Ayrton Senna is one of the best Formula 1 drivers of all time. There is no denying that. Three World Championships, forty-one wins and eighty podiums don’t come to drivers who aren’t immensely skilled, and with those accolades the Brazilian has rightly earned his place in the Formula 1 hall of fame.
On paper, Lewis Hamilton is better. The Brit has four World Championships, sixty-seven wins and 126 podiums and, at present, is on his way to a fifth World Championship.
Now, paper doesn’t tell the full story. On paper, Lance Stroll is better than Nico Hülkenberg (on number of podiums scored at least), but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who says the young Canadian is better than the veteran German. Likewise, everyone’s favourite battering ram Pastor Maldonado is, on paper, better than the likes of Martin Brundle, Chris Amon and Derek Warwick, with the Venezuelan’s sole win elevating him above a litany of proficient drivers who never took a chequered flag.
It seems weird, then, that in a sport famed for its attention to detail, strict adherence to data over emotions and, at times, brutal hires and fires, that Senna is revered by all, but Hamilton is one of the most divisive characters in the history of the sport. A potential answer? Social media.
Social Media and Formula 1
We live in tumultuous times. The gap between groups of people grows more each day, and the echo chamber of social media only exacerbates these differences. Comments sections abound with partisanship, and there’s an ever-shrinking space for people in the middle of it all. You’re in one group or against it. You’re a fan or a hater. You like a driver or you don’t. And, as the years wear on, you’re either for Lewis Hamilton or you’re against him.
There are exceptions to this, of course. In the great civil war between Formula 1 fans, we can all at least agree that Daniel Ricciardo, Kimi Räikkönen and Fernando Alonso are, unequivocally, good. Men who speak their mind even when things aren’t going their way, and who aren’t afraid of the consequences. Alonso calling his team’s power unit a “GP2 engine” at their home grand prix? Hilarious and iconic. Ricciardo facing a DNF and turning the air bluer than when Vettel gets stuck behind a lapped car? Incredible. Kimi questioning his team over strategy? Good on him. But Hamilton complaining about his car? Just watch Twitter explode…
And therein lies the problem. In the new age of being a fan, those that are liked are loved. Those that are not are hated. It wasn’t always this way, though…
The 90s were different. With no social media to rely on, opinions were forged on what media people consumed and by chats with fellow fans. Monthly magazines and weekly newspapers were the messaging boards of the time, and the opinions you read were those formed by paid professionals, writers who honed their craft over many years. These days you can see what every Tom, Dick and Harry has to say, and see it as soon as they think it. There is no time to reflect in this day and age – get your opinion out now, in the heat of the moment, or nobody will care. That way, your opinions can be found by people who share the same one, or found by people who completely disagrees – hardening the resolve of both parties that they are, in fact, correct and the other is, in fact, wrong.
With this in mind, why is Hamilton so polemic and Senna so universally adored, when the two share many of the same qualities?
Quotes, Cars and Controversy
A pragmatic man, Senna had a quote for just about every occasion. “I have no idols. I admire work, dedication and competence.” is a series of words commonly associated with the late, great hero. “Being second is to be the first of the ones who lose.” is another. Two quotes that have gone down in the annals of history, and which live on in his absence. You’ll see these adorning many a racing track around the world, at every level of the sport. Hopeful young drivers will memorise them as mantras to live by, and phone cases will be sold so you can have the great man’s words in your pocket at all times, and show your allegiance towards him.
But imagine, for a second, if Lewis Hamilton had said these. Would they receive the same adoration, the same treatment, the same reaction from Formula 1 fans had they come from the Brit?
Senna was a staunchly religious man, and had a firm belief in god. “If you have god on your side, everything is clear” said Senna, and whilst an article bearing that quote has comments of “the best” and “there will never be his equal“, the comments section of an article with a quote about god from Hamilton reads very differently.
“God has his hand over me” Lewis said just last month and, whilst the article with the Senna quote has many people praising him in the comments, the comments section of the Hamilton quote is rather different. “Oh come on mate don’t bring religion into F1 thats naughty and very arrogant of you” reads one comment with over fifty upvotes, whilst another says “God would probably have his hand over his mouth to stop him talking such cr#p“. Two similar quotes, two different reactions.
It’s one of a series of comparisons that can be drawn between the reaction to the two, and it doesn’t stop at religion or mere quotes.
The MP4/4 is, on paper (there it is again), the best F1 car ever. It won fifteen of the sixteen races it took part in through the 1988 season, and Senna was behind the wheel of one for eight of those wins. With those eight wins and three second places he took one of his three World Championships with the car, with many seeing it as the perfect blend of the best driver piloting the best car.
Mercedes has been notoriously strong since the start of the start of the hybrid era. They’ve taken the Constructors’ title four years on the trot, with what is evidently the best car in the field. Hamilton took three of his four titles behind the wheel of a Mercedes and, whilst the MP4/4 is worshipped as the holy grail of automotive perfection, very few positive words are said about the championship-winning Mercedes or its driver. You’ll regularly hear people decrying all three of those championships, with shouts of “he only won because of the car” being the norm.
Now, Senna was no stranger to controversy in his time. Two title-defining incidents in Suzuka attest to this. Both times Senna was behind Prost and trying to overtake, both times he ran into him and both times the two crashed out in ignominious circumstances. Can you imagine the online backlash we would have witnessed had either of these incidents happened in the time of Twitter? Can you imagine the furore around the 1990 crash, in which Senna ploughed into Prost at the first corner and won the championship because of it? There would be calls for him to be banned from the sport, petitions would be signed to have his championship removed, and he would be subjected to weeks of harassment from Prost fans sending him abuse were he in Hamilton’s race shoes.
So, what has changed?
Accessibility and Presence
The invention of social media gave us an unprecedented level of access to drivers. With very little outside of what we saw on TV and read in magazines, Formula 1 drivers before it were these mysterious people who lived lavish lifestyles and were elevated to a status outranking mere civilians – these people were gods, superhumans who diced with death and (mostly) lived to tell the tale. Their skills and abilities raised them far above what any of us mere mortals could ever aspire to, and they were all the more untouchable for it. We saw a glimpse into their life, and we liked what we saw.
Now we have access to them 24/7. Anyone can have a look at what anyone is doing, and whether it’s Danny Ric going for a run, Carlos Sainz Jr. playing golf or Kimi making a cover for his kids’ sandbox “so cats don’t sh*t in it“, we see they aren’t these untouchable gods at all. We realise they are human.
Senna is a god. Hamilton is a human.
Gods have a reason for everything they do. Gods don’t make mistakes. Gods are untouchable. Humans aren’t though. Humans do make mistakes. Humans don’t always have a reason for everything they do. Hamilton, just like all Formula 1 drivers, is a human, a man, and men are no different than Dave down the pub or Steve at work or your uncle Jamie; they’re just regular people who happen to drive very fast cars for a living. And realising that these people are just regular guys makes them lose some of their allure.
The more we see of drivers, the more we realise this. Seeing Damon Hill or Johnny Herbert or David Coulthard or Martin Brundle every week on the TV is great, and their commentary provides a wealth of insight we could never dream of, but it makes us desensitised to their presence. In fact, we can have their presence whenever we want – all we have to do is get a race on catch-up whenever we want, or log onto Instagram or Twitter or Facebook or wherever and they’re there. The more we get, the less special it becomes. And whilst gods are special, ordinary people aren’t.
Insulting a god is sacrilege. Insulting an ordinary bloke – an ordinary bloke who isn’t even there to defend himself – is the new normal. And social media gives you the opportunity to do that. It also gives you the opportunity not to do that. This is an opportunity most people choose not to take though, and you’ll be able to find many, many people passing up on this opportunity to lambast everything a certain British driver does in comments sections around the world. But, for all their likenesses, you won’t find the same of a certain Brazilian driver.
So, with social media readily at hand, would Senna be as divisive as Hamilton were he around today or, on the other hand, would we speak of Hamilton with the same reverence as we do Senna were the tables turned? It’s hard to say. Who knows how things would turn out. Perhaps he would be as controversial, or perhaps his brilliance transcends even generations. In all this, though, one thing is for sure; a bit more mystery never hurt anyone.