The Toro Rosso star, enjoying his maiden season in Formula One this year, is among the first of a new wave of drivers with no memories of the three-time world champion to share.

The sport is reaching something of a crossover point, where its competitors will no longer instantly reply with the one-word answer, “Senna”, when asked whom their childhood inspiration was. Just as he replaced Senna as the leader of the San Marino Grand Prix—and soon enough as the star of F1—after the Brazilian’s Williams-Renault left the track at the Tamburello corner 20 years ago, Michael Schumacher will be the name etched on the mind of every child of the early noughties who grew up to become a racing driver.

The generation game will continue into the next decade too, of course, when Schumacher will surrender his status as everyone’s childhood hero—as he did on track first in 2005 and 2006 and then between 2010 and 2012—to make way for Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen. It is a natural cycle, the food chain of sport: Generation A’s hero is gobbled up by the star of Generation B, who after a period at the summit is eventually replaced by the leading light of Generation C and so on.

Emerging footballers in the modern age, for example, are almost certain to cite current players such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as their heroes, rather than older greats such as Pele and Diego Maradona.

With that in mind, the term “all-time great” is utterly nonsensical. Sporting greatness is defined not by being the best of the bunch but by being the best of your bunch.

Greatness, then, is something that is dictated by time. And this is especially true in Formula One, where the technology on hand can drastically change from era to era. But if any sportsperson is talented and influential enough to break that cycle, Ayrton Senna is unquestionably the one to do so. There is a certain timelessness about Senna that you could not associate with any other sporting figure. It is a strange notion, especially when you consider that he is not the most statistically successful driver nor the most rounded driver in the sport’s history, nor the most popular of men while alive.

Perhaps it is due to his premature death, at the age of 34, and the knowledge that he still had so much more to give, so much more to achieve, so many more memories to provide. Perhaps it is down to his double personality; how he could switch from being a warm, compassionate human to a stubborn, no-compromise warrior with a simple flick of the visor.Perhaps it is because of his thrilling driving style—always punchy, always aggressive, always opportunistic—and how he remained true to his principles even on the occasions when they caused more harm than good.

Like the cause of the crash which ultimately cost him his life, it is impossible to highlight a single factor which has seen Senna defy the sands of time.

That in itself, however, epitomises the paradox of Ayrton Senna: Despite being the most thoughtful, philosophical driver in F1 history—someone who would openly and revealingly discuss anything from sport to life and religion—Senna was still considered enigmatic. The Brazilian’s continuous importance to F1 is clear each time its increasingly-senile rule-makers come up with a new idea to rejuvenate the sport.

The introduction in recent years of KERS and DRS, devices which aid overtaking—something that was second nature to Senna—and fragile Pirelli tyres, requiring drivers to operate well within their limits—something completely alien to Senna—has alienated purists.

Those gimmicks, as well as the new rule that will see double points on offer at the final race of the season as a way to generate interest, have all been met with the same refrain: “What on Earth would Ayrton Senna have made of that?”

Senna was the ultimate motor-racing fan who became a world champion. His willingness to take on the authorities, almost acting as a spokesman for fans, and his thorough, independent understanding of what attracts people to Formula One resonates with us all and is a far cry from the drivers of today, who are little more than the pawns of their teams and the suits.

Although those born around the time of, and following, Senna’s death may not have witnessed first-hand the majesty of his world championship-winning campaigns, his career-defining performances at Interlagos in 1991 or at Donington Park two years later and how he fought both Alain Prost and the FIA, the sheer impact of the Brazilian is unavoidable.

Drivers are, of course, reminded of Senna’s legacy every time they leave the garage, with the world’s grand prix circuits built to the very highest of safety standards.

Missing out on Senna’s life, too, means youngsters never had the chance to grow a sense of dislike towards him. His feud with Prost could be extremely distasteful at times, even when the pair were not taking each other out at Suzuka, while his infamous assault on Eddie Irvine at the venue in 1993 was a serious violation of duty for a three-time champion.

For those too young to recall Senna’s life, he is a mythical, God-like figure rather than just a real person, just another F1 driver, just another world champion. He is universally worshipped, with the stars of today and tomorrow merely his disciples, following in his footsteps.Even in death, his fanbase continues to grow, with children from small regions of countries with no previous motorsport heritage such as Kvyat attracted by the Senna story.

Twenty years on, Ayrton Senna remains as important as ever to Formula One.

source: By Oliver Harden