A work-in-progress, my first novel is a fast-paced thriller which takes the reader behind the scenes of the glamorous but ruthless world of Formula 1 – a world where some people will do almost anything in their craving for more success, more power and more wealth. This is the book’s prologue.
They brought him home because he’d changed his mind, and in one terrible moment that had changed everything.
They brought him home in a McDonnell-Douglas MD-11 airliner belonging to the state, leaving behind the British Aerospace HS125 executive jet that cost him $12 million.
They brought him home in darkness on flight RG723 from Paris, confining all other passengers to Economy Class so that in the Business section he could be alone.
They brought him home to a reception of more than a million adoring fans, a seething mass of humanity which spilled out of side streets and swarmed along the main highway all twenty miles from Guaralhos airport to southern São Paulo.
They brought him home for the last time.
When the MD-11 touched-down soon after dawn on Wednesday 4 May, a posse of police motorcyclists was beside the runway waiting for him. Television cameras were there too, staring with the same avid eyes they’d fixed on him the previous Sunday afternoon. The afternoon he’d gone ahead and done what he previously said he wouldn’t do. The afternoon he’d been killed.
His coffin emerged from a door just behind the pilots’ cabin, was placed on an open-sided lift, and lowered gently to the ground. There, the full weight of the mahogany box was taken on the shoulders of ten soldiers in dress uniform, who marched slowly to a nearby fire-engine – an odd choice of vehicle for a funeral procession, favoured for its high rear deck and uncovered metal surface above the giant back wheels, where the coffin would be visible to the crowds.
Seventeen police motorcycle outriders gathered in tight formation in front of the makeshift hearse and led it away. Polished paintwork and chrome gleamed in the early morning sun as the vehicles rolled out of the airport and turned onto the road to the city. On an endless black ribbon of asphalt made sticky by the heat, the procession advanced reluctantly under its heavy burden of grief. Tyres turned with a haunted whine. Motorcycle engines drummed a gloomy beat. The thicket of humanity which had sprung up from the dust on both sides of the highway murmured with small sounds of despair.
These sounds were soon blown away. A helicopter of the city police came first, engine howling and rotor blades whipping the air, and soon there were others in the blue sky. By the time the motorcade approached the outskirts of São Paulo, ten helicopters were overhead. These raucous machines carried passengers who sat in breezy open doorways, straps around their waists, legs dangling out, heads tilted down. They squinted at the coffin with cold indifference, the way you come to look at the world if you see it for long enough through a camera lens. Vultures of the broadcast media, circling.
When his casket at last arrived at the July 9 Palace, another hundred thousand Paulista were there waiting for him. They had cut-out his photo from newspapers, penned his name on their foreheads, torn-up their white bedlinen to make banners bearing messages of farewell. They stood in the fierce sun outside the Palace in a line that stretched for miles. They shuffled forwards in small and occasional steps, queuing to see his temporary resting place on top of a silver catafalque in the Monumental Hall. It would take them seven or eight hours to get there.
As mourners walked up to the coffin they might have expected the lid to be open, to have a last look at his famous face before the vision dissolved in tears. But the box was firmly closed and that’s how it would stay. The shining wooden lid was covered by an unfurled Brazilian flag. He had waved this green-and-yellow emblem in times of celebration, making it familiar to television viewers all over the world. He had flaunted his nation’s colours knowing they had also come to symbolise his own kingdom, which he ruled with artistry and courage. Now he lay hidden beneath the flag at the request of his grieving family, who preferred not to make an exhibition of his wound.
A hard steel rod, bigger than a bolt from a crossbow, had dealt the fatal blow. It was a weapon of chance, a wayward piece of debris fired on a random trajectory, but it hit his right temple with the accuracy of an assassin’s bullet and shot through his skull to his brain. The lethal object was a suspension arm – torn from the right-front wheel of his Formula One racing car, it pierced through the visor of his crash helmet as he crashed out of the lead of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
So the man they brought home was Ayrton Senna, the greatest racing driver of his time, perhaps of all time. A man given to quietly reading the bible on long-haul flights to Grands Prix . . . then running his rivals off the road when he got there. A man plucked from God’s earth in the second month of his thirty-fifth year – and in the third round of a sixteen-event championship which teased him with the prospect of a fourth world crown and more than two million dollars per race, win or lose.
The evening before his accident, Senna had picked up the phone and talked for the last time with his girlfriend Adriane Galisteu, the blonde twenty-one-year-old fashion model he’d met at a sponsor’s party. She was looking forward to his joining her the following night at his beach house in Quinta do Lago on Portugal’s Algarve. But even at that distance she could tell Senna was not himself. Though he was in a hotel room in Castel San Pietro, six miles north of Imola race track, his thoughts were wherever Roland Ratzenberger had gone.
Ratzenberger the Rookie, who’d broken into Formula One this season by agreeing to drive an underfunded and uncompetitive Simtek car decorated in the cheerful logos of MTV. Ratzenberger the Brave, pushing the Simtek to its limits and beyond that afternoon when he speared off the track and hit a crash barrier so hard he had to be lifted from his car and laid face-up on the dry grass beside it, a doctor kneeling over his chest with back turned to the TV cameras but arms and elbows clearly pumping up and down. Ratzenberger the Poor Bastard, the first statistic in Formula One competition for twelve years to shake the notion that modern Grand Prix cars crash hard and fast but their drivers always survive.
Senna was so upset by this tragedy that he spoke to Adriane in a voice full of tears. And through the lump in his throat he said something she’d never thought she would hear. This intense young man who had lived and breathed for fast driving since sitting in a motorised go-kart at the age of four, this most fanatically dedicated competitor in the history of Formula One, confessed he had no desire to start the next day’s race.
Adriane was left to mull over this unprecedented sentiment while Senna went for a meal. But when he phoned her again after supper, it was with the news that he’d changed his mind.
The repercussions would last long. Years after Senna’s Rothmans Williams-Renault FW16 inexplicably failed to follow Imola race track through the 190 m.p.h. left-hand curve named Tamburello, years after Senna’s blue-and-white car smashed headlong into a solid concrete wall at 131 m.p.h. and bounced back towards the track in an explosion of breaking parts, people who’d never met him would find his accident disrupting their lives. In the moment that Senna’s story ended, it occasioned another man’s adventure to begin.
This individual didn’t seem much of an adventurer at the time. He’d done nothing more intrepid all weekend than lie flat on his back, then his stomach, then his back again, exposing his flesh to ultra-violet rays. He was retreating from the Indonesian sun to the air-conditioned comfort of his holiday villa, settling down on a blue suede sofa, clutching a chilled glass of his favourite Les Clos Chablis Grand Cru in one hand and reaching towards a marble coffee table with the other, in half-a-mind to leaf through the newspapers and half-a-mind to watch TV, when he raised the remote-control and pointed it at the large screen. With a crackle of static and burst of electric light, he was presented with the image that would alter so many lives. In the centre of the screen was an unmoving Formula One car. Its bodywork was buckled and broken, its rear wing torn off, wheels missing, fluids spilling out onto the ground. In the open cockpit, the famous yellow-and-green driver’s helmet lolled to one side.
Our adventurer could hardly believe his eyes. He didn’t think racing drivers died like this anymore. Not in modern Grand Prix cars. Not on live TV. But he knew with chilling certainty what he was seeing. The picture mesmerised him until the TV producer moved to another scene. It was a messy, gruesome sight – and it set the cogs turning in the darkest corner of his mind.
The machinery of his imagination churned for days, producing and refining a ruthless idea until it was ready to be brought into the world. When he revealed his plan in words of a conspiratorial tone on the morning of Thursday 5 May – the morning they took the body of Ayrton Senna from the Monumental Hall to a hilltop in Morumbi, a wealthy suburb of São Paulo, and lowered it into the ground – his confidants hung on his every word and looked longingly towards the future with greedy eyes.