Sunday 26 March 2017

F1: Mondello magic a snapshot of Senna's genius

John O'Brien

In the footage assembled for Asif Kapadia's critically acclaimed docu-movie on the life of Ayrton Senna, it isn't likely that any thought was spared for the September day in 1982 when the great Brazilian driver treated fans in Mondello Park to a masterclass. In Senna's career Mondello Park is a humble footnote, drowned out by three Formula One championships and a controversial death that shocked the world and, to this day, remains keenly felt.

Yet those who were there remember the day with a fondness they could never have countenanced at the time. As Senna's fame spread it seeped into Irish sporting legend and became part-myth, like Munster beating the All Blacks at Thomond Park. "It's funny," says John Morris. "Everybody you talk to seems to have been there the day Senna raced at Mondello Park. But I don't actually remember that many being there at all."

Morris, now director at Mondello, was a track marshal that day and enjoyed a good perch to witness a genius in the making. "No doubt about it. He was the class act in the field at the time. The European Formula Ford 2000 was quite a premier junior level championship. It was unusual to see any driver have the level of superiority he had. He looked a class apart."

In 1982 Senna was 22 years old. He had arrived in England the previous year with the intention of establishing himself as a Formula One driver. Mondello was the second last stop on the FF2000 circuit. In 27 races Senna had completed the circuit on 21 occasions and only failed to win one of those races. Head and shoulders above his rivals.

David Kennedy, the former Irish driver, had met Senna and finds it hard to square the ruthless driver we came to know with the kid who rolled up in Co Kildare that day. "He was very affable. He had no aura, no halo. A very quiet, placid guy. You saw drivers at that age and they tended to be bullish, pushy guys, walking around with a swagger. With Senna you never saw that."

Maybe that was a sign of the respect Senna had for the sport and what he needed to learn to reach the top. By consent Mondello was a stern test of a young driver's mettle. "Irish drivers did well then," says Kennedy, "because the standard required to master Mondello Park was exceptional. It had reverse camber, very tight combination corners. Corners every racing driver didn't want, but that every driver needed."

Kennedy thought Senna might not have it all his own way that day. And for a time he didn't. The race wasn't a lap old when Belfast's Joey Greenan shot up on Senna's outside and thrillingly swooped by as they passed the stand. For maybe a lap Greenan maintained the illusion of a contest. "Joey still waxes lyrical about the day he led Senna for a lap around Mondello," laughs Morris.

Senna soon restored order, however, taking Greenan around Duckham's Corner and quickly establishing daylight between himself and the field. Greenan would tell anyone who asked that he missed a gear as they approached the bend, enabling Senna to nudge his Van Diemen in front, though they suspect he relates that story with a glint in his eye. There was no shame in it, though, then or now.

Happily, nearly a minute of footage remains, enough to encompass the key moments of the race. You can hear the palpable excitement in Alan Tyndall's voice as Greenan takes Senna in the home stretch and, then, the thrill as the Brazilian reasserts his authority as they negotiate Duckham's. "Not much room there but he's done it. That was sensational. That's why he's so good."

They knew they were witnessing something special alright. Another marquee name to etch onto the Leinster Trophy awarded to the race winner. "Well, all you can say is they were the best of their class at the time," says Kennedy. "You can't say for sure that's F1 material. That class of racing wasn't that high. Still, his car control and his dominance of Mondello Park was pretty devastating."

On the video you watch as Ayrton da Silva, as they knew him at the time, emerges out of Dunlop and prepares to take the chequered flag, Tyndall breathlessly proclaiming him as a magnificent driver. His left fist punches the air and he removes his helmet to reveal a piercing, broad grin over his handsome features. Not enough to make a movie, perhaps, but poignant enough in its own way.

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