The late Ayrton Senna was an almost mystical figure in the Formula 1 world, crediting much of his transcendent focus and nearly unconscious driving ability to his Catholic faith. But when discussing his spirituality in 1989, he said, "Just because I believe in God, just because I have faith in God, it doesn't mean that I'm immune. It doesn't mean that I'm immortal."
Millions of fans would disagree to this day.
Eighteen years ago today, one of the worst weekends in Formula 1 history ended when Senna passed away in an accident during the San Marino Grand Prix. His incident came two days after a then-young Rubens Barrichello suffered serious injuries in practice, and one day after Austrian Roland Ratzenberger perished in a crash during qualifying. In an eerily foreboding move, on the morning of his death, Senna set into motion the re-establishment of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association to push for greater driver safety in the wake of these accidents.
While many of his records have been surpassed, Senna's name remains a staple of the Formula 1 record book. At the time of his death, his 41 wins ranked him second all time, and his 65 poles were one short of doubling second place in the category before Michael Schumacher surpassed him in 2006. He won four consecutive races on two separate occasions, three championships (in 1988, 1990, and 1991), and six Monaco Grands Prix.
Senna was a throwback, one of the last remaining drivers who asserted himself as a leader in the sport with businesslike efficiency and surgical precision. Beating his opponents was nothing personal; it was just his job.
And like any effective mercenary, jarring emotions would not compromise his set of skills, especially not a hostile work environment.
While Alain Prost purposely signed contracts to block Senna from joining the same team and Nigel Mansell took a two-year detour into CART while still holding his Drivers' Championship, Senna was out there to race and nothing more.
The closest that Senna came to that level of F1 prima donna was in 1993, when an engine snafu landed his McLaren team with an underpowered Ford engine. Senna began the year running on a race-by-race basis, then eventually agreed to stick with the team for the full year.
He still finished second in the championship.
But what truly set Senna apart was his humility and integrity, especially in comparison to other drivers. His rivalry with Prost will always be one of the most legendary in the sport, not only because of their on-track accomplishments but also due to their disparate personalities. Started by a 1988 incident in Portugal in which Senna nearly forced Prost, then his teammate at McLaren, into the pit wall at full speed, the next few years were marred by various misjudgments by Prost and FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre, who, prompted by a Prost protest, temporarily suspended Senna's license in 1989.
At Suzuka, in 1990, the penultimate round of the championship, Senna led Prost, now with Ferrari, by nine points for the championship. While Senna beat Prost for the pole, Balestre himself elected to place Prost on the left-hand side of the track, the traditional pole side, which would have given him an advantageous line into the first corner. Senna protested by refusing to yield the racing line, plowing into the back of the Ferrari, eliminating both cars, and thus guaranteeing that he would win the championship.
Senna explained a year later that he would not stand for Balestre's unfair decision-making, dating back to the license suspension.
If you tried to compromise the integrity of a race, Ayrton Senna would make your world a living hell.
That integrity didn't always frustrate his opponents or teammates, however. During that 1993 season at McLaren, Senna's teammate was Michael Andretti, still in the prime of his career after winning the 1991 CART title. But McLaren had also signed Mika Hakkinen as a reserve in case Senna were to leave, and the future world champion was ready to race.
In fact, son Marco Andretti has alleged that McLaren intentionally sabotaged Andretti's car to drive him away—until Senna spoke up.
"I think my dad's biggest supporter over there was Ayrton Senna," the younger Andretti told the Associated Press in 2008. "Because he was one of the few who knew what was really happening in the team, and I think he believed in my father. It was at Monza that he really said, 'Give him my car. Give him exactly what I had.'" Andretti finished third in that race, scoring his only Formula 1 podium.
An intensely focused competitor, Senna also had a lighter side, as he frequently played practical jokes on McLaren teammate Gerhard Berger. When Erik Comas crashed heavily in qualifying for the 1992 Belgian Grand Prix, Senna ran across the active track to become the first respondent on the scene, and later visited Comas in hospital.
He also felt a great responsibility to help eradicate poverty in his native Brazil, having donated a large portion of his wealth to aid poor children shortly before his death.
Ayrton Senna has been gone for 18 years now, but his legacy will always carry on. His nephew, Bruno, carries on the family legacy, driving for the same Williams team with which his uncle ran his last race; meanwhile, a 2010 documentary bearing his name won awards at film festivals worldwide before finally receiving its United States release this March.
But for those longtime fans of the sport who were lucky enough to see Ayrton Senna race, no driver and no documentary will ever come close to replacing him. Not Schumacher, not Vettel, not even his own bloodline.
He may have denied his own immortality, but the rest of us never will.
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