From 1984 until his untimely death at San Marino, Italy, on May 1, 1994, no single driver in the world of Formula 1 was as polarizing or as controversial as Brazil’s Ayrton Senna. A master at squeezing every bit of performance from a race car, especially in the wet, Senna was driven by a perpetual need to be the fastest that quite often bordered on recklessness. His three world championships, 41 F1 victories and 65 pole positions are a testament to his skill behind the wheel; but to those whose lives he touched outside of racing, Senna was far more than just a star of motorsport.
Born to a wealthy Brazilian family in March 1960, Ayrton Senna da Silva grew up on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil. From an early age, Senna (who would go on to favor his mother’s maiden name, as “da Silva” was too common in Brazil and “Senna da Silva” didn’t fit on a pit board) had a passion for all things automotive, reportedly learning to drive a Jeep on the family’s property at age seven.
At 13, as soon as he met the age requirements, Senna began to race karts and very quickly proved competitive on the track. In 1977, Senna finished high school and captured his first South American Karting Championship; though business college loomed in his future, Senna’s career path had already been set.
Senna lasted just three months in college, his attention perpetually attuned to racing. His victories in karting convinced him that the next step up racing’s ladder would require a move to Europe, and in late 1980 Senna moved to the U.K. to race Formula Fords for the Van Diemen team. Championships in the Townsend Thorensen and RAC Formula Ford 1,600-cc series came in his first season of racing, but Senna’s parents remained unconvinced that racing was a viable career for their son. In late 1981, Senna returned to Brazil, agreeing to enter into the family business, but this relocation was only temporary. With a new contract (including a salary) to race Formula Fords in Europe, Senna was back in England for the start of the 1982 racing season.
Senna earned championships in the British and European Formula Ford series in 1982, followed by a championship in the British Formula Three Series in 1983. By this time, he’d come to the attention of numerous F1 teams, and test drives with Williams, McLaren, Brabham and Toleman followed. Though each team was impressed with Senna’s skill and passion, only backmarker Toleman had a vacancy for the 1984 season, so Senna signed the contract necessary to get his foot in the door at racing’s highest level.
His first F1 season began with a DNF in Brazil, followed by a pair of sixth-place finishes in South Africa and Belgium. After failing to make the grid at all in San Marino, Italy, the first defining moment of Senna’s F1 career came at Monaco, the season’s next race. In a torrential rain, on a partially flooded street circuit, Senna moved from 13th place on the grid to challenge Alain Prost for the lead. Turning lap times seconds faster than the other drivers, Senna patiently reeled in Prost and was about to challenge for the lead when the race was red-flagged at Prost’s urging. Some believed this was to spare Prost the indignity of being passed by a then-unknown rookie at the series’s most prestigious event, while others pointed to the fact that Porsche sponsored both Prost and Jacky Ickx, it was the FIA’s clerk of the course who actually halted the race for conditions.
Regardless of reason, the move remained controversial, though it had little impact on the remainder of Senna’s rookie season. The Toleman-Hart was not a competitive platform, but Senna managed to capture two more podium finishes for the team in his freshman year. It might have even been three more podiums, but in hearing that Senna would be buying out his contract at the end of the 1984 season, in order to race for Lotus, the Toleman team suspended the Brazilian driver for the Italian Grand Prix.
From 1985 through 1987, Senna raced for Lotus, turning in consistent performances and an impressive 16 pole positions in three years. Lotus was not a team in contention for the championship, but Senna managed to finish a respectable fourth in points during his first two seasons, climbing to third during his last year with the squad. In every season, Senna out-performed his Lotus teammate, but the Renault engine (used for 1985 and 1986, before the team’s move to Honda in 1987) proved too fragile to deliver consistent results.
For 1988, Senna signed with McLaren, where he was paired with Alain Prost. That McLaren would capture the 1988 title was a given, as both team drivers seem to trade off victories and second-place finishes at nearly every race, but at the season’s end, it was Senna who’d taken the championship by three points over his rival and teammate. The following season, their roles reversed, but the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix would prove to be another defining moment in Senna’s career.
With neither driver willing to concede star status, a feud that had been festering all season boiled over in Japan. Prost passed polesitter Senna at the start, but by lap 46, Senna had put himself in a position to take the lead back from Prost. The pair tangled in a corner, sending both sliding off the track and onto an access road. Prost unbuckled his harness and climbed from the car, fuming, while Senna was able to get a push from the marshals and return to the race.
Despite his off-track excursion, Senna went on to claim victory, at least until FIA president Jean Marie Balestre disqualified the Brazilian for “failing to complete a lap” by returning to the track via the access road. McLaren protested on behalf of Senna, pointing out that other drivers who’d slid off track and used the access road to return were not penalized, and that Senna had not gained a position due to his actions. The protest was overruled, and for the remainder of his career Senna insisted that Balestre, and with him the FIA, had conspired against him.
Following the events of 1989, it was clear that Senna and Prost could no longer co-exist as teammates. With Prost off to Ferrari, Senna was the uncontested star of the McLaren team, but the rivalry between the two was far from over. Once again, this came to a climax in Japan, with neither Senna nor Prost willing to yield the line into the first corner off the start. Some saw this as a potentially suicidal move by Senna, as the contact triggered a potentially devastating high-speed accident that both drivers miraculously survived unscathed.
Once again, Jean Marie Balestre was behind the incident, overruling an already granted request to allow polesitter Senna to start from the cleaner side of the track. Instead, Balestre had given the second-position car, driven by Prost, the cleaner starting spot on the grid. Humiliated once by Balestre, Senna made it clear in the driver’s meeting that he would not yield the corner to Prost at the start of the race.
The outcome was a foregone conclusion, as by taking Prost out of contention in Japan, Senna had already amassed enough points to capture the 1990 championship. He’d repeat this role in 1991, but by 1992 the Williams team (ironically with Renault power, which had proven troublesome for Senna at Lotus) was the sport’s dominant force. Despite Senna’s three victories and four additional podiums in 1992, the three-time world champion finished a disappointing fourth in the championship.
For 1993, Alain Prost returned to the sport after a one-year semi-retirement, signing with Williams. A change in engines from Honda to Ford made Senna reluctant to sign a full-season contract with McLaren, so the Brazilian campaigned the season on a race-by-race basis for the team. Prost ultimately took the championship, but Senna finished as runner-up, capturing victories in five of the season’s 16 races. Though no one knew it at the time, his win at the season-ending Australian Grand Prix would be his last.
The 1994 season was to be a year of change for Senna, who departed McLaren for Williams following the announcement that Alain Prost was retiring from the sport for good. It started on something of a high note, with Senna delivering pole positions for Williams at the season-opening Brazilian Grand Prix and at the Pacific Grand Prix in Japan. Both would fail to produce points: In Brazil, Senna spun off while chasing down race leader Michael Schumacher; in Japan, an incident with Mika Häkkinen and Nicola Larini ended his day early, delivering a frustrated Senna back-to-back DNFs.
And then came San Marino. Senna qualified on pole during Friday’s session, which was marred by Rubens Barrichello’s 140 MPH crash in qualifying. Extracted from his overturned car, Barichello was taken to a nearby regional hospital for treatment and observation. He returned in time for the Saturday driver’s meeting, complete with a cast on his broken arm and a bruised face from a broken nose. The incident foreshadowed what was to come next, but the drivers in the room shrugged off Barichello’s incident as the cost of doing business in Formula 1.
Then, during Saturday’s final qualifying session, Austrian rookie Roland Ratzenberger crashed hard in the Villeneuve curve, his Simtek-Ford hitting a concrete barrier virtually head-on, the result of a front wing failure. Airlifted to a local trauma center, Ratzenberger was pronounced dead of a basal skull fracture on arrival, becoming the first F1 driver to die during a Grand Prix event in 12 years.
The illusion that the sport of Formula 1 had become safe had vanished, and Ratzenberger’s death had a profound impact on Senna. Some said that the Brazilian even considered walking away from the sport, but his faith in his ability to drive a Formula 1 car kept him in the cockpit. To honor Ratzenberger, Senna carried an Austrian flag in his Nomex on race day, with the intent of unfurling it to honor his fallen colleague on the podium at the conclusion of the race.
Senna never got the chance. Following a restart early in the race, his Williams bottomed out on the approach to Tamburello corner, likely from the effect of a full fuel load and cold tires. Senna briefly lost steering control of the car, which struck the concrete retaining wall at a shallow angle, traveling at a recorded speed of 135 MPH prior to impact.
Though the accident occurred at high speed, it did not look particularly severe, and there was little reason to assume that Senna had suffered more than minor injuries. Had components of the right front suspension not intruded into the cockpit, penetrating Senna’s helmet, the accident would have been survivable, but as soon as Formula 1 medical team head Sid Watkins arrived on scene, it was clear that Senna’s head injuries were irreversible. Despite the best efforts of first responders and hospital staff, Senna was pronounced dead that evening.
The death of Senna and Ratzenberger in a single weekend led to sweeping changes in Formula 1, all in an effort to improve safety. In the years since, there has been only a single F1 fatality in a modern car, the result of a testing accident and not a competition incident.
Senna was given a hero’s funeral in Brazil, and he continues to be remembered both for his exploits on track and his tireless efforts to improve the lives of those less fortunate. Was Senna the best Formula 1 driver of the modern era? That’s an impossible question to answer, but to his legions of fans the world over, no driver will ever measure up to Senna.