Ayrton Senna: The Life of a Hero

With May 1st marking the anniversary of the death of Ayrton Senna, Chris Soulsby pays tribute to one of the greatest Formula 1 drivers in the history of the sport and to one of the greatest sportsmen that the world has ever seen.

May 1st 1994 marked the death of one of the greatest Formula 1 drivers in the history of the sport, if not one of the most talented racing drivers of all time. At the San Marino Grand Prix, held at Imola, Ayrton Senna would start his final F1 race, driving for Williams. On the seventh lap following a Safety Car period at the start of the race, Senna’s car would leave the track at Tamburello corner, hitting a concrete wall at around 140 mph. Senna would die later that day, aged only 34.

Ayrton Senna: The Life of a Hero

Early Career

Ayrton Senna was born in Sau Paulo on March 21st, 1960, and began his motor racing career in karting at the age of 13. In his first race, Senna notably started on pole position, despite being younger and less experienced than his nearby rivals. In the race, he led for the most part, but retired following an accident with another driver.

Some years later in 1977, Senna became the South American Kart Champion and later went to compete in the World Karting Championship from 1978-1982 where he finished as the runner up in 1979 and 1980. During this time, Senna moved to England to start his single seater career in 1981, winning the RAC and and Formula Ford 1600 championships that year.

Despite the success that Senna had experienced at this stage in his career, it was at this moment that he believed that he would not continue in Motorsport, announcing his retirement from Formula Ford and returning to Brazil to take up a role in the family business. Before returning to his home nation however, Senna was offered a contract to drive for a Formula Ford 2000 team with a deal for £10,000. He took this opportunity with both hands, becoming both the British and European Formula Ford 2000 champion in 1982.

The following year, Senna won the British Formula Three Championship, batting with future F1-racer, Martin Brundle for the title. In the same year, Senna got his first taste of Formula 1, testing for Williams, McLaren, Brabham, and Toleman, being faster than Williams’ reigning World Champion, Keke Rosberg during a test at Donington Park. After being considered by Lotus and Brabham for a seat at the team for 1984 Season, Senna signed with Toleman, paving his way to the pinnacle of Motorsport.

Formula 1

Toleman: 1984

Ayrton Senna made his Formula 1 debut at the at the season opening Brazilian Grand Prix in 1984 driving for Toleman. Senna qualified in 17th place for the race but retired following an engine failure after only eight laps.

One race later, Senna secured his first championship point at the South African Grand Prix after a sixth place finish. Matching that result at the Belgian Grand Prix and failing to qualify for the only time in his career at the San Marino Grand Prix, Senna would go on to secure his best finishing position of the season at the Monaco Grand Prix. After qualifying in 13th place for the race, Senna raced through the field in wet conditions, finishing in second place after passing the then two-time World Champion, Niki Lauda on lap 19. The race was red flagged on lap 31 due to the weather conditions getting worse. At the time of the red flag, Senna was catching the race leader, Alain Prost, at a rate of four seconds per lap.

Senna finished in ninth place in the Drivers Standings in his debut year for Toleman, securing 13 points and two further podium finishes at the British Grand Prix and the Portuguese Grand Prix. At the Dutch Grand Prix in 1984, Senna signed for Lotus, replacing a departing Nigel Mansell who was heading to Williams.

Lotus: 1985-1987

1985 marked Senna’s first season for Lotus, where he would be partnered by Elio de Angelis. As Lotus were a team who had won races and had won championships, this was the perfect place for Senna to go for the 1985 Season. In the second race of the season, Senna achieved one of his dreams in Motorsport, securing his first F1 race win at the Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril, lapping every driver apart from second placed Michele Alboreto. After claiming seven pole positions, another win in Belgium, and three further podiums, Senna finished the season in fourth place in the Drivers Standings.

Senna remained with Lotus in 1986 and was partnered by Johnny Dumfries. That season, Senna had a very strong start, finishing in second place at the season opening Brazilian Grand Prix and securing his third Formula 1 win at the second race of the season in Spain, placing him in the lead of the Drivers Championship. Due to the poor reliability of the Lotus 98T however, Senna dropped back from the championship fight. In 1986, Senna once again finished in fourth place in the Drivers Standings, securing eight pole positions throughout the year, a fourth win at Detroit, and six further podium finishes.

1987 was Senna’s strongest season to date, again driving for Lotus. The start of the season was mixed for Senna, retiring from the season opening Brazilian Grand Prix followed by a podium in the next race at San Marino which was then followed by another retirement at Belgium. Following this, Senna secured back to back wins in Monaco and Detroit and got a string of seven consecutive points finishes – four of which were podiums. Senna finished the season in third place in the Drivers Standings – his best finish to date. For 1988 however, Senna would not remain with Lotus for a fourth year in succession, and instead signed for McLaren to partner Alain Prost.

McLaren: 1988-1993

Moving to McLaren for 1988, this season marked the start of the infamous Senna vs Prost rivalry – one of Formula 1’s most intense rivalries to date. In the season, both drivers were equally matched, using the same machinery and both batting for the Drivers Championship to the very end of the season. That year, the McLaren drivers won 15 of the 16 races of the World Championship driving the iconic McLaren MP4/4, with Senna winning eight races and Prost seven, which allowed Senna to secure his first Formula 1 World Championship. This was a record breaking season for Senna, breaking the record for the most wins in a single season with eight and the most pole positions in a single season with 13.

In 1989, Senna’s relationship with Prost worsened, with their rivalry taking place both on and off the track. Senna started the season strongly, despite failing to finish in the points in the season opener, securing back to back wins in San Marino, Monaco, and Mexico. Following retirements at the US, French, British, Italian, and Portuguese Grand Prix however, the title fell into Prost’s favor. After winning the third last race of the season however, Senna still had a chance of winning the title, but to do so, he would have to win in Japan. The Japanese Grand Prix marked the zenith of Senna’s rivalry with Prost, with the team mates colliding with one another at the Casio Chicane on lap 46 whilst running in first and second place. This collision caused Prost to retire, but Senna was able to continue, going on to eventfully win. As Senna received a push start from marshals, cut the Casio Chicane when rejoining the race down the escape road, and crossed the pit lane entry on what wasn’t a part of the track, he was controversially disqualified from the race, along with receiving a temporary suspension of his FIA Super Licence and a large fine. This handed the title to Prost in 1989, marking the driver’s third title.

With Prost moving to Ferrari for 1990, Senna remained at McLaren for a third year and was partnered by Gerhard Berger. Senna won the season opening US Grand Prix, followed by a third place finish in Brazil. A further five wins at Monaco, Canada, Germany, Belgium, and Italy throughout the season put Senna in strong contention for the title. Following the resurgence of Ferrari in the final stages of the season, Prost closed the gap to Senna in the Drivers Standings to only nine points with two races to go. With Prost still in the hunt for the championship, the season headed to Japan – the penultimate race of the season where Senna and Prost had collided one year earlier. Ahead of the race, Senna secured pole position with Prost starting alongside him on the front row in second. Prior to this, Senna had asked the race organizers to move pole position onto the clean side of the circuit which would in turn allow for the pole sitter to have a better start. This was something that was denied however. At the start of the race, Prost had a better start than Senna and took the lead. Going into the first corner, Senna attempted to retake the lead from his former team mate but the pair collided with each other, putting both out of the race. With Prost unable to continue, Senna won the championship, marking his second drivers title.

In 1991, Senna continued his form from 1990, winning the first four races of the season for McLaren after his nearest rivals were unable to challenge. By the halfway point of the season, Williams found an improvement in performance, which allowed Nigel Mansell to challenge Senna for the championship. Heading into the Japanese Grand Prix once again, the championship was still all to play for. If Mansell was to have a chance of winning the championship however, he would have to secure the win in Japan – something that he was unable to do after spinning out of the race whilst running in third place on lap nine. This handed Senna the championship, marking his third and final Formula 1 World Championship win, making him the youngest ever triple World Champion at the time.

Although considering a move to Williams for the 1992 Season, Senna remained at McLaren through a sense of loyalty for a fifth season. In 1992, Senna was unable to mount a challenge to defend his championship, with the McLaren slowly becoming less competitive due to the technical advances of Williams, with the McLaren suffering from poor reliability as well as being powered by a less powerful V12 Honda engine and not using active suspension. Senna finished in fourth place in the Drivers Standings after winning three races.

At the end of 1992, Senna did not hold a contract with any team for 1993. After a declining an offer to race for Ferrari for the next season, Senna once again remained with McLaren, but instead of signing for the team for a full season, opted to sign a race-by-race deal for the team following doubts about the car’s performance. Following the withdrawal of Honda from F1 at the end of 1992 and Ron Dennis’ failure to secure Renault powered V10 engines for the forthcoming season, McLaren were forced to use Ford V8 engines for the season, leaving them under powered for the year. Despite this, 1993 saw Senna put in some of his greatest drives, winning his home Grand Prix for the second time in his career and winning the European Grand Prix held at Donington Park in changing conditions, going from being in fifth place going into the first corner to leading by the end of the first lap. Senna finished the season in second place in the Drivers Standings, with Prost securing his fourth World Championship for Williams. Senna won the final race of the season while Prost finished in second place. This marked the final time that the pair stood on an F1 podium, with Prost retiring from Formula 1 at the end of the season and this marking Ayrton Senna’s final F1 win.

Williams: 1994

Following the retirement of Prost in 1993, Senna was finally able to join Williams for the 1994 season after multiple failed attempts and approaches to drive for the team. For the 1994 season, changes in regulations saw the banning of active suspension, ABS, and traction control, which meant that the cars were more difficult to drive. With the Williams being difficult to handle, Senna struggled to find confidence in the car, but nevertheless put the car on pole in the first two races of the season. In both of these races however, Senna failed to finish, spinning and stalling his car in Brazil while running in second place and being hit by Mika Hakkinen in the first corner of the Pacific Grand Prix.

For the third race of the 1994 Season, the F1 circus headed to Imola for the San Marino Grand Prix. Going into the weekend, it is without doubt that Senna was under a lot of pressure, being 20 points behind Michael Schumacher – the current championship leader, being frustrated at the poor performance of his car, and being suspicious of the Benetton team, who he believed were running illegal components on their car, explaining their performance. The crash of fellow countryman, Rubens Barrichello, would also have added to this pressure, with Senna believing in pre-season testing that serious accidents could well happen in 1994 due to the changes in regulations.

Saturday qualifying marked the fatal accident of F1-rookie Roland Ratzenberger, who crashed into the concrete wall of Villeneuve corner at 195 mph after his front wing broke off, making him the first F1 driver to lose his life at a Grand Prix weekend since Riccardo Paletti at the 1982 Canadian Grand Prix.

Going into the race, Senna started on pole position, marking the 65th of his career. When the lights for the race went out, the Safety Car was soon deployed following an accident between JJ Lehto and Pedro Lamy. After the Safety Car returned to the pits, the race was restarted. Senna completed the final lap of his career on lap six by setting the third fastest lap of the race before starting lap seven.

Entering Tamburello corner at 191 mph, Senna’s Williams left the circuit, hitting the outside wall at 145 mph. With the front right suspension of his car being forced into the cockpit, Senna suffered from high blood loss, skull fractures, and brain injuries, that would prove to be fatal. Senna died later that day. He was only 34.

Legacy

Following Senna’s death, the Brazilian government declared three days of national mourning, with 3 million people going to Sau Paulo to pay their respect to one of the greatest sportsmen who ever lived.

As a result of the death of Senna and Ratzenberger at the San Marino Grand Prix, safety standards were raised in F1, with circuits being redesigned and crash barriers at circuits being improved. As a result, the death of a Formula 1 driver was prevented for a further 20 years until the freak accident of Jules Bianchi at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.

To this day, Ayrton Senna is considered as one of the greatest Formula 1 drivers of all time, renowned for his high speed driving style, total car control, and fantastic ability to race in wet weather conditions. Senna remains as the fifth most successful driver in terms of wins, having won 41 races in his career. To this day, he remains an inspiration to all, both young and old, and his legacy will live on forever.
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