If you are a fan of Formula One, May the 1st will always be a date in your mind. On May 1st 1994, Ayrton Senna da Silva died. The story has entered Formula One folklore, of how Senna was leading after a safety car period from the young Michael Schumacher, desperate to beat the legend-in-waiting after a poor opening to the season. Entering the Tamburello curve, something caused the Williams to veer violently to the right in a split second before slamming into an unprotected wall at close to 150mph. Senna would have survived the impact, yet it was the unruly suspension rod that pierced the Brazilian’s helmet that ultimately killed him.
After so many years, and so many eulogies, one could be forgiven for running out of things to say about what Nelson Piquet referred to as the “Sao Paolo taxi driver”. However, the reach of this special Brazilian driver knows no bounds.
A number of people with different backgrounds have contributed to this article on Ayrton Senna. The number of people that he affected spans the globe. What of those that never saw the great Brazilian race?
Luke Geddes, a young software engineer working in the automotive industry says “Being only 6 at the time of the tragic incident in Imola, I had yet to take a keen interest in formula one. However after following the sport for a number of years now, there is one driver’s name that often comes up in any discussion surrounding the greatest driver – Ayrton Senna. I can only imagine how successful he would have been, if he saw out the whole of his career in F1. It’s quite probable that Michael Schumacher would not have won as many world championships if Senna was there to challenge him. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that May 1st 1994 saw the loss of potentially the best driver in F1 history."
Perhaps what is most striking is that Senna's persona is even more magnified after his death. This has led to calls that the Brazilian is nothing but a martyr, elevated to god-like status after his tragic passing. However, Senna was a driver like no other. A deeply religious man, Senna was not just a sportsman, but a tremendously charismatic and philosophical individual. From his admission on a Monte Carlo qualifying lap that he realised he was no longer consciously driving his car (which proved correct, where he went over a second faster than the next fastest driver, Prost), to the revelation after his death that he had secretly given millions of his earnings to charities in Brazil, to the discovery of a furled Austrian flag in the wreckage of his fatal accident (in homage to Roland Ratzenberger, who had died the previous day)....he was a rare human being that wasn't commonly found in the ultra-rich, superficial world of professional sport.
Let us put the first example in context. The final qualifying session of the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix. In the words of Senna himself : "I was already on pole, then by half a second and then one second and I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. Then suddenly something just kicked me. I kind of woke up and realised that I was in a different atmosphere than you normally are. My immediate reaction was to back off, slow down. I drove slowly back to the pits and I didn't want to go out any more that day. It frightened me because I was well beyond my conscious understanding." At this circuit, with the identical machinery on hand to Senna and Prost, this day was nothing short of astonishing.
It was this experience that compelled Ayrton Senna to describe how he felt that he had encountered God on that day, and it is this theological interpretation of a material world that proves so inspiring to a generation always wanting more.
From a British point of view, Ayrton Senna is seen as something of a mystery. The British stoic personality cannot understand the philosophical and intense nature of a man like Senna. The attributes that made the 3 time World Champion successful are altogether more observable to a British eye, such as the will to win, the fight, the hard-edged driving that drew criticism as it did praise. However, perhaps it is best left to one of Senna's own to describe what kind of effect he has had on people who have had the fortune to know of him.
Bianca Ghidini, a resident of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, gives a personal insight into the wonder of Senna:
"For everyone else Ayrton Senna da Silva may be just a pilot that won a couple of races around the world, but to us, Brazilians, he is more than that.
For me, it’s a personal thing. My parents got divorced when I was only 2 years old (1989). And every other weekend I used to spend at my dad’s house. As I started to get a little bigger, my dad and I developed some Sunday rituals. And one of them was watching Senna race every Sunday morning having breakfast in bed.
So, what he means to me is family. He brought me closer to my dad. I feel that he belongs in my life, he has a meaning. That’s why after the tragic accident, our ritual sort of faded. We really enjoyed watching him and cheering for him. No one else was the same as he was. He really was special. And I really think he has a special place in every Brazilian heart."
In the age of corporate drivers that we live in now, the ilk of Senna has no room. Individuality and a 100% cast-iron will to win must now be tempered with politically correct interviews and verbal straight-jackets. We must never forget Senna, a gift from God that we might never see the like of again.
As is simply written on the grave of this mystical Brazilian...
Nada me pode separar do amor de Deus.