May 1 1994. The San Marino Grand Prix has just started at Imola but I’m in the Silverstone paddock, peering at a small, portable television beneath the protective awning at tyre supplier Avon’s race truck.
I’m there to cover a round of the FIA Formula 3000 Championship, grand prix racing’s ante-chamber, and am watching events in Italy unfold in the company of Williams-Renault test driver David Coulthard and sundry others.
There’s a collective gasp when Ayrton Senna’s leading Williams ploughs off the road at Tamburello corner, but nothing alarmist. The car strikes the retaining wall at high speed, but its protective central cell looks intact and we stand there waiting for the Brazilian to unclip his belts and climb out…
Before Imola, F1 had for some time been considered relatively safe. It was eight years since a driver had been killed at the wheel (Elio de Angelis, testing for Brabham at Paul Ricard in France) and 12 since tragedy had befallen a race (Osella driver Ricardo Paletti perished in a start-line accident during the 1982 Canadian GP).
This weekend, though, had been scarred from the start: Rubens Barrichello was sidelined after a spectacular practice mishap on Friday, Austrian Roland Ratzenberger died from injuries sustained in a qualifying accident the following afternoon and several spectators then received minor injuries after being struck by debris from a pile-up on the grid.
That caused the race to be neutralised for a few minutes and it was on the second lap after the restart that Senna left the road. His car provided ample bodily protection, but motorsport’s huge kinetic forces make it impossible to legislate for every circumstance: the Williams’s front-right suspension shattered on impact and a fragmented particle pierced Senna’s crash helmet.
A few inches to one side or the other and he might have walked away unharmed, but in this instance it acted like a bullet. The three-time world champion’s death was confirmed later that evening and the subsequent state funeral brought his Brazilian homeland to a complete halt. There are sporting icons and then there’s Ayrton Senna.
An intense, forceful personality added a great deal of charisma to grand prix racing throughout his 10 years at the summit and the very public nature of that Imola accident – during a live television broadcast watched by millions – added to the sense of shock.
Directed by Asif Kapadia, Senna is a thoughtful documentary, bereft of sensationalism but ripe with insight, sparingly used, and fascinating clips of period Ayrton, many of them previously unseen. When the documentary was premiered in the family’s native São Paulo last autumn, Senna’s nephew Bruno was among the audience.
“I think the movie is pretty cool,” he says. “They managed to include a lot of Ayrton’s character and that’s a very difficult task because he was a deep and complex person. I am happy with the way they portrayed his life. There are lots of positive things that people didn’t necessarily know.”
The younger Senna used to fool around with Uncle Ayrton on karts, jetskis and almost anything else they could lay their hands on. His racing prospects were stifled after Imola, however, when his grandfather Milton – Ayrton’s father – barred him from racing. The passion always burned within, but it was not until he was 21 that he got to try his hand behind the wheel of a racing car.
He was 10 years old when Ayrton died – he watched him race in F1 only twice, in the Brazilian GPs of 1992 and 1994 – but the memories remain fresh. “We used to spend holidays together in Brazil, when he came back during grand prix racing’s off-season,” he says. “We had a good time and he pushed me to be competitive whatever we did. It was a lot of fun and we tended to play quite a few practical jokes on each other.
“I had a fair idea of what he represented to Brazil, but you don’t fully understand at that age. His presence was quite special, though, simply because he wasn’t always around.”
The movie had a powerful effect on me, familiar as I am with the story, and its impact tends to be even greater on those of a younger generation.
My son Tom was three when Senna died and had only a vague grasp of motor racing. Trying to explain the consequences of Imola was not the work of a moment. He listened carefully, then asked: “Could Ayrton race touring cars instead, then?”
Now 20, he has recently watched Senna several times and is greatly moved by the content, but keeps willing the script to end differently.
“The movie has a very strong effect on people,” says Bruno, “because it’s a good story with a sad ending. One of Renault’s F1 engineers got the DVD recently and took it to the factory. Lots of people watched it with him, but when it came to Imola most of them walked out. Nobody wanted to see it. The last part is very tense, but it gives you a real feeling for what was going on – not just with Ayrton’s accident but also with Rubens, Roland Ratzenberger, the start-line crash and everything else. The whole movie experience is powerful and I think people react to that. It feels as though you’re there, that it’s all happening in front of you, which goes to show it has been well made and is very well structured.”
Does Bruno feel there’s anything missing? He laughs and says, “Ayrton always took a little bit more risk than anybody else and I’d like to have seen more on-board footage from qualifying, or during the opening laps of races. You’d watch sometimes and think, ‘What? Did he really try that?’ That would have added a lot of running time, I guess, but if it had been up to me the movie would have lasted about 10 hours…”
By Simon Arron