This is actually an older (and fairly lengthy) article I wrote for another (now defunct) site a few years back. I’ve given it a bit of an update and a polish to re-posted it here on my blog, as a way to remember one of my heroes on the anniversary of his death.
On this day twenty-seven years ago in 1994, the world lost, who was quite simply, the greatest racing driver who ever sat in the cockpit of a Formula 1 car. The three-times F1 World Champion Ayrton Senna da Silva. In this article, I’d like to share my own personal memories and highlights of watching the great man and how I first became a Senna fan.
How It All Began
As far as I recall, it all started with a simple Formula 1 toy car.
I think it must have been 1985 and I was 8 or 9-years-old. My older brother, Rob would have been around 16 at the time. No older brother in the midst of their teenage years wanted their annoying little brother hanging around with them, but Rob was different as he would often let me join in with (almost) anything he was doing. I remember that our granddad gave my brother a toy F1 car and it was this simple toy car that got Rob into watching F1 on TV. He would usually have to use the small, portable TV on a Sunday afternoon to watch the races as my mom would be engrossed in her soap operas on the main TV. So my brother would be relegated to the kitchen to watch the racing on that old black & white, small screen and I would watch with him. His favourite driver was a young Italian called Elio de Angelis who, at the time, was driving for the Lotus team.
It was the 1985 season when de Angelis gained a new teammate. A young, unknown Brazilian driver from São Paulo who had made his way up through the Karting, Formula Ford and British Formula Three circuits in the late seventies and early eighties, before arriving in F1 by joining the Toleman team in 1984. That young, unknown Brazilian was Ayrton Senna da Silva. Elio de Angelis and Ayrton Senna were teammates at Lotus through 1985. On the rare occasion that me and my brother did get to watch Formula 1 on the bigger, colour TV, I remember just loving the contrast in colours of that black JPS Lotus and Senna’s bright yellow helmet design. That’s pretty much how I became an Ayrton Senna fan, just because my brother liked his teammate de Angelis, and I liked Senna’s distinctly coloured helmet. Then, when de Angelis left Lotus for the Brabham team in 1986, this was when us brothers became united as fans of Senna. There was just something about him, his attitude, his personality, his driving style and of course, the fact that the black Lotus with that distinctive yellow helmet sticking out of it looked awesome. This young driver had something very special, even if we didn’t realise it at the time. I admit that I never really understood F1 back then, I just thought that the black Lotus looked cool. But my brother would explain the rules to me and I began to learn more and more about the sport and slowly fell in love with it.
I do vaguely remember hearing about the crash that killed Elio de Angelis in 1986 while he was testing his Brabham BT55 in France, I recall being shocked, even at that young age, that people could die in this sport I had just begun to watch. After de Angelis died at only 28-years-old, all eyes were on Senna as he started to make waves in F1.
The Lotus Drive
Anyway, Senna’s first year for Lotus in 1985 was an exciting watch. It was the Portuguese Grand Prix where he secured his first-ever pole position which he then converted into his first race win. The 1985 Portuguese Grand Prix was run under very wet conditions and this is where Senna showed his unbeatable driving skill and dominance in the rain, a skill and talent he would prove he had time and time again in the years to come. During the race, Senna managed to lap everyone up to and including third-place driver, Patrick Tambay and brought his Lotus home to take the chequered flag a whole minute ahead of second-place driver, Michele Alboreto. Senna managed to secure the fastest lap of the race too and he did all of this in the pouring rain. While other drivers were sliding about, spinning off and crashing into barriers, Senna was dominating. The 1985 Portuguese Grand Prix has rightfully gone down as one of the greatest F1 races ever seen.
Senna finished the 1985 season in an impressive fourth place and racked up some very memorable races along the way too. His second race win was again, under wet conditions at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. Just another excuse to show off his wet racing dominance. As well as collecting a few podium finishes at the Austrian, Netherlands and Italian Grand Prix. Even then, early in his Formula 1 career, Senna was making huge waves.
Senna’s 1986 season and his second one with the Lotus team got off to a strong start. He finished second in the first race at Brazil and won the second race in Spain after a nail-biting climax where Senna finished ahead of Nigel Mansell by just 0.014 seconds. One of the closest finishes in F1 history.
After two races, Senna was leading the championship. But later in the season, he was bogged down with poor reliability as he struggled to keep up with the Williams team. Despite being the top qualifier that season with eight poles and six podium finishes including another win at the Detroit Grand Prix, Senna only managed to finish the season in fourth place once more. It was after his win in Detroit (one day after Brazil were knocked out of the 1986 World Cup), Senna pulled up at the side of the track and asked a fan for their Brazilian flag. Senna then drove a celebratory lap waving the flag, a tradition he repeated every time he won a race from that point on.
Senna just loved driving so much, it didn’t matter what it was, if it could go fast, Senna wanted to master it. He even had a brief foray into rallying as 1986 was the year when he headed to Wales and drove a Vauxhall Nova, MG Metro 6R4, Ford Sierra RS Cosworth and a Ford Escort just for some rallying fun.
1987 saw a lot of changes at Lotus, least of all was an all-new look to their cars. As the striking John Player Special black and gold livery was replaced with a yellow Camel sponsorship. But, this would also be Senna’s last season with Lotus before switching teams in 1988 to form one of the most memorable team-ups in F1 history. Ayrton Senna’s 1987 season got off to a controversial start, a strong podium finish at the San Marino Grand Prix led to an altercation between him and Nigel Mansell. After the race, in the pit lane, Mansell reportedly grabbed Senna by the throat and he had to be restrained by the Lotus mechanics. This was following a collision between the two drivers on the track:
“When a man holds you round the throat, I do not think that he has come to apologise.”
– Ayrton Senna
Senna had a very strong start to this season including his first and a very memorable win at Monaco… One of many to come. Senna soon found himself leading the Drivers Championship. However, the latter part of the season saw the Williams cars take the advantage, this led to Senna becoming dissatisfied at Lotus as he looked around for a new team for the following season. He finished the 1987 season in third-place with six podium finishes and only one pole position. He knew he could de better, he knew he could be World Champion and he knew it was the Louts car holding him back too. So, Senna said goodbye to Lotus as he joined his new team for 1988.
The McLaren Drive
Senna joined the McLaren team with the approval of McLaren’s number-one driver and then-double world champion, Alain Prost and the two became great teammates. A relationship that would quickly turn sour over the years. The 1988 season was full of incredible race incidents between the two teammates and marked the start of one of the most famous rivalries in F1. It was at the Monaco Grand Prix where Senna out-qualified Prost and went on to lead most of the race, yet he crashed on lap 67. Senna just disappeared from the Grand Prix as he went to his apartment in Monaco without telling anyone. He eventually returned to the track later that night as the teams were packing away and Prost was none too impressed with Senna’s apparent lack of professionalism.
Then, at the Portuguese Grand Prix, Prost managed a slightly faster start than his teammate, yet Senna dived into the first corner ahead with aggression. Prost retaliated and attempted to pass Senna by the end of the first lap. Senna then swerved to block Prost, forcing him to almost run into the pit wall at around 180 mph. But Prost refused to slow down and soon edged out Senna into the first corner and started pulling away. Prost was angered by Senna’s dangerous manoeuvre and the Brazilian was given a warning from F1’s governing body, the FIA. During the post-race team debrief, Prost voiced his anger at the move which prompted Senna to apologise to his teammate for the incident. Despite the numerous clashes between the two McLaren drivers, Senna rewrote the record books in 1988 with a total of eight wins, thirteen poles… Oh yeah, he won his first-ever World Championship too.
The 1989 season didn’t see the relationship between Senna and Prost improve, if anything, it got worse as tension and mistrust increased between the two. Senna took an early lead in the championship after wins at the San Marino, Monaco, and the Mexico GPs, which he followed up with wins in Germany, Belgium, and Spain too. But unreliability in the latter part of the season meant Senna soon found himself in second place in the standings while Prost took the lead. It was the penultimate race of the season in Japan where the two teammates collided… Figuratively and literally. Senna needed to win the race to remain in contention for the title. Prost managed to get away at the start ahead of Senna and he led the race. It was on lap 46 when Senna pulled up alongside his teammate and attempted a pass on the inside at the last chicane, but Prost turned in, cutting off Senna and the duo tangled wheels. Both of the McLarens slid off the track and on to the escape road and they both seemed to be out of the race, meaning Prost was World Champion, so he abandoned his car and the race. However, Senna stayed in his car and requested a push-start from the circuit marshals so he could rejoin the race.
Senna went on the win the race by taking the lead from Benetton driver, Alessandro Nannini. He was World Champion for the second time… For a few hours anyway. Later, after the race, Senna was disqualified for receiving a push-start, cutting the chicane after the collision with Prost as well as for crossing into the pit lane entry, during a stewards meeting after the race. An enraged Senna entered a bitter war of words with the then FIA president, Jean-Marie Balestre. He claimed that Balestre had forced the race stewards to disqualify him so his fellow countryman, Prost, could win the championship.
Senna finished the 1989 season in second place behind Prost with six wins and one second place. Prost left McLaren for Ferrari ready for the 1990 season. While Prost may have left McLaren for Ferrari, that didn’t end the bitter rivalry between him and Senna. Replacing Prost at McLaren was Austrian driver, Gerhard Berger. Senna and Berger soon became much more than just good teammates, they became very close friends too:
“I tried to find weaknesses in Senna, but I couldn’t. He is 100 per cent in everything. I learned a lot from him, so for me, it was a good three years. And I still like Senna. We had good fun, a good relationship.”
– Gerhard Berger.
Once again, Senna got off to a strong start in the 1990 season and he was leading the championship. It was the latter part of the season where Prost in his Ferrari began to close the gap as he won five races bringing the point difference between himself and Senna to just nine, with only two races left. In an almost identical replay from the previous season, it all came down to the Japanese GP at Suzuka. Senna took the pole over Prost and he requested to have pole position moved to the left side of the track as it was cleaner and he could get a better start. The FIA president, Balestre denied Senna’s request. Meaning Senna had to start on the dirty side of the track, thus favouring Prost on the left.
The race started and Prost managed to get away ahead of Senna. However, Senna refused to relent and tried to pass Prost at the first corner. Prost turned in to take the corner while Senna kept his foot on the accelerator and the two cars collided (again) at the Japanese GP (again) and the crash settled the World Championship title (again). Senna and Prost spun off into the gravel trap as they both exited their cars, both of them out of the race. Only this time, there was no stewards inquiry, no disqualification and Senna was crowned World Champion for the second time.
It was also during the 1990 season when Senna witnessed something that changed his perception of the sport and when he struck up a very important friendship with the then head of the Formula 1 on-track medical team, Professor Sid Watkins:
“I was in the pits, practice was stopped. I hear by different people, there was accident, was Donnelly. Was bad, was too bad, was disaster. And I decide to go to the place to see myself. Million things went through my mind, in the end I… I realised I was not going to give up my passion, even just having seen what I had seen … And I had to, to put myself together, and walk out, go to the racing car, and do it again. And do it again, and do it even better than before. Because that was the way to… Kind of cover that impact it had on me. I was just not ready to give up. As much as I was scared to continue, I was not ready to give up my aim, my target, my objective, my passion, my dream… My life. It is my life”
– Ayrton Senna
Senna was referring to this…
Martin Donnelly crashed his Lotus during practice at the Jerez circuit. His car was decimated and his limp, lifeless body lay on the track still attached to the seat as the medical team rushed to the scene. Amazingly, Donnelly survived. He suffered horrendous injures including brain and lung contusions as well as severe leg fractures and the crash ended his F1 career… But he was alive.
It was this crash that (in his own words) ‘scared’ Senna. Following this incident, he sought out a friendship with Professor Watkins and Senna continually questioned Watkins on certain medical procedures and practices. Senna learned some basic first aid that could possibly save injured driver’s lives and he did exactly that later in his career. Before the final race of the 1990 season at the Australian GP, Senna was famously interviewed by the legendary ex-F1 driver, Jackie Stewart. Stewart quizzed Senna on his recent collisions and Senna firmly, but rather respectfully put Stewart in his place:
The 1991 season began and Senna showed his dominance as the Ferrari of his ex-team-mate and bitter rival, Prost struggled to keep up with the pace and Senna won the first four races. His main competitor for this season was Nigel Mansell driving for the Williams team and between the two, they managed to produce some of the most memorable highlights of this season. During the British GP, Senna ran out of fuel on the last lap and his car slowly came to a stop, Senna was left stranded on the circuit while Mansell went on to claim victory. During his celebratory lap, Mansell stopped and offered Senna a ride back to the pit lane, by doing so they created one of the most iconic images of F1.
They may have been fighting for the World Championship, but there was a deep respect between the two. I very much doubt Prost would have stopped to offer Senna a ride back.
Then later in the season at the Spanish GP, Senna and Mansell fought and fought hard as Mansell managed to pass Senna as sparks literally flew with only centimetres between the two cars at around 200 mph. A brilliant piece of driving from both Senna and Mansell:
“In the 1980s, I was blessed to drive against so many great drivers but Ayrton certainly stood out most among them.”
– Nigel Mansell
1991 also saw Ayrton Senna win one of his most memorable races. Of course it had to be at the Interlagos track in Brazil. Senna was leading the race with Nigel Mansell in second. What we didn’t know was that Senna’s gearbox was failing, by lap 60, he had lost fourth gear and his lap times began to drop as his lead was drastically decreasing. Mansell retired from the race on lap 61, putting Riccardo Patrese in seconds and fast catching Senna in his struggling McLaren. Shorty after and Senna’s gearbox issues continued as he lost both third and fifth gears too. Pretty much only giving sixth gear to work with, which caused major issues on cornering and nearly stalling his car to go out of the race. Senna battled with his difficult to control car and won the race just 2.9 seconds ahead of Patrese… In the rain too.
Senna screamed, as he had just won one the his most difficult races and in his home country too. His first race win in Brazil after losing out mulitple times before. But he wasn’t screaming with happiness, he was screaming in pain. The struggle of keeping the car on the track with only sixth gear to work with took a serious physical toll on Senna. He suffered severe muscle cramps and when he stopped the car, he couldn’t get out, couldn’t even loosen his grip on the steering wheel. Senna had to be carefully lifted out of the cockpit of his McLaren. He was checked over by the medical team and told he needed to rest, Senna refused. He had just won his home Grand Prix for the first time, he wanted, nay, needed to show his appreciation to his home-track fans. Senna was driven to the podium celebrations by the medical team, where he had to fight to swing the Brazilian flag and lift the trophy, while the pain of the muscle cramps fought him every step of the way. You could clearly see the pain on his face too.
Perhaps one of Ayrton Senna’s greatest and most memorable races.
Senna’s consistency throughout the season meant he managed to claim his third World Championship title. Yet the McLaren car was just not as competitive as the Williams and Senna knew this too. In fact, he wanted to move to the Williams team for the 1992 season, but he was persuaded to stay at McLaren by engine supplier, Honda’s CEO Nobuhiko Kawamoto, which Senna did purely out of loyalty. Senna’s 1992 season was full of bad luck and poor reliability. Though he secured a few race wins, Senna only managed to place fourth in the World Championship by the end of the season, behind both of the far superior Williams cars.
Yet, the season was not without its memorable moments. During the qualifying session for the Belgian GP, French driver, Érik Comas suffered an horrific crash at around 200 mph, just in front of Senna who was on the track. Ayrton Senna stopped his car and got out disregarding his own safety, in an effort to aid a fellow driver. Senna’s selfless actions and knowledge he gained from Sid Watkins after the Donnelly crash in 1990 actually saved the life of Comas.
By the end of the season, Senna had not secured a drive with any team. He was unhappy at McLaren as they were just not able to create a car that could make him world champion for the fourth time. He even looked at leaving Formula 1 and thought about joining the IndyCar championships instead, when he tested for Penske Racing. However, Senna disliked the bulky, heavier American cars and despite posting the fastest lap during a test run at Firebird International Raceway in Arizona. He decided to stick with F1.
The big problem was that by December of 1992, Senna was a driver with no team to drive for in the 1993 season. He didn’t want to return to McLaren as he just knew they couldn’t offer a competitive car. It was the Williams team and their far superior and more technically advanced car he needed. Senna even offered to drive for Williams for free, a great offer for Williams to have the mighty Ayrton Senna drive for them for nothing. But there was a problem, a French driver shaped problem. Alain Prost, Senna’s biggest rival had already signed to be the number one driver at Williams and he was having none of his arch-nemesis joining the same team and so Prost vetoed against Senna joining Williams.
McLaren boss, Ron Dennis managed to persuade Senna to stick with McLaren for the 1993 season. Though he refused to sign a full season contract and only agreed to stay on via a race-by-race basis. Senna still ended up staying with McLaren for the whole season regardless. The Williams cars were just too damn fast, too technically advanced and far more reliable over the McLaren. And yet, despite the lack of competitiveness from the McLaren cars, Senna was still able to finish the championship in second place behind Prost, even in a far less competitive car. There may have been a deep rooted rivalry between Senna and Prost, but there was always respect too.
You know, Senna must have driven hundreds, thousands of laps during his career. Countless man-hours invested into learning his cars and the tracks he raced on as he perfected each and every corner of every circuit he raced on. Yet, of those hundreds and thousands of laps that he ever drove… There is one single lap that showcased just how much of an amazing talent Senna truly was. That one lap was during the Donington GP of the 1993 season. Senna managed to qualify in fourth place, but dropped down to fifth at the start, yet by the end of the lap, he was in first place under wet conditions in what many consider the greatest lap in F1 as Senna once more displayed his raw talent in the rain.
The Williams Drive
He finally did it, Senna secured a drive for the Williams team in 1994 now that Prost had retired. The world’s greatest driver in the world’s greatest F1 car. Anyone that knew anything about the sport just knew that this season was going to be a walkover for Senna, we all knew this would be his fourth World Championship with ease, it was inevitable. However, the 1994 season instantly got off to a bad start when new rules were brought in by the FIA banning the use of active suspension, traction control, and ABS, meaning that the previously technically advanced Williams cars had already lost their edge before the first race even began. Senna himself even made a rather spooky prediction about the 1994 season and all the rule changes:
“It’s going to be a season with lots of accidents, and I’ll risk saying that we’ll be lucky if something really serious doesn’t happen.”
– Ayrton Senna.
During the first race of the season at Interlagos in Senna’s home country of Brazil, he managed to secure pole position and went on to lead until he was passed during a pit-stop by Michael Schumacher in the Benetton. Senna wanted to win on his home ground and he pushed hard to regain the lead. Only he pushed a little too hard, spun out on the 56th lap and stalled his car, taking himself out of the race. So, on to the second race of the season, the Pacific Grand Prix at Aida. Senna once more got his car on pole position, yet was dogged with even more bad luck during the race. He was hit from behind on the first corner by Mika Häkkinen. Senna went spinning into the gravel trap where the Ferrari driven by Nicola Larini T-boned Senna’s Williams forcing the Brazilian to retire yet again.
It was the worst start to any season in Senna’s career so far with two DNFs out of two races. Things were only going to get much, much worse from this point on too.
The San Marino Grand Prix, 1994
It was just another race weekend much like the hundreds that had occurred before it. Yet what was to unravel over the following three days of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix would go down in motor racing history as the darkest, most emotionally draining race weekend ever.
Friday’s qualifying session on the 29th of April and a fellow countryman of Senna, Rubens Barrichello suffered a terrible crash. He had hit the kerb coming into the Variante Bassa corner at around 140 mph, which launched the Jordan car he was driving into the air and it hit a tyre barrier. The car horrifically rolled several times before finally coming to a rest upside down. It really is a very nasty crash to see and serious injury (or worse) was inevitable.
Barrichello was knocked unconscious as medical teams rushed to the crash site to offer aid before he was taken to the medical centre. Jordan’s team boss, Eddie Jordan, soon arrived at the medical centre to find that Senna was already at the bedside of his recovering countryman. Senna was the first person Barrichello saw when he finally regained consciousness too. Senna refused to leave the young Barrichello’s side. Barrichello returned to the race meeting the next day with a broken nose and his arm in a plaster cast, he would not be able to continue the race weekend. Still, his injuries were a testament to not only how dangerous the sport was, but also how safe it was too. If literally flying into a barrier at 140 mph only resulted in a few broken bones, these Formula 1 cars were very safe places to be in during such a terrible accident… Or so it seemed.
Saturday’s qualifying session held on the 30th of April would bring an even bigger tragedy than Barrichello’s terrible crash. Austrian driver, Roland Ratzenberger was making his debut in F1 in 1994 driving for the Simtek team. He had damaged his front wing at the Acque Minerali chicane trying for a qualifying lap. Instead of coming into the pits to get it fixed, he chose to stay out and try for another fast lap time. As he entered the very fast Villeneuve Curva, his damaged front wing failed while driving at 190 mph and Ratzenberger struggled to control the car. He hit a concrete wall almost head-on and was fatally injured suffering a basal skull fracture. Roland Ratzenberger died aged just 33. It was the first death in Formula 1 since Senna’s ex-team-mate Elio de Angelis in 1986.
F1’s lead doctor and medical expert, Professor Sid Watkins was a very close friend of Senna. Watkins revolutionised medical treatment at F1 races and was responsible for saving the lives of many drivers over the years. The following is taken from his autobiography of a conversation that he and Senna shared after the tragic death of Roland Ratzenberger:
“Ayrton broke down and cried on my shoulder.”
“What else do you need to do? You have been world champion three times, you are obviously the quickest driver. Give it up and let’s go fishing.”
Senna replied: “Sid, there are certain things over which we have no control. I cannot quit, I have to go on.”
– Professor Sid Watkins
It was race day, 1st of May, 1994. Senna had secured pole for the start after refusing to take part in the previous day’s qualifying session following the death of Ratzenberger. It had already been an unrelenting two days of terrible luck and accidents. We all hoped the bad luck was over, fingers crossed there would be no more incidents But the worst was yet to come:
“This is the blackest day for Grand Prix racing that I can remember in the many, many years I have been covering the sport.”
– Murray Walker
It was a glorious, sunny day and one burnt into my memory for the rest of my life. Me and my brother Rob used to have a tradition where we would get together and watch the Formula 1 without fail, even if it meant staying up until dawn to watch a live race shown on the other side of the planet. We both grew up watching this sport together and we loved it with a passion. We followed Senna from his early Lotus years and all through his F1 career, little did we know that this would be the last time we would see Senna in the sport that both he and we loved. Rob went to the fridge to get a couple of cold beers for us and rushed back to his seat before the start of the race as not to miss a single second of Senna’s triumphant return to form and what we both hoped would be the race that kick-started his 1994 F1 World Championship. Even Senna himself was confident that Imola would be the start of his World Championship campaign, as he revealed in an interview with legendary commentator Murray Walker just a few hours before the race:
“Basically our championship starts here. Fourteen races, not sixteen. It’s not a comfortable position to be in, but that’s the reality. The team is conscious about the challenge we have to make to recover the ground over Benetton.”
– Ayrton Senna
A very pensive and somewhat apprehensive Senna sat in the cockpit of his Williams, reflecting on all that had happened the last two days. The car rested on the grid while the team mechanics ensured the Williams was as perfect as it could be just before the opening parade lap. Our beers were cracked open just as the cars pulled back into their respective qualifying positions ready for the start. Rob and I took a good swig of that golden brew as the red lights to signal the drivers that the start of the race was imminent. We both sat forwards in our seats, ready to watch our hero, Ayrton Senna dominate and teach the other drivers what real racing was. Murray Walker’s normal excitable voice was somewhat morose and downbeat following the events of the previous day as he introduced the live F1 action.
Our eyes were firmly fixated on Senna as he got away clean when the red lights finally change to green. But there was a problem, in the middle of the gird the Benetton of J.J. Lehto had stalled. All of the other cars accelerated from 0 – 160 mph heading towards the first corner of the race, the very fast Tamburello, unaware there was a stationary car on the grid. Pedro Lamy in the Lotus ploughed into the back of the stalled Benetton creating a scene of utter chaos and destruction. Debris from the crash showered the racetrack and some of it even cleared the safety fence put in place to protect the spectators and caused numerous injures to nine people. Thankfully, both Lehto and Lamy walked away unscathed. The terrible accidents of the Imola 94 race just refused to end.
The safety car was deployed, holding all remaining drivers at a slower driving speed. At the drivers briefing before the race, Senna expressed a major concern that the safety car did not go fast enough in order to keep tyres at the temperatures needed for race conditions and this would result in a loss of traction and grip, if only they had listened. The debris from the start crash was eventually cleared and the safety car pulled into the pit lane on lap 5, as the race got underway once more.
It was on lap 7 as he was leading the race, coming into the fastest corner of the track, Tamburello, when Senna’s car failed to turn and it went straight on. Senna managed to slow the car down from 190 mph to 131 mph, but it was too late. The Williams car skipped over the gravel trap designed the slow the cars down and careened into the concrete wall. Senna’s concern over the safety car cooling down the tyres proved to be true as his car ‘bottomed out’ when the tyre pressure dropped, which caused the car to lower and it was this that sent his car straight into a concrete wall… At least that is one theory.
Sid Watkins was one of the first to arrive on the crash scene and he recalled tending to his close friend, Senna at the track-side:
“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 not religious, I felt his spirit depart at that moment.”
– Professor Sid Watkins
Around ten minutes after Senna’s fatal crash, the Larrousse team mistakenly let one of their drivers, Érik Comas, out of the pits despite the circuit being closed under red flags conditions. Comas drove past the crash site and saw what had happened to Senna. He then pulled out of the race due to being too distressed and upset at what he had just witnessed. This is the very same Érik Comas whose life was saved by Senna in 1990 after a bad crash. Bitter irony?
Though Ayrton Senna was officially pronounced dead at 6:40 pm on the 1st of May, 1994 several hours after the crash, Professor Sid Watkins later confirmed that Senna died right there, track-side. As mentioned earlier, Senna had a tradition of waving the Brazilian flag on his celebration lap whenever he won a race and he would often have the flag under his racing overalls. At the hospital, it was discovered Senna had an Austrian flag tucked away in his racing overalls, obviously planning on paying tribute to Roland Ratzenberger who had died the previous day.
“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.”
– Ayrton Senna
I was 17-years-old then and up to that point in my life, I had not yet really experienced the death of someone I really looked up to like that. Senna’s fatal crash left long-lasting scars with me, so much so that I have only ever seen the crash once and that was when I watched the race live with my brother in 1994. For me, being a Senna fan was so much more than ‘just being a fan’. My brother Rob and myself have always been close, we share a lot of similar interests in music, films, etc. But it was our shared passion for Ayrton Senna that really was a defining and important factor in our relationship… And it still is.
I even have the iconic Senna ‘S’ tattooed on my arm (really, I do). Later, I named my firstborn child Sienna after Senna. Not just out of respect for a sportsman I never even knew or met, but also because of just how much closer following Senna brought me and my brother and the many, many happy hours of memories that linger in the back of my head whenever I see that distinctive yellow helmet. I even wanted to have our son be named Ayrt, so our kids would be called ‘Ayrt and Sienna’, but the name proved unpopular.
Many people still speculate to this day on just how Senna died with some not satisfied with the previously mentioned ‘bottoming out’ theory. Some people claim there’s no way that a driver as skilled and as experienced as Senna was would not be able to control the car better at the time. I really don’t care for all of the conspiracy theories surrounding Senna’s untimely death. Personally, I prefer to remember how he lived.
Senna was never an angel as some Senna fans will like to claim. He would bend and break rules, not as bad as Michael Schumacher but still, he knew how to make things work to his advantage. The collision with Prost in 1990 that secured Senna his second World Championship was done so on purpose, Senna himself admitted as much the year after. He infamously punched Eddie Irvine in the face after the Japanese GP in 1993. He certainly was no angel. But there is one thing he was and always will be… The Greatest.
If you’d like to learn more about Ayrton Senna, then I highly recommend the documentary film Senna from 2010. A brilliant and thought-provoking film that even non-F1/Senna fans can enjoy. Then there’s also an up and coming Senna TV mini-series inspired by the man’s life, from Netflix.
“I believe in the ability of focusing strongly in something, then you are able to extract even more out of it. It’s been like this all my life, and it’s been only a question of improving it, and learning more and more and there is almost no end. As you go through you just keep finding more and more. It’s very interesting, it’s fascinating.”
– Ayrton Senna