Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Catman
Today marks 21 years since the tragic weekend at Imola in 1994 that claimed the lives of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna. Many regard Ayrton to be the greatest racing driver of all time and the annual outpouring of affection to mark his death shows that emotions still run very deep on the subject. But what endeared him to so many across the globe, what made Ayrton Senna so great?
There are two things that made him the legend that he is today; his driving prowess and his deeply complicated character. The pure brilliance behind the wheel that he demonstrated every time he sat in the car was truly staggering. In particular his ability to put together the perfect qualifying lap was absolutely peerless and gained him a massive 65 pole positions. Some of his best laps were awe-inspiring and terrifying to watch.
His total belief and commitment were astonishing as he weaved around traffic and made the car dance through the corners mere millimeters from the track limits and the edge of adhesion. His talent was especially apparent at Monaco where he enjoyed so much success due to his amazing precision and understanding of the car’s potential.
His junior career was very accomplished, winning the South American Kart Championship in 1977 and finishing runner up in the Karting World Championship in 1979 and 1980. He then moved to England in 1981 and won the RAC Formula Ford 1600 championship in his first season, then the British and European Formula Ford 2000 championship in 1982. Moving to Formula Three in 1983 he emerged victorious in a hard-fought season racing against Martin Brundle.
His success and ability to quickly master new challenges in his early racing career meant his arrival on the F1 scene was highly anticipated. His first test was spectacular, actually setting a faster time than reigning World Champion Keke Rosberg in the same car. His Grand Prix debut came with Toleman in 1984, a minnow team with less competitive Pirelli tyres than the front-running cars on Michelin and Goodyear tyres.
At Monaco though we saw a glimpse of what was to come, when in the pouring rain Senna was leagues ahead of his rivals and quickly closing in on the leader Alain Prost. Unfortunately for Ayrton the rain became torrential and after much pleading from the McLaren pit-wall the race was stopped at half distance, just before Senna could catch and pass him.
The following year he moved to the Lotus team, which again could not give him the fastest car on the grid, but Senna was able to put himself into positions where he realistically should not have been. He scored seven pole positions in sixteen races and won his maiden victory in the wet conditions at Estoril. This victory was truly special as he lapped the whole field up to third position and finished a full minute ahead of the next car. He stayed with Lotus for three seasons and cemented his reputation as a very talented and exciting driver with six wins.
His emergence as a true F1 great came with the move to Mclaren, taking Honda engines with him. Senna knew how good he was and was desperate to show the world that he was the undisputed King. To do this he had to take on and beat the best driver in the same car, which was Alain Prost at McLaren. Their stint at the top of Formula One has become one of the most famous sporting rivalries of all time.
The two pushed each other to produce some of the most spectacular performances the sport has ever seen. McLaren dominated the 1988 season, winning 15 of the 16 races between them with Senna edging the title over his more experienced team-mate.
Unfortunately though the rivalry became so intense that it brought out a sheer ruthlessness, in both of them but particularly in Senna, that made him such an enigma. The 1989 season was just as closely fought between the two and came to a head at the Japanese Grand Prix where the two collided into the chicane. Prost retired immediately from the race, but Senna was able to continue and win.
Prost complained to the French FIA president, Jean-Marie Balestre and many hours after the race were spent with the three men along with Ron Dennis, McLaren team principle, in a closed room. Balestre eventually decided that because Senna had used the service road to rejoin the race, rather than taking to the track, that he had taken a short-cut and was subsequently disqualified. This massive injustice tore the McLaren team apart into two separate sides of the garage that would never be repaired. Prost subsequently moved to Ferrari the following year, citing inconsolable differences.
Their fierce rivalry was not yet over and spilled over into the 1990 season, where Senna and Prost once again found themselves in a title-deciding race at the Japanese Grand Prix. This time Senna qualified on pole position, but Balestre put him at a distinct disadvantage by switching the pole to the dirty side of the track, which is not normally the case at Suzuka.
Senna was incensed and when Prost got the better start, Senna deliberately drove into the back of the Ferrari at the first corner, eliminating them both on the spot, handing Senna his second championship title.
A third title followed in 1991 with another dominant display, but in 1992 and 1993 the Williams team with technical genius Adrian Newey found a massive advantage with computer aided driver assistance and Senna was unable to mount a title challenge to either Mansell, or to his dismay Prost in 1993. Despite this he still took some astonishing victories against the much faster Williams cars with a highlight again in the wet at Donnington.
Senna would never be happy unless he was in the best car sweeping all before him, so in 1994 as Prost retired he swooped on the vacant Williams seat. Unfortunately for him the domination of the car in previous years had lead to regulation changes to ban the driver-aids that made them so successful. To make matters worse, the Benetton team had produced a spectacularly fast car and had the talents of a young Michael Schumacher at the wheel.
Senna was suspicious of the new-found pace of the Benetton and his increasing sense of frustration with failure was telling, with some uncharacteristic errors. He accused his rivals of secretly employing the banned driver-aids, which is now generally perceived to have been the case.
The darkest weekend in Formula One history came at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. Senna’s countryman Rubens Barrichello had a spectacular accident which knocked him unconscious and broke his nose and his arm but otherwise unharmed. The following day during the final qualifying session Roland Ratzenberger, a rookie living his dream of becoming a Formula One driver, was fatally injured in a high speed accident following a front wing failure.
The whole paddock was clearly distraught the following day as they lined up to race with heavy hearts. The start of the race itself saw more incident, when Pedro Lamy crashed over the top of Lehto’s stalled car, causing debris to fly into the crowd injuring nine spectators. When racing resumed Senna was leading but on the second lap turning through the Tamburello corner his steering column failed and he hit the concrete wall at 131mph. Many drivers had survived this type of accident at this corner before, but a suspension component had pierced his crash helmet and caused fatal brain injuries. His tragic death at 34 years old shocked the world and a legend was lost.
It is without any doubt that Ayrton Senna was the most complex and interesting character that Formula One has ever seen. He was a highly religious and spiritual man, believing that his talent was God-given and often referring to his experiences in the car as being “in another dimension”.
In writing this article I struggled to summarise my feelings for him, so I shall leave you with this quote from the man himself, which says much more about him than I ever could…
“I’m very privileged. I’ve always had a very good life. But everything that I’ve gotten out of life was obtained through dedication and a tremendous desire to achieve my goals… A great desire for victory, meaning victory in life not as a racing driver. To all of you who have experienced this or are searching now, let me say that whoever you may be in your life, whether you’re at the highest or most modest level, you must show great strength and determination and do everything with love and a deep belief in God. One day, you’ll achieve your aim and you’ll be successful.”
Senna Sempre… Senna Always…