Ayrton Senna – A Mystical, Yet Magical Legend

On the 21st of March, should he be alive today, Ayrton Senna would have celebrated his 54th birthday. “Amazingly, he was a greater person out of the car, than he was in it” said Sir Frank Williams on the three-time Brazilian World Champion. “Me too, I would put Senna, as number one (greatest driver of all time)” said Michael Schumacher.

But what was so great about Senna? In Brazil, he was arguably a greater and more recognizable name and face than soccer legend Pele. He done a lot of charity work, donated millions to charity and even set up the Instituto Ayrton Senna, which helps underprivileged children in Brazil, which is run by his sister Viviane. Following his death, Brazil was brought to a complete standstill. The impact his death had on the country was similar to that of the death of Princess Diana in the United Kingdom.

Around the world, however, Senna is remembered for being one of the greatest racing drivers of all time. There is no doubting that. 41 race victories (only Alain Prost and Schumacher have more), 39 other podium finishes, an incredible 65 pole positions (only Schumacher has more with 68). The statistics are great. He also holds the records for most wins leading from start to finish (19), most consecutive poles (8), most wins at Monaco (6, 5 consecutively) and so many more. To see why he was special, and absolutely ruthless, though, you have to see beyond the statistics.

Starting his F1 career with tests with Williams and McLaren, he joined the Toleman team for 1984. No way should the Toleman team have taken podiums at that time. He took three, and nearly won at Monaco before Prost wanted the race stopped. Senna was closing in, and Stefan Bellof (who also is no longer with us), was closing in on both, in an illegal Tyrrell. These performances raised the eyebrows of the Lotus team, and he joined them for 1985.

He won his first race, and took his first pole at the soaked Portuguese Grand Prix that year. He finished 4th in the championship that year, behind the McLaren of Alain Prost, the Ferrari of Michele Alboreto and the Williams of 1982 champion Keke Rosberg. 1986 saw even greater things from Senna and Lotus. A championship challenge became real. Having lead the championship for a while, results dropped towards the end of the season with four retirements in five races. Senna finished 4th again, behind Prost, Nigel Mansell and fellow Brazilian Nelson Piquet. Williams were too strong in 1987 but Senna kept in with a shout of the title, before moving to McLaren in 1988, having Prost requesting that Ron Dennis hire the magical Brazilian.

The car, the legendary MP4-4 was phenomenal. It was three seconds quicker than anything else at Imola. Senna took eight wins, Prost took seven. 15 out of 16 in terms of poles and wins and Senna took his first title. All seemed grand. 1989 would not be so peaceful, however. Senna ignored team orders at Imola, and overtook Prost. Prost retaliated by taking Senna out at Suzuka, giving Prost the title, despite a late race charge by Senna, in which he was controversially disqualified for cutting the chicane.

Prost moved to Ferrari for 1990 and Gerhard Berger joined McLaren. Berger and Senna had a fantastic relationship, and Senna learned to be more laid back and enjoy himself more with the Austrian. Senna took Prost out this time at Suzuka in 1990, having been told pole would be moved to the clean side of the track, where the grip is, and it was moved to the dirty side after Senna took pole. Senna took the championship and admitted he drove into Prost deliberately. Senna beat Mansell to the title in 1991 but Williams had a much faster car in 1992 and Senna was knocked off his perch by the Brit. Having been sacked by Ferrari, Prost took a year out but returned with Williams in 1993 while Mansell went off to win the IndyCar series in America. Prost took the title but Senna delivered some incredible performances, notably at Donington Park for the European grand prix where he was 5th by the first corner, and was first by the end of the first lap. He went on to lap everybody except Damon Hill, even though the Williams was considerably faster than the McLaren.

Senna moved to Williams in 1994, and the regulations were changed to hurt Williams. Senna struggled with the car, having spun off from 2nd at Interlagos, and having contact with former teammate Mika Hakkinen at Aida. Senna was 20 points behind a young Michael Schumacher after just two races, and he was convinced the Benetton he was driving was illegal and he wanted Williams to protest.

May the first was to be the day that changed Formula One forever. Senna crashed on lap 7, on a corner where you do not make a mistake on. A suspension piece pierced his helmet. “He sighed, and now I’m not religious, but I felt his spirit depart” said the late Professor Sid Watkins, a good friend of Senna’s who was at the site of the incident.

Following Roland Ratzenberger’s death the day before, the Grand Prix Drivers Association was reformed. Senna was supposed to take charge as a senior driver. With all the safety changes brought in by Max Mosely and the FIA following that day, we can be thankful that we are heading towards twenty years without a driver fatality in F1. Motorsport will always be dangerous though, as we have seen with deaths including Dan Wheldon and Henry Surtees. However, it is much less dangerous than what it was in Senna’s era, so I feel his death was not in vain.

To see just how great Senna was, just watch a video of one of his pole position laps. You’ll be astounded.


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