Fifteen Years After Ayrton Senna's Passing, F1 Finally Set to Fill the Void
There was a time when I knew the number of every driver. A time when I knew all of the car's sponsors; when I could recognise a driver by his helmet and when I could rattle off the top 10 of the previous race in five seconds flat.
There was a time when I knew which drivers were winners and which were hoping to top the podium for the first time. There was a time when I knew the names of each of the corners at each of the tracks. There was a time when I cared about Formula 1.
Saturday, May 1, 2009 is the 15th anniversary of the death of Ayrton Senna at Imola. That was the day when I began to care less. Senna’s untimely departure meant that all but one of the great winners of the 1980s had gone—Piquet, Prost, Mansell, Patrese, Lauda, Pironi, Rosberg—with only Gerhard Berger left to fly the flag of the previous generation.
When the cars took to the grid in Monte Carlo for the first time after Senna’s death, there was no past World Champion in the race. It was a case of enforced revolution over evolution, and the void left was gaping. Instead of seeing a group of young pretenders challenge the older statesmen for supremacy, the novices were thrust straight into winning positions, with the burden of carrying the sport on their shoulders.
Michael Schumacher emerged from the twisted wreckage of 1994 with the first of seven world titles, but ultimately everyone knew that his victory that year had been of secondary significance.
It was indeed an "annus horribilis" for F1. There had been two deaths (Roland Ratzenburger also lost his life at Imola) and several other dangerous accidents, which had raised serious safety concerns.
The fallout from the incidents led to numerous design and regulation changes that had a marked effect on the way the cars handle, and ultimately on the quality of the racing.
For the next decade and a half, the watching public were subjected to dire, processional racing punctuated only by the “excitement” of an enquiry into team orders or rule-breaking.
Schumacher won five consecutive titles with Ferrari at the beginning of the century, and most diehard F1 fans would be hard pushed to separate one from the other; “2002 was the one when Barrichello was told not to overtake him,” “no mate, that was 2003—remember the staged finish at Indianapolis?” It really was that dull.
Ironically, despite the absence of all those great heroes who had carried the mantle of Formula 1 from Fangio, Clark, Hill, and Stewart through the '70s and '80s, and the new wave forced to the forefront after Senna had been killed, the sport grew beyond its traditional European power base and became truly global.
The ramifications for the fans were that not only did they have to learn the new names of drivers, but also of new circuits. No longer were Estoril, Jerez, or Mexico City on the agenda. Instead Turkey, Bahrain, China, and Malaysia hosted races.
This could have been an exciting development, were it not for the fact that each new circuit was very much of the sterile computer age; fantastic facilities but uniform and un-dramatic—lacking the romance of their predecessors.
But now in 2009, on the back of two relatively exciting championships, there is the sense of the unknown in the formula. For once it looks like rule changes about car design have had the desired effect and the cars are actually racing. They may be more difficult to drive, but if you want to get paid €15m a year for doing it, then it should be reasonably tricky.
Things look set up for a great year in F1. Even the fact that one driver has won three out of four races is cause for celebration rather than stifling a yawn because of the remarkable story behind the Brawn GP team.
However, there is still the danger that the administrators will get jealous of the real action being delivered on the circuits, instead decreeing that race results should be decided by stewards or courthouses, rather than by the drivers and the cars.
This is a major problem for the sport’s credibility. Beset by allegations of spying, cheating, and lying, F1 has struggled to convince us that what we actually see happen in a race will be what is written in the history books later.
I, for one, will be hoping that once the McLaren “lie-gate” issue is resolved, everyone can get back on with racing and that this season develops into one of the most open and memorable for years. After all, I was just beginning to care again.
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