A Tribute To...Ayrton Senna

Barney Corkhill@@BarneyCorkhillSenior Writer IApril 22, 2009

1991:  Portrait of McLaren Honda driver Ayrton Senna of Brazil before the San Marino Grand Prix at the Imola circuit in San Marino. Senna finished in first place. \ Mandatory Credit: Chris  Cole/Allsport

Ladies and Gentlemen, after a short break, Barney Corkhill's "A Tribute To..." series has returned!

In this series, I look at the greatest talents to grace various sports.

Today's tribute is the first from Formula One, and looks at the man many consider to be the best driver in F1 history, Ayrton Senna.

Born March 21, 1960, Ayrton Senna da Silva had an affinity for motorsports early on. He stepped into his first go-kart at the tender age of just four years old, after his sister had rejected the kart as a present.

While he may have just been messing about at first, it became obvious that Senna had a talent for motorsports at a very early age.

As he got older, he started to take the karting more seriously, and at just 13 years old, he began partaking in competitions.

As these competitions got bigger, Senna got better. His early start and natural gift gave him an edge over other competitors, as he showed at just 17 years old, winning the South American Kart Championship.

He had his eyes on an even bigger prize, however. Between 1978 and 1982, Senna competed in the Karting World Championship. He proved his worth by finishing as runner-up in both 1979 and 1980.

Senna soon moved from his native Brazil to England, where he won numerous competitions, and not just in the world of Karting.

This prolific winning caught the attention of a number of Formula One teams, including McLaren, Williams, and Brabham. Despite testing for all of them, however, he was overlooked for various reasons.

McLaren and Williams, although interested, had no vacancy, while Brabham's Nelson Piquet made it clear that he would rather have his friend, Roberto Moreno, alongside him.

Senna, therefore, joined Toleman, a team who had been at the bottom of the F1 pile ever since their inception three years previously.

Senna improved their fortunes radically, however.

His debut came in his native Brazil, but he would have to wait for the next race to secure his first World Championship point.

A highlight of the debut season came at the Monaco Grand Prix. Senna seemed to thrive on the tough twists and turns of Monaco, even more amazing considering the atrocious weather.

It was so bad, in fact, that the race was stopped after just 31 laps. In those 31 laps, Senna had moved up from 13th to second, and was closing in on race leader Alain Prost at an alarming pace.

It wouldn't be the last time those two would lock horns.

Senna's debut season, which included another two podium finishes and a ninth place finish in the Drivers' Championship, was soured somewhat by his suspension by Toleman.

The reasons for his suspension, however, were encouraging for Senna. He had signed for Lotus, but had done so without informing Toleman first.

During his first season at Lotus, Senna became known for his phenomenally quick qualifying times. He began races in pole position seven times that season, more than any other driver.

The very first of these, at the Portuguese Grand Prix, was converted into a race win, the first of his F1 career. Despite relations with his Lotus teammate souring, Senna finished fourth in that year's Drivers' Championship.

Another fourth place finish in the Drivers' Championship came the following season as Senna furthered his reputation as the fastest qualifier, getting pole position eight times.

He led the Drivers' Championships early on in the season, finishing second in Brazil and winning the Spanish Grand Prix in the most dramatic of fashions—beating Nigel Mansell by just 0.014 seconds.

The following season was to be Senna's last at Lotus after he became dissatisfied with the gap in quality between their cars and those of Williams, and later McLaren.

Despite this, Senna proved his pure driving skill by winning the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix for the first time. He went on to win it six times, more than any other driver in history.

In 1988, Senna moved to McLaren, where he would team up with Alain Prost. The rivalry between the two started almost immediately. Whether it was a healthy rivalry or not remained undecided at first, but events at the Portuguese Grand Prix would suggest not.

Senna and Prost had jostled for pole throughout the first lap, each taking the lead from one another at one point. As Prost looked to regain the lead, Senna swerved to block him off, almost sending Prost into the pit wall at 180 mph.

Part of the reason for the rivalry was because McLaren, as a team, was so dominant that year. Fifteen of the 16 races were won by either Senna or Prost. It was Senna, however, who picked up the Drivers' Championship for the first time in his career.

This rivalry intensified even further the following year, as Senna, needing a victory in Japan to still be in with a chance for the Drivers' Championship, was seemingly run off the road by Prost.

Despite the crash, Senna managed to recover and win the race, only to be disqualified by the FIA. Prost went on to win the Drivers' Championship before moving to Ferrari, leaving Senna as the undisputed top driver at McLaren.

If anything, this added fuel to the fire burning between the two drivers.

Senna was dominant for most of the 1990 season, but Prost made a late surge to challenge him. In a mirror image of the previous year's situation, Prost went into the penultimate race needing a good result to keep him in the battle for the Drivers' Championships.

On the first corner, however, Senna's McLaren smashed into the back of Prost's Ferrari, sending both drivers out of the race, and ensuring that Senna won the championship.

The following year was less controversial. Prost was no longer a serious contender due to Ferrari's downturn in performance, but Nigel Mansell stepped up to challenge Senna, only to fall the way Prost had done a year previously, giving the Brazilian his third World Championship crown.

Senna fell behind in the next few seasons, largely due to the McLaren he was driving. The car wasn't as competitive, nor as impressive as it had been in recent years, and Senna became increasingly unsettled.

He expressed an interest in joining Williams, even offering to drive for them for free, but Alain Prost, then Williams' top driver, had a clause in his contract saying Senna couldn't be his teammate.

1993 was a strange year for Senna. He agreed to race for McLaren, but only on a race-by-race basis due to his misgivings about the car. It contained a win which many consider to be his greatest ever, as he lapped the rest of the field. It also contained his record sixth win at Monaco.

He signed for Williams in 1994, with Prost's "no Senna" clause not stretching that far. Prost retired rather than having to team with Senna again.

Despite driving the Williams car, Senna made his worst start to an F1 season ever, not recording a single point.

Before the third race of the season, Senna had spoken to fellow drivers in regards to re-creating a Drivers' Safety Group. This followed the death of Roland Ratzenberger in qualifying just a day before the race.

Senna started the race in pole position for a record 65th time, but it would be the last time.

During the race, Senna's car left the track, crashing into a concrete retaining wall. Senna was airlifted to the hospital, but was later pronounced dead.

An Austrian flag was later found in his car, which he planned to wave for Ratzenberger should he win the race.

His death was the last time a Formula One driver has been killed while on the track, and was considered a tragedy all over the world, especially Brazil. Formula One had lost one of its most colourful, entertaining, and skilled drivers.

Brazil had lost a national hero.

At 34, Senna had a good few years left in him, and who knows how many more Drivers' Championships he could have won?

His death was a tragic loss of perhaps the greatest driver in Formula One history, and one the sport will never forget.

Perhaps more importantly, however, his life was one F1 will never forget either.


Click here to see more tributes made by this author.


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