Ayrton Senna – The Complicated Genius

Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Catman

Senna 1Today 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.

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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.

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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.

Senna 4The 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.

 

 

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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 6Senna 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.

Senna 7The 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…

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24 responses to “Ayrton Senna – The Complicated Genius

  1. You only mention Senna’s victory at the 1993 European GP under the rain. Senna Won 5 races in 1993 and his last two victory in the last 2 races of the season. He ask Ron Dennis to release him early (soon after the season ended) and Ron told win the next races and I will release you early. Senna did in under performance McLaren with a Customer Ford engine. I saw is last race in Brasil in 94 and the public loved him and he did care of them. He did not finish the race and over haft of the spectators left the track

  2. Thank you for this excellent piece!

    “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.” [..]

    “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.”

    If you apportion blame for Suzuka 1990, then I guess it would be only appropriate to also apportion blame for the Suzuka 1989 accident, in which Prost purposefully drove into Senna before getting to the chicane.

    • But of course that was Prost’s normal line through the chicane….turning in before the corner is a family secret…just ask Nick 🙂

    • That is very true – although there were two sides to that incident, the ’90 crash was pure unadulterated ramming!

      • “That is very true – although there were two sides to that incident”

        What sides? From the video footage I’ve seen, there is only one side to that incident, along with a lot of unashamed and hypocritical politicking from the other side…

        Go to Part 5, min 4:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXuikMaqvtY&index=4&list=PL2C4BE6E3DC2A6BC1

        “the ’90 crash was pure unadulterated ramming!”

        Oh, I beg to differ! The ’89 crash was pure unadulterated ramming. Before getting anywhere near the chicane, Prost simply veered to the right and into Senna. Prost had absolutely no intention of either car making it through that chicane!

        Whilst the ’90 crash, from what I see, Senna placed his front wing between the kerbs and Prost’s car. Prost had the choice to either give Senna sufficient space, or deliberately provoke a racing incident. He chose the latter, clipped Senna’s front wing, and they both beached it into the gravel.

        Just prior to the accident, Senna’s front wheels were at the same level as Prost’s rear wheels; was Senna entitled to more space than what Prost gave him, given that Prost kept closing and closing the gap as they were entering T1? To me it looks like Senna simply did his usual business of placing his front wing in the gap, whereas Prost consciously chose to close the gap and provoke an accident. I just don’t see the ramming part! Senna’s front wing gets clipped, by a Prost continually closing the gap between himself and the kerbs, as opposed to Senna bomb-diving into Prost…

        Now we could argue whether Senna should have backed off with his front wing, but from what I see just prior to entering T1 he was sufficiently alongside Prost to deserve at least some space. But even if we agree that Senna should have backed off, this is a far cry from “ramming”; it would be an accident, for which Senna would be deemed responsible, but surely that was no bomb-diving!

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=foiswIS44AM

        For comparison, this looks more like Magnussen on Raikkonen in China 2014, than Verstappen on Ericsson in China 2015…

        I like this take on the rules of engagement:
        https://f1metrics.wordpress.com/2014/08/28/the-rules-of-racing/

  3. I think Kimi, Alonso and Hamilton are more complex. Those guys have all kinds of paradoxal behaviour compared to being an F1 driver (smoking/drinking, blackmail/cheating and music/bling). Whereas Senna ‘just’ drove exceptionally.

    I guess it comes down to the definition of Complexity. To me Senna is not complex, but layered.

    • Senna had the whole preaching morality and religious standpoint thing going on which wildly contrasted with doing whatever it takes to win on track, even if it meant taking massive risk with the lives of others (eg. in the Prost incident). At the same time he would jump out of his car to tend to an injured driver (I forget who that was specifically, might come to me later!). The modern boys just do it as a job and do other things off track, his was a calling from God that consumed his very being.

  4. “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.”

  5. Steering column fail? I was under the impression that due to cool tyres the height of the car was reduced and caused a riding of the plank as he entered the corner at full speed for the first time following the safety car. A bit like aqua plane in wet weather

    • At the time,most interest regarding the cause revolved around a weak weld in the steering column.Wasnt Patrick Head looking at manslaughter charges regarding this at one point?

      • It went to Italian courts but he and Williams were found not guilty. The steering column was modified but found not to have failed,onboard pictures showed this.there was a yellow button on the steering wheel that showed reflection but it was proved that g force on the drivers hands could cause this. It was a series of events that all added up,a one in a million chance of events and we lost one of the greats. If you think about it,really hard, it all started on the Friday. If Rubin’s didn’t have his bad off then really these events wouldn’t have interacted

        • I agree with you in that it was many planets aligning on that day, with many seemingly unlikely factors conspiring, that led to the devastating result of Senna actually dying.

          Be that as it may, one thing you said piqued my curiosity…

          “If you think about it,really hard, it all started on the Friday. If Rubin’s didn’t have his bad off then really these events wouldn’t have interacted

          Would you lead me (us) through this thread of logic that resulted in you coming to that conclusion… I can’t seen to make as solid a connection as you are implying between Barrichello’s Friday crash and Senna’s Sunday death.

          Thanks,

          WTF

          • Here are my thoughts on the train of events that started,the worst weekend in recent f1 history. barrichello had started the season well in the Jordon and was pushing the car hard on the Friday, but this was about to change. His car left the track and with more luck than judgement he managed to escape a horrific wreck but was left with a broken arm and unconscious. Senna sat with the then young charger in the medical unit and was visibly shaken when he left his side.
            The news for the spectators was less rosie, a number had been injured and so safety was again raised in F1, the powers that be felt this pressure and reacted by increasing guard rail height and implementing the safety car policy in preparation for the race, Senna had asked that the lead f1 car set the pace but after this accident they threw this out in favour of the pace car setting the speed(this was way too slow)
            That was point one, Senna for all of his faults was a very sensitive guy and this must have played heavily on his mind and so we have a start of the tragic events.
            Move forward to Saturday and we have the massive crash of Ratzenburger, from his own accounts,Prof Watkins stated that Senna was in tears and had to be comforted. Again safety was called into question and although this part is speculation, I would imagine that the drivers meeting after must have been a very different animal
            That was point 2..again Senna’s mind was distracted, two massive accidents, spectators injured and mechanics from the team also have problems couple this to the fact he moved to a team that should be winning and he has yet to put points on the board, he has to make this weekend count so the pressure on the Sunday must have been at boiling point.
            Move to Sunday. Senna makes a poor start, his car is heavy(this has a bearing here),his mind is now focused on the race so he pushed..there was yet another accident and the safety car is thrown out..it drives slow, the cars cool and because we don’t have active suspension or traction control the cars get lower to the road..the plank starts to drag slightly and senna again sees another driver in the wall…this goes on for more laps than necessary, IMHO in relation to the number of accident over the weekend,f1 needs to send a message out,we are safe..see…we have a car that slows the race so drivers are safe.
            That’s the final point in the list, a series of one off events that on their own would not cause a problem but added together and we lose a great.
            Enter the restart.. Senna pushes a cold car, he is heavy and the tyres are soft and down on pressure,the car is low and the plank catches the track. Enter a high speed corner,the car bottoms out and cuts the air flow under the floor…it skids,the tyres don’t bite into the track so senna has no steering….bang!!!…he hits the wall, extra padding has been added to the wall following the previous accident but they are not airguards but standard run of the mill tyres, the car rebounds and slides and goes deep, a wheel assembly from the front of the Williams slams into his helmet and the rest is history

      • Deflection!! Not bloody reflection. Sorry, I am at the side of spa at the now and its bloody cold!

  6. I believe that the consensus was that lowered tyre pressures subsequent to the safety car period was responsible for reduced ride height and the consequent loss of control at Tamburello – where a previous explosive accident to Berger’s Ferrari looked far worse.
    Whether this crash was caused by the plank bottoming out I’m not sure; it could be that there was simply reduced downforce. Either way I well remember seeing the crash live. It’s not hindsight that makes me recall the eerie atmosphere that descended on the proceedings even before it became clear that there had been devastating injuries – a front suspension component had pierced Senna’s helmet.
    I think I saw all of Senna’s F1 races on TV but I can’t say that I found his personality appealing even if his talent (and a ruthlessness verging on cynicism) was clear from the start. I’m afraid that statements of a personal relationship with The Deity always irritate me even if they’re effectively meaningless. Of course if they aren’t, they certainly qualify as a hostage to fortune.

    • The Senna case was reinvestigated and Patrick Head was found guilty of manslaughter in 2007. However, he escaped serving prison time as the judgement came after the statute of limitations ran out.

      Senna was a devout Catholic. Like all deeply religious people, he felt he had a personal relationship with his god. His claims are actually nothing special, but have been and are still overblown as no F1 media members seem to want to take the time to place his spirituality in its correct context (and, journalists can claim ignorance of the matter all they want – while omitting the fact that, in attempting to elucidate a subject’s mindset and/or philosophy it is their duty as a journalist to conduct, at least, a modicum of research through which they can more accurately portray their subject).

  7. Oh dear – I see the usual Senna/Prost myths need debunking yet again. Here goes:-
    1. The 1989 collision was a racing incident. Find me a racing steward from today who would punish Prost for that move. However, I will say that Prost should have carried on as his car didn’t have a bent front wing. He thought his suspension was bent but this was not the case.
    2. In 1990 the pole position was on the dirty side of the track – as it had been in 1989, 1988 and 1987.
    3. Senna deliberately rammed Prost in 1990 and he was honest enough to admit this a year later.

    Unfortunately the “Senna” movie has given a rather one-sided view to a very intense and exciting rivalry from two greats who brought out the best in each other. Personally I thought that based on their relative performances, Prost should have been World Champion in 1988 and Senna in 1989.

    • “The 1989 collision was a racing incident.”

      Absolutely not. See my arguments and video evidence above. Before getting at the chicane, Prost veered violently to the right (i.e. rammed) into Senna who was alongside him. The trajectory Prost took wasn’t a viable racing line: had Senna’s car not been there, alongside, Prost would have ended up on the grass (before the kerbs) blatantly cutting the corner. And in pure Schumacher style it was clear that Prost had no intention of either car getting through that chicane in one piece.

      Not all video evidence makes it clear, but the one cited above does. Prost was guilty for deliberately causing the 1989 accident. Period.

      • I’m not convinced by your arguement though you have every right to your opinion. Prost certainly braked early enough to make the corner and had every right to make 1 defensive move (no weaving). However – do you think Senna would have made it through the chicane at that speed? Nigel Roebuck didn’t think so and he was at the spot when the incident occurred:-
        http://www.motorsportmagazine.com/ask_nigel/senna-at-suzuka-revisited/

        The highlighting of Prost’s trajectory into the chicane has sadly become something of a cause célèbre in F1 history thanks to the Senna movie. But I say again – find me an F1 steward who would punish Prost for that move?

        • “had every right to make 1 defensive move (no weaving).”

          All very true. Drivers have the right to make one defensive move on the straight and in front of a following car. Let me emphasize “straight” here. This rule of engagement applies to moves that cars make on a straight, and I agree with you (although I realize I’m putting words in your mouth, and this isn’t what you wanted to say) that the accident happened on a straight. When the contact occurred between Prost and Senna, neither car was anywhere close to starting to turn in and make the chicane.

          The other point is that the lead driver is entitled to make a defensive move when they’re *in front* of the following driver. When Prost made the move, Senna was side-by-side. By this token Prost didn’t make a defensive move, no; he rammed into a car that was next to him and pushed that car off-track.

          “do you think Senna would have made it through the chicane at that speed? ”

          Which brings us to this point. Was Senna at too high a speed? I reckon it’s irrelevant. The accident did NOT happen *because* Senna was traveling at high speed; it happened *because* Prost steered to the right when he was not supposed to. Since the accident happened on a straight and before the corner… well on straights cars are supposed to be quick; but I digress. It doesn’t matter if Senna was too quick and not going to make the chicane.

          By the point Prost made his move, Senna was sufficiently alongside him to have claim to the apex. Think Rosberg on Vettel in Bahrain 2015. Senna had all the right to take his time within the corner, if Prost had let him get there, to sort himself out, and Prost should have complied and backed off (like Vettel did). But they never got anywhere near that point.

          But even if that were indeed the case and Senna had too much speed, the proper course of action for Prost would have been to let Senna overshoot the corner, retake the racing line, and wait for Senna to yield the position for having cut the corner. But we’ll never know, won’t we, simply because Prost didn’t allow Senna to do that.

          Again, Senna had claim to the apex whether he was about to make the corner or not; it was Senna’s corner to make or overshoot at his own discretion. Prost’s move not only failed to aim at the apex (which would have laid blame for any contact at his feet), but it failed to aim at the the corner altogether.

          “Prost’s trajectory into the chicane has sadly become something of a cause célèbre in F1 history thanks to the Senna movie.”

          Personally I don’t care much about the Senna movie (didn’t watch it), or about Senna for that matter. I only care about what the video evidence has to say. And the video footage shows a lot of evidence laying the blame on Prost, and precious little evidence for Senna’s guilt (in this particular incident).

          For what’s worth it, I base much of my analysis on the rules of engagement laid out in this article:
          https://f1metrics.wordpress.com/2014/08/28/the-rules-of-racing/

          “find me an F1 steward who would punish Prost for that move?”

          Well, let’s see. We know what stewards think about drivers pushing other cars off-track on a straight (think Magnussen on Alonso in Spa 2014, or Vettel on Alonso in Monza 2012). And we know what stewards think about drivers changing their trajectory within the braking zone (think Perez on Massa in Canada 2014). And we know the accident did not happen within the corner.

          I can’t see any scenario where Prost’s 1989 Suzuka move was in any way justified…

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