FORMULA One’s focus last week fell on the Italian circuit at Imola where, 20 years ago, the Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna was killed in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. A memorial service was held at the Tamburello corner where the triple world champion’s Williams careered off into a concrete barrier on lap seven at 307kph. He was airlifted to a Bologna hospital but was pronounced dead at 18:40 local time on that May 1 Sunday.
Last week’s ceremony came after a week of commemorative events held to mark the tragic accident that claimed the life of the driver regarded by many as the greatest of all time, and which ushered in a raft of changes to improve F1 safety.
The Senna anniversary is made all the more poignant as another great F1 driver, seven-time champion Michael Schumacher, continues his fight for life after a skiing accident on December 29. Ironically, it was Schumacher who went on to win the Imola race 20 years ago.
All last week emotional tributes were paid to Senna, the 1988, 1990 and 1991 champion.
The stories of Senna’s on-track talent, and his utter determination and all-consuming passion, are well chronicled. Indeed, 161 Grands Prix, 64 pole positions and 87 front-row starts reflect all that. To cap it all off are 42 Grand Prix victories and three world titles.
Senna’s fierce rivalry with McLaren-Honda teammate Alain Prost, concern for drivers’ safety and the humility that was so visible with children and ordinary motor racing fans confirm the passion and personality of a man whose death 20 years ago is still remembered vividly.
That afternoon in 1994 capped a tragic, black weekend at the San Marino Grand Prix, where Senna started his final race from pole position. Saturday’s qualifying had brought the brutal death of Roland Ratzenberger, a shock that sent a shudder of apprehension and misery through an overcrowded paddock.
Friday had seen Senna rush to the bedside of his protégé, Rubens Barrichello, then only 21 and in his second season of Formula One, after he had survived a massive airborne crash during afternoon practice. It was the first huge shock. And Sunday delivered more.
But in this anniversary year, as Honda prepares its comeback, it is Senna the man that many will remember: the smiles, jokes and kindnesses that were a part of his unique charisma, along with the intensity and single-minded passion.
Consumed by passion in racing, Senna embodied that spirit which the greatest champions have always articulated for motor sport. Consumed by compassion, in other parts of his life, he is still remembered by some of us for that most important quality; Senna cared.
Senna’s death prompted extensive changes, including the reform of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association. Engine capacities were reduced and tethers to help prevent wheels flying off following accidents were introduced. The Hans device to protect drivers’ heads and necks were made compulsory, and run-offs were extended and improved.
As evidence that the improvements put in place had worked, the last F1 fatality in a grand prix was Senna.