At Imola on 1st May 1994 the lights burned long into the night as journalists who had witnessed the death of Ayrton Senna filed the stories they thought they would never have to write. Twelve years after the last fatality in Formula One, the sport lost its most talented and least talented drivers in the same weekend. In the first and only account of the last four days of Senna’s life, this article has the detail and insight that has previously been missing from the story.

Thursday 28th April 1994 was destined to be a busy day for Ayrton Senna. He woke in his villa in Quinta do Lago in the Portuguese Algarve as usual and went for an early morning run around the sand dunes and golf greens. His Portuguese housekeeper, Juraci, was already up doing errands and fussing around him. He hated leaving his Portuguese home. The four-bedroomed, white-walled villa sat in its own grounds set in a dream resort of around 2,000 acres. With golf courses and lakes on one side and a beach on the other, this paradise was still a well-kept secret as far as Senna was concerned. Only people who had been there understood the unique atmosphere and climate. The resort had a five-star hotel, four championship golf courses and many top restaurants and a nightclub.

But most of all Quinta do Lago gave him the anonymity he craved.

The people also spoke his language, Portuguese. It was the only place in the world outside Brazil that he felt at home. André Jordan, the developer of Quinta do Lago, had employed Brazilian architect Júlio Neves to design much of the infrastructure. And over the European winter, when he had been in Brazil, the house was remodelled and redecorated. In 1994, for the first time, he planned to spend the entire European season in Portugal and not return to Brazil at all.

His one servant was Juraci, who was in permanent residence. Her duties were to cook, clean and chauffeur and she did them all admirably.

In fact Senna felt good every time he drove past the rainbow-coloured ‘Q’ logo statue that rotated slowly inside a fountain at the main entrance to the complex. He felt he was entering a unique environment where nature was in complete harmony with his design for living a Brazilian lifestyle in Europe. His garden was a breathtaking vista of exotic, tropical plants – palms and banana trees, giant hibiscus, vivid yellow mimosa, whole walls of bougainvillea, orange, lemon and avocado trees. The area, legally protected since 1987, was a unique natural habitat for more than 200 resident or migratory birds, including a number of rare and endangered species. The lakes were a rich repository for shellfish and other marine life.

When he wanted he could jet-ski or windsurf on the lakes and run for hours along the nature trails. It made his fitness regime more bearable in the wonderful climate and beautiful surroundings. And when he needed a social life he went to the golf club, where the locals and residents knew him but, more importantly, knew not to bother him. At the restaurants and nightclubs on the complex, the same rules applied. And he regarded the security firm that looked after the site as his own personal one. It was so effective that petty crime in Quinta do Lago was virtually non-existent.

And things were about to get even better. On Saturday afternoon his girlfriend, Adriane Galisteu, a 21-year-old model, was arriving to join him for the whole of the European summer. It had been a month since she had seen him off at the airport in São Paulo, when he left to start his challenge for the 1994 world championship. They had been together for 14 months and she was everything he liked in a woman, good-looking but ethereal rather than beautiful, blonde, small-breasted and long legged but not too tall and with no attitude. In fact her naiveness was refreshing and their sex life was stimulating and compatible. She was also intelligent in an unobvious way, with a perception of things that weren’t always clear. She understood the things that mattered. He was really looking forward to Sunday evening, when he would return from Italy and they would be reunited.

He packed a small overnight bag himself for the three nights he was going to spend in a hotel in San Pietro near Bologna, whilst competing in the San Marino Grand Prix. There were no formal dinners or commitments that weekend, so his clothing needs were minimal. As he packed he remarked to Juraci that life couldn’t get any better than it was that bright sunny morning in the Algarve. But he was always saying that to the people around him, reminding them all, and not least himself, how lucky they all were to be sharing the life Formula One had given him.

But there was a small irritation in his life that glorious morning. His brother, Leonardo, was staying until Sunday and would be coming with him to Imola. Leonardo was on a mission from his family to try and persuade him to give up Adriane. For all sorts of reasons the family, with the exception of his mother Neyde, who loved what he loved, detested Adriane. They regarded her as little better than a peasant girl, and not good enough for their son, the hero of Brazil. The truth was that it was none of their business, and Senna loved the girl and would probably ask her to marry him when this summer was over. But this family was tight, very tight, and usually everything was everyone’s business within a circle of six people – Milton his father, his mother, his sister Viviane, his brother and his sister’s husband. Adriane’s arrival marked the start of a long period living together when he would not return to Brazil for six months, something he had never done before. This decision had precipitated a family feud, and Leonardo had been dispatched to try and change Ayrton’s mind. Over that week, it had led to some rare harsh words between Senna and Leonardo. But Senna would not be moved. He was staying put for the summer, even if it meant seeing far less of them, especially Leonardo, as he knew his brother would not return to Portugal whilst Adriane was around.

Senna spent his time between two tight groups: his family, with whom he congregated in Brazil; and his private circle of friends, which was just as tight as his family group, and with whom he spent time in Europe. Adriane was part of this group which consisted of around a dozen people headed by Antonio Braga, a wealthy Brazilian who also divided his time between Brazil and Portugal. The second group had embraced Adriane, unlike his family, and many would hang around with him at races. He liked having them around. The upcoming race at Imola would be no different.

The family dispute had annoyed him as it meant that Adriane could not join him at Imola for the weekend when Leonardo was around. If she did there was a danger of a public row and Ayrton Senna did not wash his private family linen in public.

After his run Juraci prepared a light breakfast for him and Leonardo, who was returning to Brazil after the San Marino Grand Prix. She then delivered them to Faro airport, where Captain Owen O’Mahoney was waiting in Senna’s own BAe HS125 jet to fly them to Munich for a morning meeting with executives from Audi. Senna had been negotiating to take over the Audi franchise in Brazil. This was a meeting to finalise the terms. A few hours after landing they were ready to take off again this time for Forli airport near Bologna. From Forli the brothers would go by helicopter to Padua and the Carraro bicycle factory. Senna had a new deal with Carraro to manufacture a carbon-fibre bicycle called the Senna that would carry his famous double ‘S’ logo. It had been planned for some time and was one of many new products under the famous ‘double S’ Senna brand . He was also to import the Carraro bicycles into Brazil. Annoyingly, the argument about Adriane continued on the aeroplane. As Leonardo got older, he seemed to get more fractious and emotional about things. Senna could not understand why his family was so upset.

After arriving at the factory to formally sign the contract, he would go on to the Sheraton Padova Hotel on the highway from Milan to Venice. At around 4 o’clock he arrived in Padua and landed his helicopter in the grounds of the Carraro Industria factory. After signing the contract he went with Giovanni Carraro to the hotel for a press conference. It was part of the start of a new life for him as an entrepreneur when he retired from racing. He wanted to talk about it but there were hardly any journalists he recognised at the press conference and naturally all they wanted to talk about was motor racing, not bicycles. Senna told the press conference: “The world championship is just beginning for me in Imola, with a handicap of two races.”

Even though the journalists present were not Formula One veterans, they were enthusiastic Italians and wanted to ask him questions about Benetton’s supposed traction control. Senna was surprised about their depth of knowledge. He said: “I really can’t say much about it,” and then said, in a way that revealed both very little and yet a lot: “It’s difficult to talk about things one cannot prove.”

At around 5:30pm he left the Carraro factory and flew to the Imola circuit. On the way he collected Mike Vogt, marketing director of TAG Heuer. Senna and Vogt, who knew each other from his McLaren days, discussed a new Senna watch the company was developing. Even though Senna had left the McLaren family, of which TAG Heuer was a part, Vogt still wanted to do business with him. He knew he could sell plenty of Senna watches at $2,000 apiece.

At six o’clock the helicopter landed on the infield at Imola. Senna wanted to show his face to the team on the Thursday, when the cars did not run. He also wanted to see the results of a whole programme of aerodynamic modifications that had been planned from the last test session the week before in France. He checked in with his engineer, David Brown, and chatted to Williams’ marketing chief Richard West about how the Carraro launch had gone, before getting back into the helicopter for the short flight to Castello, a typically Italian hotel in Castel San Pietro, a spa town about 10 kilometres west of Imola.

The hotel was run by Valentino Tosoni, whom Senna had known since he first started staying there with McLaren in 1988. It was the McLaren team hotel and 1994 was his first year there without McLaren. But he had still booked the same room he occupied every year – room 200, a small suite. Interestingly, Frank Williams was staying in the suite directly below him and Ron Dennis in the one directly above.

That weekend there were seven male friends and colleagues staying with him at Imola, a popular race on the calendar. His brother, Leonardo, Julian Jakobi, his manager, his close friend and neighbour in Portugal, Antonio Braga, Galvao Bueno from TV Globo, Celso Lemos, managing director of the Senna brand licensing company in Brazil, Josef Leberer, his personal physio, and Ubirajara Guimaraes, head of his new import company.

Soon after he checked in Leberer arrived to give him his regular massage.

That evening they all dined together in the hotel. Senna was back in his suite just after 10 o’clock. He picked up the phone and dialled his apartment in São Paulo, where it was just after seven o’clock, to speak to his girlfriend, Adriane. She was packing to prepare to fly out to Portugal the following day and couldn’t disguise her excitement on the telephone.

In the morning Senna caught a helicopter to the circuit at 8:30am, ready for the start of practice and qualifying. In-between Japan and Imola, Williams had been testing intensively at the Nogaro circuit in south-west France to find the source of the Williams car’s problems. A number of changes were promised for Imola but Senna was sceptical that the modifications would work. The car had been consistently slower than the Benetton despite a much more powerful engine. Both Senna and his team-mate Damon Hill had said openly it was horrible to drive. Hill remembers: “We were always changing the set-up of the car in an attempt to find that perfect combination which would turn the promise of a great car into a reality. But it is difficult to become familiar with a car if it is constantly being changed – it becomes a vicious circle.”

It was clear from the difference in Senna’s and Hill’s times that Senna was driving through the problems. As Hill admits: “Ayrton had enormous reserves of ability and could overcome deficiencies in a chassis.”

At just after 9:30am Senna climbed into his car and completed 22 laps, posting a fastest time of 1m 21.598secs, more than a second quicker than his team-mate. Hill was pleasantly surprised by the behaviour of the modified chassis. Senna was not. He thought the team was going in the wrong direction with the car and spent a lot of time with David Brown afterwards.

At 1pm, the first qualifying session began and Senna was soon fastest. But 15 minutes into the start of the session the Jordan of Rubens Barrichello hit the kerb in the middle of the 140mph Variante Bassa chicane. It flew through the air, hitting the tyre barrier before smashing against a debris fence. The crash was horribly violent but the tyres had taken some of the pace out of it as Barrichello bounced around upside down. He put his hands over his helmet and waited for the car to stop. He ended up suspended unconscious in the car. Immediately after the accident nobody dared to believe that he had got away with just a broken nose and bruised ribs.

Senna did not see the accident but Betise Assumpcao, his PR chief, went off to investigate Barrichello’s condition. Senna got out of his car and went straight to the medical centre. Finding his way barred he went in through the back and climbed over a fence. Barrichello regained consciousness minutes after the accident and found Senna looking over him. He told Barrichello: “Stay calm. It will be all right.” As Barrichello remembers: “The first face I saw was Ayrton’s. He had tears in his eyes. I had never seen that with Ayrton before. I just had the impression he felt as if my accident was like one of his own.” He shed a few tears, the first of many that weekend.

Once he made sure Barrichello was all right he returned to his cockpit and was back on track at 1:40pm when the qualifying session resumed. Senna bettered his time immediately and just before the close set what was to prove the quickest time of the weekend: a 1m 21.548secs lap at an average of 138.2mph.

In the emotional aftermath of Barrichello’s accident, it was a repeat performance of what happened in 1990 when Martin Donnelly crashed. Senna was the only driver to stop at the scene of the enormous accident at the 1990 Spanish Grand Prix when Donnelly’s Lotus car disintegrated against the barriers. After that accident he had gone faster than ever, and won yet another, his fiftieth, pole position, but he found such bravery came at an emotional price, as he said: “As a racing driver there are some things you have to go through, to cope with. Sometimes they are not human, yet you go through it. Some of the things are not pleasant but in order to have some of the nice things you have to face them. You leave a lot of things behind when you follow a passion.” As one observer put it: “It was an emphatic reminder of Senna’s supreme skill and courage.”

Damon Hill remembers the shock of Barrichello’s accident: “What shook us most was the rate at which the car took off; at one stage it looked as if it was going to smash through the fence and fly into the grandstand. The Jordan, more by luck than anything else, finished on its side, upside down and against the barrier. That was bad enough but the marshals promptly tipped the car over and, as it crashed on to its bottom, could see Barrichello’s head thrashing around in the cockpit.”

Hill continued: “I was astonished that the marshals did that, particularly in view of the neck and spinal injuries received by JJ Lehto and Jean Alesi during test sessions earlier in the year. Barrichello could have sustained similar injuries. He should have been left as he was or, if there was a risk of fire, then at least the car should have been put down gently.”

At the end of the session Senna climbed out of the car and left the pit garage for the motorhome to do some prearranged press interviews. As he walked a few fans shouted to him from the Paddock Club balcony above the Williams transporter. They said: “Now’s your chance to show Schumacher who’s the champion.” He acknowledged them but didn’t stop.

Inside the motorhome he greeted the waiting journalists but told them there was a problem with his car and he needed an hour with David Brown. They agreed to wait. In with Brown, Senna produced the usual two-page hand-written A4 list of jobs he believed needed doing on the car. For all the speed, he was clearly not happy with it.

An hour later he joined the journalists and briefed them on the business interests he was building for when he retired. Shadowing him for the weekend was Mark Fogarty of the new Carweek magazine, who also had a photographer inside the Williams pit. He said afterwards that Senna was not focused at all: “Usually if Senna agreed to do an interview, he would give it his full attention. This time he just wasn’t focused. His answers were halting and he looked glazed, as if he was mentally worn out.” When RTL reporter Kai Ebel asked him about Rubens Barrichello he began a sentence three times, but kept losing the thread of his thoughts. He then ominously changed the subject and told the journalists that Imola was a dangerous circuit, that there were a few places that were ‘not right as far as safety is concerned’. They asked him why the drivers hadn’t done anything about it and he told them: “I am the only world champion left – and I have opened my big mouth too often. Over the years I have learnt that it’s better to keep my head down.”

His pilot Owen O’Mahoney was also surprised at some of his actions over the weekend. He had often pestered Senna for some signed photos of the two of them together but he had never got around to it. So he was very surprised when Senna called him over as he passed by the Williams garage, fished them out of his briefcase and signed them for him. O’Mahoney says: “The odd thing was that he gave them to me in the middle of practice. It was so out of character for him to think about anything other than racing. It was almost as if he wanted to tie up loose ends.”

When the journalists left it was down to work with Brown again and they were together for two hours. It was eight o’clock by the time he left the circuit and returned to San Pietro. Again Josef Leberer arrived in his suite for the regular massage. The two men were great friends and chatted about Barrichello’s accident. Senna told him he thought Barrichello was very fortunate not to have more serious injuries. Leberer found Senna more distressed about it than he would have expected. That night he dined with his brother and friends at the Trattoria Romagnola restaurant but was interrupted throughout by autograph seekers once word got out he was there, albeit in a private alcove at the back.

Afterwards he walked quickly back to the hotel to telephone Adriane before she got on the Varig flight to Lisbon that night. He told her: “I can’t wait for you to get here.” Adriane said later they had a long discussion about their relationship and she told him she was no longer scared of being his girlfriend, as she had been at the start. Then, according to her, he burst into tears and started recounting the details of Barrichello’s accident. She says: “Can you imagine what it is like to receive a phone call from Ayrton Senna when he bursts into tears?” She said the call showed his despair at what had happened. She said of the moment: “I felt absolute panic and kept asking him what happened, what happened.” In the end she had to break off the call in order to catch her flight.

The next morning he followed the same routine and at 9:30am was on the track in unofficial practice completing 19 laps, this time with a best of 1m 22.03secs. Both he and Hill agreed the car had been much improved overnight and Senna’s work the previous day had paid some dividends.

Soon after the first unofficial practice Rubens Barrichello arrived back at the track from Maggiore hospital, where he had been kept overnight for observation. His front teeth were chipped, his lips cut, his broken nose swollen and his right arm bandaged. He told Senna he was flying back home to England and would watch the race on television. His weekend was over but he told journalists he would be back for the next Grand Prix in Monaco in a fortnight.

At one o’clock the second qualifying session began. In the early minutes Hill increased his time and dragged the car up to fourth on the grid.

At 1:18pm Formula One’s good safety record ran out after eight years. Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger was competing in his second ever Formula One race for the hopeless Simtek team, which relied on rent-a-drivers to survive. He crashed heavily after his car lost its steering and took off at 314.9kph when the front wing became partially detached. The Simtek car slammed into a concrete retaining wall on the inside of the Villeneuve curve before being thrown back into the middle of the track.

TV cameras caught Ratzenberger’s head slumped lifeless on the side of the cockpit. Viewers could clearly see he was unconscious. Bernie Ecclestone was sitting in his motorhome chatting to Lotus team principal Peter Collins when the accident happened. He turned to Collins and said: “This looks bad.” Ecclestone grabbed his walkie-talkie and headed off as Collins went back to his garage.

Senna had watched replays of the accident on the monitor in the Williams pit garage. He knew it was bad. He rushed into the pitlane, grabbed a course car and told the driver to take him to the scene of the accident.

They drove down past the Tamburello bend to the scene. Unlike Senna, Hill was on the track when the accident happened and ran past the wrecked car and the debris. He also realised it was bad, as he said: “I could see where the debris had started and, judging by the distance travelled, it was obvious it had been a very big accident. As I went by, I had a strong sense of foreboding about his condition because there was so much destruction. With Barrichello we had been lucky. This time it was clear that poor Roland was not going to be let off so lightly.”

The medical team of Professor Sid Watkins, the FIA’s medical director, was at the accident 25 seconds after it happened. They cradled Ratzenberger’s limp head in their hands and frantically cut his chin strap to remove his helmet. But he was already clinically dead, having suffered massive head injuries. When Watkins arrived he glanced at the driver’s pupils and realised the situation was grave. He ordered his men to extricate him and try resuscitation. They were successful in getting his heart going, an ambulance arrived seven minutes later and he was quickly taken to the medical centre before going on to Bologna’s Maggiore Hospital by helicopter. The resuscitation team managed to keep his heart beating long enough to get him to the hospital but he was gone.

By the time Senna arrived at the accident scene Ratzenberger was gone in the ambulance so he inspected the wrecked Simtek car. He then got the driver to take him back to the pitlane and immediately marched off to the medical centre for the second time in two days. He went thorough the same scenario – he was not allowed to enter the front way so jumped over the fence at the back. He found Sid Watkins, who took him outside and told him Ratzenberger was clinically dead. Senna was devastated. Watkins said: “Ayrton broke down and cried on my shoulder.” The two men were extraordinarily close and Watkins regarded him as family. He realised then that Senna had not been in close proximity to a death before. Watkins was one of Britain’s most famous surgeons and was used to it but he was still deeply upset.

Watkins said to him as he was crying on his arm: “Ayrton, why don’t you withdraw from racing tomorrow? I don’t think you should do it. In fact why don’t you give it up altogether? What else do you need to do? You have been world champion three times, you are obviously the quickest driver. Give it up and let’s go fishing.”

Watkins recalls Senna’s response in his book Life at the Limit: “Sid there are certain things over which we have no control. I cannot quit. I have to go on.” Watkins recalls that those were the last words he ever spoke to him. On his way out Martin Whitaker, then press officer of the FIA, brushed past him. He says: “I asked Senna if he knew what had happened. He didn’t reply. He just looked at me and walked away but I won’t forget that look.”

After leaving the medical centre Senna went straight to the Williams pit garage and signalled to Damon Hill and Patrick Head to join him. He told them Ratzenberger was dead. He said: “From what I witnessed there is no doubt about it.” Frank Williams asked him to carry on qualifying but he refused. Afterwards Williams said he had asked him ‘more as a matter of form than expectation’.

Then Senna went into the transporter to change out of his racing overalls. Hill could not decide whether to go out again or not. In the end the decision was made for him by Williams – the team withdrew from the rest of qualifying.

Michael Schumacher was also deeply affected and JJ Lehto was crying. He said: “I drove up here with Roland from Monaco.” Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who raced with Ratzenberger in Japan, went straight back to his hotel and said: “I don’t want to talk to anyone.”

Fifty-seven minutes after the accident, at 2:15pm, Ratzenberger’s death was announced at the circuit, although everyone in the paddock already knew. It was the first fatality at an actual Grand Prix since Riccardo Paletti was killed at the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal in 1982. The last Formula One driver to die had been Elio de Angelis in 1986 during private testing.

After changing out of his overalls, Senna ran the few yards from the transporter to the Williams motorhome, where he found Damon Hill and his wife Georgie with Betise Assumpcao. She remembers: “His spirits were so low. I just stroked his head and talked to him a little, but he was very quiet.”

Andrew Longmore, a Times journalist, wrote in an article published later that Senna broke down again in the Williams motorhome and had to be picked off the floor by Damon Hill. His mood was bad enough for Frank Williams to be concerned about his emotional state and he asked Assumpcao to arrange for a meeting with him later that evening.

No one bettered Senna’s Friday time so he was on pole for the race the following day but he seemed not to care and told officials he would not attend the obligatory press conference. That should have attracted a fine but in the circumstances the FIA officials declined to punish him, although he was called out of the motorhome in front of the race stewards for illegally commandeering a course car to take him out on the track when Ratzenberger crashed. Senna was in no mood to accept the censure of the FIA and that of the permanent FIA steward, John Corsmit, and a row ensued. Senna stormed off in disgust and the stewards took no action. Corsmit said: “He seemed bothered by lots of other things.” Senna was privately disgusted with Corsmit’s attitude.

Outside Niki Lauda buttonholed Senna and told him the drivers had to present a united front on safety issues. Lauda told him he planned to hold a meeting at the next race at Monaco in two weeks’ time. Senna left the track shortly before 5:30pm and nobody dared go near him. People who saw him said he had an aura of absolute isolation and inapproachability about him after the meeting with Corsmit.

Hill decided to stay at the circuit and eat in the Williams motorhome but found it difficult to think of anything other than the accident. He said at the time: “Look, I’m not going to stop racing; I’m looking forward to the Grand Prix. I enjoy my motor racing just as Roland did. Every second you are alive, you’ve got to be thankful and derive as much pleasure from it as you can.” That night every one of the drivers had the same thoughts and came to the same conclusion.

When Senna arrived back in San Pietro at the Castello, he found the inevitable Italian Saturday night wedding in full swing having taken over the whole hotel. He was so upset that when he was asked to pose for a picture with the bride and groom he uncharacteristically refused.

As soon as he got back to his suite he telephoned Adriane, who by then had arrived at Antonio Braga’s house in Sintra near Lisbon and was with his wife Luiza. She asked him how he was and he replied: “It’s like ****. ****, ****, ****,” before he started to cry again. Adriane thought he was still upset about Barrichello’s accident the day before until he told her about Ratzenberger’s death. Then he broke down completely and told her he was not going to race the next day. He said: “I have a really bad feeling about this race, I would rather not drive.” Adriane had to catch an 8:30pm flight to Faro that night. When Josef Leberer arrived at his suite for his regular massage he sent him away. Leberer had introduced Senna to Ratzenberger earlier that year during a test in the winter. Senna said he was too upset about Ratzenberger and even more upset by the callous attitude of the race officials. He was furious at the treatment he had received from the stewards. He told Leberer: “How dare they tell me what I could do. I am driving the car and they tell me about safety.”

Meanwhile, Senna went out for dinner at the Romagnola. The meal had been planned for Josef Leberer’s birthday but few felt like celebrating. Instead he questioned Leberer about Ratzenberger as they were both Austrians. The mood of the evening was very sad, and it was clear that it had stayed in Senna’s mind.

When he returned to the hotel he found a message under his door from Frank Williams asking him to pop down to his suite for a chat. He went downstairs and talked to his team principal, who found him a lot calmer than he had been earlier. Leberer offered to do his massage before he went to bed but Senna said he simply wasn’t in the mood.

When Adriane finally arrived at Quinta do Lago, after nearly 24 hours of travelling, she made straight for the shower. As she got out the phone rang – it was Senna. He told her he had decided to race after all and when he won he would uncoil an Austrian flag and fly it on his victory lap in honour of Roland Ratzenberger. During the call, his housekeeper Juraci shouted to Adriane to tell him she was preparing his favourite meal of grilled chicken and steamed vegetables for when he returned on Sunday evening. She handed the phone to Juraci, who told him the meal would be waiting for him when he got back. He then said to Adriane: “I want to spend the night awake. We will talk until morning comes. I want to convince you I am the best man in your life.” As the conversation got lighter, she laughed and said to him: “But you don’t know the others.” He said: “I will prove to you I am the best.” She said: “If necessary, I will join the queue like any other fan.”

Her last words to him were that she had news for him. The news was that she had been training and would be running with him on the first day after the race. During their conversation, Senna said he had changed from being deeply depressed to being happy again. He asked her to come out to Faro airport with Juraci when she picked him up on Sunday evening and told her to be there at 8:30pm. They were the last words they ever spoke.

On Sunday morning Captain O’Mahoney rang Senna at 7:30am in his suite and asked him what time he could pick up his bags at the hotel. It was a wake-up call – something he did every race day morning at that time. Senna got up, threw his things in his bag and went downstairs where a helicopter was waiting to take him to the track. By the time he arrived the sun was shining and a beautiful day was developing. In morning warm-up he was once again faster than the rest of the drivers. He sent a short greeting over the Williams pit radio to Alain Prost, who was at his first Grand Prix of the year and was in the Williams pit. “Hello my friend, I’ve been missing you,” he said.

When he returned to the pits, he told David Brown not to touch the settings on the car – finally he was happy with the set-up.

During the half-hour he was driving, his press spokeswoman Betise Assumpcao had dropped her guard and told journalist Karin Sturm that the race officials were trying to intimidate Senna by censuring him over the commandeering of the safety car. She said: “But it’s like that the whole time. That suspended fine because of Irvine – they only did that because they wanted to put him under pressure, because they knew what he wanted to do about a drivers’ trade union.”

Meanwhile, Hill found practice difficult that morning, especially going past the point where Ratzenberger had crashed. As he remembers: “I could imagine the force of the impact because I was actually travelling at the same speed he had been doing before he went off. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have given it a second thought because, even though speeds reach 200mph, it is not a part of the circuit where you come close to the limit; it is not a place you worry about. You are relying entirely on the car and, in the light of Roland’s accident, it brings it home that sometimes you are just a passenger, putting your faith in the components.”

Senna was again fastest in warm-up by nine-tenths of a second. Afterwards he climbed out of the car, changed and wandered into the Williams motorhome, where he spotted Alain Prost sitting at a table.

When he saw Prost he sat down with him for a quick breakfast. The pair talked animatedly for 30 minutes and Senna lobbied him to help with safety improvements. Prost agreed that they would meet before the Monaco Grand Prix in two weeks’ time. He later recalled: “For the first time in ages we had a really normal conversation – we set aside the differences between us.” In fact Prost was wholly surprised at Senna’s attitude towards him that weekend, as he said afterwards: “I was very surprised as normally he did not even say hello if I crossed his path.”

Afterwards Senna recorded a lap for TF1, the French television network, for whom Alain Prost was working. During the recording Senna said: “I would like to say welcome to my old friend, Alain Prost. Tell him we miss him very much.”

When he got out of the car he wrote a letter to Roland Ratzenberger’s parents and asked Assumpcao to fax it.

At 11am Gerhard Berger called by the Williams motorhome to collect Senna for the drivers’ briefing. On the way Senna asked him to bring up a safety point about the pace car on the formation lap. He didn’t want to do it himself because he believed there was personal animosity between him and race official John Corsmit.

At the briefing the talk was all of the events of the day before. The drivers stood in silence for a minute in memory of Ratzenberger at Bernie Ecclestone’s suggestion. Senna took no direct part in proceedings and sat at the back sobbing.

Then Berger raised the point about the introduction of a pace car during the final parade lap leading to the start. He said that he felt it was nothing more than a gimmick and contributed little else apart from making the cars run far too slowly and therefore less able to put heat into their tyres. Berger said: “Going that slowly increases risk, as everybody’s tyres and brakes are too cold at the start.” He demanded forcefully that it shouldn’t happen in future. The other drivers supported Berger and Senna and the race officials agreed to abandon the idea.

After the briefing Senna chaired a brief discussion about safety with his colleagues, notably Michael Schumacher, Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto. They agreed to hold a meeting on safety issues with all drivers in Monte Carlo on the Friday before the next race.

There was no dissent but Hill believes that the talk of a drivers’ meeting about safety to take place before Monaco rang alarm bells with the Formula One organisers. He said: “Whenever drivers group together there is the potential for trouble. We were all together in the pre-race drivers’ briefing as usual, and we weren’t happy.”

Then it was on with the show. Senna went to the Paddock Club to talk with Williams’ sponsors and their guests for half-an-hour. Team-mate Damon Hill went with him – it was a situation he was very used to and carried out with relish, despite being less than enthusiastic about life that morning.

At midday he ate a light lunch, then shut himself away in the motorhome with his thoughts. Afterwards he picked up his spare overalls from the debrief room and went off to the Ferrari motorhome to see Gerhard Berger. It was the last Frank Williams saw of him.

Half-an-hour before the start, Senna went to the Williams garage. Everybody there said he was different from usual. He paced round the car, examining the tyres, and rested on the rear wing, silent and alone. Betise Assumpcao says: “He usually had a particular way of pulling on his balaclava and helmet, determined and strong as if he was looking forward to the race. That day you could tell just from the way he was putting on his helmet that he didn’t want to race. He was not thinking he was going to die, he really thought he would win, but he just wanted to get it over with and go home. He wasn’t there, he was miles away.”

At 1 o’clock Sid Watkins climbed into his medical car and ordered his driver Mario Casoni to drive round the circuit on his normal inspection lap to make sure the medical intervention cars were in place and the people manning them alert. When he returned to the pits he inspected the medical centre. Everything was perfect. Roland Bruynseraede, the FIA delegate in charge, then did the same.

The cars gradually left the pit garages, did a lap and formed up on the grid. Senna’s style was to sit quietly belted up in his car for the 15 minutes or so before the start with his helmet on, preparing mentally for the first corner and playing it in advance over and over in his head what he was going to do. This time he broke his usual routine by taking his helmet off, removing his nomex fireproof balaclava and loosening his seat belts whilst remaining in the car.

On the grid Williams technical director Patrick Head talked briefly with him and there was a hint of a smile as they spoke.

As usual the circuit commentator announced the grid and when he came to Gerhard Berger’s name, because he was a Ferrari driver, the San Marino crowd cheered wildly. Senna turned around and smiled at Berger alongside. Berger remembers: “It was the smile of a friend who was pleased to see the people’s support and love for me. That is the last thing I remember of him.” Josef Leberer was standing by Senna’s car as he usually did on the grid ready to hand him his helmet. he gave him a last drink and then Senna put his helmet on for the last time. With the helmet on he checked Senna was happy. The mechanics started the engine and Leberer waited a few moments before running back to the Williams garage to watch the start.

Meanwhile, at Senna’s home in Portugal, Adriane and Juraci settled in front of the television to watch the race eating their lunch.

In the medical car four men were belted in their seats waiting to follow hard on the heels of the pack of cars on the opening lap in case of an incident. In the front was Watkins and Casoni. In the back seat, Dr Baccarini had his IV infusions ready, the cervical collar, and the paraphernalia of resuscitation. Next to him was Dr Domenico Salcito, deputy chief medical officer for Imola.

Up in the BBC commentary box Murray Walker made his customary preamble to British TV viewers: “Ayrton Senna in pole position, Michael Schumacher next to him on the grid. So now with just seconds to go the grid is being cleared and you will see the cars going around in less than 30 seconds’ time.”

At exactly two o’clock the cars pulled away on the pace lap and straddled back to the grid. The procession of Formula One cars went past Watkins’ medical car and took their places. The race started bang on time as the lights went red, then four seconds later turned green and the cars streamed into the first turn.

Almost immediately yellow flags were waving everywhere. Pedro Lamy’s Lotus had run into the back of JJ Lehto’s Benetton, which had stalled on the start line. It was a violent accident similar to that of Riccardo Paletti all those years ago. But this time Lehto survived, albeit hurling bodywork everywhere as a wheel of his car became detached and went into the crowd.

Casoni drove the medical car straight through the debris with wrecked cars on each side. When Sid Watkins observed that the drivers were out of their cars uninjured, he tailed the main pack while others cleared up the mess. He expected a red flag to stop the race while the track was cleared. But it didn’t come and instead at 2:03pm the safety car came out while the debris was cleared.

Senna led the cars round with Michael Schumacher, Gerhard Berger and Damon Hill following. The medical car finished its lap uneventfully, and as it reached its permanent position in the chicane, the leading Formula One cars were completing their second lap. The marshals cleared the circuit in less than six minutes and swept up.

At 2:15pm David Brown told Senna over the pit radio that the safety car was about to pull off. Senna acknowledged him in the last words he ever spoke.

When the safety car peeled off Senna put the hammer down. With a fully loaded car he clocked 1m 24.887secs on the sixth lap on full tanks and cold tyres. It was a very good time and only two drivers bettered it by the end of the race – Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher.

Schumacher couldn’t keep up that speed and fell behind immediately. The pace worried Sid Watkins – he remembered a premonition, turned to Mario Casoni and said: “There’s going to be a ****ing awful accident any minute.”

At exactly 2:17pm Senna approached the Tamburello curve for the second time after the restart and the seventh time overall. His car veered off the track just after the apex of the bend at a speed of 190mph and slammed sideways into the unprotected concrete wall. As he braked he slowed the car to 130mph on impact. The next moment the red flags were out again and Casoni put his foot to the floor and steered towards Tamburello. Sid Watkins said: “Somehow I knew it was Senna.”

At exactly 2:18pm Watkins’ Alfa-Romeo pulled up at Tamburello behind the wreck of a blue and white car. Life had suddenly gone wrong for one of the best drivers the world had ever seen. He had driven his last lap.

The first time 200 million TV viewers realised that Ayrton Senna had failed to complete lap seven of the San Marino Grand Prix was when Michael Schumacher’s Benetton Ford swept into their screens at the exit of Tamburello. They could just see a cloud of dust in the background, as his Williams Renault rebounded off the Tamburello concrete wall and came to rest in the middle of the run-off area.

Murray Walker was commentating on British television: “Well, we are right with Michael Schumacher now, and Senna, my goodness, I just saw it punch off to the right, what on earth happened there I don’t know.” Walker’s shock and surprise was down to Senna being out of his third race in succession with no points on the board. He had no reason to worry about Senna’s safety; he had seen many, many accidents worse than this.

But one man felt immediate concern. Brazilian commentator Galvao Bueno, in the TV Globo cabin, had Senna’s friend Antonio Braga by his side. He was the first to realise the accident was probably fatal. He and Braga simply looked at each other. They knew it was very bad. Bueno was more knowledgeable than most TV journalists, simply because he was one of Senna’s best friends and had total access. Reginaldo Leme was also in the commentary box with them.

Bueno made no attempt to play down the situation. He said to millions of Brazilians: “Ayrton has hit [the wall] badly. It’s serious, it’s very serious.” Bueno quickly worked out Senna’s crash speed. He told Braga: “You know, when you hit a wall at 130mph, already the deceleration is lethal.” In truth, drivers should never survive accidents of this nature, but in reality they do most of the time and, not only that, walk away uninjured. But this was not one of those times.

Murray Walker is no less knowledgeable but not in Bueno’s technical way. The BBC was showing continuous re-runs to avoid events on the ground.

But before the marshals could get to Senna and the first medical car had reached the scene, his head moved forward in the cockpit and unknowing viewers were encouraged that the champion was intact. Another man, sitting thousands of miles away in Balcarce, Argentina, knew different. Five-time world champion, 82-year-old Juan Manuel Fangio knew the outcome when he saw the spasm, the sign of a massive head injury. He switched off his television. He said later: “I knew he was dead.”

It soon became apparent that in describing the split-second before the car hit the wall, Bueno had been spot on. Senna had managed to slow the car by 60mph before it hit the wall, and the impact speed was estimated at 130mph. The right-hand front of the car took the full brunt of the impact: a wheel flew off and was trapped between the chassis and the wall, as the suspension crumpled and the Williams catapulted back onto the track. The monocoque was split by the force of the impact, but otherwise intact.

Marshals were quickly on the scene, but were frozen in their tracks by what they saw.

As a helicopter with an overhead camera was soon hovering, pictures of the car were being transmitted live to an avid audience. BBC television and Murray Walker sensitively switched to its pitlane camera, but other broadcasters did not and stayed glued to the scene. It was starting to become very unpleasant.

Senna’s girlfriend Adriane Galisteu was at Senna’s home in Portugal, watching the race on television. When his car hit the wall, she remembers a selfish thought went through her mind: “Oh that’s good! He’ll be home sooner.” She waited for him to throw off his gloves, undo the steering wheel and leap from the cockpit. It didn’t occur to her for a second that he wouldn’t. Even in the 18 months she had known him, this had happened a few times, always with the same outcome.

Captain O’Mahoney, who had moved Senna’s plane to Bologna for a quick departure, was also watching the race on television in the executive jet centre. He got ready to leave early when he saw the crash. But when his boss didn’t get out of his car he quickly sat down again.

Josef Leberer was in the Williams garage. He remembered: “I said c’mon, c’mon, move, move, get out of the car, boy.” Suddenly a heavy feeling enveloped Leberer, who knew something was very wrong.

The Portuguese TV commentators gave Adriane no cause for concern and there was nothing that suggested to her that the accident was anything out of the ordinary, certainly no more serious than other crashes he had survived. She remembered: “I jumped up from the sofa, holding the plate on which I was having my lunch.” But that soon changed. She grew more anxious as he stayed in the car. She shouted out to Senna’s Portuguese housekeeper, Juraci: “What are they waiting for?” She said: “He must have broken his arms or a leg.” She screamed at the TV: “Get out of the car, get out!” After a few minutes when he had not moved, she recalled: “I was motionless and I started to sob.”

As Professor Sid Watkins approached Tamburello in his medical car, he somehow knew it was Senna who had crashed. Watkins found him slumped in the Williams. The doctor from the first intervention car was already with him and cradling his head, aware from the condition of his helmet and seeping blood that he had suffered a massive head injury. The two men looked at each other, unsure of what they would see when they got the helmet off. Watkins frantically cut the chin strap and lifted the helmet off gently, whilst others supported his neck. Blood poured out. His forehead was a mess and, more worryingly, blood and brain matter was seeping from his nose.

Watkins appraised him. Senna’s eyes were closed and he was deeply unconscious. Instinctively Watkins forced a tube into his mouth to obtain effective airflow. Watkins shouted for blood – his team already knew Senna’s blood type: B+.

By then the other race cars had stopped going around and the crowd was silent. Senna looked serene as Watkins did what he had to, and raised his eyelids. He remembered: “It was clear from his pupils that he had had a massive brain injury. I knew from seeing the extent of his injury that he could not survive.” The medics lifted him out of the car. The blood was still flowing. They lay him on the ground, as marshals held up sheets to shield him from view. Watkins said: “As we did he sighed and, though I am totally agnostic, I felt his soul departed at that moment.”

There was only one photographer at Tamburello that afternoon. Angelo Orsi, a close friend of Senna’s and the picture editor of Autosprint, the Italian racing magazine, leapt over the wall when the car came to rest and started snapping. He took close-ups of Senna in the car and after his helmet was removed, and then when he was being treated on the ground, before marshals blocked his view. Galvao Bueno was watching Orsi on television, and said: “He aimed and shot, without even seeing exactly what he was getting.”

Adriane Galisteu was watching anxiously on television. She looked at his feet for signs of life, for she understood what she called the language of feet. She saw no movement. His feet told her he was dead, but she put that thought completely from her mind. By then the housekeeper was a screaming wreck, and Senna’s close neighbours had started to arrive at the house to see if there was anything they could do. Although people at the circuit were calm, on television viewers had seen everything. The sharper-eyed had seen blood seeping from the car like oil; it carried on as Senna lay on the ground, staining the track red. It was not obvious unless you knew what to look for. Later it would be revealed that Senna had suffered a burst temporal artery and lost 4.5 litres of blood.

In the TV Globo cabin, Bueno could not see what Watkins could, but he was reading the body language of Watkins and the doctors: “At the moment of the disaster, by the way it happened and by the way he was rescued, I knew that it was extremely serious, but I had to continue to commentate on the race until the end.” Bueno had already had a difficult time on Friday when the young Brazilian driver Rubens Barrichello was taken to hospital.

Frank Williams was watching in the Williams pit; Alain Prost was alongside him. They anxiously scanned the monitors. Williams had experienced death at the track when his driver Piers Courage lost his life in 1970; 24 years on, the same emotions stirred.

Roaming around the garden at Quinta do Lago, Senna’s dog also seemed to sense that his master was in trouble and began barking loudly. The neighbours’ dogs started to bark. Neyde da Silva called Adriane from the farm at Tatui for information. Adriane had none. After that the telephone never stopped, as neighbours congregated at the house. The peaceful retreat had suddenly turned to bedlam.

Dr Pezzi, one of the trackside medics, got on with intubating Senna and, under Watkins’ supervision, the team inserted several IV infusions into the inert form. They had to clear the respiratory passages; stem the blood flow and replace lost blood; and immobilise the cervical area. After that was done Senna had a faint pulse. Watkins followed procedure and decided Senna should go straight to Maggiore Hospital for urgent treatment in intensive care conditions, although he knew it would be fruitless. He radioed for the medical helicopter and asked Dr Giovanni Gordini, the intensive care anaesthetist in charge of the circuit’s medical centre, to accompany Senna to Maggiore.

The helicopter quickly arrived but Watkins decided not to accompany Senna as he realised that there was nothing he could do. As medics loaded Senna into the helicopter at around 2:35pm, he took a call on his personal radio from Martin Whitaker, the FIA’s press supremo, who was with Bernie Ecclestone in his grey motorhome parked by the paddock gates. Ecclestone wanted information. With Whitaker and Ecclestone was Leonardo da Silva.

Senna was still alive, and Watkins told Whitaker the problem was his head. Over the crackly radio, Whitaker mistakenly misheard him as saying he was dead. This would cause much unhappiness later. Whitaker whispered to Bernie Ecclestone who was eating an apple. Ecclestone saw no point in hiding the truth from Leonardo and told him his brother was dead. He said: “I’m sorry, he’s dead, but we’ll only announce it after the end of the race.” Whilst he was doing this Ecclestone was coping with his own personal grief, and he calmly tossed the apple core over his shoulder. Ecclestone knew that, of all people, he had to remain calm. He was already thinking ahead to what Senna’s death would mean, sub-consciously making plans and weighing up every possibility. Leonardo mistook his calmness as indifference and disrespect for his brother, and was astonished that plans were going ahead to restart the race with his brother dead. He was almost beside himself with grief, and although it was quickly established what Watkins had really said, the damage was done: Senna’s brother lost control. Ecclestone told Whitaker to fetch Josef Leberer immediately to help Leonardo with his grief. The younger brother was distraught. His last words to his brother had not been friendly and they were still arguing about Adriane that morning.

Meanwhile, as the helicopter ascended, Watkins picked up Senna’s helmet. But as he looked around, he couldn’t find either his own gloves or Senna’s. Neither pair was ever seen again. As he looked for them, another drama was happening in the air. The 20-minute helicopter ride was barely three minutes old when Senna’s heart stopped. Dr Gordini worked on him frantically, and finally got it going again.

Adriane watched Senna’s motionless body being loaded into the helicopter. Someone pointed out the red stain on the ground after he been moved. It startled her. A neighbour tried to reassure her, saying it was a new kind of fire extinguisher foam. She believed it at the time, thinking to herself: “Nobody ever thought Ayrton Senna would die in a racing car. Neither had I.”

Meanwhile, Sid Watkins was driven at speed back to the circuit’s medical centre. He quickly told the centre’s Dr Servadei details of Senna’s condition, so that he could brief Maggiore hospital by telephone for Senna’s arrival. In reality he knew there was nothing they would be able to do, other than going through the motions. Watkins doubted Senna could last long, even with the help of a life-support machine. Like Ecclestone, Senna had been a close personal friend, and Watkins was having to deal with his own personal grief at the same time as organising Senna’s care. Watkins turned round and saw that Josef Leberer had come into the medical centre. They didn’t need to exchange words. Leberer remembered: “I saw Professor Watkins and he just looked in my eyes and then I knew it was going to be a very serious thing. He didn’t say anything.” After the silence, Watkins briefed him. At that moment Whitaker finally tracked down Leberer and a message arrived for him to go urgently to Bernie Ecclestone’s motorhome.

Leberer found Senna’s brother Leonardo in a high state of distress. Leberer said: “I had to calm his brother down.” At that point, Leonardo thought his brother was dead after the misheard radio conversation. Leberer told him he was in a serious state but still alive and they should get to Maggiore as soon as possible. Leonardo calmed down enough to phone his parents in Brazil from the motorhome telephone. Meanwhile, Ecclestone arranged for his helicopter to take them to the hospital. They left immediately with Julian Jakobi following.

Ecclestone went off to confer with Max Mosley, the FIA president. Afterwards he toured the pitlane, assuring everyone that everything was being done for Senna. What he was sure of was that the race would restart and run to a conclusion. It always did. That was the way of Formula One. Like Frank Williams, emotions from 1970 were flooding over Ecclestone. Months after Williams had lost Piers Courage, he had lost Jochen Rindt who he had managed. But no one could sense his turmoil. Ecclestone was doing what he had always done for Formula One: creating stability in a very unstable environment.

With Leonardo on his way to Maggiore, Antonio Braga called his wife Luiza, who was in their house in Sintra near Lisbon with their teenage daughters Joanna and Maria. He told her to phone Adriane and tell her to get to Bologna as soon as possible. Braga knew that Senna was dying but thought there would be time for her to say goodbye. He told Luiza to charter her a plane from Faro to bring her to Bologna. Braga went back to the TV Globo cabin.

Luiza, who had also been following events on television, called Quinta do Lago. She told Adriane it was extremely serious: “Braga called me from Imola. It’s extremely serious. You have to go there immediately.” Adriane replied: “Luiza, come with me. Don’t leave me alone.”

Luiza agreed to accompany her there: she would charter a jet in Lisbon and pick Adriane up at Faro. She told her she would be there at around 5pm. The flight to Faro would only take half-an-hour, but renting a jet at short notice on a Sunday proved difficult and it would take three-and-a-half hours for Luiza Braga to hire the plane and fly to Faro.

After putting the phone down, Braga discussed with Galvao Bueno what they should do. They agreed to leave for the hospital straight after the race. Braga called Senna’s father Milton, who was following the race on television with his wife Neyde. He told them it was serious and to stand by to come to Bologna. Meanwhile the drivers had no idea what had happened, other than that Senna had had an accident. As they formed up on the grid for the restart, people were saying there was no problem that he was out of the car; others were saying there was a big problem. Gerhard Berger remembered: “At the time I didn’t realise how bad it was. I didn’t see his accident as I was in the car behind him but you get a feeling from the atmosphere, and there was a strange atmosphere.”

Like Ecclestone, Watkins calmly went about his business. He replenished his medical bag from the stores in the medical centre and walked back to his car to await the restart.

Prior to that, just before 3 o’clock, the wreckage of Senna’s car was brought to the parc fermé and put in the steward’s garage, under the care of Fabrizio Nosco. Patrick Head was aware of how serious the accident was, as he and Frank Williams had been briefed by Bernie Ecclestone. The gravity was confirmed when the car had not been brought straight back to the Williams garage. Head was anxious to see the telemetry and sent two of his mechanics to the garage to fetch the black boxes. Nosco, a technical commissioner, politely refused them entry. He told them that, under FISA rules, no one could touch the car. They went away and returned with FISA’s technical delegate, Charlie Whiting, who ordered Nosco to remove the boxes and hand them to the mechanics. Nosco said: “Whiting told me to open up the garage and that he had permission from John Corsmit, the FIA security chief that day. He told me to remove the black boxes. The Renault engine box was situated behind the cockpit. I removed it with a pair of large pliers. The Williams chassis box was behind the radiator near the back wheel, on the right wing of the car. I have seen thousands of these devices and removed them for checks. The two boxes were intact, even though they had some scratches. The Williams device looked to have survived the crash.”

Back at the Williams garage, engineer Marco Spiga tried to retrieve the data. But power had been lost to the box and wiped the memory. Although the box was basically intact, the connectors had been badly damaged in the accident. Spiga said: “The Williams box was totally unreadable when we got it back.” They had more luck with the Renault box, and the data was transferred to a diskette.

At 2:55pm, 37 minutes after Senna’s crash, the race was restarted. Five minutes later, the helicopter carrying Senna landed in front of Maggiore hospital. Doctors rushed out and wheeled him straight into intensive care for a brain scan that would only confirm the diagnosis made at the track. At 3:10pm his heart stopped again. The doctors were able to restart it, before putting him in a clean room on a life-support machine.

In Brazil, the streets of the major cities were quiet on that Sunday morning, as the whole country woke from its slumbers as the news spread and huddled in front of television sets, hanging on Galvao Bueno’s every word. Bueno was well aware that, since the accident, probably half of the Brazilian population had woken up and was watching his broadcast and listening to his words. He also knew that Milton and Neyde da Silva and Senna’s sister Viviane would be watching. He found it a terrible responsibility: “They were all listening to me, hoping I would say some good news. Reginaldo and Antonio, who was like a father to Ayrton, kept looking at me speechless, having the same worry. Through my earphones I was constantly being pushed forward by our manager, and also from our studios in Brazil they kept asking me to go on. At least three times I left the cabin to catch some breath. And because I had this great friendship with Ayrton, people started coming to our cabin, Rubinho’s [Barrichello’s] manager, Christian’s [Fittipaldi’s] girlfriend, everybody apparently expecting something to hope for.” But TV Globo had the best sources of information, and a reporter at the studio had given two bulletins on Senna’s condition, warning that his brain damage was severe.

The later it got, the streets of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo stayed eerily deserted at around 8am local time. As Senna struggled for life, and TV Globo commentators predicted the worst, millions of Brazilians held their breath, not quite believing what they were witnessing on live television.

Meanwhile, Berger led the restarted race for the first 11 laps before pitting with a suspension problem. Berger remembered: “I was just thinking ‘****, what is happening now?’”

On lap 41 a wheel had flown off Michele Alboreto’s Minardi car at the pit exit and flown into a crowd of Lotus mechanics. It hadn’t been fastened properly at a pitstop. Alboreto was almost glad. He jumped out of his car, dumped his helmet in the pit garage and ran to the medical centre to talk to the Italian doctors. They told him the full truth of what had happened to Senna. After a brief discussion in Italian, Alboreto walked glumly back to the Ferrari garage to speak to his old team-mate Berger, who by then had got out of his car, having retired from the restarted race on lap 14. Alboreto told him: “It’s very bad with Ayrton, he’s in hospital in Bologna and very critical.” Berger said: “Why are all these things happening?”

Ten minutes before the end of the race, Bueno realised that it would take them too long to get to the hospital by car with all the race traffic. He told Braga to go and find a helicopter. Braga went off and found Jo Ramirez, the McLaren team manager, who organised it. Brazilian driver Christian Fittipaldi sent a note to his broadcast cabin asking him if he could accompany them to the hospital. Bueno sent a message back to be ready.

For Sid Watkins, the next two hours were terrible, as he watched the cars go by. It seemed interminable. But he breathed a sigh of relief as the race finally ended at 4:20pm with no further incident. Michael Schumacher, Senna’s natural successor, inevitably won. He and the other drivers on the podium, Nicola Larini and Mika Häkkinen, had little idea of Senna’s condition but their faces revealed that they feared the worse.

As soon as the race was over, Bueno threw off his headphones and left the studio back in Brazil to carry on. By this time Bueno knew Senna was dying and he wanted to be there when he did; not out of any professional duty, as he wanted no part in the reporting of his friend’s demise, but out of personal duty. He rushed straight to the Arrows motorhome. Fittipaldi was half-dressed and pleaded for Bueno to wait. Bueno told him to come to the McLaren motorhome, where there was a crowd of people surrounding Antonio Braga, including Gerhard Berger, Ron Dennis and Jo Ramirez. Berger was recommending that Braga call a neurosurgeon he knew in Paris who had once saved Jean Alesi from brain damage after an accident. Berger said that he could organise a jet to bring the doctor from Paris. Braga told him to get on with it. Bueno waited impatiently for Fittipaldi to arrive.

Sid Watkins ran back to the medical centre and found Lotus team principal Peter Collins waiting for him, looking for news about Senna. Collins and Watkins were close friends; the professor was closer to Collins than to any other team principal. Collins had come to find out about Senna, but he pretended concern over his mechanics, whom he already knew were alright. When Watkins told Collins his mechanics would be fine, Collins asked him if Senna was in a bad way and Watkins simply said ‘yes’. When he asked him if there was any hope, he shook his head and simply said ‘no’. Collins was the first of the Formula One fraternity to find out the truth that all the others feared.

Bologna’s chief medical officer Dr Maria Theresa Fiandri had been called out to Maggiore hospital, and she took charge. She was interviewed by a local reporter who had been tipped off. She told him that surgery was out of the question.

Half-an-hour later, several dozen reporters and some TV crews had arrived. At 4:30pm, Dr Fiandri read out a clinical bulletin. She said Ayrton Senna had brain damage, with haemorrhaged shock and was in a deep coma. She told the reporters there would be another bulletin at 6 o’clock.

The Italian police, tipped off that the accident was probably fatal, had arrived shortly before the end of the race and taken away Senna’s helmet.

When Sid Watkins had finished at the medical centre, he knew his place was at the hospital. He quickly changed, leaving his overalls strewn on the floor, and ran to the medical helicopter, which had returned from Maggiore. With Dr Servadei for company, he took off straight for the hospital. He also wanted to get away from the gloom that had fallen over Imola. It was a terrible place to be at that moment.

Bueno, fed up with waiting, told his friends to meet him at the helicopter pad. He rushed back to Arrows to collect Fittipaldi. He ran into Jose Pinto of the Portuguese TV company, threw him the keys to his hire car, and told him to give them to Reginaldo Leme, with instructions to meet him at Maggiore.

As he rushed to the helicopter pad with Fittipaldi, he phoned a TV Globo reporter at the hospital who told him Senna would not last long. After a wait, the helicopter arrived and Braga, Berger, Fittipaldi and Bueno took off for Maggiore. The trip was made in absolute silence. These were four men as close to Senna as it was possible to be. The tragedy that had unfolded that afternoon defied any meaningful words.

The cramped Imola media centre, as word of Senna’s condition circulated, was enveloped by a shroud of dread. He would never race again, at best, and most were under no illusion that he would be dead before midnight.

Top journalist David Tremayne had been tipped off by Collins and was starting to write an obituary for the next day’s edition of the London Independent. Other British journalists with national newspaper contracts followed suit. Many of them hadn’t much cared for Senna when he was alive, but the enormity of his imminent passing weighed heavily.

When Sid Watkins arrived at Maggiore, he conferred with the doctors who had been treating Senna. They had ordered an immediate brain scan. It merely confirmed that Senna had no chance of surviving the accident. Watkins was told Senna had multiple fractures of the base of the skull where his head had smashed into the carbon-fibre headrest of the monocoque. What had likely happened was that the right front wheel had shot up after impact like a catapult and violated the cockpit area where Senna was sitting. It impacted the right frontal area of his helmet, and the violence of the wheel’s impact pushed his head back against the headrest, causing the fatal skull fractures. A piece of upright attached to the wheel had partially penetrated his helmet and made a big indent in his forehead. In addition, it appeared that a jagged piece of the upright assembly had penetrated the helmet visor just above his right eye. Any one of the three injuries would probably have killed him. The combination of them all made it certain. Only Senna’s extremely high level of fitness meant he had momentarily survived. He suffered brain death on impact but the lack of any physical injury to the rest of his body meant that his heart and lungs continued to function. The neurosurgeon who examined Senna said that the circumstances did not call for surgery because the wound was generalised in the cranium. But an X-ray of the damage to his skull and brain indicated he would not last long, even with a machine maintaining his vital functions. Watkins looked at the monitors of blood pressure, respiration and heart rate: the end was near.

Although their helicopter had left before Watkins’, finally Leonardo arrived with Josef Leberer. Then Julian Jakobi turned up. He had hitched a lift to the hospital with a Brazilian journalist, who knew the way after a trip the previous Friday to visit Barrichello.

Dr Servadei and Dr Gordini together with Watkins immediately took Leonardo, Leberer and Jakobi into a small room, next to Senna’s. He told them that the end was near, that the situation was hopeless. Leonardo was in a hopeless condition himself, unable to absorb the news, but Jakobi and Leberer accepted the news stoically, and supported him. Like Watkins and Ecclestone, Jakobi also had to be strong whilst coping with intense personal grief. Leberer wanted to go in and see Senna whilst Jakobi comforted Leonardo. The doctors warned him that Senna did not look good because of his head injuries. But Leberer went in to see his friend for the last time. In the room, the life-support systems were noisy. Leberer saw his friend’s massive head injuries. He said: “I knew every part of his body. I was there because I wanted to see him there. We were more than six years together. We were friends and I did not have a problem to go there, even if there was a big injury.”

As Watkins was talking to Leonardo, Galvao Bueno’s helicopter was landing in front of Maggiore hospital. Hospital staff recognised Gerhard Berger and the group was quickly ushered through to the intensive-care unit. The four men were led into the little room where Professor Watkins told them bluntly that Senna was already dead but that his heart was still beating. Berger remembered: “Sid Watkins told me it was very, very, very critical and basically there was no chance of getting him through.” Bueno remembered: “Sid Watkins said, ‘He is dead. He is brain dead, his heart stopped, we managed to make it go again, and he is kept alive with machines, but the Italian law requires us to wait 12 hours and take another ECG. Only after this can we disconnect him.’ I asked him: ‘But Dr Sid, will we have to wait suffering for 12 hours?’ He answered that he did not believe that even with support Ayrton’s heart would hold on for these 12 hours.”

Watkins suggested they all went in to see him before that happened. Berger went first, with Josef Leberer supporting him. Berger sat down by his bed with all his memories of the man who had shared his career and also been a big part of his life outside the sport. He quietly spoke to Senna’s lifeless form. After spending a few intimate minutes in the bleak hospital room he quietly say his final goodbyes and kissed his friend on the cheek. He said: “I spent a few minutes with him and then that was that.”

Then, in turn, the others went in to say goodbye.

By now Senna’s family had gathered at the family farm in Tatui. Viviane Senna’s husband Flavio Lalli was fulfilling the same role as Ecclestone, Watkins and Jakobi, and had taken charge of a distraught family. Watkins was handed a phone with Lalli on the line. He told Lalli what he had told Leonardo, Jakobi, Bueno, Berger, Braga and Fittipaldi, that the situation was truly hopeless and that Senna would soon die. The family were on the verge of a decision to catch a chartered jet straight to Bologna. Watkins told him it would be inappropriate as there was nothing they could do. Watkins remembered: “They accepted the tragic news with dignity, and took my advice to remain in Brazil.”

After Berger went into Senna’s room, Watkins decided to leave, unable to take any more. He was used to death, but this was unlike anything he had experienced. Watkins had borne the brunt of the tragedy. It had fallen to him to tell Senna’s family that he was effectively dead. Even he could only take so much. Although Senna was still technically alive there was nothing more he could do. It was just a question of waiting for the inevitable, which Watkins’ experience told him would be within the hour. For him, his friend was already dead. He took the chance of a lift back to his hotel. Watkins needed some time on his own to come to terms with the day’s events. When he got to his room, a man who had seen death many times discovered his own vulnerability as the television replayed the accident incessantly.

Like Watkins, Berger needed some solitude. He took a helicopter to the airport, then his plane home to Austria. At the airport, in the evening dusk, he saw Senna’s plane waiting forlornly for an owner that would never return. Berger broke down, overpowered by the silhouette.

In Portugal, Luiza Braga tried frantically to book a plane, as friends helped Adriane pack enough clothes for three days. She knew there was little hope, but told herself she would be by his bedside, waiting for him to recover. It was the only possible thought, and it kept her going.

As she waited, a neighbour told her she had heard he had recovered consciousness. Adriane’s own mother phoned from São Paulo and asked what was happening. Adriane told her she hoped Senna would recover and that it was not as serious as was thought. Her no-nonsense mother immediately disabused her of that and made her face reality. TV Globo was delivering far more accurate information to Brazilian viewers than the more reserved European television channels, which were waiting for an official bulletin and shying away from the reality. Adriane’s mother told her the truth: that only a miracle could save him. After putting the phone down from her mother, Adriane felt her emotions going out of control. Her friends gave her a tranquilliser pill. She phoned Neyde da Silva at home in Brazil and tried to calm Neyde down, telling her she had heard her son had recovered consciousness. Neyde told her the family would catch a plane to Bologna at 2:30pm (local time).

Even as they spoke, at Maggiore hospital electrical brain tests confirmed that Senna was brain dead and being kept alive only by artificial means. Senior doctors conferred about the press bulletin promised for 6 o’clock. They did not want to raise any false hopes, nor could they say he was dead, because he wasn’t. By law, the machine could not be turned off. They compromised with an announcement saying Senna was clinically dead.

At 6:05pm Dr Fiandri, her voice shaking at the gravity of her announcement, told reporters that Senna was clinically dead. He was still connected, she said, to the equipment maintaining his heartbeat. The news led the early-evening news programmes. In Britain an hour behind Europe, the news bulletins waited for a more final verdict.

Josef Leberer returned to Imola to fetch his car. A doctor gave him a lift.

Neyde da Silva, calling from Brazil, told her son Leonardo to ask the hospital to arrange for a priest to visit her eldest son. The priest arrived, went into Senna’s room at 6:15pm, and gave him the last rites. At 6:37pm Senna’s heart stopped again and Dr Fiandri decided not to try and restart it. Keeping a man who was effectively dead artificially alive was ethically doubtful. She said enough was enough. At 6:40pm, Dr Fiandri pronounced Ayrton Senna dead, but said the official time of death would be 2:17pm, when he had impacted the wall and his brain had stopped working.

Oblivious to this, Juraci drove Adriane to Faro airport. When the chartered plane arrived, around 6:30pm, Adriane was waiting desperately on the tarmac. As soon as the door opened, she scrambled on board and into Luiza Braga’s arms. The pilot told them it would be a three-hour flight. On board, Luiza told Adriane that her boyfriend was as strong as an ox and that she had heard nothing more from her husband at the circuit, other that it was very serious. But even as they spoke, Senna was already dead.

The captain taxied to the edge of the runway, and waited for clearance to take off. As he waited, a message was relayed to the plane. The pilot immediately taxied back to the terminal building, without a word to his passengers. The message was that Ayrton Senna had passed away, but the captain didn’t want to be the one to break the news to them. He finally told them there was an urgent call for Luiza back at the control tower. He said: “I don’t have authorisation from the tower. There is a call for Luiza and Adriane.”

Adriane shook with fear about what the call might reveal.

Luiza rushed off as soon as the plane door opened. Adriane stepped from the plane and was overwhelmed at the silence in the terminal, the silent people there, betraying the news she didn’t want to hear. Adriane followed Luiza to the control tower. “I shook all over, from head to toe,” she remembered. She waited in silence alone. Luiza Braga was pale when she returned. She took Adriane’s hand. “Adriane,” she said, but Adriane interrupted her and said: “Luiza, only don’t tell me he has died.” She replied the only way she could: “He’s died.”

The two women hugged each other for comfort. They spent 40 minutes in the control tower, sobbing and trying to come to terms with the devastating news. They did not know what to do, and were driven back to Senna’s house at Quinto da Lago. The pilot waited at Faro for instructions. When they returned they found the whole house in mourning. Juraci, the housekeeper, who had regarded Senna as her son, was screaming. Adriane made for their bedroom and lay motionless on the bed for two hours. She remembers: “I naively thought I would see him arrive that night, even earlier than expected, with that beautiful smile of his, ready for a reunion after almost a month.”

When Josef Leberer returned to the paddock from the hospital he found it a desolate place. Everyone was trying to come to terms with what had happened. By that time his death had been announced. He remembered: “It seemed like everybody was waiting and asking, ‘what’s happened, what’s happened, what’s happened?’. I had to tell them.”

Leberer had to cope with two grieving teams. Not only his own but also McLaren. Ron and Lisa Dennis and Mansour and Cathy Ojjeh huddled around him for news. He found Frank Williams and Patrick Head in a state of disbelief. After finally getting Senna to drive for them after all these years they couldn’t believe he was gone so quickly.

He couldn’t cope with too much of it and drove his car back to the hotel.

Meanwhile, Luiza Braga spoke to her husband at the hospital who told her there was no point going to Bologna and to pack some bags and prepare to return to Brazil for the funeral. Braga told his wife to take Adriane to their home in Sintra with one of the cars Senna kept at the villa. He said he would join them as soon as he had got Leonardo back to Brazil and made the arrangements to have Senna’s returned to Brazil. He told her to instruct the pilot of the chartered jet, waiting at Bologna, to go. Luiza explained the plan to Adriane, who agreed: “I gathered all I had brought from Brazil,” she remembered. “The big suitcase, everything. The three pieces of luggage that I had just unpacked, less than 24 hours before, with all I would need to spend the next five months of the European season by his side. The season that ended before it began.” Before leaving, she took a T-shirt and shorts of Senna’s she had worn that morning to go running.

Then she walked around the house and gardens for the last time. The garden and lawns were bathed in moonlight, as they only can be in the Algarve. She walked by the swimming pool and then went into his study and checked for messages on his fax. She gazed at his photographs on his desk for the last time and his trophies. She stopped by his powerful Swiss stereo player and wondered what was the last music he had listened to. She pressed the eject button and out came a Phil Collins album. She slipped it into her pocket, as she remembered: “I wanted to know what had been the last CD he had listened to in life. That was one thing that I had the right to share with him. After that I walked in tears around the house.”

At around 10 o’clock, the two women left for the two-hour drive to Sintra. They were silent, thinking about what had been a terrible end to a terrible day. Just after midnight, Adriane pulled into the drive of the Braga home, where Senna had stayed many times and he had his own room. Adriane went straight to bed, but not in his room. That would have been too much to bear.

Back at the track, the lights in the media centre burned brightly as 200 journalists prepared 200 obituaries. The pit garage, containing Senna’s shattered car, was now guarded by armed police.

At the hospital it was revealed that nurses had discovered a small furled Austrian flag hidden in the sleeve of Senna’s race overalls. Journalists concluded he had intended to fly it from his cockpit on the parade lap, and dedicate what would have been his 42nd Grand Prix victory to the memory of Roland Ratzenberger.

Around midnight, Angelo Orsi was back in the developing room at his office. The pictures were not pleasant. He was doubtful any magazine would publish them. Representatives of the Senna family told him immediately they that did not want anyone to even see them. Orsi respected their wishes. The pictures have never been seen, except by the family and Senna’s girlfriend Adriane. Today they are believed to be still in a safe in the Autosprint offices. Both the magazine and Orsi have turned down significant offers, believed to be well over US$100,000, for the rights to them. Orsi’s decision earned everlasting respect from Galvao Bueno, who had tipped off the Senna family about their existence: “He is the only person who’s got pictures of Ayrton’s face, developed and stashed in a safe. He has already turned down fortunes for them, he won’t sell, he won’t give. His superiors at the magazine understood his action, even with the fabulous offers from agencies, and I find it very dignified.”

There is much more Galvao Bueno would like to say about the events of Sunday 1st May 1994, but he agreed with Milton and Neyde da Silva that he would never discuss it. He confided to friends he mentioned the events to: “I shouldn’t be talking about this, I have an agreement with his family.”

In America, five hours behind Europe, Nigel Mansell was interviewed on the NBC nightly news: “I thought he was bulletproof,” he said. “It hurts, it hurts big time.”

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