For when Senna, 34 years old and still at the height of his fame and the peak of his talent, died on that melancholic afternoon at Imola, his countrymen in Brazil grieved on a scale never before engendered by a sportsman. On a little kart track back in England, young Lewis Hamilton hid himself behind his dad’s car and cried.
Senna stopped a nation. President Itamar Franco ordered three days of national mourning. So when Senna’s body returned to his home city, the sprawl of Sao Paulo, people lined the route from Guaralhos airport to the centre of town.
They crammed on bridges and pavements, followed on bikes, cars and trucks, looked on from the windows of slum dwellings and through the security gates of posh houses.
So long was the queue of those who wished to pay him respect as he lay in the July 9 Palace – three miles or more by some accounts – that it took seven hours for the people at the back to reach the mahogany cask carrying their hero, a man who was a certain inspiration in a land where material improvement was often just a flickering hope.
By the time he had completed his final, slow journey to his hilly green burial plot in Morumbi Cemetery, three million mourners had turned out to honour him and tens of millions more had watched on their television sets. Just as they had the previous Sunday when Senna died at Imola’s Tamburello curve in the San Marino Grand Prix that he was leading on the seventh and fateful lap.
Undoubtedly, his legend has been burnished by his dying young. It has also been preserved by the happy fact that in the near 20 years since that weekend, which claimed the life of Roland Ratzenberger the day before, no Formula One driver has perished at the wheel of his car.
But, of course, Senna’s soaring reputation is not based on his mortality alone. No, he will be remembered along with a golden handful – perhaps led by Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark and Michael Schumacher – as a motor racing driver who entirely mastered his art.
On track, he was totally and ruthlessly dedicated to the pursuit of winning. He had a mature appreciation of race craft, a capability to show immense self-control at moments of maximum stress, an intuitive feel for the mechanics of his car and a smooth driving style that could yet give way to a robust rawness when circumstance demanded.
Even his sharp-elbowed excesses, for example expecting rivals to show him deference on the track as if he were pre-ordained to triumph, added to his mystique. And mystique it was that lay behind those dark brown eyes under that dark brown hair. He seemed at times to be inhabiting a loftier plane than the mere mortals he spoke to.
When he collided with his McLaren team-mate Alain Prost at Suzuka in 1990, he shrugged off questions about the probity of his driving with the haughty words: ‘I am Senna.’ It was said that if Formula One cars had number plates, his would have read: ‘EGO 1’ His on-track commitment was matched by his political shrewdness off it. Like Fangio, he realised the absolute truth that his talent would be almost worthless if it was not being deployed in one of, if not the, best car.
So, as Fangio did, Senna moved from team to team, from Toleman to Lotus to McLaren to Williams. His journey along the paddock bore three world titles, 41 wins and 65 poles. There is every likelihood that he would have won a title or two more in the ensuing years. For even if the demands of modern Formula One meant drivers had to be fitter and younger than in Fangio’s day, at 34 he may well have had three or four more seasons at the very pinnacle.
Another reason we celebrate Senna so vividly is because of his rivalry with Prost, the professorial yet cunning little Frenchman. With journalists clustered around at a race weekend they would wage subtle, and sometimes less than subtle, psychological war against each other. And, as in the title-deciders at Suzuka in Japan in 1989 and 1990, their animosity would manifest itself with on the track with collisions.
On the first occasion, Prost turned in on Senna, though the Brazilian was disqualified for rejoining the race illegally. On the second, Senna refused to give ground at the first corner, having ludicrously been denied the clean side of the track, despite starting on pole, by the FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre, a dictatorial contrarian with whom Senna regularly sparred.
It was inevitable the Senna-Prost ‘partnership’ at McLaren could not last more than the two years that it did. Prost told the Press at Senna’s funeral that they had kissed and made up, but not everyone took that entirely at face value. Although there was great sadness at Senna’s death – which was brought about, it was determined after a 13-year investigation, by a faulty steering column on his Williams – there could be no doubt that he knew the risks and totally accepted them.
“Just because I believe in God doesn’t mean that I’m immortal.”
It seems to me that Ayrton Senna’s death at Tamburello, wrapped in tragedy though it was, was a fitting end for a man who lived his life on the edge.