10th anniversary of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix
The statue is touching in its simplicity. The bronze figure of Ayrton Senna is sitting, as if on the pit wall, head down in contemplation. Around the marble base of the unpretentious monument there are flowers, brought every day by fans: in Senna’s lap there lies a beautiful bunch of tiny, scarlet lilies. Yesterday afternoon, in bright sunshine, the spot on the infield of the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola was quiet: there was nothing to be heard but birdsong, and the mood suited the statue’s attitude of peaceful meditation. But it was not a lonely place. Every minute a new visitor would approach, carrying a camera, or more flowers, or just memories.
If the statue could look up it would see, 30 yards away across the track, the site of the horrible accident without which the sculptor would never have been commissioned. The statue is on the inside of the Tamburello corner, where Senna’s Williams speared fatally into the concrete wall 10 years ago. In the aftermath of Senna’s accident, and the crash the same dark weekend that claimed the life of the young Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger, many changes were made to the circuit here, and many more changes to the way that the sport of motor racing operated.
Some felt the sport should never return here, and in the decade since Senna’s death the shabbily endearing Italian track has often been touted as the next to be axed from the sport’s calendar. Only last year Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One’s ringmaster and route-planner, was telling journalists not to worry about booking hotel rooms in Imola for 2004.
But here we are. For some mysterious reason – perhaps not unconnected with the grim anniversary – the San Marino Grand Prix kept its place in the programme, and the travelling circus arrives from a previous bizarre appointment in the Bahraini desert to confront the memory of lost performers. Not entirely willingly. Drivers are understandably reluctant to dwell on the subject of their own mortality, and team managers would rather focus on present achievements than past tragedies. Michael Schumacher paid a dignified – if brief – tribute to Senna yesterday, but most people in the paddock would rather talk about something else. There is a powerful ghost stalking this circuit, but only some choose to see him.
Ferrari fans, for instance, prefer to focus on the success of Senna’s successor as top Brazilian: they have taken over the Vie en Rose nightclub in Imola for a dinner in honour of Rubens Barrichello. In the town itself there is bunting everywhere, and most of the shops display pictures of the red cars in their windows. But there are no portraits of Senna.
It is not just the cars that move quickly in Formula One. Memories fade rapidly, too, and some in the paddock have forgotten how dangerous this sport can be. Engines are becoming more powerful than ever, cornering speeds are unprecedentedly high, and there is little doubt that the cars are becoming harder to control. Only recently, perhaps spurred by the anniversary, have questions been raised at the highest level about speed and safety.
Schumacher pointed out yesterday that improvements in run-off areas and car design after Senna’s crash were in some ways the Brazilian’s most valuable legacy to the sport. “We had a lot of actions in terms of safety since these accidents,” he said. “If you see the safety levels we have now you can see something positive was done about it.”
Schumacher recalled watching Senna compete in a kart race in 1980, and being astonished at his talent. “It was a privilege to be able to race against him,” he said. “We had some tough fights, we had some tough times, but we had some good times too.”
Senna’s fans remember the best times even when they commemorate the worst. It is not easy to get to the site of the crash: there is no official mark or sign. But if you look closely among the foliage at the top of a steep, overgrown bank on the outside of the Tamburello chicane, you can make out some flowers which do not grow there naturally.
There are half a dozen faded bunches of fake roses and lilies threaded through the safety fence at the top of the bank, and the back of the wall that Senna’s car hit is covered in graffiti, some faded, some fresh. It is easy to make out the main components in the messages, whatever their language: words like passion, speed and love recur.
Some visitors have brought other tokens of their affection. There are faded, shrink-wrapped news clippings, a little religious icon with a gilded frame, a handkerchief covered in Chinese characters. Senna’s face, faded but still compelling, stares from the tattered remnants of a T-shirt. For some, the loss is still raw. Yesterday afternoon a Japanese man in early middle age loitered close to the statue. He would approach, then move away; wait a few minutes, then approach again. He was tentative, and seemed shy: he was waiting for a moment of solitude with his hero.
Finally the other fans moved away, and the Japanese man stood to attention in front of the little bronze figure. Then he brought both his hands together and gave a deep, long bow. When he straightened up, his cheeks were wet with tears.