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What if Ayrton Senna were alive today. . .
If you were somebody content to watch from the sidelines the frenetic proceedings in the run-up to India's first-ever Grand Prix, you'd realise you can actually take the longest pit stop in the game. It is a generational luxury, which no amount of sponsor hollering or information flooding can shake off. You simply pull up on to a roadside shoulder, sit back and watch as the events hurtle on, and invariably a thought floats by - how would things have turned out had the events at Imola not happened nearly a generation ago?
And this is when Ayrton Senna too pulls up - reluctantly, after pushing his car to its possible limits - removes his Brazilian yellow helmet, yanks off the balaclava and shakes free his hair, sad eyes smouldering and that mouth tight in a quiet, contemptuous sneer. And in a changed and different world, we'd brood fashionably as things bumble along.
There is little room for the romantic today in the cut-and-dry world of modern sport. Whatever little is whipped up is a ruse by the spin doctor to please some other master. You learn to live with manufactured nostalgia, making such revisits all the more personal, and a little heart-wrenching.
Would Senna, the sport's greatest artiste, have fitted in had he been alive today? He would have been a shade over 50 - greyer, eyes wiser... and sadder, the nose more Belmondo than his own, maybe even a hint of fat around the waist. Of course, he wouldn't be any slower, but would he have mattered at all?
Spotting him in the paddocks, you'd wonder - does he own a team, or is he hanging around since his son - or nephew - was racing? Or is he just a race-day pundit for Japanese TV? Would he have shown his face after probably being shown his place all through the '90s by Michael Schumacher and an anonymous, lessthan-satisfying stint with Indycar racing thereafter to douse his competitive fire? Or, would he - and not Schumacher - have raced for Ferrari? Would he have been the face of some global corporate giant, the much-sought-after brand ambassador selling their gleaming wares - life insurance, most ironically - with his timeless appeal?
Would he be Senna at all? Or just an ageing Peter Pan in a full and final sell-out as per the demands of modern sport? Who is to know - the man wrote his own exit clause, saving himself the inevitable ignominy of latter-day, post-retirement existence.
Had Senna not crashed, only 34, in what is perhaps modern sport's most-tragic mishap, today the questions would have been tougher.
In a sporting world back then, Senna was right up there as far as super-heroes go - cape folded inside his driving suit. The actual Formula 1 event came a distant, forgotten second. First came the crazy man in the yellow helmet and the red and white car that wailed more than the rest. His maverick speed, the aura, the lingering sense of tragedy, all coupled with the forever-boiling rivalry with the remarkably-dour Alain Prost catapulted him into a different orbit altogether.
Senna may have died on live TV, but he wasn't a creation of live television as sport stars are today. Despite that, his legend grew. In a sports-mad world that still banked on the written word rather than the moving image, we had to be content with whatever the sports weeklies intermittently chose to carry on the races. Hazy posters of the car were much-treasured, once-in-a-season offerings by Sun, a magazine cool enough to do things differently.
But he was too big to be hemmed in, tamed even. Any change in the world of his sport was to come in the smoke of his disappearing car. He was perfect fodder for TV drama, and swiftly became the sport's most-photographed man. In a sense, Senna kickstarted the circus it is today. Today, without the man, F1 is no more than a footnote making the headlines.
The world moves on. It was a 'mere' seven years after his crash, when one chanced upon an Alex Reade outlet at London's Carnaby Street. Still mourning a sense of loss, you asked the rep at the motorsport store for "anything Senna?" He threw a quizzical look. "Senna? He's long gone. In any case, we don't keep anything for more than two years in the inventory. Bad for business, " he said.
Then he helpfully added, "You're from India. There's this really good driver you got. Only problem is his agent isn't pushy enough. No good at all for his career. In F1 today, these things matter more than talent. Why don't you do something for him?"
It was 2001. Narain Karthikeyan made his F1 debut four years later. And not even a pipe dream then, a decade later, the first Formula One race is a day away. And while you sit on that shoulder, marveling at the suck-all-in nature of modern sport, you are joined by the late Brazilian, and there's little for both of you to do but brood fashionably...
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