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GP Week : Issue 202
18 GPWEEK.com // 18 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: What with the anniversary of Ayrton senna's death 20 years ago, the recent passing of Jack Brabham and the fatal accident which befell the meticulous Ferrari mechanic Nigel stepney, May should have been a sombre month. While it was only right to mourn these greats and to offer our compassion to their families, many of the memories recounted by those close to them turned out to have a humorous side. McLaren Group CEO Ron Dennis insisted as long ago as 1990 that the arrival in the team of Gerhard Berger had the wonderfully beneficial effect of making Senna smile. The leg-pulling and practical joking certainly forced him to lighten up, although things sometimes got a bit out of hand. One example was the time when the McLaren crew had taken a break between the Japanese and Australian GPs in a resort on the Barrier Reef. Gerhard somehow got his hands on various local reptiles and inveigled them into Ayrton's room. The unwritten rule of these incidents, according to Ron, was that the victim should under no circumstances show any sign of consternation about being pranked, because that would signify that the trickster had succeeded. Senna seems to have captured the dozen or so invading cane toads from in and under his bed, and casually checked with Gerhard that he had got them all. "Yeah, you got 'em," said the Austrian joker, to the relief of his team mate. "But hey," he enquired as he strolled away, "did you find the snake?" Then there's the oft-repeated account of how Ron accepted a challenge over dinner one evening in Mexico to scarf down a whole jar of hot chilies. When Ron first told me this story more than a decade ago, he reported that the wager had been US$1000, to be paid in cash which Senna was unable to offer at that moment because he, like the Queen, didn't carry such a vulgar thing as folding money. Before lifting the fatal teaspoon, Ron insisted on witnesses being present to ensure that Senna could not subsequently avoid coughing up the cash. However, in his eagerness to reverse the normal direction of cashflow involving Senna, he had failed to anticipate the inevitable. While swallowing the hot stuff would be eased with the help of copious libations of cold water, the process of elimination next morning was destined to be hundreds of times more painful. When Ron re-told the story to a group of hacks in March this year, some of the details were strangely different. Most importantly, the amount wagered had increased ten-fold, to US$10,000. When I put it to him, McLaren's genial Director of Communications winked and suggested that Ron's memory had taken inflation into account. Possibly so, I confessed, although there are some of us at the bottom of the F1 money tree to whom US$1000 is still an enviable sum ... On BBC Radio 4 last week, Jack Brabham was the top story on an obituary programme. Somebody at the Beeb had had the enormous good sense to rope in the British motor racing historian Doug Nye, Jack's incomparable biographer and friend, to contribute some memories. Nye reeled off half a dozen magnificent yarns about Jack, including one about an evening in a restaurant in Australia at which Jack took on a one-kilo steak as a challenge. Despite being almost 80 at the time, he accepted and struggled to the end. Someone then asked him whether he'd enjoyed it. 'Yeah,' muttered Jack, 'what there was of it.' We shall not see his like again. RIGHT Gerhard Berger brought a sense of humour into Ayrton Senna's F1 life ... HUMOUR FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE OPINION OPINION MIKE DOODSON