On this day: The life and death of a great – Senna

By Adam Macdonald

A true great who gave such a service to the sport, and someone that will always be remembered, not least for his blistering speed, but also his personality off the track. Of course, it is none other than Ayrton Senna, now 19 years on.

World Championships 3
Grand Prix Entries 162
Grand Prix Wins 41
Pole Positions 65
Nationality Brazilian


Ayrton Senna da Silva was born into a wealthy family in São Paulo on 21st March 1960. He was the middle child of three, had a highly athletic upbringing and excelled in gymnastics. He first reportedly took an interest in motor racing at the tender age of 4. At the age of 7 he learned how to drive; taking a Jeep around the family farm.

His first kart was a 1 HP go-kart which was built by his father using an old lawnmower engine. He entered his first competition at 13, and it is from here his racing spirit was born. Senna won the South American Kart Championship in 1977, and competed in the Karting World Championship from 1978-82. During which time he finished runner-up in 1979 and 1980.

What might have been…?

1981 was a pivotal year in the life of Senna, as he first moved to England at this time. He won the RAC and Townsend-Thoreson Formula Ford 1600 Championships, in his first single-seater. Initially, Senna was pressured to take up a role in the family business, as he returned to Brazil. However, the offer of £10,000 to race for the Formula Ford 2000 team made him return to England. How different life could have been for Senna.

He went on to win the British and European Formula Ford 2000 Championships. The following year, 1983, Senna drove in the British Formula Three Championships. He won the title in the final race, after an extremely close battle with Martin Brundle. This win, coupled with that at the inaugural Macau Formula 3 Grand Prix, propelled him closer to the forefront of the motoring world.

Onto the grandest stage of all

Signing for Toleman was, more an act of desperation to drive than anything else, but turned out to be a great move. Peter Warr, at Lotus, had wanted to replace Nigel Mansell with Senna, but was not able to do so due to sponsors, Imperial Tobacco, wanting a British driver (now where else have we seen this?).

The first steps in a gloriously decorated career, was scoring his first World Championship point, in South Africa, at only his second race. The Monaco GP of that year he gained his first ever podium. He had in fact passed Alain Prost for the lead, but due to technicalities in the way the race was stopped (due to adverse weather conditions), Prost was awarded the win. He had been catching Prost at a staggering 4 seconds per lap!

The rest, as they say, is history

Commenting on how brilliant he was almost seems pointless. The tributes to him are close to endless. A Google search alone returns 13, 200,000 results. For this reason I have decided to merely include a link to his tribute page, on the official Formula One page.


1988, 1990 and 1991 were the years he won the WDC. His last race win coming at the Australian GP of 1993.

An (un)timely end

The fall from grace of a champion is never nice to watch at the best of times. This is not something Senna was afforded the chance of, due to his death at Imola 1994. That fateful day will be remembered by so many, for so many different reasons. Schumacher fell from grace after his return to the sport in 2010, adding further weight to the argument of going out on a high.

It is being robbed of this duel between those two personalities that was such a big loss for Formula One fans. We can only hypothesise how the season would have panned out, were it not for that tragic incident. There are even some who say that he is remembered in his god like stature, due to dying behind the wheel.

1st May 1994 was a bad day for motorsport as a whole. Senna had complained about the handling of his FW16 previously that weekend. Professor Sid Watkins (F1 doctor and good friend of Senna’s) had told him to ‘stop racing and go fishing’, to which Senna told him he could not stop racing. As Senna left the track at the high-speed Tamburello corner, on lap 7, a hero was lost, but the legend lives on.

A true mark of respect

How a man (or woman) is remembered by his peers has to be the ultimate test. For this, the most prominent showing of emotion has to be bringing a grown man, and a multiple World Champion, to tears. In the interview below, even the great Michael Schumacher cannot contain how he feels after winning in Italy, in a Ferrari – surely one of the best feelings there can be for an F1 driver.

Another poignant time, was when a question was posed to Fernando Alonso after winning his second WDC, in 2006. He was asked, “When will you be satisfied?”

Alonso paused, and responded that when he had 3 titles he would be happy then.

When asked why 3, he replied, “Because that’s what Senna achieved.”

That in itself says it all.

Fearless and proud

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said ‘A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.’ Senna did just that. One of the most fitting tributes I can think of, is his personality. Even after the death of Ratzenberger (the day before his own), he was fearless, continuing to race. An Austrian flag was found in his cockpit; which he had intended to raise in honour of the Austrian at the end of the race.

Ayrton died doing what he loved and will always be remembered for that; there are not many better ways to bow out.

7 responses to “On this day: The life and death of a great – Senna

    • I saw it and didn’t think it was that great. As someone who followed F1 in those days and saw Senna race many times it is quite often one-sided and bordering on fanboy adoration. The producers trying to make Prost out as a villain was plain wrong. And the video quality was atrocious. The producers struck me as guys that would be Hamilton fans today.

      • Obviously we disagree. I also watched F1 in those days and, obviously, the documentary was conceived as a hagiography. I did not think Prost was presented as a villain, but for sure there were some frictions between them and they both played the conflict with different weapons. For the spectator, the upfront impulsive guy is always more appealing than the calculative guy with a good connection with the regulators (Balestre et al). I agree that the video quality is not good, but such was the quality of recorded material back then. When you listen to María Callas performing a Norma, sound quality is not good but there is a lot to like besides the recording. I try to concentrate on what is positive.

      • I went to see it at the cinema with my wife.
        She has no desire to watch F1 but found it compelling. I remember much of that era and Prost being a very political driver. He obviously had a close relationship with Balestre who I despised, was a personal favourite of a journalist Nigel Roebuck, who incidently can be seen talking to Prost as they walk towards the stewards office, another individual that I found hypocritical beyond belief when it came to Senna.
        I digress. If I had been by myself, I’d have walked out. The end of the film was possibly the most nauseating part of the whole experience.
        I’d read enough reports to know that the film had been sanctioned with the blessing of the Senna family. A family who coincidently asked Xuxa, an old girlfriend, and celebrity, to perform the role of widow, simply because they didn’t approve of Senna’s choice of partner.
        Every book I have read and every newspaper article, state that Senna’s brother had gone over to Europe to try to get Senna to leave his girlfirend. The family did not like her, something to do with her class, and were not happy about him choosing to spend the 1994 season in Europe with her.
        He was not talking to them at San Marino, yet we are supposed to believe that Senna spoke to his family and told them about opening the bible and the line “he would receive the greatest gift bestowed upon him by God”
        To a Catholic, that means only one thing. And the family adding to the story and making a ruthless driver into a deity is frankly alarming.

        In the same way that ITV replayed the Martin Bashir documentary about Michael Jackson after he died, but left out the controversial parts of the interview , this film also was about rewriting history for the masses.

  1. “He had in fact passed Alain Prost for the lead, but due to technicalities in the way the race was stopped (due to adverse weather conditions), Prost was awarded the win”

    Senna never passed Prost during the race. He passed Prost after Prost pulled off the track due to a red flag being displayed. The race actually was over the lap before.

  2. I agree about the adoration. It steps over the line into being like a hagiographic style calender gaze. Didn’t really give you a sense of the racer. However, complaining about the video quality : lol. How old are you? I thought it looked superb – the graininess of the original tape footage – on Blu-ray. They had such an advantage with some of that footage that hadn’t been seen before. The footage at the end in particular was unforgettable, quite moving. For me watching the BBC’s F1 coverage with James Hunt commentating on Senna (then reading his piece in the Telegragh on monday) was what really got me into F1 in the first place. Not as showy but as posted by the judge elsewhere, I take the BBC doc as a more substantial piece of filmmaking.

    And Thanks for the piece above.

  3. I remember distinctly the day Senna died. Being in the southern hemi, I was in bed watching the GP – after that crash I cried and didnt sleep much that night. What a loss for us, he was such a racer; a real racers racer. Wonder how he would cope in our PC racing now?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.