General Sport

Ayrton Senna (1960-1994): Formula One’s Immortal

Twenty years ago today, tragic events in San Marino signified a paradox in Formula One’s history. It was the truly dark day of the 1994 Imola Grand Prix where one of the sport’s all-time greats, three-time World Champion Ayrton Senna, was tragically killed in a high-speed crash at the Tamburello corner of the circuit.

Senna crash

Senna’s fateful crash in 1994

His death was the culmination of a horrific weekend as Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger also lost his life, during Saturday’s qualifying session, and Senna’s compatriot Rubens Barrichello luckily escaped serious injury after a spectacular crash during Friday’s practice session.

The sense of sorrow which followed these overwhelming incidents soon became a catalyst to vastly improve F1—hugely evident two decades later as the sport has progressed leaps and bounds from a safety perspective.

The Times’ Motor Racing Correspondent Kevin Eason reported on the tandem approach from Max Mosley, who was only five months into his FIA presidency when the accidents occurred, and F1’s highly praised neurosurgeon—the late Professor Sid Watkins—as they worked with the drivers to secure a safer future for the sport. As Mosley recalls:

“People were calling for Formula One to be closed down. It was the grimmest time and the tension in the sport was terrible. No one knew where to turn because there were so many accidents happening.”

Grand Prix circuits were all under scrutiny as each track required to obtain FIA approval. Through computer analysis, 15 “very high-risk” corners were identified and eradicated soon after, including Senna’s Tamburello corner. In addition, far more secure tyre walls were introduced, plus deeper track run-off areas. From a medical point of view, the present day facilities available at each circuit are world-class.

Cars were also subjected to stringent improvements as they were strengthened thanks to new carbon fibre shells. Inside the cockpit, drivers today sit on detachable seats, so that they can be removed from potential wreckage minimising further trauma to their spine. And HANS (the head and neck support) is now a compulsory attachment.

Senna's memorial statue at Imola

Senna’s memorial statue at Imola

Retrospectively, before the fateful Imola Grand Prix, it is widely acknowledged that both Barrichello and Ratzenberger’s accidents had a profound effect on Senna, with his nephew Bruno stating that “Ayrton was deeply concerned. He understood that the circuit was not safe in those circumstances.”

However, Oliver Brown of the Daily Telegraph, states that Senna’s Williams team-mate Damon Hill examined the timesheets following the morning warm-up, “he was just blindingly fast,” said Hill—a significant nine-tenths of a second quicker than the rest of the field.

But when the drivers attended their usual pre-race safety briefing and held a minute’s silence for Ratzenberger, Senna lost his composure and was sitting at the back of the room weeping.

Martin Brundle who raced against Senna in Formula Three, as well as F1 said: “As a driver you realise that people get smashed up, people get killed. Your heart is wired to drive racing cars. The bottom line is that you get back in and go again.”

Ayrton Senna 2

Senna became the youngest ever three-time World Champion in 1991, after his third triumph with McLaren

The race went ahead but the Williams garage acknowledged Senna’s pensive attitude, with his former PR chief Betise Assumpção revealing, “you could just tell he didn’t want to race.”

Once the Grand Prix commenced the safety car was instantly introduced following a crash on the grid. Senna had been on pole but was 20 points adrift of Michael Schumacher in the Drivers’ Championship. A win was required. And with the German stalking him in second place Senna, as per Hill’s words, the Brazilian decided to “put the hammer down” once the race resumed.

His first lap after the restart was so fast (1 min 24.887 secs) that only two drivers were able to surpass this during the entire race—despite the Brazilian carrying a heavier fuel load with colder tyres at the time.

Then in lap seven, Senna entered Tamburello at 190mph following one of Imola’s notorious high-speed straights. Described by Brundle as having “a God-given gift to drive a racing car just over the limit”, the car failed to follow the track and continued its rapid trajectory straight into the wall.

Despite the car decelerating to 130mph, the front of the car bore the brunt of the collision and Senna “was brain-dead from the second of impact, when jagged pieces of the right-front wheel assembly penetrated his helmet and produced multiple fractures at the base of his skull”.

Despite the severity of the crash the race continued, wrongly in Schumacher’s opinion.

“I was angry that we carried on racing. I’m still angry today, if I’m honest. What makes me angry is that we raced past a pool of his blood for 55 laps. I thought that was disrespectful, and not the right thing to do.”

Italy’s Supreme Court of Cassation in Rome ruled in 2007 that Senna’s accident occurred due to the “badly designed and badly executed” steering column, which fell under the responsibility of Williams’ former chief designer Patrick Head. Given Italy’s seven and a half-year statute of limitation for manslaughter had expired, this meant Head eluded punishment.

The court’s findings though have been disputed by those suggesting that Senna could have suffered a puncture just before the corner. In addition, the track itself assumed its share of the responsibility due to its lack of run-off areas, meaning the cars would almost always crash at excessively high speeds.

Hill, who became World Champion in 1996, paid tribute to his former team-mate:

“He was on a mission, wholeheartedly committed to giving himself completely to his profession. The fact that he never offered anything other than his absolute best incurred greater risk, and he knew that. So I believe he was one of the most courageous racing drivers there has ever been – the most gifted, the most fascinating. I don’t think you will ever see anyone else like him.”

Despite winning fewer titles than Sebastian Vettel, Alain Prost, Juan Manuel Fangio and Schumacher, Senna is widely considered the greatest F1 driver, thanks to his sheer wizardry in wet conditions, in addition to his domination of the prestigious Monaco circuit where he won six times in seven years (holding the record for most wins at Monaco).

Ayrton Senna

Nephew Bruno summed up his uncle perfectly:

“People were aware he was fighting for something more important than just winning races. It was a belief. He was convinced that he had been given a singular opportunity by God, and he had the personality to make the most of it. These are the qualities that make special people in history.”


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