The practice session had Rubens Barrichello crash out and then Roland Ratzenberger on the second day succumbed to injuries. The race started with Pedro Lamy crashing into J.J. Lehto. Wasn’t one death and two very close calls enough to see it coming? It would have taken courage beyond imagination for the racers to step into their cars that Sunday. Did anyone (by ‘anyone’ I mean spectator, racer and race team) really want that race to happen?

Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher (01.05.1994)

Archie D’Cruz (Editor, Designer, Writer)

I was there the day Ayrton Senna drove in his last race. I was there the day he died. I met him and spoke with him before that fateful race, and though many years have passed since then, the memories of that awful weekend are still seared in my mind.

A bit of background first: I was a journalist with Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News at the time. This was in 1994, a whole decade before Bahrain was added as a stop on the F1 calendar. The Williams team, looking to increase the profile and coverage of Formula 1 in Bahrain, invited three journalists as their team guests for the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola. There was Radio Bahrain breakfast show host Roy Silverthorne, a sports reporter from the leading Arabic newspaper whose name currently eludes me, and myself.

While I followed F1 and watched many of the races on TV, this was the first time I would be taking it in live at the track. We arrived in Italy on Friday evening, after the first qualifying run was complete. (In those days, qualifying was spread over two days). It turns out it had been an eventful day: Rubens Barrichello, a Brazilian like Senna, was injured in a horrific crash during qualifying and had been taken to the medical centre unconscious.

Senna hadn’t seen the crash, but as soon as he heard about it, he drove to the medical centre, ignored the stewards who were barring his way and clambered over the wall to see how Barrichello was doing. Senna was reportedly the first person that Barrichello saw when he regained consciousness.

The race weekend, though, was about to get worse.

As we were headed to our trackside seats for the second day of qualifying, Austrian rookie Roland Ratzenberger crashed. He lost a section of the car as he was entering a corner, barrelled into the concrete wall and was killed almost instantly. It was the first F1 fatality in a long time. Senna was in the Williams pit garage at the time and caught replays of the accident on the TV monitor. His immediate reaction was one of disbelief. For the second day in a row, he broke protocol by going to the pit lane and getting the course car to drive him to the accident scene.

I set all this up to explain what it was like to meet Ayrton Senna, and his demeanour just before the race. (We were supposed to have met and interviewed Senna the previous evening at the Williams motorhome, but that was cancelled after Ratzenberger’s death. It was a quiet, sombre paddock that evening). There were perhaps around 30-35 guests of the Williams team when we met Senna and his teammate Damon Hill at the Paddock Club on race morning at around 11.30. A few, like me, were journalists, most were guests of the team sponsors.

I have often been asked what it was like to meet Senna, and quite honestly, the only way to describe it is that there was an *aura* about him. As a journalist, I have met a lot of high-profile personalities and have never been particularly star-struck, but with Senna there was a sense that you were in the company of someone special. (The only other person I met over the weekend who commanded that kind of presence was Michael Schumacher, but while the German had a certain swagger, Senna seemed more introverted).

Never having met him before, it is hard to say what Senna was usually like, but on this day he had something of a distant, preoccupied look. Typically, at sponsor meet-and-greets like this one, stars tend to be fairly relaxed, there are a lot of wisecracks and laughs, but there was none of it here. Given the events of the two days prior, and given that he was leading something of a driver revolt with demands for greater safety earlier that morning (something we didn’t know at the time), it was understandable.

For all that, Senna was quite the professional. Over the next half hour, he greeted guests, then spoke softly as he went over a map of the track that had been set up on an easel. (His voice was so low, my tape recorder barely picked up anything over the general chatter in the area; fortunately, I was also taking notes like I always do at interviews).

Senna went over the race map, section by section. He explained why the Imola track was so fast and why it needed drivers to show extra concentration. He explained the curves, and focused on a couple that he deemed dangerous. One of those curves was the Tamburello, which would soon turn out to be a fateful prediction. After that session, Roy and I approached Senna, and he graciously agreed to a live radio interview with my fellow-journalist. It may well have been the last radio interview he ever did. Ninety minutes later, Senna was on the track. It would be his last race.

I filed reports for a couple of newspapers that evening; one of those is pasted below. For anyone wondering after reading the report, yes, I still own the race cap that Senna signed for me, but unfortunately the signature (it’s on the blue shade) has faded badly so it’s barely visible. I’ll still hang on to it, though.

Did Ayrton Senna have a premonition about his death?

When I met the Brazilian ace barely 90 minutes before he took to the track on that fateful Sunday, track dangers seemed to be uppermost in his mind. Senna, along with Williams teammate Damon Hill, had joined a few friends and team guests at San Marino’s Paddock Club in his last engagement before returning for a short rest prior to the race.

“Imola is a very fast circuit and takes a lot of concentration,” said Senna. “It is a place where we can achieve speeds of 325, 330kph (on the straights).”

But, Senna said, the flip side of having long straight stretches was that drivers tended to go into the bends at dangerously high speeds.

“So the G-forces on our cars are very high and the bends can be very tight.”

The Brazilian ace, so often accused by other drivers in the past of dangerous tactics on the track, was fairly sombre after the incidents of the previous two days which saw Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger killed and fellow-Brazilian Rubens Barrichello miraculously survive a horrendous crash. Spurred on by former Formula 1 ace Niki Lauda, Ayrton Senna had called a meeting of top drivers that same morning to discuss track safety.

When I met him, he had only just returned from that closed door discussion. Neither Senna nor eventual race winner, German Michael Schumacher, who was among those present, revealed anything about that meeting, but it was learnt that the drivers were very concerned about the safety aspect and planned to speak to the sport’s governing body before the action moved to Monaco in a fortnight’s time. That, unfortunately, is already too late for Senna. The three time world champion must have had conflicting thoughts about how he should take the race.

“I have not had a very good start to the year,” he admitted, adding he was looking forward to doing well.

Translated into race language, that meant he was willing to take chances even though he knew the dangers. It would not be the first time though. The deeply religious Senna, who once said, “God is my co-driver,” was often condemned for posing a danger to others on the track by driving as if God would never let him die.

This Sunday though, he was wrong.

When I met him, he had pointed to the Tamburello turn as one of the danger curves. It was that very bend that he failed to negotiate, going headlong into a concrete barrier. Race organizers at Imola claim they had done all they could to make the event safe, but had they?

It was downright shocking that off the bend at which Senna crashed, there were no sand pits to slow the momentum of the car, no straw bales or rubber tyres to absorb the impact, not even the recommended steel barriers which would have taken some of the shock off Senna’s underprotected head and neck.

One veteran motorsports journalist, who has been covering Formula One for 28 years, said: “I have never seen such poor safety standards before.”

Time will tell if design faults were responsible for all the crashes at Imola. But even that can never excuse the little regard paid to drivers’ safety. I was in the media hall when Senna crashed, and the room, normally a babble of some 2,000 voices talking live into radio or offering the latest updates to newspapers and wire agencies, went deathly silent. It was immediately apparent something was dreadfully wrong as a still Senna was extricated from the car wreck. Some of the Brazilian journalists began to weep.

Outside, the Italian crowd was perversely cheering, unaware of the extent of the tragedy unfolding before them. This is Ferrari country, and any other driver’s exit would mean their home team stood a better chance of winning. Nicola Larini would eventually finish second in his Ferrari, and the crowd went wild about that too.

Just before Senna had left the Rothmans Williams guest box prior to the race, I did something I can’t recall having done for a long, long time. I thrust my cap out and asked for an autograph. A smiling Senna willingly obliged.

Little did I know how much I would treasure that gesture a couple of hours later.

Archie D’Cruz (Editor, Designer, Writer)