Ayrton Senna was born in São Paulo. As the son of a wealthy Brazilian landowner, he quickly developed an interest in motor racing. Encouraged by his father, a racing enthusiast, Senna got behind the wheel of his first kart at the age of four. He entered karting competition at the legal age of 13.

Ayrton Senna himself describes his first ever kart race in a documentary that was made in the early 80s. He described how the circuits were made on regular streets and car parking lots. Starting positions were written on pieces of paper, mixed in a helmet and were drawn. The number he drew for his first race was the number 1.

He therefore started his first ever race from pole position. The competitors were far more experienced but could not keep up with him on the straights as he was much lighter due to being much younger than they were. He states that they were much better in the corners of course, and eventually someone hit him from behind and he spun off. In 1977, he won the South American Kart Championship, and was runner up several times in the World Championship but never won.

Heading for Europe in 1981, he entered the British Formula Ford 1600 competition, which he won. He also adopted his mother’s maiden name, Senna, as da Silva is a very common name in Brazil.

In 1982 Senna won two of the European races – the British and European Formula Ford 2000 Championships.

In 1983, Ayrton saw off the challenges of Martin Brundle in the 1983 British F3 championship with West Surrey Racing, and then went on to win the prestigious and high-profile Macau Grand Prix with Teddy Yip’s Theodore Racing Team although this was, in reality, West Surrey Racing running under the Theodore Racing Team banner. Then, after testing with Williams, McLaren, Brabham and Toleman, he managed to secure a seat with the latter in time for the 1984 Formula One season.

Into Formula One

The Toleman team was small in comparison to larger teams of that time such as those of Williams, McLaren, or Brabham. Despite this, the team built a decent car powered by Hart Turbo engines and it would be in this car that Senna’s talents soon started to attract notice. He scored his first World Championship point on April 7, 1984 at the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami. Three races and two points later came the high watermark of Senna’s debut season when he really impressed at the Monaco GP. Rain had plagued the event come Sunday where he started 13th on the grid, but after the start of the race, he soon was picking his way through the field in the wet on a circuit not known for overtaking in the dry. By Lap 19, he passed second place man (a double, and later triple World Champion) Niki Lauda and soon chased after race leader Alain Prost.

However, the rain started lashing harder and on Lap 31 the race was stopped. (This would have unfortunate consequences for Prost. Half points for a win was less than full points for the second place he would have earned (few doubt Senna would have got by him) if the event had continued to two-thirds distance, enough to be counted full race. The extra points would have earned Prost the championship.) It was an impressive first podium for the Brazilian. Two more podium finishes (thirds) would follow at the British GP at Brands Hatch and at the season-closing Portuguese GP at Estoril, ultimately placing Senna ninth in the standings, tied with Nigel Mansell on 13 points.

However, Formula One was not to be his only exploit of the year. He took part in the 1000km Nürburgring where, alongside Henri Pescarolo and Stefan Johansson, he co-drove a Porsche 956 to 8th. Additionally, he took part in an exhibition race to celebrate the opening of the new Nürburgring. A number of notable drivers took part in the event, driving identical Mercedes 190E 2.3-16. Senna went on to win ahead of Niki Lauda and Carlos Reutemann.

Lotus years

The next year, Senna joined the Lotus team powered with Renault engines (albeit in a bit of controversy as he had to buy out the remaining year in his Toleman contract) and it was expected that Senna would finally be able to deliver on his promising talent. He partnered Elio De Angelis and drove one of the best Lotus designs for several seasons, the 97T. He scored his first of a record setting 65 pole positions out of 161 races at the season opener in Brazil at the Jacarepaguá Circuit in Rio de Janeiro, only to retire with an electrical problem.

However, at the second round raced at the Autódromo do Estoril in Estoril, Portugal on April 21, 1985, he finally scored his first Grand Prix victory, winning from pole position thanks to an impressive display of wet-weather driving in treacherous conditions which even saw second-place man (and later World Champion) Alain Prost spin off into the wall. However, the remainder of his 1985 season was plagued with mechanical failures despite his outright speed and his ability to score pole position after pole position during qualifying. He only managed another win at the Belgian GP at the famous Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps (once again in wet conditions). At the end of 1985, he finished a respectable 4th in the World Championship with 38 points and six podiums (two wins, two seconds and two thirds), as well as snatching seven pole positions. It was during these years that he also established a relationship with Bernie Ecclestone.

British Grand Prix, Brands Hatch 1986. Photo by Peter HannaHis second season with Lotus however was even better, as the Lotus car was developed and proved to be a more reliable, if not consistent package. He started the season on a high finishing second to his fellow countryman Nelson Piquet at their home event, the Brazilian GP at Jacarepaguá in Rio de Janeiro. He then took the World Championship lead for the first time in his career after winning an exciting Spanish GP at the Jerez de la Frontera circuit in which he managed to hold off the menacing Nigel Mansell in his Williams-Honda for the victory by just .014 of a second.

He would not last there for long however as the Championship would ultimately become a straight fight between Alain Prost’s McLaren-TAG-Porsche and the Williams-Honda duo of Piquet and Mansell; key retirements due to mechanical failures once again befell his chase for the title. Despite this though, Senna still went on a strong charge, taking his second victory of the year at the United States GP at Detroit, and finishing the season fourth (again) with 55 points, 8 pole positions and six podium finishes (four seconds and two thirds). It was at this stage in his career that Senna worked extensively with performance scientist and consultant Dr. Jacques Dallare on physical and mental testing and to improve conditioning.

1987 came with as much promise for better things as it had before. Lotus now had the powerful Honda engines after Renault decided to step out of the sport. After a slow start, Senna won two races in a row: The prestigious Monaco GP (the first of a record breaking six victories at the Principality) and the United States GP at Detroit for the second year in a row, once again taking the World Championship lead. This time, the Lotus-Honda seemed to be more or less on par with the all-conquering Williams-Honda cars once again driven by fellow countryman Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell. But Piquet had an amazing run of consistency throughout the year that Senna was not able to match, and after a spin due to a faulty clutch in the third to last round in Mexico, he was out of the championship hunt, leaving Piquet and teammate Mansell to fight it out for the last two races.

Alas, Mansell badly bruised his back in an accident while practicing for the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, which effectively handed the World Championship to Piquet since he would be out of the season-ending race at Australia in Adelaide as well. However, this meant that Senna still had a fighting chance to snatch the runner-up position in the standings if he managed to finish at least third in both remaining races, and he did more than that by finishing second in both Japan and Australia. Unfortunately at Australia, scrutineering found the brake ducts of his Lotus-Honda to be wider than they should legally have been and he was disqualified, bringing his last and ultimately best season with Lotus to a sour end. After the disqualification, he ended third in the Final Standings, with 57 points, 1 pole position, and 6 podium finishes (four seconds, not counting the one in which he was disqualified, and two thirds). However, this season would mark the turning point of his career as throughout the year, Senna began to build a deep relationship with Honda, a relationship which would pay off in big dividends once his contract with Lotus expired at the end of the season and once the McLaren team soon started calling.

McLaren career

In 1988, thanks to the relationship he had built up with Honda throughout the 1987 season with Lotus, and with the approval of McLaren’s #1 driver, Alain Prost, Senna joined the McLaren team with then-two-time World Champion Alain Prost as his team mate. The foundation for a fierce competition between Senna and Prost was laid, culminating in a number of dramatic race incidents between the two. The pair won 15 of 16 races in the dominant McLaren MP4/4 in 1988 with Senna coming out on top, although Prost actually scored more points in a year where the FIA limited the number of races you could score points to 11.

Senna driving the McLaren MP4/5 in 1989.The following year their rivalry intensified into battles on the track and a psychological war off it. This searing rivalry was typified by their mesmerising race-long battle for victory in the 1989 German Grand Prix, which Ayrton won. Prost took the championship after the infamous Suzuka chicane incident, where Senna attempted a difficult pass and collided with Prost as the two McLarens interlocked in a spectacular fashion, due to Prost turning in towards the out-of-road Senna. The move was a high risk one on Senna’s part and he received much criticism for it afterwards, however it was arguably the only point on the race track in which Senna could pass Prost in the then closing laps. Prost was set to clinch the Driver’s title for 1989 if Senna were to not win the race, which was the reasoning for Senna’s actions.

Some may say that Prost had the racing line, while others may say that Prost should have let Senna through since Senna was on the inside. In fact, it is true that Prost appeared to actually turn slightly towards Senna prior to the cars locking together and going off the circuit, across the chicane, however Senna was never ahead of Prost to begin with, despite being on the inside. Senna managed to get back to the pits for a new nose cone, rejoined the race, retook the lead and won the race, only to be disqualified for illegally cutting the chicane.

At the Suzuka circuit in 1990, the pole position was located on the right, ‘dirty’ side of the track. Senna maintained that, before qualifying fastest, he had sought and received assurances from officials that pole position would be on the left, clean side of the track, only to find this decision reversed after he had taken pole. At the start of the race Prost pulled ahead but when attempting to take the first right-handed corner he was hit by Senna. Telemetry showed Senna made no attempt to decelerate as the corner approached. Both drivers were removed from the race, meaning that Senna won the championship.

Senna later admitted that he had decided to “go for it” at the first corner – perhaps as a way of seeking justice for the change to pole position and, perhaps, for the 1989 Suzuka chicane incident. For critics, it was an act of breathtaking cynicism and one for which Senna received much criticism. Some accused him of a “win at all costs” mentality – but for many fans this is difficult to square with some of his other behaviour, such as his refusal to have his team mates contractually bound to give way to him on the track – a tactic exploited by both Prost[citation needed] and Schumacher.

Senna’s absolute determination to win manifested itself in dismay at McLaren’s inability to challenge Williams in 1992. With Prost signed up by the Grove based squad for 1993 and possessing a veto over Senna joining him, Ayrton considered a sabbatical from F1. He tested for Marlboro Team Penske in the IndyCar World Series, setting swift times and exciting the motoring press. Of course, this test was but a one-off, but the prospect of both Senna and Mansell racing IndyCars in 1993 was a brilliant scenario.

Questions about Senna’s intentions for 1993 lingered as he did not have a contract with any team. McLaren covered their bases by signing 1991 IndyCar World Series Champion Michael Andretti and the promising Mika Häkkinen.

McLaren too had contractual issues to solve with Honda having ended their involvement as an engine supplier to F1 teams, McLaren boss Ron Dennis tried to secure a supply of the Renault engines that had powered the dominant Williams car in 1992. When this deal fell through, Dennis secured a supply of Ford engines – but these would be of a lower horsepower than those used by the Benetton team; however, they were hopeful they would put in a superior performance to the Benetton team due to “loads of electronic trickery”, including advanced traction and suspension control. These electronics were determined to be too effective and banned a year later.

Senna tested McLaren’s 1993 car and whilst he concluded that the chassis was very good indeed, he knew that the engine would be down on power. Senna declined to sign a contract for the season but agreed to drive on a race-by-race basis for a million US dollars per race.

Senna’s start to the 1993 season was spectacular. After finishing a distant second in the opening race in South Africa he drove superbly to win in constantly changing conditions at home in Brazil and in the rain at Donington. The latter is regarded as one of Senna’s greatest victories, though Senna himself downplayed it later. He started the race 4th and dropped to 5th on the rundown to the first corner, but was leading before the first lap was completed.

The unexpected success continued with a second place at Spain and a lucky win at Monaco. After Monaco, the 6th race of the season, Senna was leading the championship ahead of arch-rival Prost in the Williams-Renault, and Michael Schumacher. By this time Senna had signed with McLaren to complete the season and was agitating for Ford to supply McLaren with their best engines, saying that McLaren were more likely to give Ford success than the Benetton team were.

Even Senna could not sustain this challenge against unequal odds. As the season progressed Prost asserted the superiority of the Williams-Renault package and took the championship. Senna concluded the season with two fine wins in Japan and Australia. The latter race, in which Senna prevailed with no assistance from the weather, was a fitting end to Senna’s tenure with the McLaren team. Next season he would drive for Williams. Senna would never win again, and it would be some years before McLaren would enjoy a Grand Prix victory.


Senna was most renowned for his qualifying skill, a discipline he mastered like none before to produce a record 65 pole positions out of 161 races. This record stood for 12 years after his death, before it was surpassed by Michael Schumacher while qualifying for the 2006 San Marino Grand Prix, his 236th race.

“Magic” Senna, as he was known to his fans, also won the Monaco GP six times, a record which stands today and a tribute to his skills which earned him the title “Master of Monaco”.

Ayrton described in detail an odd feeling that he got during his qualifying laps. His experience when qualifying for the 1988 Monaco GP for example he described as being in a tunnel or dreamlike state:

“…the last qualifying session. I was already on pole, then by half a second and then one second and I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel. Not only the tunnel under the hotel but the whole circuit was a tunnel. I was just going and going, more and more and more and more. I was way over the limit but still able to find even more.

“Then suddenly something just kicked me. I kind of woke up and realised that I was in a different atmosphere than you normally are. My immediate reaction was to back off, slow down. I drove slowly back to the pits and I didn’t want to go out any more that day. It frightened me because I was well beyond my conscious understanding. It happens rarely but I keep these experiences very much alive inside me because it is something that is important for self-preservation.”

In that session, lap after lap he broke his own pole position time, until he felt ill at ease, backed off and returned to the pits.

During the 2004 San Marino Grand Prix ten year anniversary remembrance of Ayrton Senna in a series of interviews, Gerhard Berger, Senna’s team mate at McLaren from 1990-1992 and a very close friend, expressed a memory of what it was like qualifying with Senna:

“I remember one weekend in Imola where I went out, I set the time. He went out, he was a bit quicker. I went out, I was quicker than him. He went out, he was quicker than me, and then it goes forwards, backwards — ping pong — until close to the end of the qualifying and it was the last set of tyres, and he was sitting in the racing car, me in my one, and he got out of the racing car, walked over to my one and said, ‘Listen, it’s gonna get very dangerous now,’ and I say ‘So what? Let’s go!’”

This competition could perhaps be attributed to not only Senna’s determination and desire to be first (including qualifying), but Senna and Berger’s close friendship and horseplay, as the two were always playing practical jokes on each other in attempt to outdo each other.

Wet weather driving

In F1, wet weather racing is considered to be a great equaliser. Speeds must be reduced and car superiority in power or grip is greatly reduced. The rain demands great driver car control, ability and driving finesse. Senna had some of his best performances in such conditions.

The 1984 season was Senna’s first in F1. He came into a field of competitors from whose ranks 16 world championships would be reaped. Participating as a rookie in an uncompetitive car, the Toleman TG184, Senna had racked up three race retirements, a 6th and a 7th place from his first 5 races.

He started the first wet race of the season, the Monaco Grand Prix (a notoriously difficult circuit for racing, as it is run on regular streets) in 13th place. The race was terminated after 31 laps due to monsoon conditions deemed undriveable. At the time the race was stopped, Senna was classified in 2nd place, and catching up to race leader Alain Prost, at 4 seconds per lap. Senna’s performance in this race, on a track on which it is notoriously difficult to pass other competitors, should be contrasted with the events of recent races at Monaco in which passing has been the exception rather than the norm, especially in dry conditions.

In 1993, at the European GP at Donington Park, Senna drove for the McLaren team. The MP4/8, although one of the front running cars, was considered inferior to the leading Williams FW15C of Prost and Hill, and the Benetton B193 (which used a factory Ford engine) driven by Michael Schumacher and Riccardo Patrese. Some maintain that the Williams FW14B and FW15C were probably “the most technologically advanced cars that will ever race in Formula One.

Senna started in fourth place on the grid. At the very start, Hill cut across Schumacher’s line, causing Schumacher to cut further to the outside across Senna’s own line. Wendlinger then passed both Schumacher and Senna on the inside, leaving Senna in fifth and Schumacher in fourth. Senna cut to the inside, having no room to move to the outside as Schumacher came across. Despite being in fifth place at that point, at the end of the first lap he would be first. Having overtaken Schumacher, Wendlinger, Hill and Prost. Examples of wet weather car control such as this gained Senna the title “The Rain Master” in numerous F1 publications in the early 90?s. The opening lap is frequently cited as a one of the sport’s great moments.


Starkly contrasting to Senna’s intense and unyielding will to win on the track, his exploits off it were humane and compassionate. He was renowned for his close relationship with Gerhard Berger, and the two were always playing practical jokes on each other.

In 1992 at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium when during Friday free practice Érik Comas had crashed heavily on the back straight other drivers drove past the wreckage at high speed. Senna could be seen jumping out of his car and while endangering his own life, sprinting down the track to the wrecked car to reach inside and hit the electrics kill switch, to prevent a possible fire.

In 1993 again at Spa-Francorchamps when Alessandro Zanardi crashed his Lotus heavily at Eau Rouge corner, Senna could again be seen jumping out of his car to help the injured driver.

After Senna’s death it was discovered that he had donated millions of dollars of his personal fortune (estimated at $400 million at the time of his death) to children’s charities, a fact that during his life he had kept secret.

In the documentary film “The Right to Win” made in 2004 as a tribute to Senna, Frank Williams noteably recalls that as good a driver as Senna was, ultimately “he was a greater man outside of the car than he was in it.”


At the end of 1993, Senna left the ailing McLaren team for the top F1 team at the time, Williams-Renault. After the banning of active suspension, traction control and ABS Williams started the season trying to close the gap to Benetton. Senna failed to finish his first two races at Interlagos and Aida, despite taking two superb pole positions against the Benetton at both events. These pole positions were especially noteworthy considering the fact that the Williams was not a good-handling car at the start of 1994, as observed by other F1 drivers, having been seen to be very loose at the rear. Senna himself had made numerous (politically careful) comments that the FW-16 had some quirks which needed to be ironed out. It was obvious that the FW-16, after the regulation changes banning active suspension and traction control, exhibited none of the superiority of the FW-15C and FW-14B that had preceded it. On May 1 1994, he took part in his third race for the team, the San Marino Grand Prix at the Imola circuit. Although he would not finish it, Senna started his last race from pole position.

That weekend, he was particularly upset by two events. On the Friday, during the afternoon qualifying session, Senna’s protégé, the then newcomer Rubens Barrichello, was involved in a serious accident that prevented him from competing in the race. Senna visited Barrichello in the hospital (he jumped the wall at the back of the facility after being barred from visitation by the doctors) and was convinced that safety standards had to be reviewed. On Saturday, the death of Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger in practice reinforced Senna’s safety concerns and caused Senna to consider retiring. Ironically, he spent his final morning meeting fellow drivers, determined after Ratzenberger’s accident to take on a new responsibility to re-create a Driver’s Safety group to increase safety in Formula One. As the most senior driver, he was offered to take the role of leader in this effort.


Imola 1994, Pedro Lamy and J. J. Lehto were involved in a starting-line accident. Track officials deployed the safety car to slow down the field and allow the debris from the starting accident to be removed. The cars proceeded under the safety car for 6 laps. On lap 7, from the onboard camera of Michael Schumacher’s Benetton, Senna’s car was seen to break traction twice at the rear, go off the track at Tamburello corner and strike an unprotected concrete barrier. Telemetry shows he left the track at 310 km/h (193 mph) and was able to slow the car down to 218 km/h (135 mph) in less than two seconds before hitting the wall.

After Senna’s car came to a halt, he remained motionless in the cockpit. Although the car had suffered a high speed impact with the wall, the accident did not have the typical hallmark of an especially devastating racing crash. The car simply seemed to impact the wall at a shallow angle, tearing off the right front wheel and nosecone. It was immediately evident that Senna had suffered some sort of injury because of the manner in which his helmet was seen to be motionless and leaning very slightly to the side. In the seconds that followed his head was seen to move to one side slightly causing false hopes to be raised. A long time seemed to go by before medical units came to his aid, with fire marshals having arrived at the car and unable to touch Senna before qualified medical personnel arrived. Television coverage from an overhead helicopter was seen around the world, as rescue workers gave medical attention. Close inspection of the area in which the medical staff treated Senna revealed a considerable amount of blood on the ground. During this time a miscommunication in the pits caused a Larrousse F1 car piloted by Erik Comas to leave the pit lane and attempt to rejoin the now red flagged Grand Prix. Frantic waving by the marshalls at Senna’s crash site prevented the Larousse from risking a collision with the medical helicopter that had landed on the track. Professor Sidney Watkins, a world-renowned neurosurgeon and Formula One Safety Delegate and Medical Delegate, head of the Formula One on-track medical team, who performed an on site tracheotomy on Ayrton Senna, reported:

“He looked serene. I raised his eyelids and it was clear from his pupils that he had a massive brain injury. We lifted him from the cockpit and laid him on the ground. As we did, he sighed and, although I am totally agnostic, I felt his soul departed at that moment.”


Senna was only 34 years old. Senna’s injuries were caused by the front right tire with attached suspension piece, which became loose on impact, hit Senna on the head and pierced his visor, and caused a fatal cranial trauma. Images of Senna’s battered helmet show a puncture occurred at the top of the visor, just over his right eye. This led to the now most commonly accepted theory that one of the car’s suspension bars had come loose and impacted with Senna’s head.

The FIA and Italian authorities still maintain that Senna was not killed instantly, but rather died in hospital, to where he had been rushed by helicopter after an emergency tracheotomy and IV administration were performed on track. There is an ongoing debate as to why Senna was not declared dead at the track. Under Italian law when a person dies at a sporting event, that death must be investigated, causing the sporting event to be cancelled. The Director of the Oporto (Portugal) Legal Medicine Institute, Professor Pinto da Costa, has stated the following:

“From the ethical viewpoint, the procedure used for Ayrton’s body was wrong. It involved dysthanasia, which means that a person has been kept alive improperly after biological death has taken place due to brain injuries so serious that the patient would never have been able to remain alive without mechanical means of support. There would have been no prospect of normal life and relationships. Whether or not Ayrton was removed from the car while his heart was beating or whether his supply of blood had halted or was still flowing, is irrelevant to the determination of when he died.

The autopsy showed that the crash caused multiple fractures at the base of the cranium, crushing the forehead and rupturing the temporal artery with haemorrhage in the respiratory passages. It is possible to resuscitate a dead person immediately after the heart stops through cardio-respiratory processes. The procedure is known as putting the patient on the machine. From the medical-legal viewpoint, in Ayrton’s case, there is a subtle point: resuscitation measures were implemented.

From the ethical point of view this might well be condemned because the measures were not intended to be of strictly medical benefit to the patient but rather because they suited the commercial interest of the organisation. Resuscitation did in fact take place, with the tracheotomy performed, while the activity of the heart was restored with the assistance of cardio-respiratory devices. The attitude in question was certainly controversial. Any physician would know there was no possibility whatsoever of successfully restoring life in the condition in which Senna had been found.”

Professor Jose Pratas Vital, Director of the Egas Moniz hospital in Lisbon, a neurosurgeon and Head of the Medical Staff at the Portuguese GP, offers a different opinion:

“The people who conducted the autopsy stated that, on the evidence of his injuries, Senna was dead. They could not say that. He had injuries which lead to his death, but at that point the heart may still have been functioning. Medical personnel attending an injured person, and who perceive that the heart is still beating, have only two courses of action: One is to ensure that the patient’s respiratory passages remain free, which means that he can breathe. They had to carry out an emergency tracheotomy. With oxygen, and the heart beating, there is another concern, which is loss of blood. These are the steps to be followed in any case involving serious injury, whether on the street or on a racetrack. The rescue team can think of nothing else at that moment except to assist the patient, particularly by immobilising the cervical area. Then the injured person must be taken immediately to the intensive care unit of the nearest hospital”.

Rogério Morais Martins states that:

“According to the first clinical bulletin read by Dr. Maria Teresa Fiandri at 4.30 p.m. Ayrton Senna had brain damage with haemorrhaged shock and deep coma. However, the medical staff did not note any chest or abdomen wound. The haemorrhage was due to the rupture of the temporal artery. The neurosurgeon who examined Ayrton Senna at the hospital mentioned that the circumstances did not call for surgery because the wound was generalised in the cranium. At 6.05 p.m. Dr. Fiandri read another communiqué, her voice shaking, announcing that Senna was dead. At that stage he was still connected to the equipment that maintained his heartbeat.

The release by the Italian authorities of the results of Ayrton Senna’s autopsy, revealing that the driver had died instantaneously during the race at Imola, ignited still more controversy. Now there were questions about the reactions of the race director and the medical authorities. Although spokespersons for the hospital had stated that Senna was still breathing on arrival in Bologna, the autopsy on Ratzenberger [who died the day before] indicated that death had been instantaneous. Under Italian law, a death within the confines of the circuit would have required the cancellation of the entire race meeting.

That in turn, would have prevented the death of Ayrton Senna.

The relevant Italian legislation stipulates that when a death takes place during a sporting event, it should be immediately halted and the area sealed off for examination. In the case of Ratzenberger, this would have meant the cancellation of both Saturday’s qualifying session and the San Marino Grand Prix on Sunday.

Medical experts are unable to state whether or not Ayrton Senna died instantaneously. Nevertheless, they were well aware that his chances of survival were slight. Had he remained alive, the brain damage would have left him severely handicapped. Accidents such as this are almost always fatal, with survivors suffering irreversible brain damage. This is due to the effects on the brain of sudden deceleration, which causes structural damage to the brain tissues. Estimates of the forces involved in Ayrton’s accident suggest a rate of deceleration equivalent to a 30 metre vertical drop, landing head-first. Evidence offered at the autopsy revealed that the impact of this 208 km/h crash caused multiple injuries at the base of the cranium, resulting in respiratory insufficiency.

There was crushing of the brain (which was forced against the wall of the cranium causing oedema and haemorrhage, increasing intra-cranial pressure and causing brain death), together with the rupture of the temporal artery, haemorrhage in the respiratory passages and the consequent heart failure.

There are two opposing theories on the issue of whether the drivers were still alive when they were put in the helicopters that carried them to hospital. Assuming both Ratzenberger and Senna had died instantaneously, the race organisers might have delayed any announcement in order to avoid being forced to cancel the meeting, thus protecting their financial interests.

Had the meeting been cancelled, Sagis – the organisation which administers the Imola circuit – stood to lose an estimated US$6.5 million.”

The FIA dismisses that conception as an unfounded conspiracy theory.

Changes made to the circuit in response to the deaths of Senna and Ratzenberger.The FIA immediately investigated the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola, and the track’s signature Tamburello turn, was changed into a left-right chicane.

In 2000, Senna was posthumously inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.

Accident analysis

In 2004, a television documentary by National Geographic called Seismic Seconds: The Death of Ayrton Senna was screened worldwide. The programme considered the available data from Senna’s car to reconstruct the sequence of events that led to the fatal crash. The programme concluded that an unusually long safety car period had reduced the pressures in Senna’s tyres, thereby lowering the car. As the car entered the Tamburello bend, it bottomed-out and the loss of the ground effect led to a sudden reduction in downforce, and hence grip. As Senna instinctively corrected the resultant slide, the downforce and grip suddenly returned, and Senna effectively drove off the circuit. The programme came to the conclusion that if Senna’s reactions had actually been slower, he might have survived the crash.

To many within the F1 world including drivers of that era who had raced at Imola, the conclusions drawn from low tyre pressure as a cause of the accident seem highly implausible. Telemetry recorded that Senna took the bend at 190 mph on lap 6 with cold tyres. The information released in the trial stated that Senna started the race with 86 litres of fuel and had planned a two stop race strategy, one less than Schumacher who started the race lighter on a 3 stop strategy. The theory that low tyre pressure caused the crash was defeated in court when Stefano Stefanini, head of Bologna’s traffic accident unit, testified that Senna, with a heavier car than Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill, recorded a time of 1.24.887 on the sixth lap, Ayrton’s only lap at race speed and the 3rd fastest lap of the race. Alboreto and other drivers of the era claimed that given Senna’s lap time, his tyres would have been at race temperature by the 7th lap and could not have been a factor in the crash.

The ban on active suspension affected Williams more than any other team as it was the key development that had helped make the Williams car the class of the field from 1991, 1992 and 1993. 1994 the Williams drivers complained of severe handling problems and a twitchy rear-end. The FW16?s new rear end was introduced at Imola. It was ironic that at the beginning of 1994 Senna himself told the press that he would be surprised if there would be no large accidents that year. He referred to the fact that after the wide “white label” 26 inch Goodyear slicks were banned for 1993 (replaced by “yellow label”), now the technology at the very core of the cars, the science around which they had been based for the last few years (active suspension, traction control and ABS) was also banned for 1994. He surmised that the cars would have trouble staying on the road, which is exactly what was observed at the beginning of 1994. J. J. Lehto damaged his vertebrae at Silverstone in January and Jean Alesi broke his neck in pre-season testing, prior to Ratzenberger’s and Senna’s fatal accidents at Imola. During qualifying for the next race at Monaco, Wendlinger suffered an accident which left him comatose for months; Ratzenberger’s replacement, Andrea Montermini, broke his feet in the Simtek in Barcelona, and Pedro Lamy broke both knee-caps in testing at Silverstone in May. None of these accidents was deemed to be caused by driver error, although there is no evidence to suggest that the accidents were caused by the ban on driver aids.

There are other factors – Senna did not like the position of the steering column relative to his seating position and had repeatedly asked for it to be changed. At Imola Senna found himself in a car with his team’s engineers struggling to cope and adapt to the ban of active suspension. Patrick Head and Adrian Newey agreed to Senna’s request to shorten the FW16?s steering column, but there was no time to manufacture a shortened steering shaft. The existing shaft was instead cut, shortened, and welded back together with reinforcing plates. Many surmise, based on comparing hours of onboard video footage from Brazil and Imola that the movement of the steering wheel during the race at Imola was completely abnormal. Senna on his final lap is seen turning the wheel left to full lock with no movement of the front wheels. Others have raised suspicion at what can clearly be seen on the onboard footage as Senna looking down onto his steering wheel seconds before entering Tamburello.

The irony of the on board video available from Senna’s car is that the final seconds of footage are missing. The approximately 1.5 seconds of remaining video which would have provided a definite answer as to the cause of Senna’s death were lost in an act of astounding coincidence when the TV race director decided to switch camera signals at the very instant the Williams started to leave the track.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, numerous rumours abound that the remaining 1.5 seconds are not lost and reportedly show Senna’s steering wheel clearly coming off in his hands as his car is leaving the track. Although allegations exist that this video has been seen by a number of people at the top level of motorsport, there is no evidence to support its existence.

Senna’s distinctive helmet Damon Hill, Senna’s teammate at the time of his death, had this to say in an interview given on the subject 10 years later:

“After the warm-up we went to the drivers’ briefing. Ayrton was upbeat and determined after his good performance, but he had concerns about the new safety car regulations. These fears were to be prophetic. It was a measure of the political climate of Formula One that Ayrton Senna felt it necessary to get other drivers to ask questions about the safety car so that he did not appear to be alone. The implication was that the bosses made the rules; if you had issues with that, they would make sure you knew who ran things. So we got on to the subject of the safety car (importantly distinct from the “pace car” used to spice up US racing).”

Ayrton became vociferous, claiming that it was ill-conceived and dangerous for one specific reason — the temperature of the tyres of a Formula One car is critical in several respects. One, they only stick when they are very hot; two, the pressure varies enormously with temperature and, consequently, the stability of the tyre construction.

To sum up: if a Formula One car has to follow an ordinary road car it will not travel fast enough for the tyres to keep within their designed working temperature and pressure. I believe this was a contributing factor in Ayrton’s accident, as the safety car was deployed directly after the start, exactly as he had feared.

And so it was we left the briefing on Sunday having agreed to pay some kind of tribute to Roland on the grid. We went to the normal sponsor functions and then back to the motorhome. I never really talked or spent any time with Ayrton before the race. Everything was extremely businesslike, with an added severity because of the death of Roland.”

The Williams team was entangled for many years in a court case with the Italian prosecutors over manslaughter charges, but they were found not guilty and no action was taken against Williams. In 2004, the case was re-opened, but closed again in 2005 when there was no new evidence.

At the conclusion of the Italian trial, Senna’s FW16 was returned to the William’s team. The team reported that the car was destroyed.

His death was considered by many of his Brazilian fans to be a national tragedy, and the Brazilian government declared three days of national mourning. More than 1 million persons followed Senna’s burial in São Paulo. Senna is buried at the Cemitério do Morumbi in his hometown of São Paulo.

Senna’s grave

A tribute to Senna at the Donington Collection, Donington Park, where Senna drove the “Drive of the Decade” in 1993.

The legendary Eau Rouge corner in Belgium was temporarily reprofiled for the 1994 race. Damon Hill drives through the chicane, past graffiti written on the track to commemorate Senna.Undoubtedly, Senna was one of the greatest drivers of all time, but for millions of people, he was much more than this – His character was larger than life; he demonstrated almost superhuman skill and determination that would have stood out in whatever field he had chosen to be part of.

Off the track, Senna was a deeply religious and compassionate man. Before his death, he created the Ayrton Senna Foundation, an organization with the aim of helping poor and needy young people in Brazil and around the world. As a result, Senna continues to impact the world today and has become a beacon of hope to millions of his countrymen and an example of professionalism and humanity to those who remember him.

In 2004 (when, ten years after his death, the Brazilian media revisited the entire life of Senna), a book called “Ayrton: The Hero Revealed” (original title: “Ayrton: O Herói Revelado”) was published in Brazil. The book recalls several passages of Senna’s career, and adds previously unknown information about his personal life.

In addition, to mark the 10th anniversary of Senna’s passing, on April 21, 2004, over 10,000 people attended a charity match in a football stadium near Imola. The game was organized by several devoted Italian and Canadian fans of Ayrton, bringing together the 1994 FIFA World Cup winning team of Brazil who dedicated their 1994 FIFA World Cup win to Ayrton Senna to face the “Nazionale Piloti”, an exhibition team comprised exclusively of top race car drivers (of which Senna was a part in 1985). Michael Schumacher, Jarno Trulli, Rubens Barrichello, Fernando Alonso and many others faced the likes of Dunga, Careca, Taffarel and many of the team that won the World Cup in the USA ten years earlier.

That same weekend, Bernie Ecclestone revealed that he still believed Ayrton Senna was and remained the best F1 driver he’d ever seen.

In 2005, Italian singer Cesare Cremonini released a song entitled, “Marmellata #25?, and in the chorus he has part of a line that reads in Italian “ahh! da quando Senna non corre più… …non è più domenica! “, which translates to: “Oh! Since when Senna doesn’t race anymore…it’s not Sunday anymore!”

Perhaps the unique duality of his character was most evident at the moment of his death. As track officials examined the wreckage of his racing car they found a furled, bloodsoaked Austrian flag. A victory flag that he was going to raise in honour of Austrian Roland Ratzenberger, who had died on that track the day before.

At his memorial service an estimated one million people lined the streets to give him their salute.

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