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MotoGP, Racing Titans: Senna and Lawson's Unforgettable Encounter

Lawson sat with Senna and the two talked about racing as they knew it. Lawson: "He wanted to only talk about bikes, I only wanted to talk about cars."

MotoGP: Racing Titans: Senna and Lawson's Unforgettable Encounter

On May 1 it is almost obligatory to remember Ayrton Senna. Our friend and colleague Dean Adams of Superbikeplanet did so as well, and it is with his permission that we republish what he wrote. It is a very special remembrance of Ayrton because it involves one of the great American stars of the 1980s: Eddie Lawson. We do not have a picture of that meeting, but that Senna was a passionate biker there is no doubt. In our picture confirming this he is with Franco Uncini and Marco Lucchinelli, and it must be remembered that, back in the day, Piaggio sponsored the poleman in F1.

It's 30 years ago this week that the world lost F1 world champion Ayrton Senna in a crash at Imola. Many consider Senna to be the greatest racing driver that ever lived and even now, three decades after his death, no one who saw him at his best will ever forget it.

Most don't remember that Senna was a motorcyclist. He owned an 851 Ducati that he rode on the street and there are photos of him in his native Brazil riding random dirt bikes in lush settings during the off-season. He also kept a few bikes in Europe so there are home-cam films of him riding a Ducati Monster around Monaco. Before his death, Ducati did a deal with Senna to produce a line of special 916s named the 916 Senna. The Castiglioni brothers owned Ducati then and they helped Senna obtain the helicopter that he really wanted and the friendship started there. Ducati has sold Senna tribute bikes on an off for 30 years, as has MV Agusta.

In the late 1980s American Eddie Lawson attended a dinner in Italy where he and Senna were both guests of honor. At some point in the evening Senna sent word that he would like to talk with Lawson. Lawson sat with Senna and the two talked about racing as they knew it.

Lawson, of course, raced Grand Prix in the era when four-cylinder 500cc two strokes were at their best and their worst, simultaneously. 180 ruthless and brutal horsepower in a 300 pound package with exactly zero engine management other than the rider's wrist; with a skilled and prepared rider on board a 500cc two-stroke could be a race-winning weapon. And if you didn't have the skill, or were not prepared, you could join the ranks of riders who were heartlessly maimed by a 500. If you were one of the unlucky, then you left the racetrack with fewer fingers than when you arrived, or with a compound broken leg or a post-crash wrist that felt as multi-part as a bag of microwave popcorn.

In Grand Prix motorcycle racing there is no roll bar, no tub. If you're a rider there is you and there is the ground.

They informally talked shop. Lawson had some interest in car racing, he would go on to race the Indy Car series after he retired from motorbike racing. Senna watched 500 Grand Prix, rode a Ducati and really liked motorcycles. What is the Spoon curve like on a bike? What brake marker do you use at the end of the straight at Hockenhiem in an F1 car?

Lawson chuckles: "He wanted to only talk about bikes, I only wanted to talk about cars."

Lawson was enjoying this period of his 500 career. He had openly stated that even in 1986 he was still learning how to ride a 500—this even after winning the world championship in 1984. But by the late 1980s, when he and Senna spoke, he was a skilled journeyman on a 500. He'd won the world championship three times and would go on to win a total of four world championships.

In fact, he explained to Senna, that in his most recent win he had won the Grand Prix easily, eerily. While on the bike his depth of concentration was such that he felt it was nearly an out of body experience. He won convincingly. He was in front of the 500, mentally, and hitting every mark, every line with such precision that it felt almost otherworldly. Simultaneously he was on the bike, over the bike and in front of the bike, all in his head. That had never happened before to Lawson, a rider who began racing at age eight.

Lawson asked Senna, you ever have a win like that?

Yes, every one, Senna said. He wasn't boasting.

"He could put himself there in every race," Lawson remembers. "I'll never forget that."

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