It was 15 years ago today that Ayrton Senna died at the wheel of his Williams-Renault on lap six of the San Marino Grand Prix. Senna is considered one of the greatest race car drivers of all-time: the only other driver who belongs in this debate is Michael Schumacher. As a boy Senna was one of my heroes, right alongside Mats Naslund, Tim Wallach and Dan Marino. No one ever got me into Formula One – it’s just something I must have caught on TV one day and it completely captivated me.
Senna was a larger than life character. His talent was clearly superior to his contemporaries, and he had the swagger to go along with it. He was a reckless driver who always brought his car right to the edge of its capabilities, in the mold of Gilles Villeneuve. He had a rivaly with Alain Prost which dwarfs anything that currently exists in any sport, if only because theirs was a rivalry which could end in one of them dying.
They genuinely hated each other: Prost hated Senna for being cast aside as the top dog in F1, and Senna hated Prost for not accepting what was evident to all – that he was The Man. For years this went on. After spending a few years impressing the racing world by driving inferior cars to unexpected success, Senna finally got a good car in 1988 by joining McLaren as a teammate to Prost, and it was on like Donkey Kong.
Senna won the World Championship that first season as Prost’s teammate, but Prost came back and won the title the next year before leaving for Ferrari. The poisonous atmosphere between the two had become too much to bear. In fact, when Senna signed on to join Williams in 1994, effectively becoming Prost’s teammate again, Prost would have none of it and retired a year before his contract expired. Over the course of Senna’s career, he and Prost bumped, crashed and collided into one another countless times (most of them when they were teammates!). I can’t see another rivalry ever ascending into the Senna-Prost stratosphere.
But, as many had predicted, Senna lost his life at the wheel of his car. Unpredictably, however, the end came due to mechanical failure as he was rounding a high-speed corner and the car refused to turn. He smashed into the concrete wall at 217 km/h. The following video shows the crash, so if you don’t want to see it don’t click.
Ayrton was the last driver to die in F1. He was not the only one to die that weekend. In qualifying on Saturday, Roland Ratzenberger died. The drivers voted to go on with the race, but Senna was shaken by the incident and rounded up the drivers, vowing to re-establish the F1 Driver’s Safety Committee that Saturday night. After his death the committee was brought back and has made a big difference (Mark Webber is its current President). Incidents that would have killed drivers in the past, like the following Robert Kubica crash in Montreal in 2007, give the driver a much better chance to survive:
If you can believe it, because driver safety is now a priority due to tragedies to people like Senna, all Kubica suffered in that crash was a sprained ankle. I believe that’s one of the most important legacies Ayrton Senna left behind.
Ayrton Senna was laid to rest in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Among his pallbearers were teammate Damon Hill, fellow Brazilian driver Emerson Fittipaldi and, yes, Alain Prost. There is a fantastic Prost interview available here which explains the difficulty Prost must have experienced with the sudden death of his rival. I will end with a few snippets I found fascinating:
“When he died, I said, that I felt a part of me had died also, because our careers had been so bound together. And I really meant it, but I know some people thought it was not sincere. Well, all I can do is try to be as honest as possible.”
“I look back on those days now and think to myself, ‘Jesus, what was that all about? Why did we put ourselves through all of that?’ Sometimes it seemed like a bad dream. Maybe because usually we were so much in front, it was inevitable that there would be problems between us, but why did it have to get so venomous – why did we have to live like that? I used to say to people, ‘You’re a fan of Ayrton Senna? Good, that’s fine – but please don’t hate me!’ It was the same with the press.”
“The pressure was so high, so high… If we had to do it all again, I think I’d say to Ayrton, ‘Listen, we’re the best, we can screw all the others!’ With a lot of intelligence, it could have been such good dream. Still, even as it turned out, it was a fantastic story, don’t you think? And I think, in a way, we’re missing a little of that today.”