For many years, Ayrton Senna was the greatest racing driver of all time. After his tragic death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, he became a sporting legend, never to be forgotten.
He was born on 21 March 1960, the second child of Milton da Silva, a successful businessman and landowner. The family lived in Santana, a well-to-do neighborhood of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Growing up Ayrton was an awkward child and was later diagnosed as having a motor coordination problem. His doting father, who was a motor racing enthusiast, noticed how his serious little son was also attracted to cars. The senior da Silva had amongst his many holdings a car components company and believed that cars would be the key to reach his son’s potential. At the age of four Ayrton was presented with a 1-hp kart and getting behind the steering wheel he was a different boy, no longer awkward but focused and confident. The key had been found and every weekend the family would go to local parks where Ayrton could drive his kart. He was an indifferent student but facing the loss of his "driving" privileges he would apply himself as best he could while his heart was obviously elsewhere. At the age of eight he was driving the family car and looked to Europe and the exploits of Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart as his inspiration. During this time the first great Brazilian driver Emerson Fittipaldi was beginning to make a name for himself driving for Colin Chapman’s Lotus. On his tenth birthday his father gave him new full-size 100cc kart. Since the minimum age for racing karts in Brazil was thirteen, Ayrton had to settle for practicing at Parque Anhembi, the local kart circuit. In 1972 Brazil had its first World Champion in Fittipaldi and the following year it’s first Grand Prix at Interlagos, just outside of Sao Paulo. The race was won by the reigning World Champion and all of Brazil celebrated. In the midst of this excitement was a young boy who dreamed of being not the next Fittipaldi or Jackie Stewart but the best ever.
He was finally thirteen and could race legally. His first race was that same year and held at the karting track, which was part of the Interlagos complex. Arrayed against him were all of the local hot shots including Mauizio Sala. Ayrton displaying all of the pent up energy he had built up to this seminal moment won the race. The adult Senna would later relate that karting was the perfect breeding ground for future racecar drivers. In 1977 Ayrton won the South American Kart Championship and repeated the following year. The goal for any aspiring karting driver was Europe and the World Championships at Le Mans. Against much stronger competition Ayrton managed to finish sixth overall which was considered sensational for a driver with his experience, but he came away disappointed in not winning any of the three races which constituted the final. In 1979 he returned to Europe for further seasoning and finishes second in the World Championships at Estoril. Nivelles in Belgium the following year saw another second.
He came to England in 1981 to race Formula Ford 1600 for Ralph Firman and his Van Diemen team. Now married to Liliane Vasconcelos and living in a rented bungalow near Snetterton he quickly adapted to the 1600 cc cars. Races were held almost every weekend and at Brands Hatch, Ayrton debuted in eighth place. A week later at Thruxton he was third. That year there were three series running concurrently, two of which he contested, and he soon found himself back at Brands Hatch. Van Diemen seeing the potential in their young driver assigned him their newest car, which he promptly put on the pole. The race was run under wet conditions and few could match his skill under these conditions. That first year in England saw him win both of the series that he contested. Ayrton was now at a crossroad in his life and to continue his racing career he would need sponsorship. With several other Brazilian drivers ahead of him in higher formulas the sponsorship money required was not available. Frustrated, Ayrton announced his retirement stating that a bad driver with money could always get the best car but a good driver without the same was left out. He returned to Brazil and worked in his father’s building supplies business. After four months the fire that had not been extinguished continued to burn inside him and he made the decision to return to motor racing, his wife would not. Having grown up in a life of luxury Liliane knew that life with Ayrton would be difficult and that many sacrifices would be necessary as he struggled to move up the ranks. They mutually decided to separate and his father would provide partial sponsorship in addition to a Brazilian bank for another year of racing. In 1982 he won 22 races and the championship for that year.
The next stop would be Formula Three, which was the last step before Formula 1. The British Formula Three Championship was made up of 20 odd races and proved the perfect test of man and machine. Two drivers entered 1983 as pre-season favorites, Ayrton Senna, as he was now known and the great British hope Martin Brundle. Senna promptly ran up nine straight victories before crashing out in practice for the next race which was won by Brundle. The series now became a contest between the two pre-season favorites with neither driver backing down. The Championship would be decided in the final race at Thruxton. Senna, showing the determination and attention to details that would be his hallmark, had his engine re-built and tuned by the master tuners Novamotor of Italy. Senna took pole and won the race and the title going away. The end of the year for Formula Three was celebrated in the Portuguese enclave of Macau at the Macau Grand Prix with drivers from all of the national series. Senna won and negotiations between him and a number of Formula One teams became serious. This also became a time where Senna was introduced to the politics of the senior Formula. After wanting to go to Brabham but being vetoed by Piquet, Toleman became his only option. Strictly a second-tier team, Toleman was able to sign the most promising driver in a generation to a three-year contract.
Senna made his Formula One debut in front of his home country in 1984 driving for the Toleman team but things were different then Formula Three. Here even the best driver without the right car and engine would not be able to make much of an impression on the leader board. The team would eventually form the basis for the Benneton team but at that time was strictly a back marker and the best that he could do was qualify eighth. The next race at San Marino was a new experience for Ayrton; he failed to qualify. After the initial series of races in his inaugural season the results were slow in coming. For the French Grand Prix he was given a new car but the results were the same when he suffered turbo problems and had to retire. The next race was at Monaco and Senna qualified well back in thirteenth place. The weather was run under threat of rain and Senna began to feel that he might have his first real opportunity. Wet weather, as it always was in racing is the great leveler and by the seventh lap Senna was in sixth place. On lap eleven he almost crashed when he jumped a curb and the Toleman became airborne. Prost who was in the lead came upon Teo Fabi who had spun and stalled in the middle of the track. Just narrowly missing Fabi’s car he struck one of the track marshals. Not knowing weather he had killed the poor man, he hadn’t, Prost was shaken by the incident. Mansell, a much harder fellow saw the opening and assumed the lead. Once ahead he began to stretch his lead quickly, a little to quickly and spun into the Armco barrier. Lauda who was in second place made a small error and also spun out. On lap 20 Prost led the oncoming Senna by 33.8 seconds. On lap 31 the gap was reduced to 7.4 seconds. The weather conditions continued to be treacherous and every time that Prost crossed the finish line he would signal for the race to stop. On lap 31 the race was stopped and Senna was denied his first victory but the legend was born. Monaco would prove the highlight of the season but for Senna it wasn’t enough. It was plain to him that he would need a stronger supporting cast if he wanted to challenge for the Championship.
Senna had been secretly negotiating with Lotus for the following season and even though he had a three-year contract with Toleman he did have a buy-out clause. Lotus represented to the young Senna the pinnacle, the team of Clark and Fittipaldi, but Lotus had been on the downward slope after the death of their founder Colin Chapman. To his new team Senna was the man to return them to the top. After showing the racing world a glimpse of the future at Monaco, Senna was more determined than ever to break through. Driving in treacherously wet conditions he would win his first race at Estoril. This was followed by another win at Spa, Belgium. But even Senna could not return Lotus to their prior glory and in 1988 he moved to McLaren. Ironically instead of vetoing Senna as his teammate, Prost initially welcomed the Brazilian. At last all of the pieces were in place and that year saw him win 8 races and his first World Championship. In 1989 he came in second to his teammate Alain Prost despite having more wins. The relationship between the two had deteriorated to the point where Prost left McLaren to join Ferrari. In 1990 and 1991 Senna, now joined at McLaren by Gerhard Berger, won back to back titles while being involved in fierce battles with Prost and Nigel Mansell. Eventually the loss of Honda power and the rise of Renault would bring about the decline of McLaren.
Only Senna’s brilliance remained and in 1994 that too left. Joining Williams was a goal that he had long sought, even offering to drive the Williams for free at one point. The new season, which began with so much promise for Senna, ended almost before it began when he crashed fatally at Imola. The Grand Prix world was already reeling from the death of the young Austrian Roland Ratzeberger and the serious practice crash of Rubens Barrichello. This final tragedy will haunt Formula 1 for many years. Ayrton Senna brought with him seemingly limitless talent and indomitable will to win. On the track he could be almost belligerent yet off the track he was just beginning to show a more generous and thoughtful demeanor to the outside world that those who knew him best had always known was there. Those brief shining years when Ayrton Senna, Mansell, Prost and Piquet would fight tooth and nail for the slightest advantage both on and off the track seem like so long ago
Nationality - Brazillian
Born - 1960
Died - 1994
Seasons - 1984-1994
Teams - Toleman, Lotus, McLaren, Williams
Championships - 3 (1988, 1990, 1991)