“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’m 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 live partially.”
Four months after Ayrton Senna made this bold statement, he would cease to exist physically in our world. Fourteen years ago on May 1, 1994 at the San Marino Grand Prix at Italy’s Imola circuit, three time Formula One world champion Ayrton Senna slammed into a concrete barrier. It just looked like a nasty shunt, and that was all. The world watched live as medical personnel tended to Senna right on the spot. Millions of people watched in horror and agony as they pulled the Brazilian’s body out of the blood stained cockpit. The race continued after Senna was air lifted to Maggiore Hospital. A young man driving for Benetton by the name of Michael Schumacher would later go on to win the race to cap an already harsh and difficult weekend. When Schumacher climbed up onto the podium, he had just received word that one of his most respected rivals was now dead.
It wasn’t supposed to happen. Legends aren’t supposed to die, especially in easy bends such as Tamburello corner. For some reason the greatest drivers frequently hurt themselves. Senna drove like a man possessed. Winning was his only concern and there are examples of his determination throughout his career that shows it. Ayrton Senna was larger than life in Formula One. His brute, ruthless, and fearless driving style allowed him to win three championships and score an impressive 41 victories in his ten year career. He drove on the absolute edge of control where everything gets blurred in a chaotic vertigo, but yet the Brazilian had a mind like a steel trap. Nothing could get under his skin. He took everything as a challenge and set out to conquer them. Senna believed when he pushed himself to the very edge, it made him a better driver.
Senna grew up in Sao Paulo, Brazil in a wealthy family. Early in his life he developed an interest in racing. Like all great drivers, Senna started out in racing karts around the year 1973. By 1981 he was in Europe was open wheels in Formula Ford. In 1983 Senna won the British F3 Championship. By this time Senna was testing for four different teams and in 1984 he was signed to Toleman.
The Brazilian arrived with a bang, scoring his first point in only his second race. During his first Monaco Grand Prix, where Senna would dominate and win six times later in his career, he qualified 13th and then cut his way through the pack in the rainy weather. Senna would bypass legend Niki Lauda for second and pressured Alain Prost for first, a precursor of many battles to come between the two.
Senna joined Lotus in 1985 where he scored two wins, which were on wet tracks, and seven first place qualifying positions. He finished fourth overall in points. In 1987 Honda became Team Lotus’ engine supplier and Senna would soon develop a relationship with Honda. It led him to sign with McLaren in 1988 alongside Alain Prost.
McLaren would prove to be dominant in the MP4/4 winning 15 out of 16 races with Senna winning eight of them. The year 1988 would also be the year of Senna’s first championship. It also proved as the starting point of the famous Prost-Senna rivalry which at times would get extremely volatile. One such event occurred in Portugal when Senna almost ran Prost into the pitwall barrier at the start. The next year in 1989 the rivalry at McLaren came to another head when both drivers were in contention for the title. At Suzuka Prost collided with Senna entering a chicane. Senna would go on to win the race but the FIA disqualified him for cutting the chicane. The Brazilian denounced them for their decision.
In 1990 history repeated itself at Suzuka again. Again both drivers were in the running for the championship. Senna collided into one of the rear wheels on Prost’s Ferrari. The collision would allow Senna to collect his second championship. His rationale for his actions was that the FIA promised to change the pole position on the grid to the clean side of the track instead of on the dirty side. When the FIA did not comply Senna took matters into his own hands to secure his championship.
1991 delivered Senna’s third championship which was largely uncontested; however, in 1992 and 1993 Senna experienced trouble as McLaren was no longer dominant. Senna got better prospects in 1994 when he joined Williams. Senna was going to be beside Prost again but the Frenchman retired instead of having to be Senna’s teammate. Williams dominated in 1992 and 1993, so Senna was immediately favored to win the championship. His season got off to a rocky start. In his home race at Brazil, Senna spun off the track while furiously trying to catch up to Michael Schumacher. He also crashed in Japan.
The next race was at Imola and Senna told everyone that is where his season would begin. The Brazilian put his car on pole, but he became rather uneasy during the weekend. In practice Senna’s protégé, Rubens Barrichello, launched his car into a tire wall. Also an Austrian named Roland Ratzenberger tragically crashed and died during qualifying. The events greatly unsettled Senna to the point where he considered retiring. After the accident Senna decided to bring upon himself the task of restarting the Grand Prix Driver’s Association, which looks after the safety of the drivers.
Eyewitnesses claim that Senna was a changed man that weekend after the accidents. He wasn’t the same man. There was a sense of restlessness with him. He looked has that he wanted to race, but only to get the race over and done with. In interviews his mind was wandering off to other places. At the starting of the race people noticed that Senna put on his helmet and balaclava on differently than usual. While on the grid Senna took his helmet off, something that the Brazilian never did.
There was an accident at the start of the race that brought out the safety car. The safety car pulled off the track and racing resumed. Going into the Tamburello corner at 190 mph, something happened to Senna’s car which has never been clarified. The car appeared to scrape the asphalt and it shot off the track. Senna’s reaction time was so quick he was able to slow the car down from 190 to 130 mph in less than two seconds. The car lunged straight into the unprotected concrete barrier. The right front tire separated from the chassis and flew back right into Senna’s head. The force of the tire forced him back and slammed his head into the back of the seat producing an instantaneous skull fracture. Part of the steel upright of the wheel that bolted it onto the car also penetrated Senna’s helmet and pierced his skull right above his right eyebrow. Senna was clinically dead as soon as the car started spinning back onto the track.
The world watched with shock as the car came to a rest and saw Senna’s lifeless body. Hope spread through everyone’s hearts as they saw his head move. It took the medical crew forever to reach the car. Dr. Sid Watkins was the head of the medical team. He performed a tracheotomy and pulled Senna out of the car. Watkins reported, “He looked serene. I raised his eyelids and it was clear from his pupils that he had a massive brain injury. We lifted him from the cockpit and laid him on the ground. As we did, he sighed and, although I am totally agnostic, I felt his soul depart at that moment.”
Senna was taken to the hospital in Bologna and at 6.40 p.m. he was pronounced dead. The next day the motor world was in shock. Three days of national mourning was proclaimed in Brazil. At the funeral, more than one million people lined the streets of Sao Paulo to get a glimpse of the casket. Most, if not all, of the F1 community was there including Alain Prost, who was one of the pall bearers.
Ayrton Senna’s death was a terrible tragedy that could have easily been avoided. What’s even worse is that it took a great driver’s death to be a catalyst in safety regulations by the FIA and FOM. The HANS device soon became popular and then became mandated largely in part by Senna’s cause of death. Another improvement that is regulated is the Kevlar cords that securely fasten the wheel assembly to the monocoque chassis. What’s also improved is the speed it takes for a safety regulation to be implemented. A great example would be from last year in Melbourne when David Coulthard’s Red Bull soared over Alex Wurz’s nose and almost took his hand off. This year the cars must have a protective head cover that surrounds the driver’s head. Since Senna’s death in 1994 there have been no fatalities in Formula One, something other motorsports cannot say.
May 1, 1994 was the darkest day in Formula One history, even with the exception of the 2005 U.S. Grand Prix. On that day the world lost an audacious knight who was most ruthless to his enemies and most chivalrous to his friends and those who were in need. Senna’s aggressiveness often veiled his personality off the track. When not racing, Senna was an ambassador to not only his sport, but also to his country. He took time to help the needy in Brazil even when he came from a privileged upbringing. The Ayrton Senna Foundation, which Senna founded, continues to operate to help the needy of Brazil. One thing that is truely saddening is after the accident, marshals found a folded Austrian flag in Senna's car. Senna was going to have the flag flown during the podium ceremonies in memory of Roland Ratzenberger.
The world rarely produces men like Ayrton Senna. Many cry because we lost a great driver who we all loved to watch race, but we should all fall to our knees and weep because we lost an exceptional human being. Senna’s legacy lives on through his charity foundation. Many still call him the best driver that ever lived. Maybe they are right, for if it hadn’t been for Senna’s death Michael Schumacher may have not risen like he did. We are still reminded of Senna. The Grand Prix Driver’s Association was restarted in his honor and continues to look out for the driver’s safety. Every time we witness a bad wreck we think back to Senna. When Kovalainen rammed the wall in Spain I immediately thought of Senna’s accident. Even Kubica’s awesome and jaw dropping wreck in Montreal reminds us of Senna. We can never allow ourselves to forget the name Ayrton Senna. He should stand as a colossus in modern Formula One history as a bar for all new drivers to meet. We must not allow his death to go in vain. We must not allow ourselves to forget a person that pushed his absolute being for himself and the rest of the world.
Many may be angered because of the circumstances under which Senna was killed. The drivers were used like toys to make money in that time period and their concerns were never given much thought. Many may feel that Senna died for nothing. Bruce McLaren died in an accident and hopefully what McLaren wrote about the death of a teammate can help us see past the anger and only see the positives. McLaren wrote:
“Who is to say that he had not seen more, done more and learned more in his few years than many people do in a lifetime? To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy. It would be a waste of life to do nothing with one’s ability, for I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone."
Ayrton Senna lived a full life and lived more in 34 years than what many people live in 84 years. In that, we should be comforted.
Let us never forget Ayrton Senna, and remember him on this 14th anniversary of his death.