In the end, in the sudden, final instant of his life, Ayrton Senna could not have known what hit him. He could not have seen what, in the next moment, would kill him. This was not possible, not even for Senna. When his Williams-Renault FW16 failed to negotiate the sweeping left turn called Tamburello at the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy, on Sunday, Senna’s car rocketed off the circuit and into a concrete retaining wall, an impact so instantaneous at 186 mph that he could not have shifted his eyes from the open track ahead in time to see it.
The penetrating brown eyes of Ayrton Senna da Silva were always fixed firmly upon the prize, and last weekend they had brought him to the pole position for the 65th time in his Formula One career, more than twice as many times as any other driver in the history of the sport. In a little more than 10 years of Grand Prix racing, Senna had won 41 races and three world championships. He never succumbed to the paralyzing astigmatism peculiar to race drivers known as close eyes, whose symptoms are sweaty palms and an inability to see past the car in front of you. In his mind’s eye, Senna saw beyond the next turn—often beyond the next lap—with an almost frightening omniscience.
Last week in Imola, Senna had plainly seen something—or felt something—on the track that was beyond his ability to comprehend, and it frightened him. But what was it? During Friday’s time trials, a fellow Brazilian, Rubens Barrichello, had suffered a slight concussion and facial bruises when his Jordan-Hart became airborne and crashed hard. On Saturday, after Austrian rookie Roland Ratzenberger, driving for the Simtek team, had lost control of his car and flown off the track to his death at nearly 200 mph during qualifying, Senna refused to take his car out of the garage for more laps. Ratzenberger’s was the first death in Formula One racing in 12 years, and when word reached the paddock, Senna was said to have had the unmistakable look of someone who had just seen his own shadow.
When Saturday’s qualifying session was done and Senna had retained the pole by nearly half a second over Germany’s Michael Schumacher without turning a lap, he had gone out to the Villeneuve curve, to the precise spot on the circuit where Ratzenberger had crashed. There he stood alone, choking back tears. Later that night he called his girlfriend, 21-year-old model Adriane Galisteu, in Lisbon and told her that he did not want to race on Sunday.
Senna had spun his car near Tamburello on Friday morning, and he was still so shaken on Sunday morning that he refused to speak to reporters after the warmup session, except to tersely say, “Today was not typical. My car is very difficult to drive.”
This was the car in which Senna was expected to be so dominant that there was speculation before the season that he might become the first driver in Formula One history to win every race. To obtain the ride in the Williams-Renault, he had left Team McLaren after six successful seasons, telling the British journal Auto-sport over the winter, “I have been waiting for so long…to start this new life.”
Senna was being paid more than $1 million a race by owner Frank Williams for his new life—a reported $20 million for the season—but he had spun out in Brazil, the first race of the F1 campaign, and in the next race three weeks later in Japan, he had been pushed off the course on the first turn. So he arrived in Imola with no points in the hunt for the world championship that had once been practically conceded to him. Another loss to Schumacher, who had easily won those first two races in his Benetton-Ford, might even have begun to tarnish Senna’s reputation in Brazil, where he presided over a business empire so vast that his employees filled seven floors of a skyscraper in São Paulo.
In Brazil, Senna was seen as an almost godlike figure, commuting to races from his ranch in a private jet. TV Globo, the nation’s largest network, assigned a crew just to follow Senna from race to race. On Sunday, as they sat before their TV sets and watched Senna’s car slam into the Tamburello wall, most Brazilians surely presumed that their hero had only been stunned by the accident, that soon he would climb out and walk away. However, when the cameras showed a bloodied Senna receiving feverish emergency treatment on the track, the seriousness of what had happened began to sink in. Mothers and wives were called from other rooms to the TV, shoppers rushed home, and the streets of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo grew eerily deserted. Senna’s parents, watching the race at their resort home in the São Paulo foothills, were given tranquilizers. Lying beside the wreckage of his car, Senna was given a tracheotomy, and as he struggled for breath, millions of Brazilians silently held theirs.
Senna was 34, which means that, by racing standards, he did not die young, only hard, and a very long way from home. Senna transcended the tiresome debate about whether race drivers are really athletes, because he was something far rarer in this world than an athlete—he was a genius. Senna could take an 1,100-pound racing car and transform it into a living, breathing thing, a throbbing dance partner in his dangerous pas de deux. Michael Andretti, the American who was Senna’s teammate with McLaren last year, once tried to explain what separated Senna from other Formula One drivers. “It’s confidence,” Andretti said. “When he goes into the corner, he knows the car’s going to stick for him. He just drives through [mechanical] problems. I need the car to be working for me to have a chance. He doesn’t.”
Former world champion Niki Lauda, who was almost killed in a fiery accident in 1976, said simply, “He was the best driver who ever lived.”
Only Alain Prost, who became Senna’s archrival when the two were teammates for McLaren, won more Grand Prix races (51) than Senna. When Senna joined McLaren in 1988, he and Prost agreed to avoid racing each other into the chaotic first corners at the start of races, but at San Marino that year Senna jumped Prost at the first turn. Prost refused to speak to Senna for a long time afterward. “I appreciate honesty, and he is not honest,” said Prost of his teammate.
Senna’s magisterial ego and his brilliance in a race car created a management nightmare for McLaren boss Ron Dennis, who constantly bail to reassure both drivers that they were getting equal equipment. “One of the fundamental requirements of being the best in the world is that you believe yourself to be,” Dennis said last year. “When you have two people who believe they’re the best, you have a time bomb ticking. When one is beaten by the other but retains the notion that he is the better driver, he starts to believe that he has been given inferior equipment.”
In 1990 Senna won the world title in the second-to-last race, in Japan, where he purposely drove into the back of Prost’s car and pushed it off the track. “What he did was more than unsporting,” said Prost, who retired after last season. “It was disgusting…. With him, racing isn’t a sport; it’s war.” The crash took Senna’s car out, too, but he had his championship. A year later Senna admitted having used his car as a weapon against Prost.
Senna’s temper and ego were leavened not in the slightest by his loudly self-professed devotion to God and a life of prayer and reading the Bible. “When God wants something to happen, nothing can change it,” said Senna after winning in Brazil last year in terrible weather. In clear conditions at San Marino last week, Senna seemed to have a premonition that something was about to happen that he could not change. In a column written on Saturday for the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, Senna remarked that his car reacted “a bit nervously on this kind of surface,” and he mentioned a “difficulty in the suspension.”
New F1 rules mandate the removal from cars of traction-control systems and active suspensions, leaving the task of controlling the cars more to the drivers than to computers. Senna had told a Brazilian newspaper earlier in the season that the changes had made the cars more difficult to drive. “It’s going to be a season with lots of accidents,” he said, “and I’ll risk saying we’ll be lucky if something really serious doesn’t happen.”
After Ratzenberger’s death on Saturday, Senna wrote in his column for Welt am Sonntag that his worst fears had been “borne out in tragic fashion.” But his worst fears lay deeper still, and of those he spoke to no one, except perhaps Galisteu.
As Sunday’s race began, a crash involving the cars of Pedro Lamy and J.J. Lehto forced the first six laps to be run under caution. However, when the cars came around at speed to start the seventh lap, Senna was leading as he approached Tamburello. “He looked nervous from the very first lap,” said Schumacher, who followed Senna into the turn. “I can’t say what happened exactly. I saw that his car was already touching [the track] quite a lot at the back on the lap before. The car was very nervous in this corner, and he nearly lost it. On the next lap he did lose it. The car touched with the rear skids, went a bit sideways, and he just lost it.”
Senna’s limp body was removed from the shattered car and taken by helicopter to Maggiore hospital in Bologna. Almost five hours after the accident, Alvaro Andreoli, a neurosurgeon, emerged from the hospital’s emergency unit to explain why an operation would be futile. “Unfortunately we’re faced by a global suffering of all the brain,” he said. And so it was. Senna was dead, and millions were faced by a global suffering of the heart.
As the news of his death began to spread, people gathered outside Senna’s apartment building in São Paulo and wept. Brazil’s president, Itamar Franco, declared three days of mourning and offered the family the use of the presidential plane to bring the body home. In Rio’s Maracana Stadium nearly 100,000 fans who had been watching a soccer match between Flamengo and Vasco stood and clapped their hands in unison, chanting, “Ole-oleleo la, Sen-na, Sen-na.” The scene was repeated in every stadium in which a game was played in Brazil that afternoon.
Imperious, arrogant, supremely confident, Senna expected—demanded—that his inferiors move aside as he swept into their mirrors. In Imola last year he had summoned Damon Hill, who would soon become his teammate, to the McLaren motor coach. There Senna haughtily dressed down the younger driver for having weaved in front of him, trying to hold him up. That, of course, had been one of Senna’s favorite tricks when he was younger.
On Sunday, at 186 mph, Senna could not have seen what was coming, could not have known. But it would have surprised no one who had ever seen him drive if his last fleeting thought was one of utter indignation that the concrete wall that was about to kill him had not, in deference to the great man, moved aside to let him through.
Ole-oleleo la, ole-oleleo la, Sen-na, Sen-na, adeus.