Ayrton Senna: It was 20 years ago today . . .

Although it seems like he's been gone forever, it's only been 20 years to the day - May 1, 1994 - since Senna died during the Grand Prix of San Marino

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Some men can wear baseball caps. Some can’t. Ayrton Senna da Silva was one of those who couldn’t.

I used to feel sorry for him when he would walk into a media conference after a practice or a Grand Prix and he’d have to wear that blue Banco Nacional cap. He looked like a dork.

Of course, that cap was his one and only negative. I thought everything else about Senna was perfect. He was handsome, articulate, gallant, passionate, wealthy, courageous, assertive, suave, talented, athletic, witty, sophisticated and charming.  I could go on. He just had this wonderful demeanor about him.  He was king of the world.

Although it seems like he’s been gone forever, it’s only been 20 years to the day – May 1, 1994 – since Senna died during the Grand Prix of San Marino. It was an awful weekend, that one. Another F1 driver, Roland Ratzenberger,* was also killed – the day before Senna, in fact – and Rubens Barrichello, who was Senna’s protege, had suffered a close escape by being knocked unconscious in a vicious wreck.

Senna was  only 34 when he passed. He got his first wheels – a kiddy car – when he was 4. He was driving a Jeep on family property when he was 7.  He went kart racing at 13 and was in F1 by the time he was 24. He was a dominant force for 10 years, driving for four teams, winning three world championships and standing on the podium 80 times in 162 starts.

We can all argue till we’re blue in the face about who was the greatest F1 driver of all time – Clark, Stewart, Fangio, Schumacher, Senna, Prost.  But there is no doubt that Senna had an almost mystical quality about him that set him apart from the others, and particularly from his great rival, Prost.

Alain Prost remains a down-to-earth, analytical man. When he was racing, he was very technical when talking about his cars and about his driving. In contrast, Senna would talk about out-of-body experiences. One of the  legendary stories has him telling journalist Gerald Donaldson about an other-world qualifying lap at Monaco that some later dubbed “driving with angels.”

Senna would talk about his emotions. Prost would talk about gear changes. You would watch Senna at work and it was as if he was on a magic carpet ride, so smooth and yet so swift. Prost was methodical to a fault and it showed as you watched him drive.

The differences in style were never more apparent than at Montreal in ’88 when the two McLaren drivers broke away from the pack early, with Prost in front followed by Senna. Then, while heading into the hairpin, Senna made his move down the inside and was past Prost in a flash.

For a Grand Prix driver, it was a perfect weekend. Senna won pole, set fastest lap during the race, and was first at the finish. He did that many times.

Which made it all the more inconceivable that he should be killed in a racing car. Yes, F1 pilots died – at one time, with alarming regularity. But not world champions. There had been 20 or so by the time Senna won his first title and none of them had been killed in an F1 race,** so how had it happened?

There were – and are – many theories as to why his Williams appeared to go straight, instead of turning, and then crashed almost head-on into a cement wall, from a broken steering-wheel column leaving the car unsteerable (the Italian inquest determined this to be the case) to a deflating tire caused by driving through debris from an earlier accident (which I think is obvious). But it doesn’t matter. It happened. It’s over.

For a few years after the turn of the century, there was an incredible F1 magazine on the market entitled F1 – Formula 1 Magazine. It featured gorgeous photography, the top writers (David Tremayne, Joe Saward, my friend Donaldson) and – likely because of Bernie Eccleston’s money, plus Bernie himself – unusual access to the drivers and sometimes their families (in what other magazine would you find a somewhat sensual photograph of Michael Schumacher and his wife wearing undershirts and snuggling?).

In the March 2001 issue (I have ’em all – or most of them), Senna’s last sweetheart, Adriane Galisteu, and his great pal, Prof. Sid Watkins, both wrote about the day he died. Both excerpts, of course, were taken from books they had published, hers being Adriane – My Life with Ayrton and his being Life at the Limit – Triumph and Tragedy in Formula One.

Several passages in both pieces caught my eye and I have read them over and over as the years have gone by. I think it’s appropriate, on this anniversary day, to reproduce them here.

Wrote Adriane Galisteu, upon turning on the television at their home in Portugal and seeing the accident that had just happened in Italy:

“I saw his feet. No movement. It was a fatal revelation. I’m an expert on the launguage of feet. They tell me everything. What his feet were telling me at that moment was the most terrible of all things. I released my despair, cry, fear – but there still remained a bit of hope – why not? And then from the reaction of the people around me, I realized that I was not alone in that room any more, that Juraci (his housekeeper) was screaming, that the neighbours had come, that the dogs were barking, frightened, that the telephone was ringing. A mournful symphony installed itself in the house in which 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.

“It never crossed my mind that the stage on which he was king three times would also be the same for his death. He lived on the risk of extreme velocity, but his incomparable talent seemed to have eliminated from all his fans’ minds, the world over, this sinister possibility. Maybe he himself could think of that. But that was the nature of his work – he knew better than anyone else.”

And from the “doctor to the drivers,” Prof. Watkins:

“On Sunday morning, the warmup went okay. I had not seen or spoken to Ayrton Senna since the afternoon before, when I saw him at the medical centre after Ratzenberger’s fatal accident. But my unease returned at the drivers’ briefing, when we had a minute’s silence for Roland. I thought this a bad idea for drivers to endure when they were about to face the risk so recently patently exposed. But I had no part in it, or influence over the decision to hold it.

“In any event, when I looked around the room, most of the drivers were taking it well except for Ayrton who, for the second time in 24 hours, was crying. He was doing his best to overcome his grief but silent tears were running down his face  and he was licking them away in an effort to conceal his distress.”

And later, even closer to the start of his last race:

“Ayrton was beside himself. He had not been close to death at a circuit before. The last tragedy we’d had at a Formula One race meeting had been in Montreal in 1982 when Riccardo Paletti was killed at the start of the race. Although he was totally aware of – and accepted – the dangers, we’d had a long run without fatality. It was cruel and horrible for us all that tragedy had happened again.”

Although ironic might not be the right word, it just so happens that the last fatal accident at a Formula One meeting was Senna’s. It might be the 20th anniversary of a terrible and tragic event – his death – but it is also heart warming to know that death hasn’t come to anyone else at an F1 race in the interim.

May there be many more observances in future of the passing of this wonderful athlete, sportsman, national hero and international icon.

May there also be many more safe years for F1 racing and for F1 racers.


* FIA President Max Mosley attended the funeral of Ratzenberger in Austria on May 7, 1994, because “everyone else went to Senna’s and I thought it was important that somebody went to his.” The driver had just started his F1 career, having previously raced in junior single-seaters and sports cars.

** Two-time champion Alberto Ascari was killed in a testing crash; Giuseppe Farina and Mike Hawthorne died in crashes on public highways; Jim Clark died in a Formula 2 race; Jochen Rindt was not yet champion.


  • Ayrton Senna: It was 20 years ago today . . . Only Bernie Ecclestone could organise this unique photo opportunity: the four dominant drivers of F1 in the 1980Õs, all vying for the 1986 World Championship Crown (L to R): Ayrton Senna (BRA) Lotus, Alain Prost (FRA) McLaren and Williams team mates Nigel Mansell (GBR) and Nelson Piquet (BRA). Portuguese Grand Prix, Estoril, 21 September 1986.
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  • Ayrton Senna: It was 20 years ago today . . .
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