Bookshelf Essentials: The Life of Ayrton Senna

Yes, it’s just what Formula One literature needs – yet another biography of Ayrton Senna. But Tom Rubython’s biography can make a worthy claim to being the definitive work on one of F1′s greatest figures.

The Life of Ayrton Senna is a substantial 600-plus page work, meticulously researched and thoroughly detailed. Rubython is the author of Business F1 magazine, a monthly magazine with a hefty ???25 price tag and a rigid focus on Formula One business and politics – not sport. You might, therefore, question the appropriateness of Rubython as a biographer of a driver – better to write about Max Mosley or Bernie Ecclestone, perhaps?

Perhaps. But it does seem that Rubython has a far greater insight into the mechanics of the infamous Senna trial than his other biographers have done. In the exhaustive 41-page treatment of the trial, Rubython is particularly scathing of state prosecutor Maurizio Passarini, who ?????ǣaccuse[d] honest men of being liars and lost any hope of finding the reason for the accident.??????

To Rubython, as to many Formula One journalists and commentators, the five-year legislative process that followed the death of Senna in Italy, that culminated in attempts to prosecute Williams employees Frank Williams, Patrick Head and Adrian Newey, FIA circuit director Roland Bruynseraede, circuit director Giorgio Poggi and track owner Federico Bendinelli, was an expensive and fruitless bureaucratic exercise that served only to hinder attempts to understand what killed Senna.

Thankfully he gives more space to an account of Senna’s spectacular life than the ugly controversy over the details of his death. The very early years are done away with in far less space than many other biographies of Senna, and separate chapters given over to the Formula Ford and Formula Three years.

The impression of Senna that emerges is of a determined but extremely calculating young man, who had the extraordinary guile to turn down his first F1 opportunity (with McLaren) in favour of a straight race drive with a lesser team (Toleman). The author even goes so far as to suggest that Senna deliberately held back from ascending through the formulae too quickly, to ensure his dominance in each given category – a bold assertion. Senna’s Christian evangelism is not given the same weight as by some commentators, particularly his stronger detractors.

The Life of Ayrton Senna acquits itself well alongside the vast array of other writing on Senna. Richard Williams’ fairly lightweight The Death of Ayrton Senna is more concise but considerably less thorough, and offers little that isn’t available elsewhere. Christopher Hilton’s Ayrton Senna: As Time Goes By complements Rubython’s work rather well. As Time Goes By is a more sensitive account, a celebration, if you like, of those great Senna moments, perhaps spoiled only by the excessive level of focus on the Imola accident.

Though Rubython has made a largely successful attempt at writing the definitive account of Senna’s life, he does not try to adjudicate on some of the great Senna controversies that are still the focus of substantial debate between F1 enthusiasts. Senna’s contribution to the widely perceived decline in racing ethics and the championship collisions with Prost have raised questions that the sport still hasn’t offered answers for. Rubyrthon offers us the facts to judge for ourselves, but if he has drawn his own conclusions he keeps them to himself.

The Life of Ayrton Senna is a thoroughly worthy work on Senna’s life. But perhaps that should be enough for now. Formula One writers have for too long ignored other drivers of comparable significance to Senna – where are the books on Prost, Piquet and Mansell? It seems that a book on them might have to be called Senna’s Rivals to sell any copies.

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