Senna The Artist
It’s the morning of May 1st as I write this. It was nineteen years ago today that the world lost its greatest racing driver and I lost my hero and an inspiration. That Ayrton Senna was also a great human being – for if character flaws and complexities diminish our capacity for greatness we are all doomed – is part and parcel with his greatness as a driver, a craft he elevated to an art. The enormity of the loss is still real for me. He was the personification of focus and dedication and I try to take lessons from his work ethic every day. But on a more subtle and personal level, I marvel at his artistry and hope to occasionally transcend the status of craftsman to touch moments of genius like he seemed to do so effortlessly, so often.
Senna memorial inside Tamburello.
I’m a musician, not a race car driver. For thirty years, the bass has been my love and my focus. Once or twice a year I get to do a time trial in my little crapbox track car, but these are not the times I look to Senna for inspiration. The potential for crossover at the track is obvious. But racing is a hobby, something I do to blow off steam and let my competitive urges out for a few moments off the leash. No, for me, it’s when I’m working on music that Senna, The Artist, inspires.
To drive a racing car for any period of time is to improvise, and to do it at the highest level is to live a great paradox. For the key to great improvisation is great preparation. And no one prepared like Senna.
At its peak, improvisation, whether in a car or in music, happens at a subconscious level, where instincts act quicker than thoughts can be processed. Instincts can’t be taught, but clearing out a pathway to them can be learned. But it takes time, trust and intense self belief.
Senna was born into a well-to-do family, so he could afford the time (racing is not a poor man’s sport). And no one would ever accuse him of lacking belief in his own ability. His trust came from an intensely personal relationship with God. Put all these together and he was in a perfect place to do the work of becoming a top level racing driver.
But racing has never lacked cocky rich kids with lightning reflexes and balls of steel. A great racing driver is a rare beast for sure, but thousands have come and gone without ever reaching Formula One, no less becoming World Champion….three times in ten years.
No, Senna’s preparation went far beyond the groundwork laid by his lucky circumstances. When he was blown off in a rain-soaked kart race as a child, he could be found on every subsequent rainy day pounding around his local track. He put in the miles necessary to understand what was different about racing in the rain. Years later, in a drenched Portuguese Grand Prix, he notched up his first Formula One win. In the process of doing so, he made the rest of the field look hopeless. In 1993, at the European Grand Prix at Donnington, he drove the greatest lap in F1 history, mastering the soaking conditions as he he slithered past drivers who would eventually combine to win twelve World Championships, to go from fifth to first on the first lap.
Senna didn’t get lucky. He was prepared. Plunging down a rain soaked hill on the outside of an off-camber corner, on a piece of track never ventured onto in the dry, with 800 horsepower trying to throw you into the scenery is not a place for conscious decision making. Add in the ultimate unknown variable, the infinite possibilities represented by the other cars around you, and there is nothing left to do but simply act and react, trusting your instincts to pull you through.
I don’t know which challenge is harder in those situations, the physical or the metaphysical. In Senna, we were gifted the extraordinary opportunity to witness someone for whom both were easily overcome. Which came first, his incredible abilities behind the wheel, or his towering trust in them? I don’t have an answer, but I love being exposed to the challenge the puzzle presents.
Some drivers are specialists. There are tracks or conditions that suit them and they can be nearly unbeatable when the stars align. It can be the same as a musician. When the stage is perfect and your instrument sounds exactly like what you hear in your head, it can be so easy to access those deep wells of trust. But those situations are rare. More often it is about dealing with compromises and doing everything within your power to adapt to the conditions. Any racing driver will tell you that having a car perfectly set up is a dream, but rarely reality. And even if the perfect set up is achieved, it only lasts a moment, as fuel load changes, tires degrade, wind direction shifts, or spots of rain appear on your visor. It is then, when frustration creeps in, that it is most necessary, and most difficult, to trust the improviser within. And the key to that trust, again and always, is preparation.
A jazz musician does not hear the chord changes to a song for the first time and immediately improvise on them from a place of complete and total inspiration. He has spent countless hours defining a concept of how to translate what they hear to their instrument. The moments of genius we hear in someone’s music is the culmination of thousands of moments alone, practicing and preparing. The inspiration is realized in the moment, but only when the improviser trusts in their preparation and allows instinct to take over.
It’s rare that my two worlds directly collide, but a couple years ago I was playing a few nights at the jazz club in the Casino Monte Carlo. By day, I walked the track, ate pizza in the Tip Top Bar, and relived the dozens of Monaco Grands Prix I’d watched on television. Senna was a master at the tiny twisting track, winning six times. In 1988 he achieved unheard of levels of artistry, when he he seemed to transcend the limits of the car and the track to out qualify his teammate, Alain Prost, by a second and a half. Later he would speak of leaving his body and watching himself from above as he produced that lap. And he would admit that it scared him.
On race day, he simply drove away from the field. He was leading by an insurmountable margin when he inexplicably threw it away, hitting the guardrail as he unnecessarily pushed himself harder and harder. His self belief got the better of his instincts that day. He wanted to make a perfect artistic statement that weekend, but his judgement was clouded and he pushed too hard.
That is the beauty of improvisation. And the danger. If you don’t push beyond your known limits can you truly be called an improviser? An artist? It can be scary outside those limits. I am no Senna, and I have definitely done the musical equivalent of throwing it into the guardrail, but if I did so from a place of trying, I’m okay with that. Out there lay art.
I don’t reach my limits every time I play, the way he seemed to whenever he put his visor down. But I credit Ayrton Senna for inspiring me to go for it and helping me to recognize what it feels like when I get there.
Keeping inspiration close at hand.
This article originally appeared on Nicholas D’Amato’s blog, Just Add Lightness