“And suddenly I realized that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension.” – Ayrton Senna-.
Brazilians are passionate about speed and that passion produced a few names that became legendary; most of them are well known only within the country borders but others became legends all around the world, and sure enough, Ayrton Senna is at the top of the list.
Senna was born on March 21st, 1960, in a wealthy family that provided him with all sorts of opportunities during his childhood.
At a very young age, like all racing drivers, Ayrton was captivated by cars and speed. At the age of 4, his dad gave him a home-built “go-kart” powered by a lawnmower engine and it became his favorite toy for many years.
When he was 13, he started competing in go-kart races across the country. In 1974 and 1976, he won the municipal championship. In 1978, 1979, and 1980, he became the Brazilian go-kart champion, as well as the South American champion in 1977 and 1980. He would later recall this time as the most joyful of his career: “I only have good memories of my go-kart years. No money, no politics, just pure racing.”
It is a well-known fact that Senna had an extraordinary ability to race in the rain and that is more related to hard work than to raw talent. During his early years racing go-karts, Senna failed miserably to achieve a decent result in a race that happened in the rain, determined to never face this situation again, he decided to train hard on the wet pavement, every rainy day he would rush to the race track and drive hard for hours until he mastered the art of racing in the rain.
With all those titles under his belt, it was easy to find a position in the British Formula Ford, and in 1981 Senna was hired by the Van Diemen Racing and he completely dominated the season, winning 12 out of 20 races. Oddly enough Ayrton couldn’t find a sponsor for the next season and giving in to the pressure of his parents, he returned to Brazil to assume one of the family’s hardware stores.
The new enterprise didn’t last long, in 1982 Senna was back to the British Formula Ford and again he didn’t leave any room for the other competitors, winning 20 out of 27 races of the season.
Ayrton Senna superb performance granted him a position in the “West Surrey Racing” for the 1983 Formula 3 season, but that year another talented rookie gave Senna a good fight, Martin Brundle secured enough points during the season to bring the battle for the championship to the last race, in Silverstone.
It was an amazing race, both drivers used the dominant Toyota 2T-G powered Ralt RT3/83, making their performance very close. At the end, Senna won the race and the championship. For the Brazilian, Silverstone became something like his second home, to the point the media nicknamed it “Silvastone”, in relation with Ayrton’s last name “Silva”.
Jumping into the Formula One Universe.
In the same year of his F3 championship, Frank Williams invited Senna for a test drive at Donington Park. The car that was waiting for him that day was the same FW-08 that gave Keke Rosberg his only world title, in 1982, the team got it ready with whatever they had at the moment, the tires were not the “qualifying” type and the engine was not running at 100%.
Right before jumping into the cockpit, Senna did something that became folkloric among his fans, he gently tapped three times the rear wing of the car and said: “Today is the day“; and in fact it was, driving a car that was in no way set up to be fast, he not only beat the time of the Williams official test drive but also broke the track’s record. Senna knew he couldn’t get hired by Williams since the team had already signed contracts with Keke Rosberg and Jacques Laffite, but he also knew his impressive performance would bring other teams to the table.
Frank Williams was asked once if he regretted missing the opportunity to have hired Senna, which he responded: “I was actually relieved that Ayrton went to another team, our cars for the 1984 season were a total disaster and I would be very disappointed to see him wasting his first year in Formula One driving for us“.
Senna was also in contact with McLaren and Brabham but he ended up signing with a much smaller team, the Tolleman-Hart.
The First Season.
The strongest contender for the 1984 title was McLaren, the new MP4/2, powered by the Porsche turbo V6 engine was a superb car and the team had two brilliant drivers, Alan Prost and Niki Lauda. Nelson Piquet, the winner of the 1983 season, also had good chances with his BMW turbo-powered Brabham.
Ayrton Senna scored points at South Africa GP and also at the Belgium GP, which can be considered a big deal for a rookie driving for a small team, but it was at the Monaco GP that he showed the world he was not your average midfield driver.
On the day of the race it was pouring rain and the experienced Niki Lauda raised a very important concern, the pavement inside the tunnel was dry but covered with a thin layer of oil and grime, with the cars coming in with wet tires, spraying water all over it, the tunnel would become as slippery as a hockey rink. Bernie Ecclestone sent a fire truck to wash away the dirt as much as possible and to get the tunnel as soaked as the rest of the track, delaying the start by 45 minutes.
The circuit of Monaco, under normal circumstances, can be a very challenging one, but on a raining day it becomes extremely treacherous, all the drivers were going around very cautiously, but Senna, who started the race in the 13th position, imposed an insane pace, leaving behind one competitor after another. All those long hours training in the rain during his go-kart years were paying off. Senna clocked the fastest lap of the race and the only driver between himself and the highest place on the podium was Alan Prost, who was leading the race since the beginning. At lap 29, Prost desperately waves his arm, begging the officials to end the race, alleging it is too dangerous to go on.
At lap 32, Jacky Ickx, the race official, gave the order to raise the red flag, but Senna still had time to pass Prost and cross the finish line in the first position. The only problem was: according to the rules, the positions counted are those from the lap before the red flag, giving the victory to Prost with Senna in second.
Ickx was relieved of his duties as the race official for finishing the competition without consulting the track marshals but that didn’t change the final results. Jacky Ickx was at that time the number one driver for the Rothmans- Porsche GT Team with powerful links within the company, rumors say that his decision not only saved Prost of the embarrassment of losing the race to a rookie driving a far inferior car but also favored McLaren, whose cars were powered by Porsche engines.
The 1984 Monaco GP was a very contentious and exciting race and marks the beginning of the Senna X Prost feud, which is, perhaps, one of the most bitter rivalries in the history of Formula One.
The wall moved.
The mystique surrounding the 1984 Monaco GP perhaps overshadowed another interesting story about Senna’s debut season, during the Dallas GP, Senna crashed his car against the concrete wall, in what appeared to be a common rookie mistake, but Senna came to his race engineer, Pat Symonds with a different complaint. Here is a part of Symonds’s interview:
“The car was reasonably competitive there, so we expected to have a good race, but Ayrton spun early in the race. He then found his way back through the field in a quite effective way and we were looking for a pretty good finish, but then he hit the wall, damaged the rear wheel and the driveshaft and retired, which was a real shame. The real significance of that was that when he came back to the pits he told me what happened and said “I’m sure that the wall moved!” And even though I’ve heard every excuse every driver has ever made, I certainly hadn’t heard of that one! But Ayrton being Ayrton, with his incredible belief in himself, the absolute conviction, he then talked me into going with him after the race to have a look at the place where he had crashed. And he was absolutely right, which was an amazing thing! Dallas being a street circuit, the track was surrounded by concrete blocks and what had happened – we could see it from the tire marks – was that someone had hit at the far end of the concrete block and that made it swivel slightly, so that the leading edge of the block was standing out by a few millimeters. And he was driving with such precision that those few millimeters were the difference between hitting the wall and not hitting the wall. While I had been, at first, annoyed that we had retired from the race through a driver error, when I saw what had happened, when I saw how he had been driving, that increased my respect for the guy by quite a lot“.
Niki Lauda won the 1984 championship just 0.5 point ahead of Alan Prost, making evident the superiority of the McLaren/Porsche cars. Senna finished the season in 9th position.
The Lotus Years
In 1985, Senna signed a contract with Lotus, replacing Nigel Mansell, who had signed with Williams. The team had a good car, the Lotus 97T, powered by a Renault -Gordini turbocharged V6 engine. The combo Senna + the 97T would give Lotus real chances to bring back the glory days of the 1970s.
For old fans like me, it was interesting to see Ayrton driving a Lotus wearing the legendary black and gold JPS livery, it immediately brought memories of Fittipaldi, in 1972.
Ayrton’s first victory came in the Portuguese GP, 1985, he started the race in the pole position, under heavy rain and once again he proved to be a hard-to-beat driver on the wet pavement. Senna set the fastest lap of the race, and by the end of the competition, he had already lapped every driver up to the third position. Senna received the checkered flag with over a minute ahead of the second-place, Michele Alboreto (Ferrari).
On several occasions, the Brazilian would remember this race as the best driving of his entire career.
Senna drove for Lotus for 3 seasons, 1985, 86, and 87, he scored 48 races, 15 pole positions, 6 wins, 22 podiums and 150 points. The team helped him to reach his full potential as a seasoned, professional Formula One driver, not only on the track but behind the scenes well, but it failed to provide competitive equipment, the Lotus cars were fast and nimble but very unreliable.
Lotus finished the 1987 season in third place and that was the last time the original team, founded by Colin Chapman, was among the greatest constructors, thanks to Senna’s talent and the power of the Honda engine.
The team had signed with a new sponsorship, Camel, and for the first time in 14 years, the cars were not painted in the iconic black and gold JPS livery that became the image of the team.
Senna also had the honour to give Lotus its last victory in Formula One, in the Detroit GP, 1987.
The McLaren years
Those 3 years Senna spent driving for Lotus showed the world he was a superb driver and had unbelievable confidence in himself. When he finished the 1987 season in third place, everyone knew it was just a matter of time for him to win the world championship.
Ron Dennis, McLaren’s big boss, was trying to bring Senna to the team for 2 years already when the contract was finally signed by the end of 1987. The Brazilian was about to join a bigger enterprise, with a more consistent car, that would ultimately give him the chance to win the title but despite all the expectations, the biggest obstacle would be his teammate, Alan Prost.
By the time Ayrton joined McLaren, Prost had two world titles already under his belt and he was the number one driver for the team since 1984, but he knew (just like everyone else) that Senna would not accept being the number two, from now on both drivers would have the same equipment and the same opportunities within the team.
The feud between Prost and Senna became a very important chapter in their professional lives. Even after more than 30 years, it will still generate passionate debates about who was right and who was wrong.
The driving style of each one of them played a very important role during this battle, Prost was nicknamed “The Professor”, he was a strategist, cerebral driver that would patiently wait for the right moment to make a move, while Senna was the “road-warrior”, always driving by instinct and going flat-out at any opportunity. Most of the fans immediately picked Senna as their favourite driver since he provided the kind of material they were looking for: bold maneuver, crazy takeovers, and pure speed.
The 1988 season started with some changes from the previous year, in an attempt to slow down the speed of the turbo-cars, FIA restricted the boost from 4.0 bar to 2.5 bar, bringing the power down to (still insane) 1,000 HP, and also reducing the fuel capacity of those cars. They were just paving the way for a complete ban on turbos for the next year.
Ayrton Senna won his first championship this year, with 8 victories and 90 points, against Alan Prost’s 7 victories and 87 points. The dominance of the McLaren team was flagrant, they have the best car, powered by the best engine and driven by the best drivers, but for those who thought the season would be boring, they were mistaken, the rivalry between Senna and Prost made 1988 an unforgettable year for Formula One. Here are some interesting races of the season:
The Brazilian fans packed the Jacarepaguá race track, in Rio de Janeiro, (now named after Nelson Piquet, to honor his third world championship, won in the year before) for the opening race of the 1988 season. The fans were there not only to see Senna debut at McLaren but mainly to see Piquet debut at Lotus, the two Brazilian almost spoiled the event when they engaged in a ridiculous exchange of insults (even involving aspects of their personal lives) in the days before the race. Senna dominated the practicing on Friday and qualified as pole-position on Saturday, Nigel Mansel got the second position with a non-turbo Williams and Prost was in third.
Right after the warm-up lap, Senna got a broken gear shifter, he raises his arms to advise the officials something is wrong and the start of the race was delayed. The mechanics even tried to fix the problem while the car was still on the grid but they were not able to get it done.
What happened next was the kind of stuff that legends are made of, Senna jumps into the spare car and starts the race from the pits, in the 21st position, he muscles his way up at an incredible pace, and after 13 laps he is already at 6th place, and before the 20th lap was over he was in second and the fans were going crazy. At this point, Prost was leading the race and everybody was waiting to see the battle for the first position but at 30th lap, the race officials disqualified Senna for joining the race with the spare car after the green flag was waved. The team accepted the punishment and there was no appealing after that. Some people say that the decision to disqualify Senna was agreed upon at the first lap of the race but they let him drive just for the sake of the “show”.
Prost easily won the Brazilian GP, Gerhard Berger (Ferrari) came in second and Nelson Piquet (Lotus) in third.
Senna qualified as pole-position and thanks to his “millimetric precision” driving skills, he was leading the race comfortably. On lap 54, Prost passed Berger to get the P2 but he was 50 seconds behind Senna. In an effort to close in on his teammate, he clocked the fastest lap of the race, not happy with that, Senna also dropped the hammer and both drivers started to compete for the fastest lap. With only 11 laps remaining, Ron Dannis radioed Senna and asked him to quit the foolishness and slow down, to guarantee an easy 1-2 win for McLaren. Ayrton even followed the instruction and Prost closed the gap to merely 6 seconds but at lap 67 the unimaginable happened, he lost control of his McLaren and crashed into the barrier at turn 8, called “Portier”.
Extremely frustrated and embarrassed that his mistake had caused him to lose an easy victory, he left the scene and walked to his Monaco residence. It took a while for the team to find out what had happened, meanwhile, Prost had no problems winning the race. Senna only came back to pits later on, by the time the crew was already packing and getting ready to leave.
At the Portuguese GP, the tension between Senna and Prost reached boiling point, the Frenchman who qualified as pole-position tried to block Senna right after the start, pushing him close to the grass, and later on, Senna paid back pushing Prost against the concrete wall at almost 300km/h.
Prost insisted that Senna should face some disciplinary action but it never happened.
The decision of the championship came down to Japan, the penultimate race of the season, a victory there would give Senna the title in advance.
Senna started the race as the pole position but he stalled the engine at the launching, but Suzuka had the only sloping grid of the year and so the Brazilian was able to bump start his car and bring the Honda V6 back to life but he had already fallen to P14, giving all the fans at home a heart attack. What we saw after that was a performance that helped to give him the status of a legend.
It took him just 4 laps to pass nothing less than 10 competitors, at lap 19 he was already in the second position, and once again the only driver between himself and the victory was Prost. Halfway through the end of the race, a light rain had started and part of the track was getting wet, Prost was dealing with a failing gearbox and at lap 26 he could already see Senna on his mirrors.
On lap 27 Senna overtook Prost on a beautiful maneuver, the Frenchman even tried to block him but it didn’t work, after assuming the lead, the Brazilian then put in a succession of fast laps, finishing the race 13 seconds ahead of Prost; the battle of the championship was over in a race that many consider one of the most existing in F-One history.
“Senna doesn’t want to just beat me, he wants to humiliate me”. -Alan Prost-
McLaren clinched its fourth constructor world title in an almost perfect season, winning 15 out of 16 races, Bernie Ecclestone, the FIA boss, said the team didn’t do anything extraordinary, “McLaren just accomplished what they were supposed to”, but he acknowledged that the Senna x Prost rivalry had brought new excitement to F-One and renewed the fans interest.
The 1989 season.
The big news for the 1989 season was the ban on turbocharged engines, this decision finally brought the smaller teams into the fight for a place at the podium. McLaren was still the strongest contender for the title but the team no longer had absolute dominance on the grid. Throughout the season the Senna x Prost war was at full steam, but they shared the victories with Nigel Mansell (Ferrari), Thierry Boutsen (Williams), Gerhard Berger (Ferrari), and Alessandro Nannini (Benetton).
Once again the Japanese GP was the battlefield that would decide the title between Senna and Prost. To win another world title, the Brazilian needed to win here in Japan and Australia, Senna qualified in pole position but Prost jumped in front of him at the start and established a strong pace, not giving any chances to his teammate, who was in second.
After Senna got a fresh set of tires, the situation changed, the Brazilian closed the gap and was furiously looking for an opportunity to overtake Prost. Finally, at lap 47, Senna got his chance but when the two cars were almost side by side, Prost tried to “close the door” but it was too late, the crash was inevitable. While Prost left his car and walked back to the pits, Senna, with the help of the track marshals, restarted his McLaren and immediately took it to the pits, to replace the damaged front wing set. He came back in second, with Alessandro Nannini (Benetton-Ford) in first, with only two laps left before the end of the race, Senna passed Nannini and won the Japan GP.
This amazing “Senna-style” victory should have opened a clear path to his second world title but instead, it became a nightmare, Jean-Marie Balestre the FIA big boss at that time decided to disqualify Ayrton for taking a shortcut back to the track right after the crash but if that wasn’t enough, Senna was considered responsible for the accident with Prost, and deemed “dangerous”, he was fined $100k and suspended for 6 months, automatically giving Prost the championship.
Alan Prost won his third World Championship in 1989 but he had to deal with the suspicion that without the little help from his friend (no exaggeration here, Balestre was in fact a good friend of Prost) he wouldn’t have beaten Senna.
The Second Title.
For the 1990 Formula One season the big news was Alan Prost who left McLaren and became the number one driver for Ferrari. The Frenchman had the honour to give the Italian team a real chance to win the championship for the first time since 1983.
Once again the battle for the title of the season came to Japan, Senna arrived in Suzuka with 78 points, nine more than Prost, a victory there would either give him the championship or make things a lot easier for the last race of the season, in Australia.
In Suzuka, the pole position starts at the inside lane, close to the wall, which is the dirty side, with less grip, Senna knew he would probably be the fastest in qualifying so he started putting some pressure on the organizers to swap the pole position place.
Senna’s request was denied, which made him furious, he got the pole position but Prost, who started on the better side of the track, jumped in P1, and a mere 800 meters later, the two drivers got entangled at the same turn they crashed in 1989 and once again both drivers were out of the race. Mathematically Senna won the championship even before the last race, but that crash would generate heated discussions for decades.
In 1989 Prost clearly threw his car against Senna, trying to stop him at any cost, but in 1990 it was the other way around, Senna went for a gap that was obviously too small, he knew the crash was inevitable and he did it anyway. It was payback time.
When questioned about the crash he just said: “Last year, I lost the title in a crash, this year, I won it. The only difference was that it happened at the beginning of the race”. When asked if it was sad to become champion without stepping on the podium Ayrton just said: “I’ve been on the podium more than any other driver this season“.
Senna had the machine and the talent to beat Prost cleanly, throughout the race but he chose revenge instead. For many fans, it was Senna being Senna, the hot-headed, determined driver that always performed by instinct, but for some fans (me included), just like the 1989 championship was tainted with shady negotiations behind closed doors, the 1990 championship was tainted with the dark cloud of vengeance.
The third title.
The 1991 season will always be remembered as the beginning of a new era as the guy who one day would be considered as the best Formula-One driver in history debuted that year, Michael Schumacher, the talented german racer was hired by Jordan when one of its drivers, Bertrand Gachot, was jailed for attacking a taxi driver in London.
The season also marked the reborn of Williams, the team emerged from the ashes, powered by the state-of-the-art Renault V10 engines. At this point, the car was still unreliable but they already gave the dominant McLaren-Honda a run for their money.
The season also was the last year of Nelson Piquet in Formula One, racing for Benetton-Ford. His career nose-dived after his last world title in 1987 and he was never able to come back as a real contender after that. It was also the last season of the original Lotus Racing Team.
Ayrton Senna effectively clinched his third World Championship winning seven out of 16 races of the season, the runner-up, Nigel Mansel (Williams-Renault) won five races. The year was a total disappointment for Alan Prost, who failed to win a single race and was fired from Ferrari even before the end of the season for publicly criticizing the team.
After winning in Australia and putting the world title in his pocket, Senna went to Suzuka for the first stress-free Japanese GP in years.
Right at the start, Gerad Berger jumped in P1 with Senna in second, Mansell, who was in third place and was the only threat to the McLaren’s duo, spun on lap 10 and abandoned the race.
Berger and Senna led the race with such an ease to the point that at the last lap, the drivers even “paraded”, driving in formation, celebrating Senna’s third world championship. The Brazilian didn’t fight for the P1, allowing Berger to win his first GP for McLaren.
The 1991 season marks the end of a very successful partnership between Senna, McLaren, and Honda. It was unlikely the team would be able to keep the supremacy for much longer, the wind of change was already blowing and everyone could see the next dominant team would be Williams-Renault. If Senna wants to keep winning titles, he must find a way to get hired by them.
The 1992 season confirmed all the predictions made the year before, Renault fixed the reliability problems the plagued the Williams cars during 1991 and Mansell became a more consistent driver.
The result was an absolute onslaught, Nigel won nothing less than 9 races, grabbing the title with five races in advance, his teammate Ricardo Patrese finished the season in second, and the young talent Michael Schumacher (Benneton-Ford) in third. Senna managed to win only 3 races and finished in fourth.
Senna’s former agent, Julian Jakobi, told in the podcast Beyond the Grid, that Ayrton had the chance to drive for Williams in 1992 but he decided to stay at McLaren for another year in loyalty to Ron Dennis but most of all to Nobuhiko Kawamoto, the president of Honda Motors at the time. Senna started a very good partnership with Honda while still driving for Lotus, and he always considered Mr. Kawamoto responsible for opening the doors of McLaren for him.
At the end of the 92 season, it was no secret that Senna was willing to drive for Williams but things got very complicated for the next year: Alan Prost, who took a year off in 92, replaced Nigel Mansell at Williams, and he simply blocked the Brazilian to be his teammate.
To make his hiring process easier for Williams, Senna made himself available for the 93 season, not signing any contract, but when the news of the Prost’s blockade came, the Brazilian found himself with not many options left on the table.
McLaren had replaced Honda with Ford as the engine supplier and the team’s car for 1993 was very much behind Williams in terms of technology. To make the matter even worse, Ford, under contract, had to give Benetton the best engines, leaving McLaren with inferior ones. At this point, Senna also considered going to the American Indy Series, following the advice of his friend Emerson Fittipaldi, he even went for a secret test on 20th, December 1992, in Phoenix, Arizona. He was testing for the Penske Racing Team, one of the most successful and influential teams in the IndyCar Series, but in the end, he concluded that F-One was his natural environment.
In February 1993 McLaren appointed Michael Andretti and Mika Häkkinen as the official drivers for 1993, but under a lot of pressure from Marlboro, Ron Dennis agreed to offer Senna a third car and pay the Brazilian on a race-to-race basis. Senna was no longer jobless for the 1993 season.
As predicted, Prost won his fourth world title in 1993, but Senna, driving a clearly inferior car, put up a good fight for the title, but he came as the runner-up, showing that the Williams supremacy was short-lived.
Senna won the last race of the 1993 season, the Australian GP, and Prost came in second and that was the last time both drivers stepped on the podium, Alan extended his hand, in a gesture of friendship and Ayrton pulls him to share the highest place of the podium and embraced his rival warmly. That emotional act put an end to years of bitter rivalry, it was like both drivers knew that was the right moment, and they might never again have another opportunity like that.
Later on, during the interview, Senna couldn’t hold the tears, after 6 seasons and 3 world titles, he was leaving McLaren. It was an emotional moment for Prost as well since he was retiring from Formula-One.
The Closing Chapter.
The Brazilian GP 1994, the opening race of the season, fans from all over the country flocked to”Interlagos” to see Senna’s debut at his new team, Williams. In our minds, there was only one thought: nothing would stop Ayrton from achieving his fourth world title now.
The big news for 1994 was the ban on most of the electronic driving aids that the F-One cars had accumulated over the years. It was very good news for the smaller teams since it would make the cars more affordable to build, but it also made things a bit more complicated for Ayrton and his teammate, Damon Hill: instead of building a new car from the scratch according to the new rules, Williams decided to reuse the 1993 blueprints without the electronic paraphernalia, resulting in a very unstable car.
In Brazil Senna started in the pole position with Schumacher in second, and he kept leading the race until the first pit stop when the Benetton crew was faster putting Michael back in the race.
Senna was having a hard time keeping his Williams on the track, specifically on slow corners, and to make matters worse, his transmission was acting erratically. Schumacher opened a 7 seconds gap from the Brazilian but after a second pit stop, it seemed Ayrton had got back to his game and he was closing into the German, but on lap 55, he lost control of his car and spun on Junction Corner. Unable to restart the engine, Senna just walked back to the pits, putting a sad end to his first race for Williams.
Determined to redeem himself from the disastrous Brazilian GP, Senna got himself in a spectacular battle with Schumacher for the pole position at the Pacific GP, held at the Aida Raceway, in Japan, at the end of the qualifying the Brazilian beat his opponent by 0s222 and secured the 64th pole position in his career.
Not totally happy with the performance of his car, Senna sat with his mechanics and gave them a lot of feedback on how they could improve the car, the techs then spent the whole night working on the machine. The next morning Senna was impressed with the car, it was fast and well balanced, everything he needed to go for his first victory of the season.
But all the excitement was short-lived, Ayrton was involved in an accident at the first lap of the race, here it is an account of what happened in his own words: “Since Schumacher had a better start than me, I slowed down to avoid a crash on the first corner. But then, Mika Hakkinen [McLaren] clumsily rear-ended me and took me out of the race. I was already out of the track when Nicola Larini (Ferrari) t-boned my Williams, bringing my race at Aida to an end. Rubinho (Barrichelo) and Christian (grand nephew of Emerson Fittipaldi) were all I could be happy about”.
Schumacher had no problems winning his second race of the season, with Gerhard Berger (Ferrari) in second, Rubens Barrichello (Jordan) in third, and Christian Fittipaldi (Footwork) in fourth.
The cursed weekend, San Marino, 1994.
So far, the Brazilian fans were experiencing mixed feelings about the season so far, we were disappointed to see Senna failing to finish a single race but we were happy to see Barrichello in second place, in the championship.
Expectations were running high for the next race, the San Marino GP, in Imola, another victory would put Schumacher in a very comfortable position towards his first world title, Senna desperately wanted to turn the tide especially now that Williams have found a way to tune their cars and make them competitive, and Barrichello would try to be on the podium again and keep himself in the fight for the title.
But it didn’t take too long before the world realize that there was something very sinister about that weekend.
On Friday, 29 April, during the first qualifying session, Barrichello slid his Jordan and hit the exit curb at the Variante Bassa turn, then his car took off and hit the tire barrier at 225Km/h.
The Jordan flips in the air couple of times.
Barrichello landed upside down but the track marshals didn’t waste any time turning it, he was knocked unconscious by the impact, measuring at an incredible 95g. he also had swallowed his tongue which blocked him from breathing but the doctor Sid Watkins, the head of the F-One on-track medical team, quickly saved his life. Miraculously he suffered only a broken nose and sprained wrist, which kept him from competing that weekend.
Ten years after the accident, Damon Hill told during an interview, the general feeling after Barrichello’s crash: “We all brushed ourselves off and carried on qualifying, reassured that our cars were tough as tanks and we could be shaken but not hurt.”
The 1994 season was the debut of the Austrian race driver Roland Ratzenberger, he had been hired by Simtek Racing, which was also debuting at Formula One that year. During the final qualifying session, on Saturday, Roland runs over the curb at the Acque Minerali turn, damaging his front wing, and then, making a typical rookie mistake, he decides to go for another fast lap instead of going to the pits and getting the front wing replaced. Engineers believe that going over 300Km/h at some points of the track, Ratzenberger further damaged the front wing of his car, making it uncontrollable when he came to the Villeneuve Curva, he crashed against the wall, full throttle, almost head-on.
Ratzenberger was treated at the track hospital and later on, he was airlifted to Maggiore Hospital. The session was restarted approximately 50 minutes later, but several teams—including Williams and Benetton—took no further part. Later on, Bernie Ecclestone officially announced that Roland Ratzenberger had died, a victim of multiple injuries. He was 33 years old.
Every driver was deeply shaken by the death of Ratzenberger, that accident marked the first fatally in Formula One in 12 years.
Doctor Sid Watkins recalled in his memoirs Senna’s reaction to the awful news:
“Ayrton broke down and cried on my shoulder. I tried to convince him not to race the following day, asking “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“
Senna made the pole position for the race, with Schumacher in second, right at the start, JJ Letho stalled his Benetton and was rear-ended by Pedro Lamy (Lotus), the safety car came in and kept the grid formation for 5 laps until the debris of the accident were cleared.
The safety car withdrew on lap 6 and the race was resumed, with Senna at P1, but on lap 7, the tragedy struck again.
The Tamburello Corner.
“Tamburello was always a corner where your heart was in your throat,” because you knew, if you went off there, that how you hit the wall was simply a matter of luck, good or bad.” -Keke Rosberg –
In lap 7, Ayrton was trying hard to get away from Schumacher and as he went flat out towards the exit of the Tamburello corner, Senna’s Williams suddenly veered to the right and smashed against the concrete wall.
The onboard telemetry showed that Senna crashed at 211km/h (131 miles per hour). The right-front wheel snapped, and flew back toward the cockpit, striking Senna’s helmet. He was airlifted to the hospital but after 5 hours he was declared dead. The accident was caused by mechanical failure, the skid marks on the pavement show that Senna slammed on the brakes as the last resort to avoid the crash. The Italian authorities launched an investigation and they found out that Senna had requested a shorter steering shaft and instead of making a brand new one, the technicians cut and welded the old one, making it weaker and unsafe. Quite a few people from Williams and from the Imola race track administration were prosecuted for manslaughter but they were all acquitted under Italian law.
Senna died two months after his 34th birthday, three days later his body was repatriated and carried on a firefighter truck through the streets of São Paulo, escorted by the Army Cavalry. Thousands of fans packed the streets to give the last goodbye to their idol.
The picture above shows Emerson Fittipaldi, Gerard Berger, and Alan Prost as pallbearers, Rubens Barrichello was also there, behind Berger. Brazilian government declared 3 days of official mourning.
Senna tragically left us way too soon, by the time of his death, he had accumulated 3 world titles, 41 victories, and 65 pole positions, for today’s standards it might not sound like a lot but keep in mind that Formula One was way more competitive back then. According to many, he was the most brilliant F-One driver ever, but I believe every F-One legend (Fangio, Clark, Moss, Stewart, Fittipaldi, Lauda, Senna, Schumacher, Hamilton) were the best during their own time, according to circumstances around them and the machines they drove.
How to create a superhero.
Besides Senna’s superb driving that day, in 1983, at Donington Park, when he test drove a Williams car, there wasn’t much else happening at the track; young talents test driving for F-One teams is quite common and it does not draw the attention of the local media, but the “Rede Globo”, the biggest Brazilian TV channel at that time, sent a popular sports reporter and a camera crew to cover Ayrton’s first contact with an F-One car. The company was determined to make the young race driver known to the Brazilian fans, who were at that time, focused on Nelson Piquet, fighting for his second F-One World title, in 1983.
Senna was nice to journalists and seemed to enjoy being in front of the cameras, the complete opposite of Piquet, and Rede Globo immediately started to build a “hero” image of him. By the time when Senna joined F-One, the Brazilian media figured it was the right time for a new sports idol, after all, the national soccer team failed to win the World Cup in 1982, and Piquet was doing well in F-One, but he was not charismatic at all. The scenario in the years that followed just helped to consolidate Ayrton Senna as a national hero, as he started to win races and championships, the soccer team didn’t win again in the next two world cups.
Senna became admired around the world thanks to his perseverance and extraordinary driving skills but in Brazil was a different story, he was worshiped, the Senna phenomena brought fans that didn’t even care about racing before. For us, living in a country with a systematic failure of its institutions (corruption, unemployment, inflation), Senna was our weekly dose of pride, he was the proof that we could be really good at something.