technical quality isn’t what matters.


To mark the anniversary, Autosport have a page Ayrton Senna: A life in pictures – they are arranged with the oldest at the bottom – you can see his first F1 test (in a Williams), another shot of the ride home with Mansell in the middle and on the left of the top row is quite a poor shot – you can’t tell what it is from the thumbnail. It’s the back of the car, and I generally don’t keep those. The caption reads “Ayrton Senna, Williams FW16 Renault; 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola.”  And then slowly it dawns that the wall and trees in the background mean the car is going into the corner named Tamburello and there’s a big gap to car behind, so this must be the sixth lap – a few seconds after this shot was taken the right front wheel of FW16 hit the wall a little further down than we can see in the shot, and parted company from the car. On another day or in another universe it would have passed harmlessly by, but it didn’t and that picture – like the lift home one – captures what we now know to be a decisive moment.

This post originally appeared on my technet blog.

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