by Steve Campbell
Sunday mornings are spent dithering in the cold, passing tools to Dad’s lower half while he works beneath our car. I fight for his attention against spark plugs and tyre changes.
After scrubbing his hands with dollops of Swarfega, Dad settles down for an afternoon of Formula 1 and I drop onto the sofa next to him. I pay for my seat with two mugs of sweet, milky tea.
The bassline from a Fleetwood Mac song introduces the graphic, ‘1985 Portuguese Grand Prix, Estoril’, as a spectrum of cars line up on the grid. Rain like I’ve never seen before lashes down on the circuit. Go, Go, Go, Go, screams the commentator. The cars burst toward us from the start line and Dad reaches over and grabs my arm, squeezing each syllable. Go, Go, Go, Go. I don’t move in case he takes his hand away. There are lines of dirt beneath his fingernails and I inhale the oil that clings to his clothes.
“Who do we want to win?” I ask, as the cars carve through the spray.
“Senna.” He points out a car that’s nothing more than a smear of black and gold.
Ayrton Senna starts the race in pole position and it’s not long before he’s catching the slower cars. When the camera flicks to a shot from inside the cockpit, I’m in the car with him being thrown left and right. Dad is in there too, his foot twitches whenever the car fishtails on the wet track and Senna wrestles to maintain control.
“He’ll win this,” Dad declares halfway through the race. It’s not really a prediction because Senna is well ahead by now, but when the chequered flag falls he screeches, “What did I say? What did I say?” He grips my shoulder and neck and ruffles my hair like I’m a puppy.
That was Ayrton Senna’s first grand prix win.
Over the next nine years, Senna wins another forty races and three world championships. His final race, at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, starts just like any other; the familiar bassline, the over-excited commentary, and me, perched on the edge of the sofa watching it live. Dad’s watching it too but we’re years and miles apart by then.
On lap seven, while Senna is leading the race, the live pictures are interrupted. The commentators fill the confusion with questions that nobody answers. Then a replay is shown of Senna’s car slamming into a concrete barrier. It’s shown again in slow motion. And then again from another angle. And then again. And again. A camera helicopter hovering above the crash scene broadcasts a shot of Senna’s car, his helmeted head flops against the inside of the cockpit. I taste engine oil at the back of my throat.
As the paramedics pound on Senna’s chest, in a vain attempt to restart his heart, I wish for cold Sunday mornings, sweet, milky tea and a tool that I can pass to Dad that will fix everything.
Photograph of replica of Senna’s helmet by Felipe Micaroni Lalli courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.