‘It’s impossible I hit the wall. The wall moved’

This is a brilliant story from the classic days of F1. I love it because it shows both the incredible precision and relentless consistency that an expert at the top of their game can bring to their chosen profession.

In this case, the expert was three-times F1 World Champion Ayrton Senna.

Pat Symonds, technical director, sat down with Ayrton after the 1984 US GP and spoke about Senna’s weekend

“It was very hot and a terribly difficult race. Ayrton had a bit of a mixed bag: he’d qualified all right, thought the car was Ok. He spun early in the race and had to work his way back, but was heading towards a reasonable if not stunning finish. Then Senna crashed, damaged a wheel and broke a driveshaft. After the race he was distraught and really couldn’t understand how he’d hit the wall. We were sitting talking, debriefing, and he said: ‘It’s impossible I hit the wall. The wall moved’.”

Symonds continued, “I said, ‘Yeah, sure it did…’ They were huge great concrete blocks…But he was so insistent, and I had so much confidence in the guy, that I said, ‘Ok, we’ve just got to go and look at this’. I did think he was talking bollocks but he needed to go and see it. So we walked out to where he’d hit the wall and do you know what? The wall had moved. It was made of the great big concrete blocks that they used to delineate the circuit, but what be happened was that someone had hit the far end of a block and pushed it, which made the leading edge come out a few millimeters. He was driving with such precision that those few millimeters, and I’m talking probably ten millimeters, were enough for him to hit the wall that time rather than just miss it”.

“That really opened my eyes. I knew the guy was good but that really told me how special. Not just the driving but this conviction, the analysis and then the conclusion: I cannot be wrong, so the wall must have moved. Everyone else would say, ‘Bollocks, how on earth did I do that? ‘But the conviction he had was just staggering. And he was right”.

I was watching the race that weekend when Senna crashed and died at Imola in 1994. The whole weekend was a succession of disasters, from Barrichello’s crash during Friday practice, to Ronald Ratzenberger’s death on the Saturday, then Ayrton himself during the race, and Michele Alboreto’s Minardi losing a wheel in the pits and putting four mechanics in hospital as a result.  It really ways “the blackest day for Grand Prix racing that I can remember” as Murray Walker said.