Barely 24 hours after the death of Roland Ratzenberger, Formula One experienced a second jarring shock when triple World Champion Ayrton Senna crashed at Tamburello corner in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Striking the wall at 145mph, the right front suspension crumpled and sent debris into the cockpit; a single component penetrated the visor of Senna’s distinctive yellow helmet and caused instant, unsurvivable injuries.
Much myth and legend surrounds the life – and death – of perhaps the greatest driver the world has ever seen. He became no more mortal after the accident than he had been in life, and it’s stunning to believe his career was so relatively short; just ten full seasons completed before he met his untimely fate.
Senna arrived at Imola on 1st May having qualified on pole position for the third time from three races, but trailed young charger Michael Schumacher by twenty full points after retiring in Brazil and Japan at the opening two events. He was suspicious of the German’s Benetton team, who he strongly believed were running traction control and other driver aids banned ahead of the 1994 season.
That suspicion only made him more determined than ever to win, and he duly made a perfect start from pole. Behind, things were not so clean as a nasty smash between JJ Lehto and Pedro Lamy sent debris into the crowd, injuring spectators to add to what was already a bitter weekend. Using a humble Vauxhall Vectra as the safety car to control a slow-moving pack of V10 racing cars allowed the F1 machines to drop to operating temperatures they were never designed to race with.
At the restart cold tyre temperatures had caused Senna’s car to ‘bottom out’ at Tamburello on the first racing lap, according to the following Schumacher. Effectively this meant Senna’s grip-giving tyres were no longer in full contact with the ground – his car was riding on its ‘plank’ underneath the monocoque. On the following tour, lap seven, his luck ran out and the crash that claimed his life ensued. He was treated by great friend and official F1 doctor, Professor Sid Watkins.
’Schumacher was behind him, and he backed off a bit, because he was worried about how nervous Ayrton’s car looked.” said Watkins in 1998.
“He said it was like a stone skimming over water. The trajectory of the car through the corners was jerky, not a Senna trajectory at all.”
“I knew from his eyes that he was gone.”
Senna’s body was flown home by Brazilian national airline Varig, to a funeral procession witnessed directly by almost three million people – the largest gathering of mourners in modern history.
The bizarre contradiction of Ayrton Senna is clear to look back on from a distance of twenty years. On the one hand you have the utterly ruthless and dedicated racing driver, to whom coming 2nd is being ‘first of the losers’. On the other, there is Ayrton Senna the human being, the man who stopped his car on the track at Jerez in 1990 to help fellow driver Martin Donnelly who had suffered a life-threatening accident. Likewise, the man who was first responder and gave aid to the unconscious Erik Comas after his shunt at Spa in 1992. The man who less than a day before his own death had rushed to the scene of Roland Ratzenberger’s fatal crash to lend his assistance. It mattered not to Senna that those he helped were competing for midfield positions he himself would never have dreamt of racing for.
The late Sid Watkins closed his 1998 interview with famed journalist Nigel Roebuck:
“My relationship with Ayrton was by far the closest that I’ve ever had with another man, I would say. He was a remarkable chap altogether, wasn’t he?“