Senna: A life well-spent

Senna’s death, though tragic, was not a waste of life; instead crucially put to good use to prevent further fatalities

It may be 20 years since the Brazilian’s death, but the world has never stopped remembering Imola 1994. Senna’s crash shocked the entire world; triple World Champions seldom come off the racetrack.

The incident still has a mysterious aura, and still no single factor has been attributed to why his Williams left the track. What ever the cause, his fatal accident brought to the light the extreme nonchalance in regards to safety in the sport. You could almost say it was a necessary evil.

Nearly eight years had passed since a fatality in Formula 1, and so the general assumption was that the regulations and precautions were safe enough. That was until Roland Ratzenberger suffered a basilar skull fracture during qualifying on April 31, 1994, after colliding with a concrete wall. The Austrian’s fatality rocked the F1 world but the race was still due to take place. Senna himself was hesitant to take the start, but the racer in him thought otherwise, and on lap 7 of the race, he crashed at Tamburello, again straight into a concrete wall.

This article not only commemorates the life and achievements of a great champion, but also looks at what he did for the sport, his country, and the impact of his death.

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Ayton Senna da Silva was born into a wealthy family; his father Milton a land and factory owner. It was he who provided his first taste of racing, in Karting. Relative to his later career, Senna fared less well in karting – despite conquering South America in 1977, he was no world champion in a humble go-kart, finishing runner-up twice.

However, he had driven well enough to be recognised elsewhere, and in 1981, he moved to England to drive in Formula Ford 1600. He quickly impressed, winning 12 of the 20 races in the season and easily taking the championship. He continued to climb the motorsport ladder in 1982, winning 23 of 31 races in Formula Ford 2000, his second title in two years.

It was in his Formula Ford days of 1982 that BBC Journalist Adrienne Rosen was treated to a lap around Castle Combe circuit with the Brazilian. Speaking about the encounter, she said:

“Even though my cameraman at the time was in awe of him, I had no idea who he was. He asked me if I wanted to get in the car and go for a lap with him, and I said ‘Of course I do!’

“People knew he had a thing for the ladies, something I realised when he was more than happy to help me with my five-point harness.

“My cameraman was worried – he told me that if we had an accident, the insurance wouldn’t cover me, but I didn’t care about that at all. We set off and the G-force from the acceleration was immense. My favourite part about going in an aeroplane is the take off, and it felt a lot like that. It was so exciting that at points I forgot to breathe!”

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Senna’s speed in junior formulae such as Formula Ford landed him a place in British Formula Three. There he encountered a fierce rival in Martin Brundle, but was able to overcome the future commentator, taking 15 poles and 12 wins from 20 races. Senna was ready for the big time in Formula One.

It was in this final year of Formula Ford that he started entering his name as ‘Senna’, his mother’s maiden name, rather than ‘Silva’, the paternal family name. He chose this on the basis of ‘Senna’ being more audibly-pleasing, opting to rise above mundane names like Mansell, Brundle and Warwick, which, according to Richard Craig (in his book Ayrton Senna: The Messiah of Motor Racing) “bring to mind a Pork Butcher.”

Senna’s F1 career began at Toleman – an uncompetitive team – in 1984. He first rose to prominence in the Monaco Grand Prix of that year, where in soaking conditions, he caught Alain Prost and nearly overtook him for the lead. However, before that could happen, the race was stopped due to the heavy rainfall. Prost was given the win, but the world was given its first glimpse of what the young Brazilian could do.

The following year he moved to a more established team – Lotus. In his first year (1985) with the team he went on to win two races in Portugal and Belgium. However, it was the Brazilian’s qualifying pace that would be his most well-known asset while at Lotus; he started from pole eight times in his first year with them, a feat repeated the following year. The 1986 season also brought with it two more wins, in Detroit and Spain.

His domination of street circuits was apparent in 1987. His final year with Lotus garnered only one Pole position, but he won in Detroit for the second year in a row, and most spectacularly of all, won the Monaco Grand Prix, F1’s most celebrated race event. These six wins for Lotus (a team in decline) drew attention from bigger teams, and in 1988 he signed for McLaren. This put him on equal terms with then-double champion Alain Prost.

Senna and Prost won 15 of the 16 races in 1988 in the iconic MP4/4.
Senna and Prost won 15 of the 16 races in 1988 in the iconic MP4/4.

Senna beat Prost to the title that year, scoring an unthinkable 8 wins (more than doubling his tally at the time) to the Frenchman’s 7. However a rift appeared between the two thereafter. In 1989, the pair famously crashed at the penultimate race of the season in Suzuka. Prost retired, but Senna got going again and eventually won the race. His win would have seen him crowned champion, but it was then snatched away when the FIA stewards disqualified him for driving through the escape road, rather than reversing up it and joining the race track. This gave Senna’s French team mate the title.

After 1989, Prost left McLaren, and made sure Senna could never be his team mate again by adding a contract clause to veto the Brazilian. 1990 was a closely-fought year, and going in to the season’s final race, Suzuka again, Senna was ahead on points. He lined up on pole in Suzuka in 1990, with Prost starting second. The McLaren driver had protested that the Pole position spot was on the wrong side of the track, but nothing was done, and consequently Prost, now driving for Ferrari, led down the straight. However, Senna took an inside line for the first corner and made contact with Prost, taking them both out of the race, and ensuring a second title.

Senna’s all-or-nothing attitude was polarising, admired by many, but also regarded as dangerous, not least by Sir Jackie Stewart. His incidents, though, were supplemented by a mass of wins – he began the 1991 season by winning the first four races, including a win in his home country. A further three wins that year saw him crowned champion for the third and final time.

Despite a win in Monaco, Senna came off the boil in 1992 and finished the standings in 4th, largely due to the dominance of Williams. However, his last season with the team (1993) was arguably his best. He famously won the Brazilian Grand Prix again, despite a broken gearbox and muscle spasms that caused him great agony. He won the European Grand Prix at Donnington Park, often cited as one of the best races of all time, due to his judgement of the soggy conditions and fearsome overtaking skill.

Prost won that year’s title with Williams and then retired; the vacant space at the British team filled by Senna himself. The rules from 1994 banned a lot of innovative technology which had made Williams so strong in the past few seasons, and despite taking Pole in both the Brazilian and Pacific Grands Prix, he failed to score any points, spinning out of his home race, and being taken out at the first corner in the latter. The third round of the season was the tragic race in Italy, (labelled as the San Marino Grand Prix) where he left the road on lap 7.

Shortly after Senna’s death in 1994, it was discovered that he had been quietly donating millions of dollars to his native country. His belief  was that everyone had a basic right to nutrition, education and a chance at life, and so he set up the framework of what would become the Instituto Ayrton Senna (IAS).

The triple-champion unquestionably raised the profile of his country, but poverty was (and still is) rife in Brazil. The IAS’ main aim was to provide opportunities for Brazilian children – particularly those in a financially poor situation – to be educated.

The love for Senna throughout Brazil was clearest of all after his death; three days were set aside for national mourning. The state funeral was attended by more than half a million Brazilians, and his greatest rival, Alain Prost was a pallbearer.

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Senna’s biggest contribution to the world was not his success, nor was it his philanthropy. It was the lessons learned from his crash. The improvements made have without a doubt saved a great many lives since then, and safety continues to improve exponentially to this day. His crash is still shrouded in mystery, but it is generally accepted that a number of factors led to the collision:

1) The race should never have been run
2) Flat-out corner
3) Very small run-off area
4) Concrete wall
5) Suspension buckled
6) Wheel came loose
7) Car skidded on bumps on circuit
8) Insufficient cockpit protection
9) Nearly-full fuel tank

Almost instantly, the FIA reacted, with president Max Mosely holding a press conference two weeks later in Monaco. There were several changes to the sport’s regulations to improve safety. They all corresponded to the above issues:

1) The Grand Prix Drivers’ Association was an institution in Formula 1 formed in 1961 when deaths were common. Jackie Stewart was the most active of its members, constantly protesting for more safety precautions, such as marshals. It disbanded in 1982, but after Barrichello’s huge crash and Ratzenberger’s death on Friday and Saturday in Imola, it was quickly re-formed. In a cruel irony, Senna was to be one of the directors when the GPDA re-formed, but when it was brought back for the next race in Monaco, drivers all convened and discussed safety measures.

2, 3 & 4) The flat-out Curva Tamburello was given a complete re-design, becoming a 3rd gear chicane instead of a 6th gear kink. Large gravel traps were installed, and Giancarlo Fisichella demonstrated their effectiveness in 2005 when he crashed there – he was completely unhurt. Concrete walls became much less common in the F1 world, with high-speed corners almost entirely covered by energy-absorbing barriers made from metal, plastic or old tyres.

5 & 6) At the Monaco 1994 press conference, it was announced that suspension systems would have to become much stronger. Part of the Senna’s suspension pierced his helmet and damaged his skull, and was responsible for the killing blow. Wheel tethers were also introduced so that the wheel could not fly off and strike a driver’s head, although they do sometimes still fail.

7) Tamburello was and still is a bumpy piece of tarmac. In the power-crazed eras, particularly the 90s, sparks were easily noticeable coming from underneath cars, and were caused by the aerodynamics squashing the car into the track, which in turn caused the cars to scrape a piece of metal on the floor. Senna’s car slid on this piece of metal when he crashed. Thus, downforce at the front and rear of the cars was reduced, so that the bottom of the car would not be sucked down on to the tarmac so fiercely.

8) The sides of cockpits were raised to protect the driver’s head from debris and excess lateral movement. It was also made slightly longer so that a driver could not make contact with the dashboard.

9) Mid-race refueling was introduced to lower the weight of the car.

As well as these immediate changes, one other important precaution was developing. The Head and Neck Support (HANS) Device is a head restraint that limits head travel in an accident. It was made compulsory in 2003 after extensive testing and could well have prevented the deaths of Senna and Ratzenberger.

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