Today in 1994: The crash seen around the world

1994 San Marino Grand Prix flashback: Sunday

Ayrton Senna, Williams, 1994The Santerno river rises in the hills south-west of Imola. It winds its way down for 50 kilometres until it reaches passes the town, which is home to over 68,000 people and to a racing circuit: the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari.

In April 1994 two men, who had raced at the circuit many times before, looked down at the river from the first of the track’s 15 corners: Tamburello. They had been testing their cars at the track, rounding the corner at over 300kph (186mph), and had become concerned about the concrete wall which separated the circuit from the river.

One of the men had crashed at the corner five years earlier. His car exploded into flames, but men with fire extinguishers quickly arrived at the scene and saved his life.

His companion pointed towards the Santerno. “Look,” he said, “we can’t move the wall, there’s a river behind it”.

The two men agreed there was nothing that could be done about the wall. And with that Gerhard Berger and Ayrton Senna walked away.

Tamburello

Tamburello is an innocuous enough word in Italian: it means ‘tambourine’, and is also the name of a court game similar to squash.

But to the Formula One world Tamburello is like Terlamenbocht at Zolder where Gilles Villeneuve died, or the nameless stretch of the Hockenheimring which claimed Jim Clark. It is the place where one of the greatest of them all met an untimely, unthinkable end.

The Imola circuit had been in use for four decades and by the time it held its first world championship race in 1980 a chicane had been inserted before the start/finish line to reduce the speed of the cars as they approached Tamburello.

But the constant improvements in car design had their inevitable effect and by 1994 drivers were tackling the corner at close to maximum speed without a hint of a lift on the throttle as their cars screamed towards the Tosa hairpin.

It was uncommon to see anyone struggle in the corner unless they were unlucky enough to suffer a technical failure there. When that happened, the consequences were often fearful.

In 1987 a suspected tyre failure sent Nelson Piquet’s Williams into the Tamburello wall, leaving him with concussion and forcing him to miss the race. Then came Berger’s crash in 1989, caused by front wing failure.

Two years later the same happened to Michele Alboreto, who was hospitalised with broken ribs and a deep gash. In 1992 a second Williams driver, Riccardo Patrese, was taken to hospital after crashing at the corner during testing – again a tyre failure was to blame.

Senna

Ayrton Senna, Williams, 1994The subject of safety had been a growing concern of Senna’s for several years. He had befriended Professor Sid Watkins, taken an interest in his work and had a heart-to-heart talk with him following Ratzenberger’s death.

At the drivers’ meeting, held at 11 o’clock on the morning of the race, Berger led the drivers in raising a complaint about the use of a course car to lead the field on the formation lap at the previous race.

He did so at Senna’s urging, as both believed the car was too slow and prevented drivers from being able to get their tyres up to temperature. The decision was taken not to use the course car for the formation lap.

Before leaving the drivers observed a minute’s silence in memory of Ratzenberger. Some of the more experienced drivers had witnessed fatalities before – including Martin Brundle, Michele Alboreto and Andrea de Cesaris. Senna himself had competed in a support race at Zolder in 1982 on the same weekend Gilles Villeneuve was killed. For many others the shock hit them all the harder for being unfamiliar.

While increasingly concerned with safety matters, Senna’s impulse to compete spurred him on, and that side of his life presented him with further challenges. He had agonised over his switch from McLaren to Williams at the beginning of the year, and was still acclimatising to his new environment.

Against expectations Williams had begun the season on the back foot. The FW16 handled nervously, and while Senna had tamed its knife-edge handling to claim three pole positions in a row, he went into the third race of the season pointless. He’d spun out in Brazil and been eliminated at the first corner in Japan – and on both occasions he’d been running second to Michael Schumacher.

Designer Adrian Newey produced a heavily revised FW16 for Imola. The front wing was raised, its wheelbase shortened and the cockpit reshaped to reduce buffeting.

Out on the track, Senna had another spin in the car. He returned to the garage and debriefed race engineer David Brown with the words no one in the team wanted to hear: “It’s worse…”

In contrast Schumacher arrived in Italy with 20 points on the board. Benetton had ironed out many of their problems with their B194 which they had started testing a month earlier than Williams, and seemed to have sussed the new variable of refuelling far better than Williams.

Still Senna suspected there was more to it than that. Watching Schumacher’s Benetton in action in Japan he had become convinced the car was using an illegal traction control system. Ahead of the race, Williams stationed commercial manager Richard West on the roof of their garage to film Schumacher’s start in a bid to gather evidence.

1994 San Marino Grand Prix grid

Almost unnoticed amid the dire events of the previous day, JJ Lehto had made an encouraging return to racing in his first event of the year after being injured in testing. He qualified his Benetton on the third row of the grid, within a second of team mate Schumacher.

The crowd was pleased to find both of their beloved Ferraris within the first three rows. The V12-engined cars were quickest of all through the Tosa speed trap, hitting 334kph (208mph), and had achieved their best combined qualifying performance of the year so far.

The carnage of the preceding days left a single car each from Jordan, Simtek and Pacific on the grid, belonging to De Cesaris, David Brabham and Bertrand Gachot respectively.

1. Ayrton Senna 1’21.548
Williams-Renault
2. Michael Schumacher 1’21.885
Benetton-Ford
3. Gerhard Berger 1’22.113
Ferrari
4. Damon Hill 1’22.168
Williams-Renault
5. JJ Lehto 1’22.717
Benetton-Ford
6. Nicola Larini 1’22.841
Ferrari
7. Heinz-Harald Frentzen 1’23.119
Sauber-Mercedes
8. Mika Hakkinen 1’23.140
McLaren-Peugeot
9. Ukyo Katayama 1’23.322
Tyrrell-Yamaha
10. Karl Wendlinger 1’23.347
Sauber-Mercedes
11. Gianni Morbidelli 1’23.663
Footwork-Ford
12. Mark Blundell 1’23.703
Tyrrell-Yamaha
13. Martin Brundle 1’23.858
McLaren-Peugeot
14. Pierluigi Martini 1’24.078
Minardi-Ford
15. Michele Alboreto 1’24.276
Minardi-Ford
16. Christian Fittipaldi 1’24.472
Footwork-Ford
17. Eric Bernard 1’24.678
Ligier-Renault
18. Erik Comas 1’24.852
Larrousse-Ford
19. Olivier Panis 1’24.996
Ligier-Renault
20. Johnny Herbert 1’25.114
Lotus-Mugen-Honda
21. Andrea de Cesaris 1’25.234
Jordan-Hart
22. Pedro Lamy 1’25.295
Lotus-Mugen-Honda
23. Olivier Beretta 1’25.991
Larrousse-Ford
24. David Brabham 1’26.817
Simtek-Ford
25. Bertrand Gachot 1’27.143
Pacific-Ilmor

Did not qualify:

Paul Belmondo, Pacific-Ilmor – 1’27.881
Rubens Barrichello, Jordan-Hart – 14’57.323

Did not start:

Roland Ratzenberger, Simtek-Ford – 1’27.584

1994 San Marino Grand Prix

Ayrton Senna, Imola, Williams, 1994While Williams’ covert cameraman was focused on the back of one Benetton as the race started, the other failed to move at all. Car after car missed JJ Lehto but Pedro Lamy was not so fortunate.

The Lotus driver had started 17 places further back and didn’t see the Benetton until he pulled out to pass De Cesaris. His car slammed into the Benetton and an explosion of shrapnel burst into the air. Some of it cleared the debris barrier and nine spectators were injured, one seriously.

While wrecked cars were cleared away the Safety Car was summoned. This came as a surprise to most onlookers – the Safety Car was still novel in F1 20 years ago, the idea having been borrowed from IndyCar racing not long previously. And start-line accidents such as this one had normally prompted a stoppage of the race so the track could be cleared of debris.

Max Angelelli was at the wheel of the Opel Vectra which now headed the field, and the Italian Formula Three champion was no doubt driving close to the limit of the car’s abilities. But he was doing one laps in the time it took F1 cars to do two, and Senna drew alongside in a vain attempt to urge the car to move faster.

Angelelli headed for the pits at the end of the fifth lap. Senna’s race engineer David Brown told him the Safety Car was coming in and he radioed back an acknowledgement. It was the last the team heard from him.

The crash

http://youtu.be/5HMyXsXeEMU?t=1m27s

Senna had said in a pre-race interview he didn’t enjoy how the reintroduction of refuelling that year had turned races into a series of sprints. Previously drivers had to manage heavy fuel loads in the early stages of the race, preserving their cars while their handling gradually improved.

Senna led at the restart and Schumacher gave chase. The Benetton driver was scheduled to pit three times and so his car would have been lighter than Senna’s, which was due to make two stops.

Rounding Tamburello once more at full speed Senna hugged the inside of the corner, a stream of sparks flying from the rear of his car, the largest plume appearing as he left the third dark patch of resurfaced tarmac in the middle of the corner.

It was on that same patch of tarmac where, one lap later, Senna’s Williams inexplicably snapped out of control. Theories of varying credibility for what happened in this moment abound, but what is known was that Senna was trying to regain control of the car until the moment of impact.

While millions of people around the world witnessed what happened next, Schumacher had the clearest view of what unfolded at Tamburello on lap seven.

“I saw that Senna’s car was already touching [the ground] quite a lot at the back on the lap before,” he said after the race. “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 skids, went a bit sideways, and he just lost it.”

Senna had enough time to get onto the brakes and reduce his speed to 217kph (135mph). Drivers had survived accidents at higher speeds – it was Senna’s misfortune to be struck by a flying piece of suspension which inflicted a fatal head injury.

That much was clear to Professor Sid Watkins when he arrived at the scene. Just hours earlier he had suggested his friend walk away from the sport, telling him “I don’t think the risk is worth continuing”. The race was stopped and the medical helicopter landed next to the crash scene, waiting to carry Senna away as it had done for Ratzenberger 24 hours earlier.

Amid the chaos and confusion Erik Comas, who had pitted on the first lap, was accidentally released from the pits and came around Tamburello at speed, braking to a stop as he reached the crash scene. He parked his Larrousse facing the helicopter, and could see the medical team working on Sennas’s grievously wounded body.

Two years earlier Senna had come to his aid when Comas had crashed at Spa-Francorchamps. Now he felt powerless to help the man he felt had helped save his life. Comas eventually returned to the pits and took no further part in the race.

As was the case following Ratzenberger’s crash, those watching on television were spared none of the horror. The intrusive and upsetting coverage of the dying minutes of the sport’s most famous driver, appalled and transfixed 200 million viewers worldwide.

Those in the UK watching the race on the BBC were spared the graphic coverage of the accident aftermath. By sheer chance the British broadcaster had chosen the race to bring their own camera to film material in the pit lane for the first time, and so were able to supply alternative footage.

Eventually Senna was put in the helicopter and flown to Maggiore hospital in Bologna. And now, to the surprise of some, the race would continue.

Before the deaths of 1994 Bernie Ecclestone had said a race would be resumed in the event of another fatal accident. Now the contingency plan was being enacted, just as it had after Ricardo Paletti’s death 12 years earlier.

Ecclestone had arrived in race control to impose some order on a chaotic scene. He was given an update on Senna’s conditions from Watkins via the FIA’s press delegate Martin Whitaker, which Ecclestone passed on to Senna’s brother Leonardo. But somewhere along the line Watkins’ report that Senna’s injuries were to his ‘head’ was confused with the word ‘dead’.

Understandably distraught, Leonardo’s grief multiplied as Ecclestone’s original report was corrected, and he was further upset when he learned the race would resume.

The race restarts

In the Benetton hospitality suite, a weeping Schumacher initially told his manager Willi Weber he did not want to race any more. But when the call to resume the race was given, all the drivers bar Comas returned to the grid.

The cars headed around the track on another formation lap. Twice they passed the places where their comrades had fallen – the scarred wall where Ratzenberger had crashed, the bloodstained ground where Senna’s car came to a stop.

If anyone at Williams was still paying attention to how good Schumacher’s starts were, they would have seen him get beaten off the line by Berger, whose V12 out-gunned the Benetton’s Ford V8 on the long drag to Tosa.

While waiting for the restart, Berger noticed he had incurred heavy damage to his front suspension after striking a piece of debris from the Senna crash. It was repaired in time for the restart and he led the first 11 laps.

Of all the drivers on the grid, Berger had the closest connections to Senna, his friend and former McLaren team mate, and to Ratzenberger, his fellow Austrian. This understandably weighed heavily on his mind, and when his car’s handling began to deteriorate due to a broken rear shock absorber he pitted from the lead and retired.

Like Brabham, Hill bravely chose to continue despite his team mate’s serious and unexplained accident. Williams had seen Senna’s broken steering column lying next to the car and took the precaution of disabling the power steering system on Hill’s car.

He also made a good start and lunged down the inside of Schumacher at Tosa on the first lap. The pair made contact and Hill slipped back with a broken front wing which was remedied in the pits soon afterwards.

As the cars could not be topped up with fuel on the grid, Schumacher arrived in the pits for his first of three scheduled refuelling stops just a few laps later. Berger retired soon after and that handed the lead of the race to Mika Hakkinen, for the first time in his career.

It was only ever going to be a temporary situation before Schumacher strode past on his way to a third consecutive victory. But it was joyless triumph, and on this dark day for the sport Nicola Larini also had no cause for cheer despite taking second place, achieving his first podium finish – and the last to date for an Italian in a Ferrari.

In a weekend which had delivered one nasty shock after another, the final trauma occurred on the 44th lap of the combined two-part race. Michele Alboreto, who had not been on the grid for the original start, was accelerating from his pit box when the right-rear wheel separated from his Minardi.

As there was no pit lane speed limit at the time the wheel hurtled from the car, striking three Ferrari mechanics and one from Lotus, before bouncing across the track where it was fortunately not collected by another driver.

Shortly afterwards the sole Jordan of de Cesaris became the last retirement of the race when he crashed at the exit of Tosa. Brabham had already parked his Simtek after feeling a problem develop in his steering.

Christian Fittipaldi lost a likely points finish after a brake failure on his Arrows four laps from home. That allowed Hill to claim the final point after recovering from his troubled restart.

The result was decided on an aggregate of the first five laps prior to Senna’s crash and the subsequent 53-lap race, which further added to the confusion. Schumacher, Larini and Hakkinen attended a sombre podium ceremony.

1994 San Marino Grand Prix result

Pos. No. Driver Team Laps Time/gap/reason
1 5 Michael Schumacher Benetton-Ford 58 1:28’28.642
2 27 Nicola Larini Ferrari 58 54.942
3 7 Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Peugeot 58 1’10.679
4 29 Karl Wendlinger Sauber-Mercedes 58 1’13.658
5 3 Ukyo Katayama Tyrrell-Yamaha 57 1 lap
6 0 Damon Hill Williams-Renault 57 1 lap
7 30 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Sauber-Mercedes 57 1 lap
8 8 Martin Brundle McLaren-Peugeot 57 1 lap
9 4 Mark Blundell Tyrrell-Yamaha 56 2 laps
10 12 Johnny Herbert Lotus-Mugen-Honda 56 2 laps
11 26 Olivier Panis Ligier-Renault 56 2 laps
12 25 Eric Bernard Ligier-Renault 55 3 laps
13 9 Christian Fittipaldi Footwork-Ford Brakes
15 Andrea de Cesaris Jordan-Hart Accident
24 Michele Alboreto Minardi-Ford Wheel
10 Gianni Morbidelli Footwork-Ford Engine
23 Pierluigi Martini Minardi-Ford Accident
31 David Brabham Simtek-Ford Accident
34 Bertrand Gachot Pacific-Ilmor Engine
19 Olivier Beretta Larrousse-Ford Engine
28 Gerhard Berger Ferrari Suspension
2 Ayrton Senna Williams-Renault Accident
20 Erik Comas Larrousse-Ford Vibration
6 JJ Lehto Benetton-Ford Accident
11 Pedro Lamy Lotus-Mugen-Honda Accident
32 Roland Ratzenberger Simtek-Ford Did not start

An Austrian flag

Ayrton Senna, Williams, 1994During the race news filtered through about the seriousness of Senna’s condition. But it wasn’t until 6:40pm that the organisers confirmed the staggering news that he had succumbed to his injuries.

An earthquake had struck the motorsport world, and the tremors were soon felt far beyond the perimeter of the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari.

Jackie Stewart and son Paul gathered around a television monitor at Silverstone where their F3 team was competing. Not far away at the Rye House kart circuit at Hoddesdon, nine-year-old Lewis Hamilton cried when his father told him his hero was dead. Across the Atlantic in Michigan Emerson Fittipaldi, Brazil’s first world champion, was called in from a test to be given the dreadful news about his countryman.

The shattered remains of Senna’s FW16 was sealed in the garage. Marshals had recovered a small Austrian flag from the cockpit, which Senna had hoped to wave in memory of Ratzenberger after the race.

Fatalities in motor racing did not end with the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at Imola 20 years ago. But this was the moment which prompted the sport to proactively seek new areas for safety improvement, instead of waiting for the next tragedy to point out where improvements needed to be made.

Seventeen years later Berger reflected on his fateful conversation with Senna in an interview with Maurice Hamilton. “Instead of looking at the bigger picture and thinking about adding a chicane, we were just thinking how we could move the wall,” he said.

“I remember we talked about this at the exact place where Ayrton died. I think about this a lot.”

In the days that followed Imola Formula One came under unparalleled media scrutiny. The deaths of Senna and Ratzenberger headed news bulletins and filled front pages worldwide.

The inevitable questions of why the crashes happened and how the fatalities could have been prevented eventually forced the sport to take drastic measures. But as the teams departed Imola there was only deep, numbing shock as they left behind two of the drivers who had gone there with them.

Images © Williams/LAT

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104 comments on Today in 1994: The crash seen around the world

1 2 3
  1. Sam (@) said on 1st May 2014, 13:10

    What I will never understand though is why the race went on after Roland his accident. I often wonder whether it would be even thought about had Senna been the first casualty instead of Ratzenberger.

    Nice article.

    • Tiago Sá said on 1st May 2014, 13:42

      One thing ALL F1 deaths serve as a reminder of is…. The show must go on.

      It’s a sad, sad thing, but that’s unfortunately how it is. I still thing Roger Williamson’s death was a much more glaring example of this syndrome, but Senna’s was also pretty sad, even though they didn’t know he died right away.

      • Jonathan189 (@jonathan189) said on 2nd May 2014, 11:01

        It’s a myth that ‘the show must go on’. Actors say that when one of the other actors is ill, not when one of the other actors has just died on stage during the play.

        It was a callous decision to resume the race. It tells you everything you really need to know about Bernie Ecclestone.

    • Shrieker (@shrieker) said on 1st May 2014, 13:49

      Money. The race carried on even when it was obvious that Senna would not survive. A quote from Prof. Watkins claimed there was just too much blood from Senna’s head injury when they removed the helmet.

    • maarten.f1 (@maarten-f1) said on 1st May 2014, 15:40

      @ardenflo What I wonder is what would happen today. Back then things were different; news didn’t travel as fast as it does now, and people couldn’t voice their opinions as much (or as easy) as they can do now (using Twitter, FB, etc.). If something like that were to happen today, and they restarted the race, I’m sure the outrage would be huge and immediate through the Internet.

      Money might’ve been the primary force to go on with this, but the drivers chose to go out as well. Perhaps they were pressured by their teams (we’ll probably never know), or perhaps they’re just fearless creatures who will go out regardless of what happens.

      • BasCB (@bascb) said on 1st May 2014, 17:10

        One would like ti think that nowadays its inconceivable that a race would just go on like that. But then again, think about Wheldon dying on track only a couple of years back and how long a discussion it was before the Indycar series decided that indeed they would call of the race.

        • Carlitox (@carlitox) said on 1st May 2014, 18:16

          But they did call it off, and more importantly they informed the drivers before the press and asked them whether they wanted to carry on or not. That is something Bernie would never do.

          • American F1 said on 1st May 2014, 19:48

            What about le Mans last year? The race went on even after Allan Simonsen crashed and later died, though that was after he had been taken to the hospital.

          • matt90 (@matt90) said on 1st May 2014, 19:53

            I suppose it’s different when a race is that long and almost a stand-alone event (I know it’s part of the WEC now, but it’s one of the few races that’s ‘bigger’ than the championship it is a part of).

        • Chad (@chaddy) said on 1st May 2014, 19:29

          I think the real change between then and now is that fatalities are much more rare, and so drivers don’t feel they are accepting as much risk as drivers used to (and they aren’t). So in the past when someone died, the drivers were a little more used to it, and could be a little more cowboy about continuing on. They would be shocked and upset to lose a friend and colleague, but may not think so much about their own mortality. If someone died at a race this year, I think the shock would be great to the drivers on a personal level, and they would not want to continue and put ‘racing’ above their lives or the ‘memory’ of the departed. Increased safety means the sport can be about more than just driving despite the costs.

  2. soundscape (@soundscape) said on 1st May 2014, 13:24

    I’m not sure if it was your intention @keithcollantine, but under “The Crash”, the video you’ve linked is not of the crash at all.

  3. Magnificent Geoffrey (@magnificent-geoffrey) said on 1st May 2014, 13:31

    To illustrate the impact of the Senna’s death on the world of motorsport, here’s a video of the NASCAR Winston 500 that took place later that day in which commentators and race winner Dale Earnhardt Snr (who himself would later be killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500) pay tribute to Senna.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iq6mVAXegyw

    • Robert Raponi (@98skater) said on 1st May 2014, 14:00

      I remember watching this. I gained a lot of respect for Dale Earnhardt that day. He paid his respects without any prompting as he held his young daughter in his arms. He had just won his race but took time to pay his respects to Ayrton.

    • GeeMac (@geemac) said on 1st May 2014, 14:53

      That was the main reason why he was my favorite NASCAR driver. That fact that he was brilliant was completely beside the point. ;)

    • craig-o (@craig-o) said on 1st May 2014, 15:50

      I had barely even heard of the guy before seeing that video but I have to praise his actions that day. You just have to see the amount of corners around the world named after Senna to see his impact worldwide on motorsports.

    • Gman said on 1st May 2014, 18:31

      Thanks for sharing that, Geoffrey. I had seen that same clip and it is a chilling reminder of how many similarities there are between the careers of Senna and Earnhardt. Two of the giants of motorsport, taken far too soon.

    • cjpdk (@cjpdk) said on 1st May 2014, 19:02

      Watching that video of Earnhardt, I was really glad he didn’t say “I hope I never have an accident like that”, or something like that. That would have made that video absolutely horrible.

      RIP Senna. RIP Earnhardt.

  4. KimiFTW said on 1st May 2014, 13:35

    * But he was doing two laps in the time it took F1 cars to do two

    I dont call that slow for a Vectra, thats F1 speed :)

  5. HUHHII (@huhhii) said on 1st May 2014, 13:39

    I think today is a good day to watch Senna the documentary, haven’t seen it before.
    R.I.P. Roland, Ayrton and all the others who have lost their lives in motorsports.

    • Hamilfan (@hamilfan) said on 1st May 2014, 17:14

      You might feel close to tears if you are a super fan . I didn’t even know of him when I watched it , but felt very sad .

      • luc said on 1st May 2014, 19:51

        I know exactly what you mean, that’s when I became a fan, even though I was only 2 years old when he past..

    • Chad (@chaddy) said on 1st May 2014, 19:31

      If you have Netflix, it’s here
      http://www.netflix.com/WiMovie/70170051
      Phenomenal movie. What a legend

      • HUHHII (@huhhii) said on 2nd May 2014, 10:21

        @chaddy Thank you, I actually watched it on Netflix. It wasn’t available on my country’s Netflix, but luckily there are ways to avoid those IP-based restrictions.

        What a fantastic movie it turned out to be. I’m not a movie guy at all and prefer reading a book or listening a concept album rather than watching a movie, but this one was really well made. I nearly bursted into tears while watching it. Really well done.

  6. Pandaslap (@pandaslap) said on 1st May 2014, 13:45

    Excellent article @keithcollantine

    Over the last few days, I’ve been reading a lot of the press about Imola 1994 and I believe your series covered it the best.

  7. WilliamB (@william-brierty) said on 1st May 2014, 13:49

    Today marks twenty years since what was very possibly the worst day of my life. And yet, I have not felt sad this week, and instead I have enjoyed the chance to reminisce about the great man in reading and watching the many tributes. That said, I can only think that it has simply become “trendy” among journalists to try and find a new answer to the question: who is the greatest F1 driver ever? In Sky Sport’s journalist Senna “tribute”, which essentially consisted of saying they “didn’t like” Senna and Lazenby looking utterly confused through the numerous and excruciating anecdotes of Senna’s death (no, not life), Murray Walker, David Tremayne and Maurice Hamilton answered “no” to the question of whether Ayrton was the greatest. In spite of that, all three failed to justify their choice beyond the irrelevant and unsatisfactory remark that he ran Prost off the road in 1990. Schumacher, Prost, Fangio, Lauda and particularly Clark all pose excellent alternatives to Senna, but for me all of them fall short…

    As someone who has had the true privilege of standing beside the racetrack as Ayrton danced past, I can say with all confidence that Senna’s is the talent that would translate best into every era in F1 history. Whether it is 1990, 1970, 2010 or even 1950, Senna in a competitive car would translate into championship success: of that I’m certain. And we must not only admire him for his unrivalled on-track prowess, and remember that gave over $400 million of his own wealth to good causes, and that he is the one that took F1’s appeal global with his huge Brazilian and Japanese fan bases. Through Ayrton, both in his global appeal and in the safety gains triggered by his death, F1 moved into the modern era, and went from the European, even elitist sport that it was in the early 1980s, to the highly accessible and above all safe sport that it is now.

    A rose tinted life? Quite possibly. Ayrton was unquestionably over-simplistic in his politics of fairness, believing that something that something he deemed to be unfair gave him the justification to neutralize the balance à la Suzuka ’90. But does that infringe upon a) his peerless driving ability or b) the rich legacy he left for the motorsport community? Not even slightly…

    • Lucas Wilson (@full-throttle-f1) said on 1st May 2014, 13:51

      COTD my friend :-)

    • UnitedKingdomRacing (@unitedkingdomracing) said on 1st May 2014, 14:21

      Fantastic comment indeed.
      As you mentioned Sky’s coverage, am I wrong or did they cut out the line about dying a thousand times out of their intro song for this week?

      • WilliamB (@william-brierty) said on 1st May 2014, 15:09

        @unitedkingdomracing – They did. I noticed it at the time and I couldn’t help but think what a trivial thing to do. If Sky are so concerned by at maximum a smattering of complaints that would have potentially, if inprobably, come about had they not altered the title sequence, they should probably do something about the extortionate price of their services, their terrible customer service, etc.

        • Jake (@jleigh) said on 1st May 2014, 15:20

          I though that, but actually, in the normal title sequence the bit they have cut out is “lived a thousand lives”. I really don’t understand why they’ve taken that out. I would regard that as a quote perfectly fitting for Senna.

          • WilliamB (@william-brierty) said on 1st May 2014, 15:25

            @jleigh – Sky – Your Home of Consistently Terrible Decisions

          • UnitedKingdomRacing (@unitedkingdomracing) said on 1st May 2014, 15:44

            You are actually right. Because Alistair Griffin changed the lyrics when Sky started using the song in 2012. The thing is I know the original version of the song the BBC used in 2010 much better therefore I thought this line might be the reason but as you pointed out there is no reason to cut out such a line.

          • Max Jacobson (@vettel1) said on 1st May 2014, 23:32

            @jleigh I hated it. It was so blatant and actually drew attention to the lyrics, which is otherwise slightly innocuous.

            In fact, the change from “died” to “lived” in itself was one I was not particularly fond of, as it was simple political paranoia. I also frowned upon it simply because I like the song in it’s original iteration.

    • matt90 (@matt90) said on 1st May 2014, 14:29

      Although this is a great comment, I don’t think you can blame people who hold Suzuka against him. I don’t see why it’s irrelevant.

      • WilliamB (@william-brierty) said on 1st May 2014, 15:03

        @matt90 – You misunderstand me, I think running Prost off the road in 1990 was an irresponsible and frankly stupid thing to do on the behalf of Ayrton, I simply don’t think it even approaches outweighing what he gave the sport: a global audience, safety, an icon. He all gave F1 the fuel of the modern era: controversy. What has strangely never been addressed by the many books that fruitlessly try to capture Senna’s hugely complex personality in a sharp sentence is how he viewed “fairness”. In 1990 he felt the situation was unfair, and his personal politics, you could argue wrongly told him that he had the justification to redress the balance. With Senna it is all about balance, whether it be on-track or off track, as seen with his huge charity donations, Senna appears to be trying to restore some form of neutral balance. Ultimately he was a flawed genius; compromised both by an all too idealistic view of balance and by the irrationality that ambition breeds. The latter is also true, arguably, of Schumacher (Europe ’94, Jerez ’97, Monaco ’06), of Alonso (Hungary ’07) and of Vettel (Malaysia ’13): are they not still great champions because of that?

        • matt90 (@matt90) said on 1st May 2014, 15:14

          Certainly. But it seems like a fair enough reason for a journalist to pick somebody like Clark or Fangio over Senna as the greatest. That is a personal choice, the criteria for which are entirely subjective.

          • WilliamB (@william-brierty) said on 1st May 2014, 15:19

            @matt90 – Me saying “I think Senna is the best driver because…” is not me saying “Everyone that doesn’t think Senna is the best is wrong…”, my only qualm is that neither Walker, Tremayne or Hamilton properly justified why they ruled Senna out.

          • matt90 (@matt90) said on 1st May 2014, 15:59

            is not me saying “Everyone that doesn’t think Senna is the best is wrong…”

            I’m not saying it is.

            neither Walker, Tremayne or Hamilton properly justified why they ruled Senna out.

            But you said they did justify it- by using Suzuka as an example for why. But you make it seem like you don’t think that’s a valid reason.

          • WilliamB (@william-brierty) said on 1st May 2014, 16:13

            @matt90 – No, I don’t think that’s a valid argument versus other things he achieved. It’s the University essay test, the lecturer may not agree with your argument, but you get marks, hopefully, for a valid argument, and I don’t think that argument is remotely convincing. OK, they did justify their argument, but not adequately.

          • matt90 (@matt90) said on 1st May 2014, 17:29

            That makes no sense to me. If they chose their greatest driver as being somebody with an equally sketchy record, fair enough- that would indeed be flawed. But you said yourself, it was an irresponsible and frankly stupid thing to do. So fair enough if that detracts from the man enough for some people to place him below other great drivers who didn’t have that streak in them when considering their greatest driver- to them the ‘greatest’ driver might be above those things, and Senna was not. Finding it irrelevant when forming your opinion of him is perfectly fine. But it seems odd and unfair to fail to see how that could be important for others when forming

            their

            opinions, which are perfectly entitled to place a higher value on criteria such as the driver’s behaviour to others on track .

          • matt90 (@matt90) said on 1st May 2014, 17:31

            Oops, should have been italics rather than blockquote.

          • WilliamB (@william-brierty) said on 1st May 2014, 19:32

            @matt90 – I simply feel it is not correct or valid to ignore Senna purely on the basis of Suzuka 1990 – does that sufficiently detract from a) his skill as a driver and b) his contributions to F1 more broadly? For me it simply can’t, and would be like denouncing Alonso’s skill on the basis of his poor and fractious 2007 season, or claiming that Vettel is the world’s best because he managed a podium from the Abu Dhabi pitlane in 2012. Whilst I accept that the criteria by which anyone decides who they think is the best is deeply personal, hinging an argument on a single incident is plain erroneous: that doesn’t mean that their opinion is wrong, simply poorly justified. Had David Tremayne said that Clark was a more organic talent than Senna in that he didn’t have a wealthy Brazilian family supporting his talent, and had Murray Walker (who tends to choose Fangio as his best driver) said that Fangio had shown greater commitment to motor-racing in driving in such a dangerous era, both would have made perfectly valid arguments. So whilst Suzuka 1990 was one of the most significant incidents in F1 history, I can’t help but envisage the red flag of invalidity when someone tries to suggest that outweighs Senna’s contributions to F1 over the course of his ten year career.

          • matt90 (@matt90) said on 1st May 2014, 19:47

            does that sufficiently detract from a) his skill as a driver and b) his contributions to F1 more broadly?

            No, but other people rate a driver on more than those 2 factors. I’m sorry but you’re wrong. It is perfectly valid to have one incident colour your impression of somebody.

            hinging an argument on a single incident is plain erroneous

            So how many reasons should they have for saying they don’t rate him as the best? Would Suzuka and one other similar incident be enough? Suzuka and one completely different incident or general quality? More than two reasons? If their choice is close between 2 drivers, it’s almost inevitable that a single incident could make the difference.

            Senna was known to be an unforgiving racer anyway, some might even say too aggressive- that’s a pretty major quality which can define a persons impression of a driver, and Suzuka provides the ultimate example of that.

          • matt90 (@matt90) said on 1st May 2014, 19:49

            I can’t help but envisage the red flag of invalidity when someone tries to suggest that outweighs Senna’s contributions to F1 over the course of his ten year career

            Not many people do suggest that though. Something detracting from a driver doesn’t mean it outweighs everything else they did.

          • WilliamB (@william-brierty) said on 2nd May 2014, 8:21

            @matt90 – I’m sorry Matt, but that’s ridiculous. If I am to believe you that makes it impossible for me to disagree with the composition and justification of people’s opinions simply because of the personal criteria that people use in forming them. I am providing but one interpretation/response to Tremayne, Walker and Hamilton, and I feel that hinging an argument upon Suzuka 1990 is flawed. Criticizing me for holding such an opinion is every bit as erroneous as calling Tremayne, Walker and Hamilton “wrong” for their opinions.

          • matt90 (@matt90) said on 2nd May 2014, 11:14

            It isn’t. You’re the one selecting which or how many criteria others can use to form an opinion. It makes an awful lot of sense to find that a ridiculous stance. Your logic has a flaw which I haven’t seen you justify with anything- the journalists did.

          • matt90 (@matt90) said on 2nd May 2014, 11:51

            And I’m not saying that you can’t disagree with the composition and justification of an opinion. But you could justify why you do- and I really haven’t seen you give a reason that makes any kind of sense to me. Like I said, you seem to think that one incident, whatever it is, shouldn’t be enough to even influence your opinion of someone. That appears to be crux of why you called it irrelevant originally. So how many incidents or character traits would be enough for you to accept the journalists’ thoughts?

            I’m somebody who doesn’t have a ‘greatest driver’. I wasn’t around to see many of the greats in their time, so I don’t have as strong an emotional connection as others might have. I also find it very difficult to form an opinion when F1 itself has changed so much- comparing different eras is a difficult thing. If push came to shove, I might say Senna. Or Clark. Possibly Fangio, but then I feel I have to consider the brief but brilliant Ascari. But if I ever ere away from Senna, I know that an important part of why is that when I look at the drivers’ most controversial moments, when they were most ‘callous’ (not quite the word I’m looking for), Senna has one which the others don’t. If you’re already struggling between 2 ideas, one big thing like that is enough to rank somebody below another. In the same vein, I found it very difficult to pick a best driver from 2010, as all had a similar amount of great drives and mistakes. All it might have taken was a single incident (either better or worse) and my ranking would likely have changed completely- because choosing between different drivers can be difficult and you can find them surprisingly close when they’re in different cars. At least they didn’t operate in different eras so you could see how they raced around one another on the track.

            I’m not saying that Suzuka outweighs everything else he did. I’ve seen comments from people who didn’t appreciate his entire approach to racing, that they saw him as the bad guy and this was the ultimate example. That isn’t what I’m saying, nor what the journalists said. I’m saying it’s a factor, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t be.

          • matt90 (@matt90) said on 2nd May 2014, 11:53

            ‘ere’ should be ‘err’.

          • WilliamB (@william-brierty) said on 3rd May 2014, 11:45

            @matt90 – I’m terribly sorry I’ve taken so long to reply. Regarding our debate, I am not setting the amount of factors conducive to a convincing argument, it is simply a debating prerequisite to have more than one example to support your case. I’m sure that three highly experienced journalists like Tremayne, Hamilton and Walker all have excellently justified opinions, but on the show none of them explained their position more than elude to the fact that Suzuka 1990 weakened Senna’s case – something I feel was unproportionately dominant in their cases.

            But, as you say, I have yet to explain why I feel it was used umproportionately, and will do thus. Since the retirement of Stewart, F1 found itself for a number of seasons without an icon, a role that Prost, Lauda and Piquet failed to fill. Senna became that icon, and through driving feats that were, even to the most dispassionate eye, quite simply spectacular, F1′s central figure stepped up and the sport’s brand cemented. And yet, this time audience grew not only in Europe, but in South America and Japan: F1 had, for perhaps the first time, become a truly global sport and not the European, even elitist passtime it was formerly. Senna gave F1 an icon, new markets, media controversy and debate (through incidents like Suzuka 1990) and, following his death, a new safety formula. For me it is unfair to profoundly ignore those contributions in favour of a single incident; an incident that was irrational and ill-advised but anchored the Senna-Prost rivalry as one of the greatest sporting rivalries of all time.

            What do want from a “great” F1 driver? An inconic personality? Check. Incredible behind the wheel? Double check. Devotion? Triple check. To contribute to F1? Well, through the factors I’ve mentioned, that is undeniable. And yet, the opinions of the journalists on the show are certainly more justly supported than the show let on, so what we actually have is a case Sky’s trademark awful editing.

          • Jim said on 15th May 2014, 22:26

            The British Motorsports Press hated Senna even when he was alive. For the audacity he showed “our Nige”.

            It’s petty to hear Murray Walker and the other 2 journalists say they didn’t like a man who they then go on to say was probably the most humane GP driver they had ever seen.

    • sonia luff (@sonia54) said on 1st May 2014, 17:20

      For me Jim Clarke is better than Senna due to the fact that he raced Touring cars and various other sports cars at the same time as F1. He also won the Indianapolis 500.

      • matt90 (@matt90) said on 1st May 2014, 17:31

        It’s a shame that virtually all drivers of the last 30-40 years have little opportunity to race multiple categories at once.

      • WilliamB (@william-brierty) said on 1st May 2014, 19:36

        @sonia54 – Jim is a very close second for me: his raw, organic speed is about as close as anyone gets to Ayrton behind the wheel of a racing car.

        • Robbie (@robbie) said on 2nd May 2014, 20:21

          @william-brierty and @matt90 I have had to read both of your comments back and forth a few times to try to figure out who I agree with and I think you both make valid points. Absolutely there is so much more to Senna than one incident in one race, and while the blokes in question ‘dismiss’ Senna as their all-time greatest that doesn’t mean they have no place in their hearts for Senna for his work both on and off the track. I would say too that if they have an issue with Senna for one incident then they must have no use for MS whatsoever. But I think in reality they probably have a soft spot for him too, so I think this must be about more than just Suzuka 1990.

          • WilliamB (@william-brierty) said on 3rd May 2014, 11:59

            @robbie – Some truly splendid points there, Robbie: a more marvelous third party I could not have asked for! You are of course absolutely right when you way all three show a respect for Ayrton, if not a liking, and question his “greatness” whilst not denying his importance. That said, the fact that all three claim to have never particularly liked Senna and then claim that he is not the greatest, having just spent the entire show proclaiming his importance, shows how important personal encounters are when trying to make even the most objective and dispassionate judgement.

  8. Max Jacobson (@vettel1) said on 1st May 2014, 14:20

    Ayrton Senna was one of those few drivers who possessed the influential power to be able to inspire change. His personality was often controversial – his antics morally questionable. But one simply cannot deny his importance to the sport, captivating an interest which to this day has never died. And, to me, that is his most important legacy – he was a prominent figure which drew the sport to the attention of new markets.

    And not to mention his sheer brilliance behind the wheel.

  9. GeeMac (@geemac) said on 1st May 2014, 14:25

    “Oh… and Senna, my goodness.” I’ll never forget those words Murray Walker uttered.

    RIP Ayrton.

  10. Lucien_Todutz (@lucien_todutz) said on 1st May 2014, 14:29

    But he was doing two laps in the time it took F1 cars to do two, and Senna drew alongside in a vain attempt to urge the car to move faster.

    @ Keith Collantine, I think you intended to say “in the time it took F1 cars to do one”. I’m not a grammar Nazi, just a friendly notice.

    Wonderful article. All those that covered the 94 Imola weekend in these few days were great reads.

  11. Nick (@npf1) said on 1st May 2014, 14:40

    I never saw Ayrton race, as I only started following F1 in 1998. When a Dutch F1 magazine ran an article on this weekend, combined with all the great stuff written about him, Senna became a monolithic figure to me, always standing above F1. The drivers I have held in highest regard, Schumacher, Hakkinen, Villeneuve, they all turned out to be very human. But to someone like me, who never witnessed Senna as a person, Senna is a near deity.

    I don’t think I would have been a fan of the driver. But the more I read about the person, the more I feel Brazil and the Senna family were robbed of a great man, rather than F1 of a driving hero. I have not cried many times in my life over someone I’ve never known, but when it comes to Ayrton Senna, sometimes it just gets too much for me.

    Ayrton paid the ultimate price, of which Verstappen (Spa 1996), Schumacher (Silverstone 1999), Firman (Hungary 2003), Kubica (Canada 2007) and many other drivers have benefited massively. I hope that, a generation from now, people won’t debate whether Senna was a fair driver, but remember his legacy in Brazil, and the legacy of the safety measures taken because of his crash.

    I’d also like to spare a thought for Erik Comas. The guy who reasonably thought Senna had saved his life, in a bizarre turn of incidents being sent out to nearly collect the people working on Ayrton. I have a lot of respect for his ability to return to F1 after that, as I can’t even fathom what that must have felt like..

  12. Adz76 (@adz76) said on 1st May 2014, 14:53

    Very good article, although a truly sad week in many respects it’s amazing how much positive energy shines through two decades after losing Roland and Ayrton. Gone but definitely not forgotten. RIP

  13. craig-o (@craig-o) said on 1st May 2014, 15:13

    You hear the term ‘true racer’ and you have to think of Ayrton Senna.

    I don’t feel that he is or was the greatest racing driver of all time. Some of his actions on the circuit certainly does not do any good. Personally I feel that any racing driver that uses his vehicle as a weapon cannot be regarded as the greatest. However, he was probably the fastest driver who has ever lived. Not to mention the excellent work he (and subsequently his sister and now many others) has done in Brazil to help children who have not had the opportunities that other children have had. Many countries could do with their own character with that much charisma and to raise awareness of how things can be sometimes.

    I never got to watch Ayrton race, I was too young to do so. But what Formula One was back in 1997 and in 1998, where names like Damon Hill and David Coulthard were both big names back in that day, and with how the cars and the circuits looked back then, was shaped by the tragic events of that weekend. I never understood why the commentators kept talking about Senna so much until a certain video sharing website came about. I watched a pole position lap of his and I was intrigued buy his ability to drive the car to the very limits of what the car was capable of doing.

    He had and still has a lot of fans around the world. We all enjoy seeing some of his finest drives, like we do with today’s stars, and the stars of before (with what limited footage there is) and the stars of the future too.

    As Alain Prost said, I think the best way to describe Senna is that he was “different”.

  14. Osvaldas31 (@osvaldas31) said on 1st May 2014, 15:16

    Weekend, full of accidents, as if devil himself was there.

  15. Bullfrog (@bullfrog) said on 1st May 2014, 15:44

    Great stuff. I really liked the introduction. Damn that river! A safety inspection consisting of two drivers saying “nope, can’t move the wall” brings home what a different world it was.

    It’s the details I’ve appreciated most about this series: Berger’s suspension damage; Hill’s power steering; the irony of Comas’ situation, and the different fuel loads at the start. Watching video of his last complete lap yesterday (in much clearer pictures than 20 years ago) and knowing what would happen next, it was chilling to see Senna’s car striking so many sparks, but not Schumacher’s.

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