Ayrton Senna's Death 20 Years On: Top 10 Quotes from Brazilian F1 Icon
Ayrton Senna wasn't just a racing driver.
He wasn't just a three-time Formula One world champion, and his legacy is not only defined by the widely held belief that he was the fastest driver the sport has ever known.
His 41 career victories, 80 podiums and 65 pole positions are mere cherries sitting proudly atop the cake.
What made Senna one of the most compelling characters in sporting history, in fact, was not his achievements over the course of the 10-year burst that was his F1 career, but his tongue.
It could occasionally be as sharp and brutal as his driving style, but often carried the gentleness and thoughtfulness that epitomised Senna's off-track demeanour.
His willingness to discuss subjects including sport, religion, life, death and opportunities for children, which led to the opening of the Instituto Ayrton Senna in November 1994, meant the prospect of listening to the Brazilian was almost as satisfying an experience as watching Senna thrash a McLaren-Honda around the streets of Monaco.
Senna wasn't just a racing driver. He was a philosopher, a maverick, a source of wisdom.
And as the 20th anniversary of his tragic death at Imola approaches, we celebrate the sense Senna made in front of a microphone in listing his 10 finest quotes.
10. Senna's 1991 Brazilian GP Interview
It is not so much what Senna says here, but how he says it.
The 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix was, of course, his first victory in his home event, made all the more special by the gearbox problems that he dealt with during the race. The exhaustion and muscle cramps he suffered as a consequence of fighting to keep his McLaren under control are visible in his tone of voice at the beginning of the interview.
Yet he becomes increasingly animated, barely pausing for breath, as the discussion progresses, discussing the events of his race with startling clarity—a reflection of his strong memory and eye for detail.
Senna's signing-off message, in particular—in which he described the "human heat" and how it was so overwhelming that "we had to win"—offered glimpses into his strong sense of patriotism and how he thrived as a local hero.
9. Senna's Love of Life Wards off Fear of Death
Senna's religious beliefs were so strong that his competitors, Alain Prost in particular, believed that his aggressive driving style allowed the Brazilian to take extra risks in battle.
The school of thought suggested that because Senna thought he would be protected by God in any situation, he could use intimidation tactics to unnerve his opponents and effectively use his car as a weapon.
Senna, though, rejected the claim, and is quoted in the Senna edition of Autosport's Legends "bookazine" series as stating:
There is a great difference between faith and the fear of death or getting hurt. Life is something God gives us and in many cases it depends on us to use our common sense to demonstrate to Him that we understand that health and life are a very important gift that He gives us. It is our responsibility to preserve such an important gift.
8. Senna Explains Unique Emotions of F1 Drivers
Life would be very boring without feelings, without emotions. And there are some feelings that only we [Formula One drivers] can experience. It's a fortunate and unique position to be in, but it's stressful at the same time.
Either winning, or breaking a record, losing, going through a corner at a speed that a few seconds before you didn't think you could, failing, feeling luck, feeling anger, enthusiasm, stress or pain—only we can experience the feeling and level of it.
Nobody else can, considering that in our profession we deal with ego a lot, with danger, with our health, continuously, second after second, not just day after day or month after month or year after year. Our life goes by in seconds or milliseconds.
Just as Senna was more than a racing driver, driving a racing car was so much more than driving a racing car to Senna.
To him—as made clear by this extract from The Life of Senna by Tom Rubython—the car was an extension of his body, a multisensory experience.
7. Senna Calls Prost a 'Coward'
Post-race press conferences are rarely situations from which you gain a great deal of information and opinion. Drivers are still in the come-down stage following the adrenaline rush of competition, making it difficult for them to communicate their thoughts in a truly meaningful manner.
No such problems for Senna here, though, after the three-time champion finished third in the 1992 Portuguese Grand Prix.
Senna's attack on Alain Prost's political negotiation techniques, which involved preventing the Brazilian from joining Williams at a time when Senna was plotting an escape route from McLaren, displays his purist philosophy as well as his staggering spare capacity.
6. Senna Apologises to Prost Through Gritted Teeth
At the 1989 San Marino Grand Prix, Senna broke a pre-race agreement with McLaren teammate Alain Prost by overtaking the Frenchman at the Tosa corner.
Senna suggested that the drivers should not race each other until the hairpin for the good of their team, with Prost obeying the instruction. A race stoppage due to a horrific accident involving Gerhard Berger, however, saw the plan evaporate.
At the restart, Prost got a better start and took the lead but Senna appeared to break the agreement by passing his teammate at Tosa, leaving the former, who finished 40 seconds behind the Brazilian, in a state of fury.
This, the first major cause of friction between the two world champions, continued into the following week when McLaren were testing at Pembrey, Wales, where Senna was forced to apologise.
The reigning world champion, however, wasn't too pleased with the situation and launched into a shocking attack on Prost.
Senna was quoted by Tom Rubython, author of The Life of Senna:
I had a lot of pressure from Ron [Dennis, McLaren's team principal] in order to accommodate the situation, to give, let's say, some room for somebody to take the blame. And that's what I did. I realised how bad he [Prost] felt in his mind at Pembrey.
Personally, I felt bad, because I don't like to see anybody f****d in the head. And I realised he was completely f****d in the head.
I was not responsible for it. I did not feel I was responsible in a bad way. But it happened to be that I was involved... Ron was trying to put things in a way in order to accommodate [Prost], because he was so f****d in the head, he was not in a position to accept anything.
But to accept that I made my mistake, I had to change completely my knowledge of how an overtaking manoeuvere is done. You know, my concept of an overtaking manoeuvere is when you start to come along, and then you finally overtake... But I changed my concept completely. I was moved by the bad feeling I had in my heart to see somebody f****d in the head like he was.
And due to some pressure from Ron, trying to make me see the magnitude of the problem: maybe he would stop, and how bad this would be, not only for him but also for the team, and for the rest of the season.
5. Senna's Relentless Desire to Improve
The main thing is to be yourself and not allow people to disturb you and change you. You have to be yourself, even though many times you make a mistake due to your own personality. You learn, and you must learn through your mistakes and get better.
I believe if you have the ability to focus strongly on something then you have the ability to gain from it. It's been like that all my life—it's always been a question of improving. There is no end, as you go through you just keep finding more and more, it's fascinating. We are made of emotions and we are all looking for emotions—it's just a question of finding a way to experience them.
Taken from The Life of Senna by Tom Rubython, Senna's philosopherlike persona is evident here as he stresses his enthusiasm for learning, improving and ekeing more and more from himself and his surroundings, using those as motivation for his driving.
Senna's eagerness to learn from his mistakes can be found in his career, with the Brazilian recovering from crashing out of the lead at Monaco in 1988, above, by winning six of the following eight races on his way to his first world title.
4. Senna on the Limit
"The limit" is a cliche among racing drivers, with very few having a real understanding of what the limit actually means.
It is generally thought that when a driver drives below the limit, he is slow or conservative, and when he operates over or beyond the limit, the risk of losing control and crashing is greater.
But that notion is incorrect.
In Senna's view, "the limit"—which he discusses at the 40-second mark in the above video—is a driver's equivalent of a car progressing through the gears: reaching one level of performance, then another, then another.
It aligns with Senna's personal philosophy and his need to push himself further and further.
3. Senna's Tragic Prophecy
If I ever happen to have an accident that eventually costs me my life, I hope it is in one go. I would not like to be in a wheelchair. I would not like to be in a hospital suffering from whatever injury it was. If I am going to live, I want to live fully. Very intensely, because I am an intense person. It would ruin my life if I had to love partially.
Again taken from Tom Rubython's The Life of Senna, this quote carries so much more weight than anyone could ever have expected.
Senna spoke those words as a new signing for Williams during testing at the Estoril circuit, Portugal, in January 1994. About four months later, he was dead.
There is, however, a strange feeling of quiet content that Senna lost his life in the way he would have wanted behind the wheel of an F1 car, ensuring that he will always be remembered as fast, young and intense.
2. Senna's Message to the World
This video, due to his frequent eye contact with the camera lens, is arguably the most intense you will find of Senna speaking.
It carries a certain intimacy with Senna relaxed, his guard dropped slightly, yet still so thorough in thought.
His humane qualities are striking, while his listing of the qualities that saw him progress from Sao Paulo, Brazil, to the very top of the world provide a revealing insight into what made Senna so successful.
1. Senna Lectures Fellow Champion Stewart
Sir Jackie Stewart's interview with Senna after the Brazilian intentionally hit Alain Prost at the first corner of the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix was highly significant.
Not only were both interviewer and interviewee triple world champions, Stewart and Senna were strong advocates of safety in Formula One. The latter's punchy, opportunistic overtaking style effectively rewrote the code of conduct in F1, which saw frequent driver deaths in Stewart's era.
Senna's unwillingness to take the blame for the crash with Prost, an incident which he was ashamed of, highlights the sheer size of the Brazilian's ego, while his staunch, animated defence of his crashing record made the issue a matter of principle.
The interview also witnessed the birth of the phrase, "If you no longer for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver," which has over time become a mantra for current drivers.
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