The 1st May 1994 is a moment in time where on reflection the question arises for some ‘Where was I?’. This was a sort of moon landing or JFK moment in the sporting world. Anyone old enough will know exactly where they were and what they were doing. It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed as this very day will always bring a tear to the eye of any person who knew what was about to unfold. The back drop of San Marino’s Imola circuit, where less than 24 hours before, had taken the life of young Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger. The almost inconceivable was again about to rock the racing world when the luck of another F1 driver had finally run out. That race day, Sunday, would rob Formula 1 and the world of one of its most loved figures, Ayrton Senna.
As it turned out it was the last fatality the sport had and the second in 2 days, since Riccardo Paletti’s ill-fated start to the Canadian GP in 1982. The sport had come on leaps-and-bounds in terms of safety and two fatalities over the course of the race weekend had Formula 1 turned on its head. Senna was visually shaken during Saturdays qualifying as he looked on at Ratzenberger’s crash from the confines of the Williams pit area. He watched on horridly as his Simtek Ford crashed nose-first into Villeneuve Curve, at 200 mph. Senna being Senna, along with his dear friend and Chief F1 race doctor Sid Watkins, visited the hospital in show solidarity for their fellow colleague but Ratzenberger’s death had cast a dark shadow over Imola for the remainder of the weekend. In a fitting tribute Senna had stuffed the Austrian flag up the sleeve of his overalls waiting to wave to the crowd as a tribute to the deceased driver after the race on the Sunday. True testimony to the remarkable man he really was.
This was his arena, his final-curtain. As brunt rubber still remains fresh – it resonates a melancholy so profound that to this day his picture, his guile, still haunts every soul associated with Formula 1. That day that brings back a heart breaking visual that has scarred the sight of what was about to unfold, which was his demise. As he sat on pole pondering the race ahead, little did he know, or did anyone else know, that this would be his last race. But, alas, the day’s events painted a grim picture on what can only be described as the most tragic ending of such a charismatic career.
On lap 7, as he entered the Tamburello curve, his Williams, at 200 mph, gripped the asphalt, veered straight on and collided with the concrete wall. Cue an outpouring of emotion that shook the world to its very core, when within hours, the announcement came of his death. An incident so vividly surreal, this had regrettably robbed the world of a true sporting legend. Now he had finally met his maker. Arguably, some may state that not only was he the best, but the must visual, the most mentally tough, with bags of personality. He definitely had a god given talent – a sort of ‘flicked control’ that was the envy of all others. He demanded perfection from his own team, a car to match his talent, and as McLaren floundered the year before he was up and gone to Williams F1 for the 1994 season.
Never one to procrastinate he was a believer of absolute perfection, a realist, a romantic, a person that gave every ounce of his being. A sort of persona that made others quiver at his very sight now consigned to the history books of F1. Thankfully we will remember his fresh-faced outlook on life as we hung on his every word as the passion poured out from his very soul and with every spoken word. There are many other greats that Formula 1 had the pleasure of giving to the world – Juan Manuel Fangio, Michael Schumacher, Gilles Villeneuve, to name but a few, but he had the most profound effect of them all. He was a hero, a leader, a record breaker, a trend-setter, a player, and a personality that created an aura that still grabs a hold of all to this very day.
The one moment in his career that the critics agree was the making of the man was in Monaco, in 1988. As he was leading the Monaco Grand Prix, Senna driving like a man possessed, had exited Lowes Hairpin, and having navigated the next right-handed apex, and working towards the next – before the tunnel – he rasped the course Armco with the both left front and rear of his McLaren. Race over. As Senna ripped out his ear-plugs in disgust, he angrily marched back to his apartment on the French Riviera in almost resigned defeat, visually self-critical for all to see. He began convalescing, re-living that race ending moment over and over again. No friends, no press, left alone to digest his inner failings. This almost too self-critical assessment showed his absolute necessity for complete perfection. His amateurish mistake, in his own mind, ripped a hole through his inner self belief system – this must never happen again. But in his own words he visualised God, and not for the first time. Senna’s relationship with a deity had all F1 drivers at the time questioning his mental state, a possible loose cannon, an accident waiting to happen. He often said that this link to God would have him in an almost trance like state whilst pushing himself to the very limit. This experience was the defining moment in his career, a sort of character building experience that made Senna.
In his debut season in 1984, he quickly showed his talent as he competed with the less fancied Toleman team. At Monaco that year, where he had driven his Toleman to an un-fancied 2nd place in torrential down pour, Senna had announced his arrival as other teams began to take note. As he sliced into Alan Prost’s lead in his own McLaren, Senna was gaining on Prost hand-over-fist. The race marshals put a halt to proceedings due to the wet conditions but the important outcome was that Senna had given the world a glimpse of the true potential he really had. In 1985 he joined Lotus and won his first Grand Prix, in Portugal, in wet conditions again. This association with Lotus would last until the end of the 1987, and as his stock grew team principal of McLaren Ron Dennis came calling. As they say rest is history.
On reflection Senna wasn’t perfect, he had flaws. With any genius comes a sort of imbalance, a sort of agitating flawed diamond that was not happy with just sitting still. But now McLaren had the answer and it was a marriage made in heaven. He had a sort of confidence and belief in his own ability that he will not let anyone stand in his way. He always wore his heart on his sleeve and never shied away from getting his way, or interfering in the way of others. The mental state required to compete in Formula 1 would have lesser mortals running for the hills, not Senna, he was born to race and was a born winner.
Mentally he was the best. He had a sort of clear direction, an almost non-stop self-fulfilling duty to be the best at what he did. Everyone has their own favourite and it’s almost impossible not to like this great ambassador to Formula 1. But his true ‘Magnum Opus’ was his ability to get inside the mind of a team-mate and run-riot by showing them up with a no-holes-barred almost arrogant approach to their flaws and weaknesses and he would gladly exploit every chink to absolute precision and in front of their face. Alain Prost can easily vouch for this. On joining McLaren in 1988, Senna had a chilling assessment for ex-McLaren driver John Watson on what his plans were at approaching the 1988 season. As Alain Prost was the undisputed no.1 driver at McLaren, Ayrton wasn’t going to just sit back and make up the numbers, but instead launch a full frontal attack from the off. Aryton said ‘I’m going to raise the level, raise the game physically, mentally and in every way.’ Alain knew what he was up against, a presumptuous up-start, hell-bent at ruffling a few feathers. The outcome at the end of the 1988 season was a first world title for Aryton and Prost left licking his wounds in what was a closely fought season.
With a career laden with triumph and sprinkled with a smidgen of controversy, Senna would direct his tirades on a whim at anyone who would listen. A direct polar opposite to the likes of Prost, he wanted to be heard but he did his talking on the F1 track. The Senna-Prost battle had it pivotal F1 moment at Suzuka in 1989, which culminated in the infamous chicane coming together which handed Prost the F1 crown. As the dust settled Senna’s disqualification – illegally navigating a chicane, protests fell on deaf ears and the season was over. Prost left McLaren and brought the no.1 slot with him to Ferrari for the 1990 season. And in true pageantry status déjà-vu duly repeated itself at Suzuka at the last race where both Senna and Prost collided from the off, ending the race for both, handing Senna the title.
He became a triple world champion, all whilst at McLaren, in 1988, 1990 and 1991. His confidence and dedication accumulated in thrives of willing fans all over the globe chanting his very name and he will always conjure up positive memories of his 10 years in F1. A deserving champion, an absolute idolised entity in his homeland of Brazil, perfectly encapsulated with ‘Senna’ movie released in 2010. That depiction paints a tumultuous picture to the world in what he was all about – a must for any F1 fan or semi-interested outsider.
It’s easy to state the facts about a man such as him. But through epitomising the true meaning of what it takes to excel at F1 racing, which was his winning mentality, the world takes note, gives their appreciation and remembers a true sporting legend that was Ayrton Senna.
Liam Cairns, Pundit Arena.