Throughout history there are scattered what we would call prodigies or geniuses; members of society defined as being capable of amazing and unusual things that are out of the ordinary course of nature. This is an exceptional someone who redefines their craft, raises the bar of their discipline: for physics perhaps this is Albert Einstein, for composing it might be Amadeus Mozart, for Football maybe Lionel Messi, for writing supposedly it’s William Shakespeare, for painting perchance Michael Angelo, for acting credibly Laurence Olivier, for Tennis feasibly Roger Federer. But for racing cars that person was undoubtedly Ayrton Senna.
Born in Sao Paolo on this day in 1960, the man in the yellow helmet achieved: 3 world titles, 65 pole positions, 41 race wins and many simply astonishing driving feats in his 34 years of life. This, as well as his huge kindness, keen intelligence, mystifying charisma and extraordinary determination & self belief ensure that he lives on as a legend, not just of racing but of life, well after his tragic death on the 1st of May 1994.
To give some down to earth perspective of his appeal, when I first met my parents’ new neighbour I quickly found out he used to work on the aerodynamics for Lotus F1 and that he had worked closely with Senna during his years driving for the team from 1985-87. But when I pressed him for questions, wishing to know everything I could about Ayrton, he quickly went very quiet, spread a sad smile and just said “He was like no one I’ve ever met”…it was clear to see that even if in a small way, the great man had left his mark. That story is just a tiny snapshot of the memories he has left and the huge influence he still has on people’s lives across the world today.
I had planned to post this tribute on the date of his death, but it perhaps seems more relevant to the spirit of the man to do so on the day of his birth: to ensure not only mourning of his passing but a celebration that he ever lived at all. I am aware that no-one can encapsulate all of what there is to say about Senna: but today I will in my own small way remember the man who is not only the greatest racing driver to ever have lived, but also one of the greatest human beings. Senna’s legacy stands not only to those interested in racing; but his relentless motivation and passion speak to all at any level. Ayrton is a reminder that you can do things and that, in his own words, you only “think you have a limit, but as soon as you touch this limit something happens and suddenly you can go that little bit further: with your mind power, your determination, your instinct and the experience as well, you can fly very high”.
The Best Ever
It is so hard to compare drivers over eras, increasingly so as we are spoilt for choice; in the beginning there was Fangio and Moss, in the 60’s the fierce Graham Hill and the legendary Jim Clark. In the 70’s we saw the epic rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda. But it is in the 80’s when we can begin to talk about the modern Formula 1: when the sport’s protagonists became more like athletes than before and television changed it into a truly worldwide sport, elevating the level of talent hugely. If you contemplate the great generation of F1 drivers in the brave 1980’s then arguably it is the time of strongest competition in the sport, past or present: the list had formidable adversaries such as Piquet, Lauda, Patrese, Mansell and Alesi. But the driver that most people mention to rival Ayrton is of course Alain Prost. The tactical, skilful French-man is after all the other half of their legendary McLaren rivalry: a truly great champion and fierce competitor in his own right. But really, Senna vanquished him too as he did to all the others: Prost only bettered him in the championship standings twice between 1987 and 1993 and his raw pace was also often nowhere near Ayrton’s, as shall be explored later. For me, Michael Schumacher is the only man who comes remotely close to competing for Ayrton’s crown. The German shared many characteristics with Senna: his raw pace, aggression and a will to do whatever it took to win carried him to huge records in his career. It is to the sport’s eternal loss that it never got to witness the two of them fight properly at the front: by the time that Michael was in a truly competitive car fate had other ideas.
At 2:17pm on May the 1st of 1994 Senna’s car malfunctioned and he fatally crashed on the Tamburello curve at Imola, ahead of second placed Schumacher. Yet is somewhat fitting and poetic that he was killed in the same conditions to how he had lived: ahead of the rest & winning the race.
Perhaps it is astute to ponder what might of happened had Ayrton’s career not been cut short. As the superior driver of the Williams team, Senna would have pushed Michael hard for the title in 1994 and 1995, perhaps winning where Damon Hill could not. As for the years Williams won against Schumacher’s Ferrari in 1996 & 1997 it is reasonable to assume that Senna might of fought for those titles too. Michael’s career could have looked very different without Ayrton’s absence in his early championship years. Senna meanwhile, at a push, could conceivably have been the record 7 times world champion instead, before his retirement at the not unreasonable age of 37. That is the tremendous sporting tragedy of Ayrton’s un-told years.
However even away from that pure conjecture, if turning to the real world it is amazing that Ayrton still holds many F1 records including an unbeaten 6 wins at Monaco, the highest back to back pole positions at 8 and the most consecutive front row starts at a mammoth 24. Furthermore, despite having 7 more seasons in Formula 1, Schumacher only managed 3 more pole positions than Senna’s 65 in total. Even if you do not agree with my view and instead believe Schumacher to be greater, it still means a huge amount that the name Ayrton Senna is still mentioned in conjunction or above the 7 time world champion, whilst the names of other triple crown champions such as Nelson Piquet, or Niki Lauda are often not. As Top Gear once pointed out the opinions of most drivers, including Schumacher who once said “I had one hero. His name was Ayrton Senna” and cried when equalling his win record, put Senna at “number one” above all others. Lewis Hamilton, who is set to reach the new record for pole positions this season providing he continues his stellar performances, also sees Ayrton as his hero.
The simple fact of the matter is, that despite his records now being eclipsed, Senna is often thought to simply have ‘something more’ about him than all other drivers past or present; an extra edge that simply cannot be described. Words such as ‘aura’ or ‘magical’ often surround Senna, he was a hugely deep thinker and thought about racing in ways that still seem a little out of reach to mere mortals. It is clear to see that such deep introspection translated directly to the track: some of the things he could do were utterly terrifying or morale shattering for his rivals. In this section we shall explore those moments of his utter magnificence, the ones that showcased the more ‘mystical’ aspects of his unassailable talent and tenacity. The ones that made us wonder, just for a moment, if he was more than just human after all.
Natural Talent & Never Giving Up
Monaco Magic: Toleman
The year is 1984 and a young Brazilian driver is 6 races into his debut season with the uncompetitive Toleman team. Monaco, as any driver will tell you today is the single most challenging circuit on the calendar. In order to be quick, a driver must have inch perfect precision and timing in order to scrape as close to the barriers and maximise the width of the narrow track: as such trying to overtake is astonishingly difficult. That is in the dry; in the wet the challenge of driving fast becomes more than doubly difficult at any circuit, let alone Monaco. On this day in history it didn’t just rain; it poured. But not for the Brazilian in the Toleman who had Qualified 13th, a whole 0.8 seconds ahead of his team-mate; an impressive enough feat in itself. But it was during that race itself, as James Hunt the 1976 world champion stated, that his “staggering talent” was made completely crystal clear.
The rain claimed all but 8 drivers during the 31 laps that the race ran, including future champion Nigel Mansell in the Lotus and also two time world champions Nelson Piquet and Niki Lauda: both of which would go on to win another championship, the latter in that very season. The Rookie’s Toleman pushed on regardless and pushed is the right word. By Lap 5 he was 8th and by lap 11 due to retirements he was in 3rd place. But then the magic really shone through as he not only passed Niki Lauda for 2nd place, but characteristically not content with coming 2nd started to take a monumental 3 seconds per lap out of leader Alain Prost’s lead. This was the first showcasing of a superhuman wet-driving ability which would allow him to complete feats such as lapping all other drivers bar one for Lotus in 1985 at Estoril. When the race in 1984 was stopped due to bad weather the Toleman passed the stopping McLaren before the line, only to come second when regulations meant the race standings were counted back a lap from the red flag. Nevertheless, Ayrton Senna had arrived in Formula 1.
Team Mate Trouncing: 1.5 Seconds Quicker
Skip forwards 4 years and 6 wins at the Lotus team and Ayrton was back at Monaco to amaze in new ways in 1988. It is Saturday qualifying and Alain Prost has the quickest time on the board. However, when Senna’s McLaren surfaced into the sun he didn’t just beat him, he all but humiliated him into second place. Senna out-qualified Prost in the same car by a margin of 1 and a half seconds: for that be possible at any track is hard to believe, but at Monaco the circuit of circuits? Simply Absurd. Senna himself remained forever in awe of his experience that day saying “It was like I was in a tunnel. Not the tunnel under the hotel but the whole circuit was a tunnel: I was just going and going. I was way over the limit but still able to find even more…And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, I was in a different dimension well beyond my understanding” and it remains, to this very day, one of his most extraordinary achievements.
Ayrton however, would come firmly back to earth on the Sunday by making a rare mistake: crashing with only a handful of laps to go with a titanic 55 second lead in hand over Prost. However, not to be deterred Ayrton learned from the error, saying “I just came so close to perfection that weekend that I relaxed and I opened windows for mistakes. I learned that there and since then I have progressively come back, as I lost some confidence, but I fought back and I got much stronger after that instant. Somehow I got closer to God and that has been very important for me as a man” and on reflection one cannot doubt his words: he won the championship that year in 1988 winning a further 7 races.
Spanish Strength Of Mind: Donnelly Accident
In one of the more comparatively mundane of Ayrton’s feats; we explore his ability to pick himself up from damaging mental situations with aplomb. Whilst history will remember that Ayrton did not get pole position or win the race in the 1990 Portuguese Grand Prix, the background to it is rather more illuminating, also perhaps explaining the manner in which he let the “English Lion” Nigel Mansell through for the race win relatively easily.
During Friday practice Martin Donnelly suffered a massive crash which ended his Formula One racing career. He sustained multiple injuries in the crash, including to the brain and lungs as well as severe leg breakages, which almost caused amputation. Donnelly himself believes his accident changed something in Senna’s mentality and caused Ayrton to look more seriously at the sport’s safety: including when he saved the life of Erik Comas at Spa in 1992. In terms of that weekend in Jerez we gain an insight into Senna’s determination: following witnessing the horror crash he said “A million things went through my mind and in the end I realised I was not going to give up my passion, even just having seen what I had just seen. I had to put myself together, walk out and go to the racing car and do it again. Do it again and do it even better than before, because that was the way to kind of cover that impact that it had on me. As much as I was scared to continue, I was not ready to give up my aim, my target, my objective, my passion, my dream…my life. This is my life.”
Downpour at Donington: 5th to 1st on lap one
This story is one of the most famous Senna moments. It is his legendary performance at the 1993 European Grand Prix. Having qualified 4th, Senna made a bad get away from the grid falling to 5th. But ever the competitor, he set around emphatically righting that wrong. His performance to rise from 5th to 1st on the first lap around the tight winding circuit in the English West-Midlands is hailed as the greatest lap in all F1 history.
However that single lap is not the only astonishing representation of Senna’s talent that day. As his McLaren-Ford shot into the distance away from Prost’s superior Williams, Senna always made the right call for tyres in ever changeable conditions. Prost meanwhile still holds the record for most pitstops in one race at 7. The result was that Senna won, lapping every driver but the other Williams driver Damon Hill, who he would join next season at the team, who he beat by a scarcely believable 1 minute and 23 seconds! If that is not enough to impress you, the above picture shows a ludicrous stat; Senna drove the fastest lap of the race on a lap in which he actually passed through the pit-lane and not the main track. For many Donington was Senna’s Magnum Opus: his Hamlet, his Sistine Chapel. I rather agree.
The Fateful Finale: Imola 1994
And so, we turn strangely to his final race; Imola 1994. Many cannot see how this can possibly be classed as one of his great moments, but if we consider a number of factors in the build up and background of the 1994 season, I believe that it can be. Following the banning of active suspension and traction control devices that had made the team so competitive in 1993, The Williams 1994 challenger the FW16 was notoriously difficult to drive. It’s Wikipedia page states that “Early season performance of the FW16 indicated that…the window of driveability/setup in which the car was competitive was very narrow. In addition to this, the car had a tendency of dynamically changing its handling balance (understeer/oversteer) for any given setup” and it showed. Senna arrived at Imola, the start of the European season, having not finished the first two races due to unreliability woes: he was 20 points behind.
It is all the more remarkable then, that Senna wrestled the car to pole position in all three of the races he took part in during that year: especially with allegations that Schumacher’s Benetton, the next closest car, was still running some illegal computer devices to aid the traction and balance. However at Imola, what really catches the eye is that despite the chapter of horrible accidents at the race meeting, Senna continued to follow his mantra where “you commit yourself to such a level where there is no compromise, you give everything you have absolutely everything…if you want still to be ahead, if you want to win” and so dug emotionally deeper than ever. It is a huge and lasting testament to Ayrton’s determination that he still put the difficult car on pole and was racing the following day even though he had apparently “retired to his motor home where he broke down in tears and collapsed onto the floor” when he heard the news that Ratzenberger had died in qualifying. It breaks my heart to remember that following his own crash “as medical staff examined Senna, a furled Austrian flag was found in his car—a flag that he had intended to raise in honour of Ratzenberger after the race” and it speaks hugely of Ayrton’s compassion. As the famous line from Doctor Sid Watkins says: Senna felt he simply “had to go on” that weekend despite it all. Even as the steering column broke apart in his hands on lap 7 of the race, leaving only the wall as a destination, he was fighting the odds and still in the lead.
Lasting impact: Safety & Social Change
Senna’s legacy in the world of racing goes beyond the memories of the excellent over-takes or banzai qualifying laps. Since Imola 1994 the sport has woken up in whole new ways to safety: following his death, work immediately began to reduce cornering speeds, by adding a ‘skid block’ to the bottom of cars to limit the remaining impacts of dangerous ‘ground-effects’. Furthermore, when watching F1 now you can still physically see Senna’s mark on the sport: after the accident great measures were taken to improve run off areas at active circuits and also introduce chicanes on dangerous high speed corners, such as the Tamburello where Ayrton lost his life. Another aspect of the seismic impact of the deaths of Senna and Ratzenberger is that interest in the HANS (Head And Neck Safety) device was also re-energised. The device (pictured below) ensures that in the event of a high-speed collision that the base of the driver’s skull and neck are protected. Whilst it might not have saved Ayrton or Roland, it has been vital protection to many drivers since. Whilst it is of no doubt that the death of the utterly charismatic triple world champion Ayrton Senna, on what was deemed “the blackest day in the history of Grand Prix racing” by Murray Walker, should not have been needed to further safety, many drivers owe their lives to Senna’s accident and the changes it prompted.
Unfortunately however, there has now indeed been a death since Ayrton’s in Formula 1: that of Jules Bianchi in 2015, following his crash at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. Bianchi’s freak and tragic collision with a stationary recovery vehicle was completely avoidable, but it is testament to Formula 1 and world motorsport as a whole that measures have once again been jolted into action to limit accidents as much as possible. The introduction of the ‘virtual safety car’ ensures that the pace of the cars are strictly monitored and regulated in dangerous conditions; even before the introduction of an actual safety car. Motorsport is of course inherently dangerous, but the seemingly relaxed days which preceded Ayrton’s instantly fatal accident have now long gone and every possible precaution is taken to limit the dangers. F1 is currently exploring the options of further head and cockpit protection for the drivers in 2018 and beyond following Bianchi’s accident.
Away from the microcosm of the world of F1, it is more fitting to end with Ayrton’s lasting contribution to the world in general. Firstly, the name Senna has come to mean more than racing heritage in Brazil: the instituto Ayrton Senna organisation set up after his death has helped to educate 1.9 million students in Brazil annually, with an estimated total of 12 million by 2010 alone. Ayrton was himself very keen on helping the young disadvantaged whilst he was alive saying “Wealthy men can’t live in an island that is encircled by poverty. We all breathe the same air. We must give a chance to everyone, at least a basic chance” and his actions reflected his words, he donated many millions in his life to attempt to give others a slither of the opportunities that he had received as a child. That says something of his empathy: despite being from a privileged background he had eyes to help the least wealthy first & foremost. That work continues beyond his passing.
It is this very compassion and not just the sporting expertise that made his death a national tragedy. Three official days of national mourning were declared after the accident & it is estimated more than 3 million people crowded onto the streets of Sao Paulo to pay respects, in what some consider to be the largest recorded numbers of mourners at a funeral in modern times. A scene from the fantastic ‘Senna’ film of 2010 depicts the passion in the procession, with one heart broken young girl summing the feelings up by stating “He was an idol to me. He represented the best of Brazil” through her tears. Richard Williams’ excellent book ‘The Death Of Ayrton Senna’ also documents how a young boy said “He was our hero. Our only one” whilst waiting in line for hours to honour the coffin. However, it would be a great mistake to believe Senna’s full meaning has been lost in time: as John Bisignano’s tribute is keen to point out, contemporary Brazilians still recognise him as lovingly as ever. Furthermore, his sporting brand is still one of the strongest in the world. Even mainstream media pays tribute: in the Brazilian version of ‘Captain America – Winter Soldier’ the captain is given a list of important subjects he should research after spending around 70 years frozen in his sleep. The name Ayrton Senna? Top of his list.
To understand and appreciate his lasting impact fully you have to remember that in 1985 Brazil had only recently liberated itself from military dictatorship: Senna’s rise in Formula 1 coincided with that liberation and he became symbolic of the new free Brazil, not only competing globally but actually winning. It is perhaps due to this why Frank Williams, the owner of Senna’s last F1 team, has said “he was certainly on the way to becoming a president of Brazil…I think he had politics in mind and if he had done so he probably would have walked it” due to his efforts in helping the less fortunate. Richard Williams’ book backs up Frank’s claim, describing how a banner was lifted at the funeral that read “in translation: ‘You were worth more than 90 percent of our politicians” and I think that says it all. He was so much more than just a racing driver: he held the hopes and desires of an entire nation, if not the world. Today he still stands for those hopes.
Gone, But Never Forgotten
Whilst this blog post may be ending, one thing is clear: Ayrton Senna will never be forgotten. My favourite Senna quote is “I have no idols. I admire work, dedication and competence” for a number of reasons. Firstly it spells out neatly his unending pursuit of excellence in unpretentious measures, simple attributes to a very extraordinary man. Secondly the phrase “I have no idols” contains a layer of subtlety which also summarises Ayrton: of course he had no idols, he was the idol and so he simply did not need to have any to aspire towards. Thirdly he is my idol, so I am fully aware that when I follow the quote in practice a paradox is created: I am following my idol in his pursuit of not having idols. But paradoxes are very Senna: often ruthless, robust and rigid in the car, but outside it a kind, caring and gentle soul. He was simultaneously a great thinker, but also a man who led with his feelings and his heart. A lover of truth in a severely political sport. The fastest man who ever lived, who yet did not last long enough. Paradoxes also represent the impossible, but if one man in the history of racing was capable of the impossible, then it was Ayrton Senna Da Silva of Sao Paulo, Brazil. He was then, still is now and always will be Formula One’s greatest son. Rest in peace, champion: after all you have done in life and death you deserve it.