"He was the best driver who ever lived"
- Niki Lauda
"His skills, craft, subtlety, and courage were of such magnitude that he dwarfed his generation of drivers"
- Ron Dennis
"Ayrton was, and still is, the best Formula 1 driver I've ever seen"
- Bernie Ecclestone
"Actually, he was an even greater man outside the car than he was in it"
- Frank Williams
There has been so much said and written about Ayrton Senna - his life, his racing career, and his tragic death - that little needs to be retold. Nevertheless there is value in being reminded about a man, the size of whose achievements as a driver are paralleled only by the size of his soul.
Ayrton Senna da Silva was born on March 21st 1960 to parents Milton da Silva and Neyde Senna. He was the second of three children - he had an older sister, Viviane, and a younger brother, Leonardo. He was born into a wealthy family. His father was a business man and ran his own car parts firm, along with a soft drinks distribution company and a large cattle farm. The family's wealth enabled them to employ servants, yet there was a duality to this existence - the family lived in Sao Paulo, albeit in a wealthy suburb. Over 15 million people lived in the sprawling metropolis at that time, many in poverty. The "favelas" or shanty towns were a constant reminder of the poverty.
Not a great deal is known about Ayrton's early childhood. It is known that his parents, like a lot of families in Brazil, gave their son a nickname - "Beco". It is also known that Ayrton suffered from poor motor coordination, was hyperactive, often introverted, and that he didn't excel at school. He did, however, have a passion for cars, possibly due to his father's involvement in the car parts business.
For a fourth birthday present, Ayrton received a go-kart. It was a basic machine, built by his father, but it was a source of great joy and excitement for the young boy. According to Tom Rubython's book "The Life of Senna", his motor coordination problems were cured almost instantly. It would be another nine years, however, before Ayrton was able to take part in a professional kart race, due to the lower age restriction of 13 years. He won first time out, and would go on to win the Sao Paulo Championship, followed by the National Championship. He would win the National Championship several times, and won five straight South American Championships. During this time he also competed in several European events including the World Championship and although he never won it (he came second twice), he impressed many people. He certainly stood out from the crowd - he raced in black overalls and a bright yellow helmet with a blue and a green stripe, which was an adaptation of the Brazilian Flag. Although Milton wasn't convinced about his son's abilities (despite the successes), he supplied financial backing, and Ayrton was to be able to move to England to compete in Formula Ford.
In 1981, at the age of 21, he began competing in Formula Ford 1600. He won the championship at his first attempt. He moved up to Formula Ford 2000 and won both the British and European titles in 1982. He then moved up to British Formula 3, and took the fiercely contested 1983 title - a title that his idols Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, and Emmerson Fittipaldi had all taken in their careers. It was around this time that Ayrton dropped the "da Silva" part of his name, because it is a very common name in Brazil. It was his exploits in Formula 3, where he battled hard all season long with rival Martin Brundle, that really put Ayrton on the map.
Ayrton's first taste of Formula 1 would be at the wheel of a Williams. The young Brazilian was not invited to test for the team on merit - far from it. Ayrton had the good fortune to sit next to Frank Williams on a flight to Zandvoort to attend a 1982 Formula Ford 2000 race. From there, Ayrton (by most accounts) incessantly pestered Frank Williams and Patrick Head for almost a year until they finally relented and agreed to a test session at Donington. He would drive Keke Rosberg's 1983 FW08C with the number 1 on the car. Ayrton did a total of just 20 laps, and by the 10th lap had bettered the time of the young Williams protege Jonathan Palmer by almost 1.5 seconds.
Further tests with top teams followed - he would test for McLaren in a "shoot out" of sorts against Martin Brundle and Stefan Bellof. Ayrton would record the fastest time of the day - faster than McLaren race driver John Watson - although he had to convince Ron Dennis to give him a second go in the car after blowing the engine the first time out. News of his impressive time spread, and he would subsequently get tests with Toleman and Brabham. In the Toleman, he would set a time at Silverstone that was faster that Derek Warwick's qualifying time at that year's British Grand Prix. In the Brabham test at Paul Ricard, however, Ayrton was slower than compatriot Nelson Piquet by two seconds. Nelson Piquet later admitted that he had blocked Senna's path into Brabham by applying pressure to team boss Bernie Ecclestone. Furthermore, Ayrton strongly suspected that Piquet had instructed his mechanics to manipulate the car's set-up to disadvantage him.
Nevertheless, in modern times, Ayrton would have been offered a multi-year contract on the spot by most teams. It's almost incomprehensible that Frank Williams and Ron Dennis didn't want to take a risk, and declined to hire him. The only option that was left open to the Brazilian was a two-year deal with Toleman, which he took with both hands.
So, on the 25th March 1984, Ayrton Senna competed in his first Formula 1 race - the Brazilian grand prix. He would only qualify 16th, and would retire early on with a blown turbo. In fact it was a relatively difficult season - he had 8 retirements, and even suffered the ignominy of not qualifying at San Marino due to a dispute between Toleman and Pirelli (which prevented Ayrton from running on the Friday; a misfire would prevent him from setting a competitive time on the Saturday). However, he scored points in all the races he finished except for the Canadian Grand Prix. Moreover, he came tantalizingly close to winning the Monaco Grand Prix that year.
The race at Monaco was run in appallingly wet conditions. Ayrton qualified 13th on the grid, but made swift progress through the field. By lap 19 he was in second place, and was hunting down the leader Prost. There are many stories to tell about that day (for example the fact that Mansell had easily made his way past Prost and was pulling away at two seconds per lap before he crashed on entry to Casino Square; or the fact that Stefan Bellof in the Tyrrell was closing fast on Senna). The story that everyone remembers, though, is that on lap 32 Prost slowed as he approached the start/finish line and Senna passed him. However, the red flag came out and the race was stopped due to the worsening conditions. The positions as of the end of the previous lap were therefore taken - when Prost was still in the lead. Senna was furious - he thought he had won - and accusations of favoritism were levelled at the race director Jackie Ickx. Nevertheless, that drive at Monaco had impressed a lot of people.
One of those people he impressed was Lotus team principle Peter Warr. The Brazilian entered into discussions with Lotus, intending to use an opt-out clause in his Toleman contract. However, his contract stated that he couldn't solicit contracts from other teams before exercising the opt-out. The press leaked the story of the Lotus talks - the Toleman management were furious because Ayrton was effectively in breach of contract. They parked him for the Italian Grand Prix in retaliation. Ayrton's response was to absolutely blitz the season-ending Portuguese Grand Prix, qualifying 3rd and finishing 3rd. He would end the 1984 drivers' championship in 9th place with 13 points.
Almost as soon as Ayrton joined Lotus, his career soared. He qualified fourth in the opening round of the 1985 season in Brazil, but unfortunately retired with electrical problems. However, he was outqualified by his Lotus team mate Elio de Angelis, and the Italian would finish third in the race. Indeed, Ayrton was really considered the number two driver when he first joined Lotus. However, during the 1985 season the dynamic in the team would gradually change and, according to the now infamous Nigel Stepney who was Elio's chief mechanic at the time, the team just began to gel in a natural kind of way around the young Brazilian.
The second round of the season saw the F1 show back in Portugal, just 6 months after the previous Portuguese Grand Prix. Ayrton qualified on pole - his first ever pole position in F1 - and took a memorable first race victory in dreadful wet weather conditions, similar to Monaco the previous season. He would win by over a minute from the second placed Michele Alboreto in the Ferrari and lapped everyone up to and including 3rd placed Patrick Tambay in the Renault. In fact he was so dominant that day that he recorded his first grand slam as well - he won from pole, led every lap, and set fastest lap of the race.
The middle of the 1985 season was difficult for Ayrton - he had a string of DNFs which were mostly due to engine problems and had poor results in Canada and Britain which were also due to technical difficulties (turbo and fuel injection respectively). In fact the only major blip on Ayrton's part the whole year was a crash at the US Grand Prix in Detroit whilst in fourth place. Later that year he would add a second victory in Belgium - also in wet conditions - and would finish the year fourth in the Drivers' championship with 38 points having scored two wins, 7 pole positions, and 3 fastest laps.
1986 was a better season for Ayrton, although he would still finish 4th in the championship. He started the year well, with a second place finish in Rio, followed by a win at the Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez. His victory there is one of the closest finishes of all time in Formula One - just 0.014 seconds separated him from second placed Nigel Mansell. Indeed, Mansell would have won had the start/finish line been 30 meters further down the track, as it had been in practice and qualifying. Nevertheless, the win meant that for the first time in his career he led the world championship. However, the Lotus 98T was only marginally more reliable than its predecessor - the 97T - and despite a strong set of mid-season results and another win in the US Grand Prix, Ayrton ultimately dropped out of championship contention. He was still in with a mathematical chance of the title, however, as late as the Portuguese Grand Prix - the 14th race of the season. Indeed 4 drivers were in mathematical contention for the title at that point - the two Williams drivers of Mansell and Piquet, McLaren driver and defending champion Alain Prost, and Ayrton Senna. This was, and still is, a unique occurrence in Formula 1 history - four drivers with a mathematical possibility of taking the title at such a late stage of the season - and it is immortalized in a legendary photograph of the four of them sitting together on the pit wall at the Estoril circuit. Even though the championship was dominated by the Williams-Honda cars, Alain Prost was the ultimate championship victor. But again Ayrton had made his mark - 55 points, 8 pole positions, but no fastest laps. He would finish the championship behind only Prost, Mansell, and Piquet - legends all.
Ayrton would have stood a better chance at title victory in 1986 had it not been for the unreliability of his Lotus, but particularly the Renault engines they were using. So when, for the 1987 season, Lotus switched to the dominant Honda engines that Williams were using, things were looking good for the Brazilian. However, despite technological innovations such as active suspension, the Lotus 99T was no match for the Williams cars in the end, and was again left on the outside looking in. Ayrton did, however, earn his first victory in the principality of Monaco - the first of many. It was also the first win for a car with active suspension - a technology that would ultimately have a profound effect on the Brazilian's career. Ayrton would take back to back victories - he won the next race in Detroit - and would again lead the world championship. However, the Williams cars were just too strong and he would again fall out of championship contention late in the season (this time in Mexico, where he spun off due to a mechanical problem). Nevertheless, he had an opportunity to finish second in the championship due to the fact that Mansell had to withdraw from the last two races of the season because of a back injury sustained in a crash at Suzuka. However, Ayrton would be disqualified from the Australian Grand Prix because of a technical infringement - the brake ducts on his Lotus were too large - and would finish third in the championship with 57 points, two wins, and three fastest laps.
During that 1987 season, Ayrton developed a good rapport with Honda. Indeed, Ayrton had developed good working relationships with all the engineers that he worked with because of his high level of technical knowhow - a trait he probably picked up from his father and the family car parts business. He had also developed a relationship with McLaren boss Ron Dennis, and the two had entered into a verbal agreement with regards a contract for the 1988 season. Lotus boss Peter Warr became aware of the agreement and decided to play his hand before Ayrton has a chance to play his - he announced that Nelson Piquet would join Lotus for 1988, alongside current driver Satoru Nakajima. Ayrton spoke out publicly about the fact that Lotus had not informed him of their decision before it was announced because he felt that it weakened his bargaining position with Ron Dennis. However, it would soon transpire that Honda would be abandoning Williams in favour of McLaren for 1988 - the Honda management were upset that Williams failed to secure the drivers' title in 1986 and that they had refused to employ Nakajima for 1988.
McLaren were the most successful team of recent times, and now that they had secured Honda power - which were the best engines - Ayrton would be in a strong position to take the drivers' championship. This mattered a lot to Ayrton because he was no longer a young rookie. He felt like he had been let down by Lotus, and that he could have taken at least one drivers' championship by this point in his career. Ron Dennis was faithful to his verbal contract, and agreed to a 3-year deal with Ayrton, although not without a lot of quibbling over money. In the end, the deal was secured by the toss of a coin because the two men could not come to an agreement over the exact amount of money involved. Ron Dennis won the coin toss, and would later claim that Ayrton never forgave him for it!
So for 1988, Ayrton joined McLaren to partner two-times world champion Alain Prost. He relished the opportunity, stating "two top drivers working together can only make a team stronger". Indeed, McLaren were extremely strong that year: they had the best engines in the form of Honda; it would be the last year of turbocharged power in Formula 1, and most engine manufacturers had switched their focus to developing their 3.5 liter atmospheric engines - but not Honda; they had arguably the two best drivers in the world; and they had a car designed by one of the best designers in the world, Gordon Murray. All these factors added up for what would turn out to be an epic, historic, record breaking year.
McLaren were not necessarily considered favourites going into the season, but they soon stamped their authority. They qualified 1st and 3rd in Brazil - with Ayrton naturally on pole. The race was not a successful one for the Brazilian though - his gear lever broke on the parade lap and he came to the pits, swapped cars, and started from the pit lane. This, however, was illegal and was black flagged, but not before storming from last to second place by 1/3 distance. Prost took a comfortable victory ahead of the Ferrari of Berger. There were no such shenanigans for Ayrton at the second race, at Imola. He again took pole, and also took the victory from team mate Prost - Prost just couldn't get a handle on the Brazilian, but such was the pace of the McLarens that they lapped the entire field.
The next race - Monaco - marked a psychological turning point for Ayrton. The McLarens were again clearly the fastest cars, and a personal battle for pole position ensued between the McLaren team mates - first Prost would go fastest, then Senna. This battle culminated in a very strange and surreal experience for Ayrton:
"The last qualifying session. I was already on pole and I was going faster and faster. One lap after the other, quicker, and quicker, and quicker. I was at one stage just on pole, then by half a second, and then one second... and I kept going. Suddenly, I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my teammate with the same car. And I suddenly realized that I was no longer driving the car consciously.
"I was kind of driving it by instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel, not only the tunnel under the hotel, but the whole circuit for me was a tunnel. I was just going, going - more, and more, and more, and more. I was way over the limit, but still able to find even more. Then, suddenly, something just kicked me. I kind of woke up and I realized that I was in a different atmosphere than you normally are. Immediately my reaction was to back off, slow down. I drove slowly to the pits and I didn't want to go out any more that day.
"It frightened me because I realized I was well beyond my conscious understanding. It happens rarely, but I keep these experiences very much alive in me because it is something that is important for self-preservation."
In the end, Ayrton took pole by 1.4 seconds from Prost. In the race, Ayrton led away comfortably whilst Prost slipped to 6th. Prost would eventually work his way back up to second, and started trading fastest laps with Ayrton. Team boss Ron Dennis radioed to Senna that there was no need to race Prost because he was at least forty seconds behind. So, Ayrton eased off the pace. Whether he was distracted by the instruction from Ron Dennis or simply lost focus we'll probably never know but shortly afterwards Ayrton, exiting Portier just before the tunnel, drove into the barriers. He was out of the race, having been in a comfortable lead. He was disconsolate, and quietly disappeared back to his Monaco apartment without saying a word to anyone.
Despite this setback, Ayrton would take pole and finish second to Prost in Mexico; took pole and the win in Canada and the US; came second in France; won in Britain; and took pole and the win in Germany, Hungary, and Belgium. Then came the Italian Grand Prix, and an incident that was even more notorious than the incident at Monaco. Ayrton was again on pole, and was leading the race. Prost had retired with an extremely rare Honda engine failure. On the second to last lap, Ayrton attempted to pass Jean-Louis Schlesser - a stand-in driver in the Williams Judd - at the first chicane. The move was a combination of inexperience on Schlesser's part and poor timing on Senna's. Senna's McLaren touched the Williams car, bounced over it, and spun into a gravel trap. Both McLarens were out, and Ferrari took an emotional 1-2 at home, just weeks after Enzo Ferrari's death. It would be the only double retirement for McLaren all year, and the only race which they did not win.
At the next race in Portugal, there was another infamous incident. Prost and Senna were obviously the only two drivers in championship contention, and naturally there was tension between the two rivals. Ayrton's excellent mid-season form put him in the prime position to take the title, but Prost was mounting a late season charge and Ayrton knew it. After two failed attempts, Ayrton started the race from pole position, but Prost got the better start. However, Ayrton slammed the door shut on the Frenchman at the first corner to maintain his lead. Alain, however, was the quicker man and as the team mates hurtled down the pits straight to start lap 2, he attempted a pass on Ayrton. In a vain effort to keep the Frenchman behind him, Ayrton veered crazily across the track, almost squeezing him into the pit wall. Neither man was willing to yield, and the team members on the pit wall had to hastily retract their pit boards to prevent them from being struck. Prost prevailed into turn 1, and would go on to record the win whereas Senna could only manage 6th due to a faulty fuel gauge. Afterwards there were angry words between the two men, and Ayrton received a warning from the governing body. Another victory for Prost in the next race in Spain, coupled with the "best 11" rule (only a driver's best 11 results in the year would count towards the championship) set up a title showdown in the penultimate race in Japan. Going in to the race, Senna's best 11 results were 7 wins, 2 2nds, a 4th and a 6th (80 points); Prost had 6 wins and 5 2nds (84 points). If Senna won and Prost came second, the Frenchman's total would remain unchanged, but Senna would have 88 points. Even if Prost then won the last race and Senna scored zero, he would only have 87 points and would lose to Senna.
Ayrton again took pole position, but stalled at the start. Fortuitously the downhill slope of the Suzuka grid allowed him to bump start his engine, but he was down in 14th place by the end of lap one. What followed was a masterclass in driving from the Brazilian - a light rain had begun to fall and in the slick conditions, he excelled. Prost was battling a malfunctioning gearbox, and on lap 27 Senna took the lead as Prost was baulked by backmarkers. Senna took a sensational victory - a record 8th in the season - and a stunning first world championship in a record breaking year (8 victories, 13 pole positions and 3 fastest laps). Prost was understandably miffed - he had scored more points during the year, but the "best 11" rule had favoured Senna. Moreover, as the rivalry between Prost and Senna grew, so did the tensions.
This continued into the 1989 season. The McLarens were nowhere near as dominant as they had been in 1988, but they were still the cars to beat. However, Senna had a difficult year and, although he scored 5 wins to Prost's 4, he had 9 non-points finishes. What's more, the rivalry between he and Prost had descended into open warfare. That year's San Marino Grand Prix was the turning point. Relations between the two men were already frosty, and when Ayrton passed Alain in the race, Prost felt that it broke a pre-race agreement that whoever got to the first corner first would win the race. Prost also felt that Senna was receiving preferential treatment from the team and Honda. This may have helped make his decision to move to Ferrari for 1990 - a decision that angered Ron Dennis, especially when Prost handed his Italian Grand Prix winner's trophy down to the Tifosi rather than hand it over to Ron Dennis. Late in the season, the situation looked dire for Ayrton, and matters were not helped when he was punted out of the Portuguese Grand Prix by Nigel Mansell, who had already been black flagged. If Ayrton stood any chance of taking the title, he had to win the last three races. He duly won the Spanish Grand Prix, and another title showdown was to occur at Suzuka. If Senna won the last two races and Prost came second in both, Senna would win the title (with the "best 11" rule, both drivers would have 78 points, but Senna would have the most victories and would win on a tie-break). In the race, Senna again started from pole, but got a poor start and dropped to third. However, he incessantly hunted down Prost, and on lap 46 attempted an overtaking maneuver on Prost at the tight Casio Triangle chicane. Prost turned in on Senna, and the two collided. Replays from the track side and from the airship showed that Prost turned in around 50 feet before the chicane - to Ron Dennis (who ultimately protested the result of the race) it looked like he had no intention of making the corner, and that it was a deliberate attempt to take Senna out of the race.
Senna was not out of the race though - he received a push start from the marshalls (which was legitimate because he was in a dangerous position on the track), but cut the chicane to rejoin the circuit. With a broken nose cone, he toured around the circuit before coming into the pits for a replacement. He had dropped to second place, but not for long - he soon overhauled Alessandro Nannini to come home first and take the win. Or so he thought. After the race he was disqualified for cutting the chicane. Scoring zero points meant that the title automatically went to Prost. Senna was furious, claiming that he was being sabotaged by the then president of the FIA Jean-Marie Balestre, and that as a Frenchman he was unfairly aiding Prost. But no amount of complaining could help Senna's cause. When the McLaren team protested the disqualification on the grounds that cutting the chicane had resulted in no competitive advantage, they fined the Brazilian $100,000 and suspended his FIA superlicense temporarily.
1990 would prove a better season though. With Prost gone, the McLaren team was a more harmonious place. 6 wins and only 3 non-points finishes set up another title showdown in Suzuka. This time it was Senna who was ahead in the championship though, and Prost had to win to keep his title hopes alive. Senna again qualified on pole, but pole position was on the dirty right hand side of the track. Not wanting to be caught out by a third bad start in as many years at Suzuka, he asked for the pole position slot to be changed to the left hand side of the grid. The officials agreed, but were then overruled by Jean-Marie Balestre. Senna was again furious - yet again he saw his title hopes being compromised by Balestre and what he perceived to be blatant favoritism. And when the race started, the second placed Prost indeed got the better start. Ayrton was having none of it though - he kept his foot on the throttle all the way into turn 1 and when Prost turned in on his normal line, the two collided. Both were instantly out of the race and Senna was champion again. Ayrton would later admit that he had no intention of letting Prost get ahead at the first corner and that either he would be ahead at the first corner or Prost would be in the gravel trap. It turned out to be the latter. It would be a move for which he would receive substantial criticism, but Ayrton felt that he was justified - it was payback for 1989.
1991 was perhaps even more successful for Ayrton. New rules meant that the "best 11" rule was scrapped - all races would count towards the championship. It was a move that would favour reliability, and in the end Ayrton would have only 2 non-points finishes. Furthermore, the number of points for a victory were increased from 9 to 10. He comfortably won the first four races amassing 40 championship points. Title challenger Mansell could only score 6 in the same period. Nevertheless, there was a tight mid-season battle between Senna and Mansell. The V10 Renault engine proved to be a serious challenger to the new Honda V12 unit that McLaren were using. The Williams cars, on occasion, appeared to have the edge over the McLaren as well but the faults in the McLaren car were easily masked by the power of Honda, who seemed to be able to up their power output whenever McLaren demanded more. The Williams was also more technologically sophisticated, but teething troubles with their semi-automatic gearbox saw Mansell score zero points in the first three races. Senna was giving it his all, which sometimes was a little too much - he had a large off in qualifying at Mexico, ending up upside down in the gravel trap at the fast Pereltada corner. He would also run out of fuel on the last lap at Silverstone (although he would still be classified in 4th place). Nigel Mansell graciously stopped to pick up the Brazilian on his victory lap and gave him a ride back to the pits - a legendary moment. In the end, the championship would again come down to a showdown in Suzuka. Mansell needed a win, but Senna had the points advantage. In the race, Mansell closely tailed Senna but on lap 10 he suffered a brake problem and overshot the first corner, beaching his car in the gravel. Senna was champion again. On the last lap he slowed to allow friend and team mate Berger to score his first win for McLaren.
Ayrton was jubilant, but in the post-race press conference he launched an infamous and stinging attack on the departing FIA president Balestre, whom he claimed had stitched him up in 1989, and had tried to do the same in 1990.
1992 was an extremely tough year though. The Williams cars were dominant - they were technologically sophisticated, with active suspension, traction control, and semi-automatic gearboxes - and Ayrton barely got a look in all year. The Renault engine seemed equally as powerful as the Honda power plant, yet being a V10 was smaller and lighter. The McLaren chassis had some serious shortcomings, and it seemed that demanding more power from Honda to compensate simply wasn't working anymore - Honda were contemplating leaving F1 altogether. Mansell won the first five races of the season - a new record - but the sixth race at Monaco was a different story. Mansell was leading comfortably, but late in the race he suffered a puncture and had to pit. This handed the lead to Senna. Mansell had the superior car and superior grip, and rapidly closed down the Brazilian. When he caught him, Senna held him off for 3 laps, with Mansell weaving this way and that, trying to find any way he could past Senna. All Senna had to do was keep his car in the middle of the track and Mansell would not find a way past. And this he did, even brake-checking Mansell on the run from Piscine to Rascasse on the final lap. Senna finally took a brilliant, although lucky, victory.
That would be one of the few high points in the season for Ayrton. His only other victories that season would come at Hungary - the race that Mansell wrapped up the championship - and at Monza, where both Williams cars suffered technical problems (although Patrese would still finish fifth). Even more alarmingly, Ayrton recorded only one pole position in 1992 - at the Canadian Grand Prix. All of this weighed heavily on Ayrton's mind. With the news that Honda were withdrawing from Formula 1, he had a very difficult decision regarding his future. There were few options open in Formula 1 - all the other teams had finalised their 1993 driver line-ups. There was a possibility of an open seat at Williams, but Prost would be joining them in 1993 and he had it written in his contract that Senna could not be his teammate. It was a situation that infuriated Ayrton, and led to yet another outburst, in the post race press conference in Portugual, where he called Prost a coward (which endeared him to Mansell, who had also fallen foul of Prost's machinations).
In the end, the choice came down to continuing with McLaren or retiring. Despite a promising off-season secret test with the Penske Indycar team, Ayrton elected to stay in F1 with McLaren, but only on a race-by-race basis. He turned up for the first race of 1993 - the South African Grand Prix - ostensibly to evaluate the new car. When he came home second to Prost, and the only other car on the lead lap, he was suitably impressed by the McLaren car, and agreed to compete the whole season.
On paper, it looked as though it was going to be a walkover for the Williams cars again. They had the best engines, they had Prost, and they had a very technologically sophisticated car. McLaren had a customer Ford V8 engine that was seriously down on power compared to the big-boys, even compared to the works engines that Benetton were using. However, McLaren had designed a superb car. They had gone back to the drawing board and rather than re-use what had essentially been an evolution of their 1989 car, they started with a clean sheet of paper. What they came up with was a small, light, and agile car with active suspension, traction control, and a semi-automatic gearbox (in fact it would turn out that their system was slightly better than the Williams system). But most importantly of all, they had the brilliant Ayrton Senna. In a season that should have been an absolute cakewalk for Prost, Ayrton took 5 victories and finished second in the championship to Prost. Even though he had a few erratic moments, such as a clash with Martin Brundle at Monza (due to Senna having to overdrive the car at times), it was Senna's swansong year - he comfortably outpaced team mate Andretti, and took memorable victories in Brazil and at Donington, which were both afflicted by inclement weather. It was pure skill, pure genius, and pure determination on the part of Ayrton Senna that took an under-competitive car to the top step of the podium five times. Nevertheless, Ayrton had seen the writing on the wall for McLaren - he signed a contract with Williams for 1994. Rather than be paired with Senna again, Prost decided to retire.
Ayrton Senna's racing exploits were not limited to single seaters and F1. In 1984, he took part in the Race of Champions. By rights. Senna should not have even been competing - he was not an F1 champion at that time, and had in fact only completed three F1 races. He was, however, the reigning Formula 3 champion, although that didn't cut much mustard. However the organiser of the event, Mercedes marketing guru Gerd Kremer, knew Ayrton from his Formula 3 days, and when Emmerson Fittipaldi declined to take part in the event due to commitments at Indianapolis, Kremer used his leverage to get Senna into the race.
The race would be a christening for the new Nurburgring circuit, and all the drivers would be using identical Mercedes 190E cars with 2.3 liter Cosworth engines. There were some incredible names competing that day - Prost, Alan Jones, John Surtees, Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham, Phil Hill, Denny Hulme, Lauda, Hunt, Rosberg, Scheckter, John Watson, Klaus Ludwig and Manfred Schute, amongst others. Prost qualified on pole, only just edging out Senna. When the race came, it was raining at the track was very wet. Senna relished the conditions, and quickly took the lead from Prost (albeit by forcing the Frenchman off the circuit). He then disappeared off into the distance. Admittedly, not all the drivers were taking the event particularly seriously - especially James Hunt - but Senna thrashed everyone that day. It was an absolute driving masterclass by a young rookie that most of the drivers there had never even heard of. They certainly remembered him afterwards. To quote Stirling Moss:
"From that moment he just continued to rise until he got to where he was only equalled, in my opinion, by Fangio".
Two lesser known events that Ayrton competed in were the 1982 "Shell Super Sunbeam for Celebrities" race at Oulton Park. He won, driving a Talbot Sunbeam T1; and the 1984 Nurburgring 1000 kilometers. He would finish 8th, driving a Porsche 956.
Perhaps his most famous extra curricular activity was aiding Honda in their development of the NSX. When Honda decided they wanted to make a supercar to rival the mid-spec Ferraris, they employed the services of three top line drivers - Satoru Nakajima, Bobby Rahal, and Ayrton Senna. The choice of Senna was a natural one - he had developed an excellent rapport with Honda due to their involvement with McLaren, and they valued his technical input, especially on the engine side. It is rumoured that by way of a thank you, Honda gave Senna an NSX, but it's existence has yet to be confirmed.
For the 1994 Season, Ayrton joined the all-conquering Williams team. On paper, it looked like the championship was going to be a mere formality for the Brazilian. However, a lot of the technological sophistication - active suspension, traction control, launch control - had been banned for the 1994 season. As a consequence, a lot of teams were struggling to make their cars work well. Indeed, Ayrton had fears that the sudden removal of the driver aids were going to lead to a lot of accidents and incidents during the year. His fears were borne out early by several accidents in testing, including JJ Lehto and Jean Alesi, who both sustained neck injuries. And, as we now know, there were to be several serious accidents during the year.
Williams, who had gone a long way down the path with active suspension, in particular were struggling for grip at the rear end of their car, whilst at the same time were battling an inconsistent front end. There were reports in the off season that the car was extremely nervous and that it was difficult to handle. It was still an extremely quick car though. When the season opener in Brazil came, Senna put the new FW16 on pole. His race was disappointing though - he lost the lead to Michael Schumacher during refuelling pit stops (which had been reintroduced for 1994), and whilst pushing hard to catch Schumacher, Ayrton spun off and out of the race. As and aside it would later turn out that Benetton had illegally removed a filter from their refuelling rigs which sped up the rate of fuel delivery and enabled them to make shorter pit stops. Ayrton had an even more disappointing race at round 2, in Aidi. He again qualified on pole, but wouldn't make it past the first corner where he was pitched into a spin by Mika Hakkinen, and then rammed by Ferrari stand-in Nicola Larini. In his ten year F1 career, it was his worst ever start to a season - zero points after two races. It was suddenly looking like a tough season for Ayrton, a fact that he acknowledged when he addressed the staff at the Williams factory before the next race.
So came the third round of the 1994 season - the San Marino Grand Prix. The events of that weekend have been well documented, and there is no point in engaging in a lengthy rehashing. In short, it was the blackest weekend in the history of the sport. There was a serious accident on Friday which put a young Rubens Barrichello in hospital. In qualifying on Saturday, young rookie Roland Ratzenberger had a front wing failure going into the extremely fast Villeneuve corner. He slammed into the concrete wall and was killed instantly. Death had returned to the track, 12 years after the tragic death of Riccardo Paletti. The entire F1 paddock was shocked and saddened. Ayrton himself was very upset, and broke down in tears on the shoulder of his good friend Sid Watkins - the FIA's chief medical officer. Watkins advised Ayrton not to race on Sunday. Indeed, he suggested that he retire from racing altogether. Whether he seriously considered this suggestion or not we will never know. And come Sunday, Ayrton lined up on the grid - in pole position.
At the green light, there was a huge start line accident. JJ Lehto had stalled on the grid, and was collected at high speed by Pedro Lamy's Lotus. Lehto's car was obliterated, but thankfully both men walked away. The incident precipitated a safety car period. On lap 6, the cars went back to racing, and Senna led from Michael Schumacher, and by the time they crossed the line to start lap 7 he had opened a small gap. But as Senna negotiated the high speed left-handed Tamburello corner, his car suddenly twitched, and speared off course. Although he managed to brake and downshift twice, scrubbing off some speed, he slammed into the concrete wall at tremendous speed. Ayrton Senna, the greatest driver of his generation, perhaps the greatest driver ever, was killed outright.
The world watched on in shock. The race was stopped (and subsequently restarted), but frankly it had become meaningless. Paramedics rushed to aid the stricken Brazilian, but there was nothing they could do, not even Sid Watkins. Ayrton was airlifted to Maggiore hospital, where he would later be pronounced dead. The debate still rages over whether Senna was killed immediately or died later in hospital, but the end result is the same either way. The only difference was that, under Italian law, had Senna been declared dead at the track, the event would have to be cancelled. The debate over what the actual cause of the accident was also still rages on to this day - was it a broken steering column, or did the car bottom out? Had the car suddenly lost grip, or did Senna simply make a mistake? Whatever the cause, there was a lengthy manslaughter trial against Frank Williams, Patrick Head, and Adrian Newey. All three would be acquitted, but the real cause of the accident was never determined.
In Imola, the news of Senna's death was slow to filter through, perhaps deliberately so. It didn't take a doctor to know the truth though, and when Senna's destroyed Williams car was brought back to the pits, Johhny Herbert took one look at it, shook his head and turned away. By the end of the resumed race, Senna's fate was known. That Michael Schumacher then stood on the top step of the podium smiling and waving is an unforgivable disgrace.
The official results list that Senna retired from the race on lap 5. The cause - fatal accident. That cold, one-line summary cannot even begin to tell the tale of that weekend, nor the life of Ayrton Senna, nor what would happen next in Formula 1.
When the Formula 1 world reconvened at the next race, Monaco - a race that Ayrton had won 6 times and had made his own - the mood was black. Not only had two drivers lost their lives, but young Austrian driver Karl Wendlinger had suffered a serious head injury in practice for the Monaco Grand Prix. Come Sunday, the front row of the grid was left empty, save for a Brazilian and an Austrian flag painted on the ground, to commemorate both Senna and Ratzenberger. There was a minute's silence on the grid, after which Niki Lauda announced the re-formation of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association - a body committed to improving safety in Formula 1. After an incident at San Marino, there was to be a pit lane speed limit for the first time.
From that point onwards, there would be a raft of rule changes designed to slow the cars and improve safety - cars would have to have stepped bottoms to reduce the downforce generated by the underside of the car; engine capacity was reduced from 3.5 liters to 3.0 liters; new safety car procedures were implemented; the size of the front and rear wings were reduced; narrow track cars and grooved tyres were introduced, along with wheel tethers to prevent wheels from flying off in an accident; stronger cars were mandated; new helmets and the HANS device were mandated; new and safer tracks were built, with input from drivers regarding run off areas and tyre barriers; and engine size was reduced further to 2.4 liters.
The legacy of Senna's death, it can be argued, is that safety standards in F1 and across numerous other formulae have improved dramatically. No driver has lost their life in F1 since Senna's death, and the sport has now enjoyed its longest ever period without a fatality. Indeed safety has improved so much that an accident that would have been fatal in 1994 was survivable in 2007: Robert Kubica's massive accident in Montreal was at a similar (actually slightly higher) speed to Senna's accident; both impacted a concrete wall; both impacted at a similarly oblique angle. Yet Robert Kubica suffered nothing more than a concussion and a sprained ankle.
Perhaps the real legacy is of a man who was immensely gifted, supremely fast, highly competitive, yet deeply sensitive. Few have ever achieved as much in their racing careers as he did. His outright record of pole positions stood for 12 years until broken by Michael Schumacher, ironically enough at Imola. Nevertheless, had Ayrton raced in as many Grands Prix as Schumacher, he would have scored 100 pole positions - his poles to starts percentage is bettered only by Jimmy Clark and Juan Manuel Fangio. His record of consecutive pole positions - 8 in a row - still stands; He led a record 19 races from lights to flag; is second in doubles (pole plus win) only to Schumacher; is currently the youngest triple world champion there has been in F1; and is third in all time victories and points scored (behind Schumacher and Prost). Had he continued to race, he surely would have earned more pole positions, won more races, and won more championships.
During his racing career, Ayrton had the reputation of being a very competitive person - someone who was intensely focused and someone who would go to extraordinary lengths to win. That perception would not endear him to a number of drivers, who considered him cocky, arrogant, dangerous, and a liability. None more so than Alain Prost, who would once remark:
"Ayrton has a small problem. He thinks he can't kill himself because he believes in God, and I think that is very dangerous for the other drivers."
He also didn't endear himself to Nigel Mansell. They famously had a coming together at the 1987 Belgian Grand Prix, when Mansell attempted to overtake Senna around the outside of Fagnes on lap 1. Mansell was in the running for a championship, and was furious at what he thought was dangerous driving on the part of Senna. When Mansell retired from the race, he stormed down to the Lotus pit, grabbed Senna by the throat and gave Senna a piece of his mind. Senna of course saw the incident as Mansell's fault, and it was not at all arrogant to think so - many people, especially in hindsight, consider the accident to be Mansell's fault or at least just a racing incident. Nevertheless, Ayrton refused to apologise because he felt he was in the right. That was not a sign of arrogance, it was just a sign of his own self belief.
That self belief stood Ayrton in good stead through the years, even in his early racing career. When he was competing in Formula Ford 2000, he had caught the eye of a number of Formula 1 bosses. He even received an offer from Ron Dennis as early as 1982. But Senna didn't like the terms of the deal - he would be tied to a McLaren sponsored Formula 3 drive, then a McLaren test drive - so he turned Ron down. Again that wasn't arrogance - he just wanted to get into F1 in his own way and on his own terms. He didn't want to have to owe anyone anything, and he wanted to get there on his own merit. Those who knew Ayrton in the early days, including his Formula Ford 2000 boss Dennis Rushen, say that he is misunderstood. He was shy and introverted, and that often gave him the appearance of being cold and withdrawn. However, once people got to know him he opened up and became very warm. Moreover, he was a different person outside a racing car - a fact that seemed to be overlooked by most of his contemporary drivers.
One person with whom he developed a close relationship was legendary photographer Keith Sutton. After a chance meeting early in Ayrton's career, Sutton more-or-less became Senna's personal photographer. They would travel to races together, share a room and, claims Sutton, they would talk about everything. Another close relationship that Senna developed was with Sid Watkins, the chief medical officer for F1. Perhaps Ayrton's closest friend, certainly amongst his contemporary drivers, was Gerhard Berger. The two became team mates in 1990 at McLaren, and good personal friends. Berger was one of the last people to see Ayrton "alive" - he visited him in hospital after the accident and was allowed a few private moments with Ayrton, although by that point Ayrton was merely being kept alive by machinery. The loss of his good friend had a profound impact on Gerhard, who admitted that it was a struggle to find the strength to continue racing.
Outside of racing, Ayrton always enjoyed a good relationship with his family, especially his sister and his mother. He was close to his father as well. His father was funding Ayrton's early racing career - Ayrton had competed in Europe in several Kart races, including the World Championship. It was at the end of the 1980 season that his father Milton asked him to return home and join the family business. Ayrton agreed out of respect and duty. He didn't want to go against his father's wishes. Ayrton enrolled in a business school, but soon quit - ultimately his passion and desire won out and when he decided he wanted to move to England to continue his motor racing career, his father supported his decision.
There was a more difficult and complicated relationship between a young Ayrton and his equally young wife. After making the decision to move to England to further his racing career, Ayrton somehow got it into his head that, in order to succeed in the English system, he needed a wife. So, in the brief period at the end of 1980 in which Ayrton was back in Sao Paulo, he married long-term girlfriend Liliane Souza. The two moved to England together, although neither of them spoke much English. During the season, Ayrton became homesick. So too did Liliane - whereas Ayrton had the racing to occupy his time, she had no friends, couldn't speak the language, and was miserable in their spartan accommodations (she was from a wealthy family, and enjoyed servants at home). So, in the European winter of 1981, they moved back to Brazil (where it was summer). Ayrton again heeded his father's calls to join the family business - Milton felt that Ayrton's career was going nowhere, despite winning 13 of the 18 Formula Ford 1600 races he entered that season. Ayrton pondered his future for 4 months before finally deciding to go back to England to compete in Formula Ford 2000. Initially Milton refused to assist financially, but as soon as Ayrton signed a contract, he relented (on the condition that Ayrton would pay him back). Liliane, on the other hand, was immovable - she would not move back to England with Ayrton. She gave him an ultimatum - if he left for England, she would leave him. The two separated.
Ayrton's love life was somewhat sparse from there onwards. Sometime around 1988 he starting dating Xuxu Menegel - a TV presenter for Globo. The relationship was on and off, and apparently ended sometime in 1992. Nevertheless, she was considered the "official" girlfriend at Ayrton's funeral. This was despite the fact that Ayrton had been dating Brazilian model Adriane Galisteu for over a year. Close friends claim that the two were to be married at the end of the 1994 season.
Whether Ayrton was a romantic person is not known. He was, however, certainly a passionate person. Although shy and frequently introverted, when his buttons were pushed he could become quite fiery. Famous examples include the 1993 Japanese Grand Prix when, outraged at the driving of rookie Eddie Irvine, the two had a swearing match, which culminated in Ayrton punching Irvine in the face; in the pre-race briefing for the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, arch-rival Nelson Piquet suggested that it was dangerous for cars that missed the turn-in to the Casio Triangle chicane to have to turn around to avoid cutting the chicane. When there was a chorus of approval from drivers and officials, Ayrton became very upset - it was that very thing that led to his disqualification from the 1989 race, and subsequent loss of the championship. He vented his frustrations and, close to tears, stormed out of the briefing, despite a valiant attempt by Ron Dennis to get him to stay; later that day he would have an infamous run-in with Jackie Stewart, who was critical of his driving tactics. Ayrton snapped at Jackie, and said that he should never again ask for an interview.
Ayrton could often be emotional and sometimes hot headed. Sid Watkins has recalled an incident when, after a race, Ayrton came to him with neck pains. He was annoyed and a little rude. After Sid had calmed him down, his demeanor changed. "He was ultimately a gentleman" Sid would later say. Ayrton would later apologise to Jackie Stewart, and indeed sought his counsel on a matter that was dear to his heart - safety.
In 1990, Ayrton had been appalled by Martin Donnelly's horrific crash in qualifying at Jerez. Ayrton rushed to the scene of the accident out of concern for Donnelly, but ultimately was powerless to help. He resolved to change this - he asked his friend Sid Watkins for advice on what to do in the event that another driver was seriously hurt and when, in qualifying for the 1992 Belgian Grand Prix, Erik Comas has a massive accident on the approach to the high-speed Blanchimont corner, Ayrton (who was first on the scene) leapt from his car and ran to the aid of the Frenchman. Ayrton showed genuine concern for the well-being of his fellow drivers, as well as his fellow man.
It was not until after his death that Ayrton's extensive charitable work was revealed. In 1993 alone he spent $5 million developing the Senninha project, aimed at educating the children of Brazil on such fundaments as fair play and hard work. Several more millions were spent on projects for children living in poverty. He would be quoted as saying "People have to have a chance, a basic chance at least, for education, nutrition, and medical care. If this does not begin to happen then there is little hope for the future... Formula 1 is nothing compared to those things".
Ayrton Senna was perhaps the most gifted driver of his generation, and one of the all time greats. His death sent a shockwave around the world - countless millions were saddened by his tragic loss, especially in Brazil, a country that adores its sporting heroes. When Brazil won the World Cup in 1994, their on-field celebrations centred on a home-made banner, plucked from the crowd that (in Portuguese) read "Ayrton you will live in out hearts forever". Such was the magnitude of his loss that the largest sporting tournament in the world could include a dedication to his memory. Even the world of NASCAR was touched by his loss - Dale Earnhardt found time to praise him after winning at Talladega the same day Ayrton was killed: "He was a great racer and a great champion".
He was an even greater human being though. Ayrton was deep and thoughtful man, almost philosophical in his outlook. One of the deepest things he ever said is a favourite quote of mine:
"On a given day, a given circumstance, you think you have a limit. And you then go for this limit and you touch this limit, and you think, 'Okay, this is the limit.' As soon as you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly can go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and your experience as well, you can fly very high."
- Ayrton, speaking in 1991
Like many great people, he died before his time. Had he continued racing, he surely would have gone on to more victories and Championships. His loss has left a hole in the psyche of F1 - a hole that perhaps will never be filled. Moreover, he left a hole in the heart of a grieving nation. 161 starts, 65 pole positions, 41 wins. The statistics, however, do not even begin to tell the story of the incredible man that was Ayrton Senna. A testament to his greatness was that during the recovery efforts after his fatal accident, the medics found an unexpected item - an Austrian flag, sadly bloodstained from the accident. Had Senna won the race, and he had every intention of doing so, he would have held the flag aloft on his victory lap to honour the memory of Roland Ratzenberger. It would have been a simple gesture, but it sums up the nature of Ayrton Senna perfectly.