The Death of a Legend
Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian racing driver, is most famed for his tragic early death at the San Marino Grand Prix on Sunday 1st May 1994. During a weekend of catastrophe, the death of Senna, is for many F1 fans, seen as the greatest tragedy of the sport and represented the loss of the greatest driver the world has seen. The course at Imola has since been changed, following the tragedy, as successive accidents throughout the weekend acted as harbingers of Senna’s death.
On the Friday, during qualifying, Rubens Barichello, a protégé to Senna and highly talented exponent of the sport, had veered off, was knocked unconscious and swallowed his own tongue. More tragic still was the Saturday, when Austrian novice, Roland Ratzenberger, driving for Simtek in only his 3rd race, crashed off at the Villeneuve Curve following a front wing problem and was instantly killed. During the inspection of Senna’s car after the accident, investigators found an Austrian flag, testament to the great respect the Brazilian had for his contemporaries and character of the man in question.
Senna had been deeply troubled by the weekend’s activities and after visiting Barichello in hospital, he took the lead in organising a Driver’s Safety group. There are rumours that the events distressed him so much that he had contemplated retirement, but on the Sunday he took his place at pole. The omens continued and the start of the race saw a further crash between Pedro Lamy and J. J. Lehto. Senna, taking the lead on the re-start, approached the Tamburello Bend at around 190mph and his car veered off, crashing into the concrete wall. Knowing the gravity of the situation, the car was approached by marshals but, on the orders of the medical staff, Senna lay untouched. A world watched as his head seemingly twitched and elated hopes and prayers were raised around the world. Senna was removed from the car and flown to Bologna hospital, where he was later declared dead due to massive brain damage.
The tributes to Senna poured in after his death and more than one million fans in Sao Paulo attended his funeral. As a mark of respect to both Senna and Ratzenberger, the following Grand Prix, staged at Monaco, saw the national flags of Brazil and Austria painted in pole and second position.
There is no doubt that Senna is one of the greatest drivers ever to have ever entered into F1. Born in Sao Paulo Brazil on 21st March 1960, Senna was the second child of Neyde Senna, and Milton Da Silva, but took his mother’s name professionally, as Da Silva was so common in Brazil. He had one sister, Vivianne Lalli, and one brother, Leonardo Da Silva. Growing up in Santana, an affluent neighbourhood, his father was a successful businessman and ran a series of companies. Ayrton did, during a brief hiatus from racing, enter into the family trade but his urge to compete was too strong and this was short-lived. During his early life, Senna was actually diagnosed with a motor co-ordination disorder and this, it could be argued, would prove the single most important event in his life. In order to assist his son, who had an obvious love of cars, his father purchased a 1hp kart for the young Senna when he was 4 years old. While the story might be a tad apocryphal, apparently Senna was transformed when put in front of the wheel, and the rest, as they say, is history. At the age of 8, the young Ayrton was permitted to drive the family car and again those around him have commented on his exceptional skills. Keen to foster his son’s talent, the next step up was when Ayrton turned 10 and his father presented him with a 100cc Kart. While unable to race competitively, the minimum age for carting in Brazil being 13, the young Ayrton would practise on the local circuit at Parque Anhembi
Turning 13 in 1973, the young Ayrton entered his first carting race at the Interlagos Complex to the South of Central Sao Paulo. He never doubted his own abilities and first place was his, against a competitive young field. Continuing carting, Senna’s victorious record culminated in 1977 and 1978, when he won the South American carting championship. Further victories followed over the next 3 years.
In 1979, Senna competed in the world championships in Europe. At Estoril he managed a second place finish and the same spot at Nivelles the following year. In 1981, he took up residence in the Van Diemen team, racing Formula Ford 1600. The 1600cc cars were run in a series of contests and Senna successfully contested, and won, two of the three running in that year. However, in order to continue his progress he would need sponsorship, which was not forthcoming, and exasperated with what he saw as lesser drivers receiving monetary support, he announced his retirement from the sport, returning to his father’s business. His father eventually conceded to Ayrton’s frustration and agreed to sponsor his son for another championship, alongside a Brazilian bank. Senna’s return to England for the 1982 season was certainly a success and he amassed 22 solid victories. The move did not come without sacrifice though and Ayrton separated from his wife the same year.
This success provided the catalyst for Senna’s next move into Formula 3. Entering the championship as favourite, Senna achieved 9 straight victories in the first 9 races. However, the British driver, Martin Brundle provided excellent competition and ensured Senna had to fight for the title. Having run the championship neck-and-neck throughout, Senna only triumphed in the last race at Thruxton, claiming the championship from Brundle. As a training ground for F1, Senna was an obvious choice rookie for the next season and was signed up by Toleman, (who later went on to form Benneton), on a three-year contract. Ayrton’s F1 debut was on the Brazilian circuit, and he was 17th on the grid after posting a 1’33.525 during the qualifying session. Unfortunately his car suffered from problems in the 8th lap and he was forced to retire officially, finishing 24th in the listings. Failing to qualify for the next San Marino race was unheard of for Senna and a vastly frustrating experience. It has been argued that Monaco was the first example of his genius, when under torrential rain, Senna managed to rival the then dominant Alain Prost before the race was cancelled in the 31st lap. It was evidence, however, of his great skill as a driver and made the world take notice. At the end of his first season, Senna finished a respectable 9th and amassed 13 points.
Although contractually obliged to Toleman, a loop-hole meant Senna was able to move to Lotus-Renault the following season. Lotus had been the team of one of his childhood heroes