Every sport has a moment that shakes it to its very foundation, a moment after which things are never the same in that sport. In Formula 1 that moment happened in 1994 on Lap 7 at Tamburello. Ayrton Senna left the road and smashed into the concrete wall. One of Formula 1's best exponents was gone.
The 1994 San Marino Grand Prix weekend had already been a tragic one with the horrific accident of Rubens Barrichello and then the tragic loss of Roland Ratzenberger. The Grand Prix weekend was already rivaling the 1960 Belgian Grand Prix in terms of horror. According to Italian law a sporting event should be cancelled if a participant dies during the event. Ratzenberger technically died in hospital rather than at the track (despite it being clear that there was no chance of him surviving) so the weekend continued.
Why Senna died isn't disputed but why Senna left the road in the first place is something very much debated. There are two main theories. One of which if true should mean that people working for the Williams Formula 1 team could and possibly should have been sent to prison.
There are two main theories behind why Senna went off the road at Tamburello.
The first of these theories is the 'bottoming out' theory. In Formula 1, aerodynamics is one of the most critical parts of a car. If the car is aerodynamically good it can be a winner but any aerodynamic weakness and your car will fall down the grid rapidly.
One of the most important parts of the cars aerodynamics is the car's ride height. By running the car as close to the ground as possible without it touching the ground gives you improved acceleration and a huge downforce boost. The cars run millimetres from the ground and reducing the ride height by a tiny amount can improve a lap time by several tenths of a second. At Imola, the cars were running as close as humanly possible to the ground.
Now to explain the theory totally you have to go back to the very start of the race. At the start of the race fifth place qualifier JJ Lehto in the Benetton stalled on the grid and was stuck unable to move. From 22nd position Pedro Lamy in the Lotus got off to a good start was coming down the straight looking to get himself into a good position for Tamburello.
He failed to see the stuck Lehto until it was too late and smashed into the back of the Benetton. Sadly in the crash a wheel flew of Lamy’s car and ended up in the crowd causing minor injuries to nine spectators.
The cars suffered severe damage and the safety car was brought out to allow the track officials to clear the track. Being behind the safety car although vital for the safety of the track officials plays havoc with Formula 1 cars. Behind the slow moving safety car brakes become cold and most crucially to this theory, tyre pressures drop.
In current Formula 1 the safety car is a V8 Mercedes super car, meaning that the cars despite not being able to do the speeds of Formula 1 cars, can still run at a speed in which the brakes don’t lose as much temperature and tyre pressures drop less. But in 1994, the safety car was an Opel basic road car. The car could do nothing like the speed required to keep the pressures and temperatures at the required rates.
When the pressures drop, this causes the cars to lower. Now at the conclusion of Lap 5 the safety car pulled in and Senna led the field away. Senna set an incredibly quick lap considering the pace car had been out and as it turned out it was the third fastest lap of the race (more on this later) On that 6th lap Senna's car was seen grinding heavily along the ground whilst going around Tamburello.
On Lap 7 the car began to grind across the ground once more. When a Formula 1 car bottoms out and is brushing along the floor it loses a huge amount of downforce. On this lap as Senna’s car was going around Tamburello when the car bottomed out and lost downforce the back of Senna’s FW16 began to slide. Senna immediately steered into the slide.
According to the theory, in a horrific stroke of misfortune just as Senna steered into the slide the car came back off the ground. The downforce and grip suddenly returned. The car responded to Senna’s steering input and turned to the right and pointed his Williams straight towards the concrete wall and despite Senna braking he couldn’t avoid the wall.
Now, there is a couple of flaws with the bottoming out theory. The first is if it was low tyre pressures that caused the problem for Senna then why did he not crash on Lap 6? He entered Tamburello at the same speed on both laps so why did Senna crash on the lap when his tyre pressures had increased once again.
Another problem is the fact that if suddenly Senna had grip again why did he not steer back to the left which looking at the footage of the accident the car never does. Also, Michele Alboreto and many other Formula 1 drivers stated that looking at the lap time Senna produced on the lap before his accident and their personal experiences Senna’s tyre pressure would be normal once more.
Overall it provides a compelling, if flawed theory
The second theory is the steering column theory. Now if you believe this theory then Williams could very easily charged with Senna’s death. The Williams FW16 was a tricky car at the start of the season and the major cause of this was the widespread rule changes put into place for the 1994 season. Narrower tires were now being used which resulted in their being less grip and all of the major electronic aids such as ABS, traction control and active suspension were all gone.
Senna was very negative saying that the car never left him with any confidence to push to the limit. He even found the driving position for his car unsatisfactory. Senna asked the team to give him a longer steering column to make the car more comfortable to drive. Williams didn't have the time to get a new longer steering column delivered so they decided to modify the steering column present already in Senna's car.
To do this they cut Senna's steering column, inserted a piece of smaller diameter tubing and welded the column back together with reinforcing plates. This obviously made the steering column longer and gave Senna a more comfortable driving position.
Now the footage from on board Senna's car shows a visible yellow light moving a significant number of centimeters down in the seconds before the crash. Many have suggested that based on this evidence that where the Williams team changed the steering column that the weld had broken and the column was broken making Senna a passenger. To reinforce this view that after the crash the steering column was found to be snapped.
However, Williams have provided some evidence that would seem to discredit the theory. The first is footage shown during the court case of David Coulthard in a identical Williams car whilst sat in the Williams factory. He was shown deflecting the steering column a large amount with Williams saying that the car was designed with the steering wheel being able to move not only round and round but up and down.
Now I have since gone back and checked the footage from the 1994 Brazilian Grand Prix at the Interlagos which is well known for being a particularly bumpy race track. I have yet to see any such movement like there was at Imola. Small movement you can see but nothing like the amount of movement shown at Tamburello.
Also Senna was quite a small man and the amount of force needed to move the steering column like Coulthard showed in footage was clearly huge.
A second piece of evidence I first saw on a National Geographic documentary on the accident. They showed some of data from Senna's car before the accident. In particular they brought up a piece of data to do with the amount of twisting force that Senna was putting through the steering column. The last reading from the sensor before Senna hit the wall was -7.16 N/m. If the steering column was broken then it should of been impossible for Senna to have put any twisting force through the column at all.
During the investigation they looked extensively at the steering column and it was shown through testing that steering column was showing signs of very high stresses and that it was braking. Seventy-five percent of the circumference of the steering column was broken before the accident. But it wasn't fully broken fully before the accident.
What could prove it either way would be the footage from Senna's car all the way as he hits the wall. In a cruel twist the TV director cut away from Senna's car 1.5 seconds before he hit the wall. Many people believe that in the missing 1.5 seconds shows the steering wheel clearly coming off in Senna's hands. Even those who don't believe in the steering column theory believe more answers would of been found in that missing footage.
These are the two main theories on the Ayrton Senna accident. There are many more and just like these they have flaws in them. Whatever caused the accident once Senna hit the wall it was clear to all those watching that Senna was clearly injured. Some hope was raised when Senna's head was shown clearly moved once after the crash.
I will let you decide what you believe I just am trying to give you the options. If you comment feel free to give your thoughts on why Senna crashed.
When Professor Sid Watkins arrived at the seen of the crash and he removed Senna's helmet he was left viewing a horrific sight. Senna in the small amount of time between crashing and Watkins arriving lost four litres of blood. I could give you more details on what Watkins saw but I feel that if you want to find out more of the gory details then you can do that for yourselves.
Anyone of three injuries could of killed Ayrton Senna. When the suspension pierced the visor of Senna's helmet it went through just above his eye causing damage to Senna's brain. When the wheel struck Senna it smashed his head back into the headrest causing severe skull fractures and a piece of upright attached to the wheel also pierced the visor of the helmet causing more damage to Senna's brain. Just one of these injuries would of probably been enough to kill Senna.
However, yet again the race was not cancelled. Technically Senna wasn't dead due to the fact he still did have a pulse and once in hospital he was put on to life support. But Senna had no chance of recovery. Senna died to the world at Tamburello. The world didn't let him go for a few hours more.
After the horrific weekend in San Marino a vast amount of new regulations came into increase driver safety. To this day no driver has died behind the wheel of a Formula 1 car albeit two marshalls have been killed during a Formula 1 race, Paolo Ghislimberti at the 2000 Italian Grand Prix and Graham Beveridge at the the 2001 Australian Grand Prix. Since these tragedies more safety regulations have been brought in and again the level of safety has gone up once more.
Formula 1 is dangerous, it always has been and always will be and as horrific as it sounds someone else will die behind the wheel of a Formula 1 car. But credit where its due the FIA has done and is doing everything it can to make Formula 1 as safe as possible.
March 21st 1960- May 1st 1994