The scene was at the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, the script writer up there had ordained something no one was predicting. It all went horribly wrong at the start of the weekend in free practice when Rubens Barrichello crashed horribly in his Jordan and was indeed very lucky to survive. The Saturday was even worse when the Austrian Ratzenberger went airborne and hit the barriers at frighteningly high speed resulting in the first fatality in a Formula One race for 12 years. I can still remember the expression on Senna’s face viewing the crash on the screen. Maybe he knew what was coming his way which none of us could predict. Starting from the pole with Schumacher following, prediction was a Senna victory unless mechanical failure stopped him from doing so. What happened on the 1st of May 1994 at Imola forever changed the Formula One in terms of driver safety. Watching the race live; observing the high speed impact on replay as live action couldn’t pick it up initially, with a motionless Senna in the lead Williams badly damaged, hitting head on into the concrete barriers at the Tamburello at roughly 180 mph was a bad sign indeed. The race was red flagged, and the frenetic activity on the track that followed and an unresponsive looking Senna sent jitters into my spine and no doubt all the Formula One lovers watching their sporting idol. Very soon we came to know about his death being declared. It was probably the first or even the last time, I ever shed tears on the death of a sporting personality. But for me he was just not another person or a World Champion. There have been many before and after him, no doubt winning more titles and races than him. He was one of a kind, the charisma exuded from him. He was the reason I started watching Formula One and my first memories of racing are his and Prost’s duels on the race track, which was one of the greatest sporting rivalries in Formula One.
Ayrton Senna was just 34 and current World Champion, when he died, with three F1 titles under his belt and had a lot of records including fastest laps and most pole positions. In a dangerous sport, known to have fatal and near fatal accidents, the drivers know they are at the edge all the time. Senna being aware of it, having seen a few horrible crashes, was quite vocal about safety of the drivers, though he was the best of them in adverse conditions especially in rain when he reigned supreme! In the wake of the accidents and fatalities at Imola, the drivers reformed the Drivers Association. Prof Sid Watkins, the eternal Formula One doctor had a crucial role in ensuring the safety of the drivers, to make sure such incidents would never happen. At one point there were even doubts about the continuation of Formula One till it was deemed safe enough. F1 survived and it is much more safe and no driver has died since that fateful Sunday. The accidents of Robert Kubica in 2007 and Mark Webber in Canada in 2010, when he went airborne and landed upside down, but immediately walked out of the car; and so many others could have easily been fatal had Senna not died that day.
As Schumacher said after winning the race in a sombre mood we should learn from this and never let that happen again. These days the canopy is so strong and resilient, it can withstand extreme G force and high energy impacts all due to strict rules and regulations, the suspensions and tyres stipulated to be less prone to separation from the body work.
Senna was a Brazilian, but his popularity encompassed not only South America but the whole world. He was a sporting legend and worshipped like a god in a football crazy Brazil. He cared for the poor and laid foundations for an Ayrton Senna Foundation. He was a successful businessman and entrepreneur as well as a philanthropist in his native Brazil. Arguably the best and most talented driver in Formula One, voted in many polls and by his peers to be the best ever( fans of Vettels, Alonsos and Schumachers of later day could lay claim to this though). Not without controversy though as many of the greats do in competitiveness, his on and off track antics with the clinical Alain Prost who was his team mate and his great rival but an admirer in his own way, made a few foes undoubtedly. Best remembered for his heroic performances at annihilating the fields in rain especially at Estoril getting his first Formula One victory in ‘85 and later at the European Grand Prix, when he lapped everyone on the field except second placed Hill who was just ‘a minute’ behind! Monaco street circuit was his famous hunting ground, where he won many a races and hearts.
Senna and his death has been subject to many books, documentaries and discussions. His life and death won many admirers. The Brazilian World Cup victory in 1994 was dedicated to him. He wanted to dedicate his projected victory at Imola to the fallen Ratzenberger, the Austrian flag found in his damaged car on his death. His funeral at Sao Paulo was a sight to behold. Approximately 3 million people flocked through the streets, there was national mourning for three days, fighter jets escorted the plane carrying his coffin.
“Nada pode me separar do amor de Deus,” (Nothing can separate me from the love of God) is aptly inscribed on his grave, showing his strong belief in God!
No race passes with great performances whether from Vettel or Schumacher in past, without mentioning his illustrious name and comparisons made with Senna, no doubt he was one of the very best if not the one. There was no dearth of talent, there is no doubt about it. His life was spent in a fast lane, full of excitement, courted controversy, won millions of admirers, but what counts most is he made his sport exciting but safe forever with his death unfortunately..
Rest in peace Ayrton ! ……