For Nikki Grubb-Clarke, the amazing, stunning Suzuka has more meaning than any other circuit in the world. For, it was here, in Japan that dreams came true and Ayrton Senna was crowned world champion. On the eve of the 2013 Japanese Grand Prix, Nikki goes back in time to 1988 and relives that special, special moment.
I should like, if I may, to take you back. The year is 1988. Margaret Thatcher is the British Prime Minister and Ronald Reagan is coming to the end of his tenure as US President. Charles and Di are still together and none of us would know Camilla if she were to hit us in the Parker-Bowles, and I am 12 and a half years old.
I live on a military base in Germany and international terrorists seem intent on not allowing me to make 13. Life is a constant stream of shootings, bombings, carefully checking under things, not touching anything, staying close to guards with machine guns on the bus to school, not being allowed to go anywhere unaccompanied, and leaving buildings in an orderly manner upon hearing the alarm.
But I’m lucky, for in this adversity, I have a light. A bright, shining, Brazilian beacon in my darkness. Ayrton Senna. The most wonderful man and driver I have ever seen.
As a driver, he was beyond comparison and could make a car do things no other man ever could. His skill, courage and determination to win made him breathtaking to watch. In a sport I loved, he gleamed and glistened more brightly than any of its other stars. He could make your jaw drop with a single lap and make you wince with a tight, brave move up the inside. Unquestionably the best we have ever been blessed to see, I firmly believe we will never see his like again.
To me though, he was so much more than this. As ruthless and fearless as he was as a driver, so he was as compassionate and kind as a person. This was the great paradox of Ayrton, and one that made me love him all the more.
During every race, and in every moment in between, I obsessed over how he would do, where he would finish, wishing him onward as though sheer force of will would put him on the hallowed top step of podium after podium. I knew he would be World Champion, I knew history would view him as a legend of the sport…but I wanted it now. I wanted people to see him as I did, to respect him, to watch in awe as his car pranced and frolicked over the tarmac under a loving focussed hand, and I wanted them to say ‘Yes, he IS the World Champion’.
And so it was, on 30th October 1988, a very nervous young me settled on the sofa with my Dad – as was the tradition – to watch the Japanese Grand Prix.
Senna was on a blistering run, having won 6 of the last 8 races and if he won in Japan, this would be it. The day I’d wished for would have arrived. He would be the Formula 1 World Champion.
Only a single channel was responsible for broadcasting in English for British Services abroad at this time, and they only broadcast the race, so I had no idea as the familiar strains of Fleetwood Mac drifted across my front room what had happened in qualifying. I waited, desperate for Murray Walker to put me out of my misery and tell me where Senna would line up. Finally he told me. Pole! He had done it, he’d gotten pole ahead of his rival Alain Prost. It was the perfect start, but he still needed to win.
As the cars began their parade lap my nerves grew. This could really be it, but there was a long way to go, and as I knew only too well, anything could happen.
And then, when those red lights turned green, it did. He barely moved. Time slowed and I could feel my mouth opening in disbelief. Cars were rushing passed him – so many of them – and by the time he was moving and up to speed, he was 14th. 14th!! It was a disaster! I was devastated and simply couldn’t watch. In true 12-year-old fashion, my face creased into a grimace, I stood up and declared to my Dad that I was ‘…going to my room!’ My Dad turned to me and said ‘OK, but what would Ayrton think of you giving up on him?’
I stopped. What indeed?
I identified with Ayrton so completely it was almost too perfect a correlation. I had heard him pass comment about how he was no longer consciously driving the car that it was as though he were just a vehicle for some higher power to work through. While he already had the racing part of my heart, with these words, he grabbed the rest of it. At age 7, I had begun to play the flute and would practice, hour after hour, dedicating myself to composers and giving life to their work. Losing myself in a world of wordless expression in which I felt peace and comfort…and I knew what Senna had meant. I knew more definitively and more completely than anyone else possibly could. This was my link to him. This was what made the relationship I had with this man I had never met and would never meet so special. He inspired me to push on, to practice longer. I understood the effort that had to be put into it, the ‘never give up’ attitude, the ethic of working until your fingers bled, and of being determined to be the best. I too felt, at times, as though I was no longer consciously moving my fingers across my instrument, but that the piece itself had taken me over. Senna was all about focus, determination and dedication. He would never give up, not until the chequered flag had been waved. I knew this absolutely definitively, so why was I giving up? I turned and sat back down. ‘Besides, you just never know what will happen’ Dad said as I turned my attention back to the screen.
As I looked, I realised he was making progress. Over the course of the first lap, he seemed to have made up a gazillion places! He was fired up and it showed! He continued to drive like a man possessed and made overtaking look easy as he scythed through the field. As his position improved, my excitement increased. I was pulling on Dad’s arm, firmly believing once again that the dream was possible.
And then, as though being scripted by a Hollywood writer, something amazing happened. It began to rain. It wasn’t a biblical downpour, and it was only on parts of the circuit, but if there was one thing that would help Ayrton get to the front, it was this.
By now, I was on the edge of my seat. As the laps continued, I teetered on the front of the sofa, fingers on both hands crossed, eyes wide saying over and over under my breath ‘please, please, please, please, please’.
The laps progressed, as did Senna. Fifth, Fourth, Third, Second, my heart leaping with every overtake. In what felt like the blink of an eye, they were together on track, Prost in the lead, and Senna right behind him. As Prost went to try and lap Andrea De Cesaris, he was held up. My Ayrton didn’t need an invitation. Sensing an opportunity, he forced his way through. The lead was his.
I leapt off the sofa and punched air ‘YES!’ Immediately I remembered myself and retook my seat, not wanting to take anything for granted and more than anything not wanting to bring Ayrton any bad luck. What if the car didn’t make it to the end of the race? What if Senna had another ‘Monaco Moment’ like the one that had ended his race in the Principality earlier in the season? It was too soon to celebrate.
As quickly as the first laps had passed, so those last 24 laps dragged. It was as though every lap was being raced in slow motion. It was agony. Finally, Senna started his last lap. Still I was taking nothing for granted. Perched on the corner of the sofa, with my Dad doing the same, we gripped one another nervously. Ayrton was on the brink of achieving his dream, and we were going to be there with him every step of the way.
As he rounded the final corner and entered the straight, still in the lead, the chequered flag started to wave. He had done it. Finally all of the pent up emotion could spill out. My Dad and I leapt off the sofa, each jumping around the room, yelling and screeching. I could feel tears rolling down my face. Tears of joy, tears of relief, tears of pride. He’d done it. Ayrton Senna was the World Champion. It felt wonderful!
The podium was a blur. Tears streamed down my face as I watched Ayrton step onto it. As proud as I always was of him when he was on the top step, this was different. This was the big one, and everyone knew it. My Dad and I stood in the middle of the room, my Dad hugging me, as I continued to cry and yelp and smile as broadly as any 12-year-old ever has.
I have so many marvelous memories of Ayrton Senna but his victory in Suzuka in 1988, the race that fulfilled the prophecy of what Ayrton might achieve, the race that brought so much joy to a very scared little girl who didn’t have very much to be joyful about, will stay with me forever and will always hold a special place in my heart.
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