“He had this special charisma what you cannot describe”
Fifteen years ago today Ayrton Senna lost his life after crashing heavily at the San Marino Grand Prix. The triple world champion, in his first season at Williams Renault after a long spell at McLaren, left the circuit at the Tamburello turn and struck the retaining concrete barriers. He died later the same day in hospital.
Much has been written about the life of the Brazilian great, but one man that knew him better than most was Gerhard Berger who speaks exclusively to ESPN Racing-Live.com.
Berger first met Senna when the duo raced in Formula 3. At the time Berger recognised that Senna had talent “but, obviously at this stage you always think you are the best and the others are good but beatable,” the likeable Austrian explained.
“We had a really good relationship because, I mean first, we were the same age,” Berger explained. “We knew each other from Formula 3. We spent time. We went holidaying together. Spent time on my boat together. We spent time in his place in Brazil together. We played around. We went out. We had a really good time. And you know, when I was racing for him. Always when I came into the team with him, until this stage all my team-mates had been very good, but no problem to beat them.
“And I had the same, I came into his team in the same way of thinking. I said, ‘Okay, I know he’s very good. But I’m going to beat him.’ But I realised then how outstanding he was. But I was not that kind of jealous or I wasn’t that kind of mean, and say, ‘Well, how can I weaken him in this way? And his image or whatever.’ I just said, ‘Whatever. It’s up to me to get better, to improve myself to beat him.’ And I think he understood immediately that we would be playing a fair game when we’re competing with each other. And so we had room for friendship. And, I mean a great, great friendship over the years.”
Senna’s burning desire to win was apparent throughout his Formula One career. Success at the highest level requires certain character traits Berger explains, and not all of them are flattering.
“Everybody is extremely competitive and extremely selfish,” he said in reference to elite Formula One drivers. “I remember when I went to school, I’d be known as the most selfish. Once I came into Formula One, I’d be not the most selfish. And when you come to guys like Ayrton, there even another league. So, I think it is part of the sport. You have to look after yourself. You have to have (a) certain killing instinct – selfish instinct. You have to have all of this.”
Berger raced alongside Senna for three years at McLaren Honda after Alain Prost left the team to join Ferrari at the end of the 1989 season. Much has been written about the turbulent relationship between Senna and Prost.
“Well, the relationship between the two drivers was a disaster,” Berger said simply. “Prost the superstar at the time, was the most competitive driver, very fast, very successful, very good. Then coming a young Brazilian and just purely by speed beating him. And it’s very, very difficult… more difficult for a superstar like Alain Prost.
“I can remember well, Ayrton was just [quicker in] qualifying. He was just, just the quicker guy and I saw Alain understanding this very fast say, ‘Our cars are good here anyway, we’re both in the first row. So let him go in pole. I have to use all my experience to beat him in the race.’
“Alain had the same experience years before with Niki Lauda [who] was in the position of Alain, and Alain came as a young guy to Niki and Niki could win by a half point the championship; but by speed, by talent, by peak of his career, Alain was the new man. And here it was the same. Ayrton was the new man, and obviously Alain had to use every trick, every mental game, every fight to destabilise Ayrton. That was the only way to get, a chance to win the championship.”
Prost did win the championship in 1989 following the controversial collision on the Suzuka track with his McLaren team-mate following a race-long duel for supremacy. Heading into the right-left chicane – still in use today at the same circuit – Senna took advantage of Prost’s conservative run through the 130R and jinked to the right to pass into the chicane.
Prost simply turned in on Senna and the duo slithered off together into the escape area with the former popping his seat belt and climbing from the car to retire, while the latter received a push start and following a pitstop for a new front wing, rejoined the race. Senna would catch and pass race leader Alessandro Nannini but was inexplicably disqualified for short-cutting the final chicane.
“Well, I mean in the end of the day there was the decision for the championship and in those days we didn’t have that clear rules as today,” Berger said. “What was your responsibility (was) to avoid the crash. It was all a little bit more free understanding to each other and obviously when you didn’t want to win, it was to your advantage if the other one or if you don’t finish the race post… you sometimes also put the car into the other car and that’s it. You won the championship.
“So in the end of the day it was a big political discussion. It was a little bit sad because both drivers – and I won’t repeat myself again. Alain was a fantastic, unbelievable champion. Then to see them both have this discussion on the table – who’s winning the championship – was a bit sad. But it doesn’t matter, it was part of racing. It’s part of history. It was a great championship. It was two giants meeting each other for the championship. It was great.”
The rivalry continued in the 1990 season with Prost now racing for Ferrari and Senna enjoying a more constructive relationship with his new McLaren team-mate; Gerhard Berger.
It was another very close championship battle and the result of the Japanese Grand Prix would again decide the title. As Senna got himself embroiled with the FIA over which side of the grid his pole position should be, it soon became apparent that it was payback time for the Brazilian.
“I remember that we were changing our clothes before the race and we were joking a bit about each other. He said, ‘Gerhard, have a good look at the first corner. You’re going have some fun.’ I knew already before what’s going to happen because he said it was payback time.
We know the story now as Prost got the jump on Senna at the start, just as the McLaren star had feared. Heading to the first turn Senna simply rammed into Prost and as both cars came to rest in the gravel trap, Senna knew he was champion for the second time.
Senna added a third title to his resume in 1991 as Ferrari struggled to be competitive. Berger left McLaren to rejoin Ferrari in 1993 while Senna was joined initially by Michael Andretti and then rising star Mika Hakkinen at the McLaren Ford team. Williams Renault was the team to beat at the time as Prost cruised to a fourth championship in the dominant FW15C. With McLaren running a customer Ford engine and then penning a deal for Peugeot power in 1994, Senna cast his eye enviously over at the Williams team.
“I had left McLaren to (go to) Ferrari,” Berger began. “And Ayrton says to me, ‘I don’t believe in McLaren anymore. I have to leave. I will go to Williams. Williams is building the best car. Williams has the best engineer. I’m going to try to get into Williams.’ And he started to negotiate with Frank. And he comes [to me] a couple of times to me and says, ‘Gerhard, I’m never going to drive for Williams. Frank is such a pain and I ‘m never going to drive this car.’
“And then when I met him a few weeks later, he said, ‘I have to try again because it’s the best car and I want the best car and I need the best car.’ And again, back again, ‘I had a conversation with Frank. Everything looks very good.’ A couple of days later I met him and he said, ‘It’s impossible to deal with him. I’m never going to drive for Williams.’ So it was going on for half a year I think, until he then told me he was going go to Williams.
“And then at this time, Williams was technically the best car. Especially this was the big era of Williams with Adrian Newey, with Patrick Head putting really super cars (on the grid). And that means, Ayrton was the quickest guy in the quickest car. Very boring Formula One seasons were coming.”
The Williams Renault FW 16 was a very competitive package as Senna claimed the pole position in the first race of the year in Brazil but later spun out of the race chasing down Michael Schumacher in the Benetton Ford. On to TI Aida in Japan and Senna again claimed the pole but was eliminated at the start of the race, allowing Schumacher to cruise to a second straight win.
The 1994 San Marino Grand Prix saw Senna claim his third straight pole – the 65th of his career – ahead of the tragic death of Roland Ratzenberger. Following a start line accident and subsequent clean up, the race resumed with Senna leading Schumacher before the Williams speared off at the Tamburello turn. Poignantly, Senna had an Austrian flag in the Williams and had hoped to pay tribute to Ratzenberger by flying the flag in victory.
“I remember Ayrton telling me just the morning – we’ve been in the driver’s briefing – and he says, ‘Gerhard, the car is impossible to drive.’ They had some aerodynamic difficultness on the car. Where he says, ‘We had a hell of a performance in the car, we cannot handle it yet. We had to modify a couple of things to get it drivable.’ But he still puts the car in pole, like usual. All the usual things. But he was very happy on his way with Williams. He said, ‘I’m on the right team. I’m going to win a lot.’
“I was just behind him when the accident happened,” Berger continued. “Just saw him going into the wall. I was just parallel with him driving and I looked at him and he… the impact didn’t look too bad because the angle was not too bad. I thought it was nothing. I’ve seen worse accidents in this corner, not much worse. I hit myself, head on. He had not a bad angle. So, for me, it was all fine. I just came back and I put my car in the starting grid and they stopped the race.
“They cleaned the track. And even back on the starting grid the atmosphere was still okay. Everyone said, ‘Well, he’s out of the car.’ We did not think that something can be very bad. For me, he was out of the car and everything was fine. Just clean the track and let’s go again. So at this stage I had no clue how bad it was.
“Well, we start again the race and very short before the race came a little bit some strange feeling, but nothing special. It was in the garage sitting [after retiring] and people came to me and said, ‘Well, you know Ayrton is in the hospital fighting for his life?’ And then, that’s when I start to understand the serious problems.
“We, we… then I put my stuff together and said, ‘Well, let me go to the hospital and see exactly what’s happened.’ I took a helicopter and went to the hospital to Bologna.”
Senna passed away shortly afterwards and Berger joined Damon Hill, Emerson Fittipaldi and Alain Prost amongst the pallbearers at his funeral in Sao Paolo. Millions lined the streets to pay their respects to the Brazilian great.
“There’s not much more to tell because… just have a look at the film,” Berger said. “Just have a look to the people turning to the funeral. Have a look at the way he was treated. It’s special. But he was a special guy. It was always all right in his lifetime. We came to a new country, obviously of course we’ve been sportspeople winning races, we’ve been famous. People like to have dinner with us, like to see us. But with Ayrton it was usually the President asking to see him. He had this special, he had this special charisma what you cannot describe what it is. You have it or you’re born with it. And that’s what he had.
“We know he… his standing as one of the greatest, maybe the greatest driver ever been in Formula One. For me he was the greatest driver ever been in Formula One. I know emotionally as a friend, I’d be closer to him. I was racing with many of the guys, but not with all. We had Jim Clark, we had people before. What’s sure (he)would have been at a similar level.
“But for me personally, and emotionally, he’d been the greatest driver ever in Formula One.”
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