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Backmarker: Lessons from Senna & Cosmos

Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Things I Learned from Ayrton Senna, and While Watching Cosmos

Twenty years ago today, Ayrton Senna died in a Formula 1 car race at Imola. You may wonder what a car driver is doing in a Backmarker column—and I wonder where those 20 years went.

Many Backmarker readers were probably children on May 1, 1994; some of you weren’t even born. If you don’t know his story (and even if you do) you should watch the 2010 documentary ‘Senna’ on Netflix tonight. It’s the best film ever made about motor racing.

F1 races were broadcast live in Canada, so Senna crashed very early Sunday morning as far as I was concerned. I was out running; taping the race to watch later. Yeah, we used to actually capture TV shows on a moving piece of tape. If you wanted to watch it delayed, you had to wait for the entire show to end. My friends knew not to tell me the results.

When I got in from my run, I checked to see that my VHS unit’s record light was flashing. I was in the shower when I heard a phone message come in. A friend just said, “Man, I’m sorry about Senna.”

I knew that couldn’t be good. I forgot about waiting for the race to end so I could watch from the beginning; I just turned on the TV. Again, I knew it wasn’t good. They weren’t hurrying.

It had already been a terrible weekend. Rubens Barichello was lucky to escape a more serious injury after a horrific crash, then F1 rookie Roland Ratzenberger was killed in qualifying. If you thought bad luck came in threes, there was a scary start-line crash as Pedro Lamy hit J.J. Lehto; debris from their cars injured several spectators.

It turned out, bad luck came in fours. When the race finally got underway, Senna and Michael Schumacher raced away from the pace car. Schumacher was perhaps the best eyewitness to Senna’s crash, at the since-reconfigured ‘Tamburello’ corner.

I was such a Senna fan that I resented Schuey when he came onto the F1 scene, fast from the start and then progressing during his years with Benetton until, in the first race of the ’94 season, Senna responded to his pressure (and, perhaps, the pressure of his home GP in Brazil) with a rare unforced error. I was forced to admit that there was someone faster than my hero.

In the days after the crash, I sort of blamed Schumacher for the crash; as if Senna really didn’t have the choice to back off.

The next F1 race was Monaco, and Karl Wendlinger almost died in that one. Meanwhile, the Canadian motorcycle roadracing season was just getting underway. I was coming to terms with the fact that I was about to launch into a season of racing that was more dangerous than F1 cars. (Senna, at least, had to leave the track to hit his wall; at my home track—Race City Speedway, in Calgary—there was a sequence leading onto the front straight where, if you really nailed the apex, you might brush a wall with your helmet.)

I remember trying to explain racers' fascination with risk to a
golfer who said, "That's the way I feel when I'm trying to make
a critical put in golf." I smiled and nodded, but thought, "you
idiot." I mean, picture a playoff hole at The Masters: some guy
misses his putt. For an instant, he might wish he was dead. But
there was never any risk of actual death.
But after thinking about it, I came to two conclusions that I’ve carried with me, lo these 20 years. There were two conclusions, because an awareness of risk can cause you to feel fear, but fear and risk are actually two completely independent ideas.

The first conclusion was, once I’d decided I was going to take the risk, there was no point dwelling on my fears. If I let emotion get the better of me, when I did the risky thing, all I experienced was my own fear. When it was over, the memory of fear had overwritten the memory of the experience itself. That was a waste, because all I usually had to show for races were memories; rarely trophies and certainly never money.

The second was, risk gives racing its meaning. When ordinary people find out you’re a motorcycle racer, they often say things like, “You must be an adrenalin addict,” as if you like scaring the crap out of yourself.

That was never true, at least not for me. When things were going well, it wasn’t scary; at least not in the sense of fear as an emotional reaction. But I was always intellectually aware of the risks. So when it came to braking a little later, or carrying a little more speed through some corner, or finally committing to a pass on a guy who had once seemed so much faster than me—those decisions had meaning because the consequences of an error in judgement were potentially disastrous.

Back then, as a racer, I didn’t crave adrenalin; I craved a Zen state—a focus that I could only achieve in a setting where distraction was completely forbidden. Risk was the lens that provided that focus.

The Senna anniversary has put me in the mind of way Schumacher came up and, for the first time made me think there was someone faster.

That’s what we’re seeing now, even more dramatically in MotoGP. I suppose someone may have something for Marquez this weekend at Jerez but, until practice starts I’ll use the Ladbroke’s bookmaking site as a rough guide.

As I write this, the odds are:
M Marquez 2/5
J Lorenzo 9/2
D Pedrosa 5/1
V Rossi 16/1

After those guys, things get astronomical. What those numbers mean is that a $2 bet on Marquez will pay only $2.80 if he wins; Lorenzo will pay $4.50, Pedrosa $5, Rossi $16.

Betting odds reflect the wisdom of crowds, and those odds don’t suggest that Marquez is incrementally better than his rivals; he’s made a quantum jump.

It’s a truism of racing that no matter who you are, you’re only the fastest guy for so long. Rossi was at the top of MotoGP for a long time, and it was interesting to watch Pedrosa and Lorenzo gradually close the gap to him. Inevitably, they learned his tricks; for a while depending on the season, there were three or four ‘aliens’. Until last season, it seemed to me that Lorenzo in particular had mastered a ‘perfect’ style for the contemporary traction-controlled MotoGP motorcycle.

But Marquez is doing something visibly different, and visibly faster. That’s what Ben Spies was talking about at Austin when he told Julian Ryder, "If Jorge or Valentino went past I could look and see what they were doing, maybe see they were a little smoother than me, but I understood. When Casey Stoner or Marc Marquez went past, I had no idea how they could do that stuff."

Neil deGrasse Tyson says there may be a whole universe inside each black hole. Marquez has ridden over an edge that causes others to crash, and found his own universe. Who will dare to join him?

Speaking of aliens and quantum jumps... I don’t know about you, but I’ve become a real fan of the scientific television program "Cosmos", on Sunday nights. A couple of weeks ago, Neil deGrasse Tyson said that although we may never know what’s inside a black hole, one possibility is that there’s an entire other universe on the other side.

It’s rare to see a Marquez-style quantum jump at the very top level in any sport, but you see it over and over as you’re coming up through the lower ranks, so I bet Lorenzo and Pedrosa recognize it. It’s just that this time, instead of doing it to other guys, they’re getting done.

What happens is, for all the guys at one level, there’s an edge. There’s a limit, and they can get near it, but it’s a black hole; a one-way ticket to crashville. And most of the guys at that level are never going to enter it.

For the gifted few, that edge is actually a portal into a whole ‘nother universe. They get in there, and spend all their time in there, and maybe they see their own edge, but we can’t see it; from our perspective, they’re already over the edge.

Right now, the most realistic hope any of his rivals have, in terms of the championship, is that Marquez will go over his edge, crash, and miss a few races. He used to be a crasher but lately, not so much. If Marquez doesn’t beat himself their only alternatives will be to race for second place—not something many of them are psychologically cut out for—or, they can purposely enter that black hole.

That’s not easy; for starters it’s more than just risky, it’s downright scary. Right now, I bet Lorenzo and Pedrosa are thinking, No fair, this is supposed to be the top level, there’s not supposed to be a level higher. It may be easier for riders still on their way up. Riders like Tito Rabat or Jack Miller will enter the top class knowing that the only way to win is to make the jump not just into MotoGP but into Marquez’ private (for now) universe.

I suppose Neil deGrasse Tyson is right; I’ll never know what’s in there.

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xgman1   May 17, 2014 01:50 PM
OutOfTheBox - I am curious how you can come to the conclusion that he isn't doing anything unique. There's no way his speed can be explained by deep braking/late apexing/throttle steering... Everybody at that level has mastered those skills years ago. Ben Spies says he can't figure out what he's doing... and you can? Pedrosa is an incredible rider, but he can't even manage to follow MArquez. At the level these people ride, .2 is an insurmountable obstacle. MM frequently puts almost a second between himself and everybody else. For me... I have no clue how any of these guys do what they do. Their skill is so far beyond my comprehension that I don't even bother to try. Anybody here that thinks they understand how/why #93 is faster than everybody else is just kidding themselves. The only way I see MotoGP getting interesting again in the near future is Repsol dragging Stoner out of retirement to replace Pedrosa.
cggunnersmate   May 7, 2014 05:15 AM
OutOfTheBox Rossi has beaten Pedrosa twice this season already at Qatar and Jerez. If he hadn't had the shredded front tire at COTA he'd only be a couple points behind Pedrosa instead of 11. But yeah, MM is on another level. He rides like Stoner but looks to be even quicker. That would have been a great season to watch, Stoner vs MM both on Repsol Hondas.
thomboz   May 2, 2014 10:24 AM
I've wondered why the Moto Journalists are not writing about why Marquez is so dominant, what he does differently, etc... this is the closest anyone has come and the article isn't even named after him!
WilCon   May 1, 2014 09:59 AM
5 straight ala Doohan? Maybe more before someone matches him? Who knows with him. I think my favorite part of Marquez is he's enjoying himself. It's not work, it's play. Jeremy McGrath was that way, Rossi used to be and still is somewhat playful. All three were/are laser focused on the bike and tenacious. They revel in demoralizing their opposition, with Rossi famously guaranteeing Sete Gibernau would never win again. Turns out he was right, and Marquez probably won't say that about Lorenzo, he might be able to keep him from winning often.