Mclaren pitwall advised Ayrton to slow down. Ayrton tried to oblige.
At this point, I don’t believe he began to think about the victory gala at the Sporting Club or hanging with his friends in Portugal; I think his mind was still on the job. Problem was, it wasn’t the job he was best at: Ayrton was born to drive on the limit, not at what he would have called “seven tenths”. He was still thinking about every gear change, every clutch movement, every brake pedal application, every throttle tease. But he was thinking also that he needed to be gentle, that he had to leave margin.
He was in foreign territory, in other words – in a strange sort of twilight zone, driving quickly but slowly, unsure of the balance between the two. And thus he made his bone-jarring mistake.
All this came into focus when Jordan Spieth recently backed out of golf’s US Masters. Pressure lifted, thanks to a string of birdies on the front nine, Jordan began his final, triumphant holes in conservative mode: in Senna late-monaco GP mode, in other words, when not making errors was suddenly just as important as dominating the day. Plopping two balls into the water on a par-three when you’re about to win the Masters is, yes, about the same as clouting the Portier apex guard-rail; and, as Spieth said afterwards: “I went into that back nine sort of half-swinging at the ball and fell right out of my zone.”
So yawn not at what Mercedes as a team are doing this year, for the parallels are undeniable. They’ve maintained their advantage despite the paradigm shift that comes from being expected to win when there’s a huge amount to lose. It was in that twilight zone that John Cooper and Colin Chapman found themselves after the good years – as did Williams, and as have Ferrari, Mclaren and Red Bull in recent times.
You ask yourself when a team stops winning: ‘Why did it end? What metaphorical guardrail did they hit?’ And you point to an engine company pulling out, or the regulations changing or the top driver or engineer switching teams or retiring. But in giving yourself those answers you are, in reality, tapping into the human nature of things as we like to pigeon-hole them into boxes in F1.
To me, it’s astonishing that Ferrari, Renault and Honda haven’t by now drawn level with Mercedes (in terms of power-unit design and build). I can’t remember another period of F1 history when one engine was so contextually superior. Sure, the Coventry Climax fours and V8s had brilliant lives – but the BRM of those times was just about as quick, if not quicker
“Ayrton was born to drive on the limit, not at what he would have called ‘seven tenths’”
Stay focused – there’s always a barrier to hit