It seems extraordinary that almost 20 years have passed since that dreadfully fateful day at the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Italy when one of the greats of the sport, Ayrton Senna, lost his life on May 1st, 1994. The 34 year old was leading the San Marino Grand Prix when, on the seventh lap, he lost control of his Williams and crashed at the infamous Tamburello under full power.
Senna was already a legend when he lost his life. Few drivers reach that status while they are still racing. Senna’s talent and ability speak volumes for what he achieved in a Formula One career that spanned just 10 years. The few drivers that join him on a distinctive list include Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Michael Schumacher, Gilles Villeneuve and possibly Niki Lauda. Jochen Rindt died as his star was rising and became the first, and only, posthumous World Champion.
Ayrton Senna da Silva emerged as a special talent behind the wheel of karts in Brazil and soon left South America to develop his talent, like many of his erstwhile predecessors including Emerson Fittipaldi, Carlos Pace and Nelson Piquet, in Europe. Senna, his shortened name soon becoming commonplace, dominated Formula Ford and Formula Three in the UK and led to a number of Formula 1 tests; most notably with Williams, McLaren and Lotus. In the end it was Ted Toleman that signed the impressive Brazilian to drive in the Formula 1 team of his own name for the 1984 season.
It didn’t take Senna long to impress and in the pouring rain in Monaco he almost beat the French legend Alain Prost to victory. The race was brought to a premature finish due to the inclement conditions and many felt that Prost had “encouraged” the race organisers to red flag the race before suffering the ignominy of being beaten by the young pretender from Brazil.
The following year Senna signed to drive for Lotus in the iconic JPS black and gold livery cars. Within two races he had tasted his first Grand Prix success. The Portuguese Grand Prix was run at Estoril in torrential rain and Senna, who had posted pole position, won a flag-to-flag victory. It was to be the first of his 41 Formula 1 victories.
Ayrton’s final year at Lotus In 1987 brought his first win in Monaco - he was to win the race six times in his career – and his first association with Japanese engine supplier Honda. It was his growing relationship with the Japanese manufacturer that hastened his departure to McLaren where he joined ’84 Monte Carlo winner Alain Prost.
The relationship between the two was to sour over the next two years and resulted in some spectacularly public disagreements; not least the accident at the Japanese Grand Prix in 1989 when the two crashed. Senna re-joined the race and won in extraordinary fashion, but was acrimoniously disqualified.
The previous year Senna became World Champion for the first time. McLaren’s domination of the sport was so powerful that they won 15 of the 16 races. He would go on to win the World Championship on two further occasions in 1990 and 1991, on both occasions with McLaren. He finished second in 1992 and 93 behind Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost respectively; both driving for Williams and in 1994 Senna left McLaren to join the Williams Renault team.
New regulations at the start of the 1994 season robbed Williams of the dominance they had achieved in the previous few years and Senna struggled with his new mount. Failing to register finishes at both opening races of the new season in Brazil and Japan (the Pacific Grand Prix at the Tanaka International Circuit, Aida), he entered the third race of the year at Imola desperate to return to the winner’s podium and put points on the board.
Little did we know at the time but the San Marino Grand Prix of 1994 was to become one of the most tragic in the history of the sport.
It started on the Friday with a massive and frightening accident for Senna’s young Brazilian compatriot Rubens Barrichello. Barrichello’s car was launched over the curbs at Variante Bassa and flew above the guard-rail into the catch fencing. The Brazilian escaped with concussion and a broken nose but took no further part in the weekend. A day later the Austrian driver, Roland Ratzenberger, in his first F1 season lost the front wing on the Simtek he was driving and crashed. He lost his life instantly; the first driver to loose his life in a race since 1982.
The whole of the Formula One Paddock was severely affected by the tragedy of Ratzenberger’s death; none more so than Senna.
It was in a discussion with the sport’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Sid Watkins later that day that the Englishman tried to persuade an emotional Senna to give up the driving seat. The two were great friends and Watkins famously suggested to the Brazilian that they should both “go fishing” and get away from it all. He was unsuccessful. A day later prior to the driver’s briefing, Senna complained about the speed and performance of the safety car at the Imola track. He believed that if there were a safety car period the chosen vehicle would not allow the following F1 cars the speed to put enough warmth into their tyres to creative a safe and competitive environment at the restart.
Whether this had anything to do with the fatal accident at Tamburello is impossible to assess, nevertheless it was clear that Senna, who remember had scored no points and was well behind his fiercest competitor Michael Schumacher, was determined to get an advantage and win the race.
Starting from pole he was leading when the race was slowed by the safety car following a start line incident. After a number of laps the safety car peeled off and Senna was pushing hard to increase his lead over the following Schumacher. On the second lap of the restart Senna was attempting to build a lead over the German when he left the track and hit the restraining wall at Tamburello. He was attended at the scene by the very man who had tried to convince him to give it all up only the day before; Watkins ordered his immediate removal to the Maggiore Hospital in Bologna but it was futile and the Brazilian was declared dead two hours later.
The sport was stunned; indeed, the world was stunned. His death in the sport that he had dominated and loved was lead story and front-page news the world over. Half a million attended his funeral in his home town of Sao Paulo and to this day people speak in revered tones about the man acknowledged as one of the greatest drivers of all time.
To this day his name is held in the highest esteem, books have been written and a box office hit film has been made about his life. It, therefore, seems remarkable that this man who is still talked about in awe and is so much at the forefront of the minds of sports enthusiasts the world-over, was killed twenty years ago.
The investigation into the deaths of both Senna and Ratzenberger resulted in many changes in an attempt to improve circuit safety. Circuits acknowledged for being very quick were encouraged to add chicanes to slow cars down at critical points. The decision was one not readily accepted by purists of the sport. In a final sense of true irony many of these “slow” corners and chicanes were named, in the aftermath of his death, in honour of the World’s fastest driver. “Senna Chicane” or “Senna corner” became commonplace.
One wonders what the king of speed would have made of it all?