The spectre of death didn't hang unspoken over the pits of Imola, the grey clouds didn't spread themselves ominously over the circuit like a quilt, there was no gnashing of teeth or wailing for what could have been, and people didn't spend the weekend quietly ruminating on the grim happenings of ten years ago. Racers don't look backward; Formula One doesn't look backward. And the considerations of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were mostly taken care of in Bahrain, to allow for deadlines to be met.
Anniversaries of death become more abstract the further away they get, and eventually it is only the ones that end in zero that get acknowledged. Perhaps it's easier on the living that it should be thus, that these reminders of our own mortality get tucked away for so long and only pulled out once a decade to allow us a brief period of reflection, to take the band aid off for a minute to poke at the scar below before covering it up again.
Ten years. Ten years is long enough to allow us to be living a completely different life, and maybe when these anniversaries come around we are really looking at who we once were.
A decade ago I was living a different life on the other side of the world, a life that was already subtly changing from the one I was used to. I was changing from my youth into an adult, even though I didn't know it at the time; I had a steady girlfriend, had moved out of home, and was even starting to take the concept of work seriously. I was becoming, slowly, my father, although I didn't realise that was a good thing at the time.
Things have changed a lot since then.
This was the first race that Bira was back in the paddock since Italy last year. I was glad for the help; two heads means more ability to cover everything that happens, and as a lot of teams hold press conferences at the same time it meant that we were able to divide and conquer. And it gave me someone extra to talk to in between.
We caught the shuttle into the paddock from the main gate, past what seemed like thousands of brightly coloured team trucks; the circus was back within driving range at last. It was strange to be back in a paddock that housed the teams' motorhomes; in Australia the teams worked out of the pits themselves, in Malaysia they had small temporary structures behind the pits and in Bahrain there were grand permanent structures to house everyone, but Europe means the teams are back to working in their own environments again.
The paddock in Imola is strangely laid out; there is a huge area opening out from the electronic gate and behind the main stand, about the size of one and a half football fields, that is left empty because there is nothing to put in it, and then immediately behind the pits the area is shrunk and the teams jam their mobile homes and trucks into this tiny section. It's as though the designer actively tried to make things as awkward as possible, although in reality it's just that the area wasn't built with modern Formula One in mind.
The press room is merely a reflection of that; one tiny room with journalists using both sides of the flimsy tables to work, everyone knocking knees and elbows as they do. Imola may have history on its side, but it doesn't have anyone in the paddock cheering for it. The cramped media centre meant journalists spent more time downstairs than usual, which just made the paddock seem tighter still. At least the weather was in our favour.
On a gloriously sunny Thursday after our work was done Bira and I walked through the park along the inside of the track in Imola to see the Senna memorial, the beauty of the grounds undiminished by the temporary fences that are a fixture of any contemporary mass sporting event. I don't think that we were looking for anything of note to happen, but it was a beautiful day for a walk.
Parents were pushing their children in strollers, grandparents were taking in the air, a young kid wearing a Nirvana t-shirt ran past kicking a ball with his friends. The brown, ungainly statue marks a spot across the track from where the accident occurred, and was surrounded by a collection of drying, patchy flowers. We would have stopped for longer except that a Japanese woman, talking either to herself or Ayrton and sobbing quietly, looked to need the space to herself more than we did. We left without a word spoken.
I've never been a person to have heroes; I know that a lot of people have those that they look up to and admire, those who by their actions stand out from the rest and provide examples of what we could all be, but for me I've never felt the need for this process.
Except for two people: Kurt Cobain and Ayrton Senna.
These two men were remarkably different in almost every respect, other than their flaws. Everybody has flaws, and this is what joins them to everybody else in the human race. And perhaps because of their flaws I saw more to admire in their achievements, something that allowed me to feel that if they could get past their own demons and achieve what they had, then perhaps there was hope that one day I could live out my own dreams.
Ayrton was everything that I felt I wasn't; he was driven to perfection, to achieve and achieve, and through sheer determination and self belief he found a way to get to the top of his chosen field and mold it to his will, to claim the ultimate accolades and to search for more. I could never understand the motivations that drove him, but his resolve was something I could admire and aspire to.
When I was young I used to be a fan of Nelson Piquet; I'm not entirely sure why now, but I suspect it had something to do with him winning, and doing so with flair. This lasted until the young Ayrton Senna came onto the scene, and something about his abilities and personality instantly clicked with me; I switched allegiances.
This was around the same time as I started watching races with my friend Eyman, who was a fan of Gerhard Berger. Being fans of different drivers made watching the races much more fun for us both, although probably more so for me as my driver won more often. It certainly led to some amusing arguments, usually settled when I asked ‘so who won again?'
This process just ran and ran. Every other Sunday Eyman would come around to my house and we argued about how the race would run, what the qualifying grid meant and how each of our drivers was clearly going to do better because of the track. And then Senna generally took the lead and ran away from everyone else.
Eyman obviously learnt something from those days, because he later switched allegiances to Michael Schumacher, which has given him more to cheer about since then.
Kurt was a different kettle of fish altogether. The first time I heard of him I was listening to the alternative radio station Triple J and this strangely muted song came on, with a lyric claiming ‘I'm so happy cause today I found my friends / they're in my head' before a sonic blast of a chorus made up of the word ‘yeah' screamed over and over, loud enough to peel wallpaper.
Before the song finished, I was hooked.
The announcer noted that the band was Nirvana, that the song was from their forthcoming album, and that they were going to tour Australia soon. I rang up a friend I had seen a few bands with and told him we had to buy tickets, and when he replied that he had never heard of the band I reminded him that I had tried to convince him to see another band the year before that he had never heard of – R.E.M.
When we walked out of the venue, our ears ringing, wringing with sweat and grinning like fools, he said ‘thank you' and hugged me, an action that never happened before or since, and meant more for that fact.
Kurt was the anti-Ayrton. Whereas Ayrton wanted the validity of continual success, Kurt actively tried to crush his own career. Ayrton was supremely fit; Kurt was a junkie with chronic stomach pain all his adult life. Ayrton was charisma; Kurt was anti-charismatic. Ayrton's self belief was evident every time he spoke; Kurt spoke for a disenfranchised generation that didn't know how to verbalise its pain.
Kurt and Ayrton were the ying and yang of my young Gemini life.
BAR are holding a competition over a number of races called Pitstop 4 Real, where the journalists have to form into national teams and, under instruction from the mechanics, change the three tyres from a rolling stop on the current car. It may be just a promotional effort to get their brand out before the public, but it's also a brilliant idea and I couldn't wait to be a part of it.
It was pretty unlikely that I was going to form an Australian team; I'd have been slightly overworked, for a start; so I joined the Italians and was told that my heat would be in Imola. Unfortunately it was against the second string British team, the old guard that the young guys didn't want slowing them up, and they didn't have enough members so I was thrown in with all the old fellows who were mostly there for the drinks after.
BAR made us all put on team shirts and hats for the photo opportunities before sending a stern South African mechanic over to give us instructions. He started talking, and one of the Italian team was translating for the rest of his companions until he was told “and you'll shut up right now”, which focused everybody's attention.
The person who was to be on the wheel gun had to be strong, we were told; it vibrates a lot, and it would be very easy to break a wrist from the force of the machine. Everybody seemed to lean back and look around at that, and after he finished talking we all fought over who would be the guy who puts the new tyre on. Being skinny has its advantages; I got to put the wheel on, and Garry Emmerson got the gun.
Bizarrely they gave us one of the actual cars that were racing that weekend rather than a dummy car; were it up to me I wouldn't have let a bunch of smelly journalists within 100 metres of my cars, apart from myself of course. Each corner had three journalists covering it; gun, wheel off, wheel on, gun; plus a mechanic to make sure we didn't do too much damage, and then they gave us two still run throughs before two moving ones which were for the competition.
Each time the head mechanic held the lollipop down and said something like “Jenson is two seconds behind Michael – go” and then put us to work. It's amazing how much tension is built up in those few seconds; no one wants to be the one the others are waiting for, everyone wants to be first to get their hand on top of the tyre, and even though there was no race the pressure would ramp up just before we were released to work.
After the first static run through our mechanic came over from the front wheel, showed us the nut that had been stripped through incorrect use of gun, and said "well, there goes 700 quid" before tossing it in the bin. Which only ramped the pressure up a little more.
All in all it was quite educational; I learnt that there is no room at all between the brake casing and the wheel rim at the back of the wheel for fingers, that the tyres are heavier than you'd think after you've lifted them up and down a number of times, that as a mechanic I make a damn fine writer, and that a team of Italians with girls will beat a bunch of decrepit Englishmen and a ringer every time they come together in competition.
Still, I was given a nice pair of driving gloves afterwards by the event sponsor, so I'll take that as the team suggesting I should look into driving the cars.
We stayed in Bologna, partly because it's a simply amazing city to see but mostly because it's not far away on the autostrada and the hotels in Imola are block booked by the teams about a year in advance. This gave us the advantage of having access to a number of fine restaurants, and we had been looking forward to devouring a fiorentine steak for about a week.
Driving back into town as the sun set we were anxious to return to a restaurant we had visited last year, which had the best steak either of us had ever tasted. But as we were driving around the ring road surrounding the heart of Bologna a fierce wind tore up, creating a duststorm that was actually moving the car around. Thankfully it softened as we found a parking spot and walked to the restaurant, but unfortunately we were still a little early as it wasn't yet open.
I decided we should find a cafe and have a coffee. It wasn't one of my greatest ideas in retrospect, given that as we walked across the large piazza toward a cafe the heavens opened and we were deluged in a storm of almost biblical proportions. It felt like walking through an ocean on a diet. In the twenty metres or so that we had to walk, we were both soaked to the skin; the guy behind the counter was already pulling out reams of paper towels before we fell through the door.
And then, of course, the restaurant was booked solid when we finally got back there. I had the Nick Cave song 'God is in the House' stuck in my head all evening. I'm sure he laughed, especially when He guided us to the empty trattoria around the corner.
Time throbbed. There wasn't a lot to do after the race; we'd been very busy all weekend, seemingly more than I had been when I went to the races without Bira, and with the race itself going as usual it allowed us to make a reasonably early departure. I had even considered the possibility of getting home as the sun set, a feat I had never been close to achieving.
The tourism department for Emilia Romagna obviously had other ideas.
The local police blocked off the usual route back to the autostrada, directing the stream down a small side street. It made little sense, as the road they blocked off had two lanes, but we figured they knew what they were doing. The traffic built up and up; sitting in a traffic jam is never fun; but when we eventually saw the autostrada we thought we were on the way home at last. Until the road went over a bridge and into the countryside.
It's more than likely that Imola won't be hosting a Grand Prix again, which would vastly reduce the number of tourists the region gets. So clearly our hosts decided to give us a small tour before we left for good. The diversions ran for about sixty kilometers, traffic banked up almost all of the way, and we were eventually forced to stop in the middle of nowhere to get petrol just to keep going on this ridiculous journey. It was either a tourism promotion from hell, or complete spite for taking the race away from them.
From a track that is usually 10 minutes away from the freeway, it took us four hours and a lot of scenery to get onto the main road. The sun well and truly set while we were driving on one of the endless country roads.
All it did was give me time to think. Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts, and some of them die when they get there. Kurt Cobain's death wasn't a complete surprise when it happened. By 1994 the heroin that he started taking to alleviate his stomach pain had taken him over, the adulation of millions was a burden too large for his tender frame, and after a practice run at topping himself in Rome I woke up on April 8 to hear that he had killed himself with a shot gun.
A month later, twenty points down in the championship and in a car that was unable to find its head with the removal of the electronic driver aids he had fought to lose from the sport before arriving at his new team, Ayrton Senna fell out of the lead of the third race of the season with the championship leader Michael Schumacher immediately behind him, struck an unprotected wall head on, and died shortly after.
Both times I was at my girlfriend's house, both times I turned away from her comforting arms, both times I didn't know what to believe, or how. It was a month too far, a month that killed off the concept of heroes for me, a month that was going to remind me of myself for ever.
Both men had their faults; Kurt was a drug addict, was unable or unwilling to listen to those who loved him when they wanted to help him, took himself away from us in a monumental act of spite when he pulled that trigger. Ayrton was too competitive, took too many risks with those around him on track, collided his way into a championship rather than risk losing it in front of millions.
But Kurt gave a new language to his fans, a voice in the dark that spoke to their hearts, he drove the dinosaurs, racists and sexists in rock music back under the skirting boards of existence, he gave hope to every geek in their bedroom that was different to those around them that they could make their voice heard. Ayrton won three World Championships through pure self belief, carried a less than ideal car around and won when he shouldn't have, created a foundation that has made life more bearable for millions of poverty stricken children in his native Brazil.
Heroes may be flawed, but so are most gemstones. And sometimes they shine all the brighter despite that.