This talk about the shorcomings of F1 brings back some strong memories…
I was a big fan of F1. That is, until May 1, 1994.
For those who aren’t old enough to remember, or don’t care about F1 enough to even know what I’m talking about, please bear with me as I tell the whole story…
It all began April 30, 1994. I had just been in a conference presenting my most recent paper (to excellent peer reviews). I was elated with my great academic achievement – still today, people recognize my name due to that paper – but was in dire need of a break, so rather than celebrating, I took off.
As I was flying to LAX, for my connection to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where I was going to go on vacation with my then girlfriend (future wife), I read the news about this unknown driver that got himself killed during the qualification runs on that day (for the Imola GP, in Italy – 9 timezones ahead). Although people don’t get themselves killed routinely in F1 (at least not in the past 20 years), nobody really knew this guy, and the GP had to continue, so it did. I also had to continue ahead to Sao Paulo, so I did.
So I arrive to Sao Paulo, and my girlfriend picks me up at the airport, and we drive to my future-in-laws’ home. Although I’m jetlagged out of my mind, at what would be around 3am PST, I sit and watch the race, as I had done for the past 10 years, following my great idol, Ayrton Senna, a man that, although roughly my age, had been an inspiration for me for almost a decade.
The race doesn’t start well – there’s a crash right as the green light comes up and a wheel shoots straight at the audience, hitting a spectator in the head and, as we found out later, killing him.
Two people dead in two days in the same race? This is not good.
But the race continues.
So here I am, sitting in front of the TV, watching Ayrton trying to get rid of Micha(el Schumacher), his rival at the time. Ayrton had to deal with having a much inferior car than Micha that season, so it wasn’t easy.
And then it happens. It was over 10 years ago, but I can still play it back, in slow-mo, in my head, like it was 10 minutes ago. Ayrton’s car goes straight out in a curve, at close to 160 mph, right at the wall. It only took 3 seconds but in my mind it takes 3 minutes. As we learn later, the modifications Williams (the team he worked for) made to his car to reduce drag to increase top speed had the deadly side effect of reducing the car?s ability to stick to the ground.
At that precise instant I knew it: Ayrton is dead. I could feel it. I remember turning to my wife-to-be and my in-laws-to-be and saying exactly this in Portuguese: ?This is it. It?s over?.
Now, please realize this: a) although I’m not Brazilian (I speak Portuguese because my grandfather was from Portugal and he taught me), my wife is, and so is her family. b) Besides being a personal inspiration to me, Ayrton was a national hero to these people, representing the best of them: a highly driven, courageous, intelligent, almost super-naturally talented individual. His talent was so great that people – still today – remember his “Senna laps”: laps he did around the circuits, in what can only be described as a trance-like state, with such perfection and mastery (considering the relatively low-tech cars of the time) nobody else has ever been able to reproduce. Yes, his records were beaten, but with much more sophisticated cars. Nobody again was able to win a race while having the transmission stuck in a high gear from half of it; he was the first and only; nobody again was able to win a race after departing from last place due to a malfunction. He was the first and only, at least in the F1 world.
And this true T-Man dies in a split second, as we are watching, live. Just in front of us on the TV screen. Live.
For the next few minutes, we continued to watch, in desperation, as the spectacle grew worse. Although I just knew he was already dead (the autopsy proved that – his brain liquefied in a split second as his head hit the wall at 160 mph) the powers that be ordered that all attempts should be made to “revive” him. Why? Because if the doctors declared him dead at the scene (which he was, and they knew he was ? it was quite obvious by the state of his skull), the race would have to be cancelled (those were the rules at the time).
But we couldn’t have that, could we?
Third person dead in two days. One of the greatest – if not THE greatest – drivers of all time among them. Dead. But the show must go on, or the sponsors will be mad.
So they took his corpse, pretending he wasn’t really dead, to the hospital so that the freakin’ race could continue.
That was the last time I ever watched a F1 race. And that was the reason.
I mean, my parents also died in a car accident, several years before. And that was a huge shock to me, as you can imagine. But I didn’t actually see them die right in front of me. And they didn’t have their remains carried over, with everybody pretending they were still alive, so that the show would go on. That’s… just… too… much. It’s greed at its worst. There are no words to describe the brutality of it.
Brazil mourned Ayrton for the longest of time – he was indeed a national hero and he had a State Funeral. That was one of the most emotional events I was ever in – Ayrton was from Sao Paulo, which, as you may know, is one of the largest, most densely populated metropolitan areas in the world. Now imagine this whole area mourning together, along with the rest of one of the biggest countries in the world. It was quite amazing, and it did allow me to redirect my anger at the time to the people who deserved it – the F1 organization.
Never again I would in any way participate or contribute to the pockets of the people who sponsor such events. Not me, not my wife, not anyone else that is willing to listen to me.
Don’t get me wrong: even though I have every reason to hate cars – they took away both my parents and my idol – I don’t, and I still love cars and drive a sports car. However, the F1 institution still represents the lowest of the lowest in greed and lack of moral principles, and hence I choose not to patron it. I hope you can join me in that.