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Racing Onward

Scott Olson

There is a scene in Senna that documents the events of the 1990 Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez.  Martin Donnelly's Lotus crashes massively, the car disintegrates, and Donnelly is found laying in the middle of the race track, far clear of the rest of the car, completely unprotected, and quite visibly gravely injured.  Ayrton Senna goes down to the scene of the accident and watches as the rescue team takes Donnelly away. After witnessing one of his fellow drivers, racing for a team Senna himself drove for just a few years prior, potentially lose his life, Senna then does the unthinkable: he sets a pole time almost a half-second clear of second place.

Death is often the elephant in the room when it comes to auto racing.  Part of the appeal of the sport in the early 20th century was the daredevil aspect of it - drivers toed the line between living and dying, every corner a potential end of everything.  Over time, drivers had enough of watching their colleagues perish at such a high rate, and society as a whole required racing to clean up and get safe.  Every tragedy became a point for change, and after several decades, death, and grave injury, became like a spider in the corner of your bedroom - ever present, and it scares everyone, but if they ignore it maybe nothing will happen.

But, inevitably, things do happen.  There is grief, and there is mourning; there is introspection, and there are very public questions.  Fans are shaken by losing heroes, relatives are shaken by losing family members, and teams are shaken by losing their stars.  And the drivers, they're shaken by the realization that it could have been them, A strange thing happens not long after, however.  Drivers, in the quest for normalcy, go back to a place where they can block out the distractions and focus.  The cockpit.  The very same task that took one of their own.  Racing, incredible as it sounds, is their comfort and their solace.  Racers race.  It's what they do.

This weekend, Formula One travels to Sochi, Russia for the first time.  It's a new track, and drivers will have their work cut out for them, learning the quickest lines, the areas where they can pass, the areas where they need to slow down.  Many would wonder how they could go about their business in such a manner when their colleague is still unconscious in a Japanese hospital, fighting for his life and, at best, never able to race again.  For the drivers, though, while Jules is in their thoughts, their work is therapy, and nothing would get them back to a normal frame of mind quicker than driving their race cars as fast as they'll go.

Martin Donnelly never did race in F1 again, but he has since ran in hundreds of club races, and acted as the driver consult to the FIA stewards on a few weekends. Ayrton Senna himself perished at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994, just a day after fellow driver Roland Ratzenberger was also killed in an accident.  Two weeks later, in Monaco, the drivers left the 2 front row positions open in memory of their fallen comrades.

Then, they raced.