The debate on who is the best and greatest Formula One driver in history rages on to this day.
The leading contenders are names such as the great Juan Manuel Fangio and 7-time champion Michael Schumacher (who sadly is still in a coma), Alain Prost, Niki Lauda, Mika Hakkinen, Fernando Alonso, Jim Clark, Sebastian Vettel, Jackie Stewart, and a few others are on that list.
One name, however, stands out above all. One name has made a mark that may have been surpassed in terms of statistics but not by sheer skill and determination to win. One name has raced against rivals with a level of ruthlessness and persona that has no apparent equal or heir. One name has had three world titles but was tragically taken in the midst of his prime.
On May 1, 2014, it will have been 20 years to the day since The Man in the Yellow Helmet lost his life at the San Marino Grand Prix, so let's take a few minutes to remember the great career and persona of Ayrton Senna.
The beginnings of a legend
Ayrton Senna de Silva was born on March 21, 1960, to a wealthy Brazilian family. With this, he was blessed to have a privileged upbringing along with his older sister, Viviane, and younger brother, Leonardo. Senna’s passion for racing spurred when his father gave him a go-kart at the age of four. At 13, Senna started racing karts and immediately won the 1977 South American Kart Championship.
After his success in karting, Senna went to England in 1981 to compete in the single-seaters racing in Britain in which he won the RAC and Formula Ford Championships and managed to win three championships, but was forced to go back home in Brazil due to his parents’ request that involves their family business.
Despite the request of his parents, Senna’s love for racing emerged over their family business and he returned to Britain to continue his success in motorsports. The decision of choosing racing over their family business proved to be best for Senna as he won the 1983 British Formula Three Championship that earned him to test with Formula One teams like Williams, McLaren, Brabham, and Toleman.
Skyrocketed to Formula One
In 1984, Senna made his debut in the world of Formula One under Toleman racing. Senna’s first race was the Brazilian Grand Prix in Rio de Janeiro. He scored his first World Championship point in his second race at the South African Grand Prix.
Senna’s driving prowess (particularly his wet driving skills) was first showcased to the world during the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix; a race where he qualified 13th on the grid yet managed to maneuver his Toleman to pass Niki Lauda for the second spot on lap 19. With Senna’s pace, he was able to overtake McLaren’s Alain Prost, but the race was stopped and the overtaking maneuver disregarded as stewards decided to red flag the race a lap earlier. As a result, Senna finished the Monaco Grand Prix behind his soon to be rival Alain Prost. Nevertheless, this was Senna’s first time to enjoy the view from the podium and emerged as an F1 driver destined for greatness.
Senna soon left Toleman because he believed that its resources were inadequate for his ambition to become a World Champion. He moved to Lotus in 1985 and was subsequently able to take pole position in the second race of the season at the Portuguese Grand Prix. In the later part of the season, Senna was able to have five consecutive podium finishes that made him secure the 4th overall spot in championship points. For the next two seasons with Lotus, Senna managed to take home four wins, but after the 1987 season, he moved to join the McLaren team.
Senna’s debut race with McLaren in 1988 at the Brazilian Grand Prix was superb, to say the least as he was to start in pole position, but a gearbox failure forced him to switch to the spare car after the parade lap, prompting him he started from the back of the grid. The wily Senna still managed to maneuver himself to reach second-place at one point during the race but disqualified halfway through due to the car change. With that controversy behind him, Senna went on to win eight races over teammate and rival Alain Prost's seven, giving the Brazilian his first Formula One driver's title.
Prost v Senna
In 1989, a rivalry emerged again between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost because these two McLaren drivers were once again battling for the Formula One World Driver's Championship title. Senna took an early lead in championship points by winning in San Marino, Monaco, and Mexico. The Brazilian driver pushed further by finishing pole position in Germany, Belgium, and Spain. However, the Frenchman took the 1989 world title after a collision with Senna at the Suzuka Circuit in Japan, shattering Senna’s hopes of winning the championship. Senna finished behind Prost with six wins and one second-place podium finish. At the end of the season, Prost would move to Ferrari, pitting the rival drivers in rival cars from rival teams.
Back to back titles
Senna geared up for the 1990 Formula One Championship as he established a commanding lead over his rival Prost and other F1 drivers in terms of points. Senna initially led the 1990 F1 season with six wins. Of course, Prost wouldn’t just let Senna walk away that easy as he came fast to win five races during the final quarter of the season. With this, Senna’s lead over Prost was reduced to just 11 points with two more races remaining – one of which was Japan’s Suzuka Circuit race where the two drivers collided the previous year.
Senna qualified for pole position in Japan. With this, Senna made a request to switch the grid slot of the pole position to the cleaner side of the track, but FIA President Jean-Maire Balestre denied this request. As a result, Senna was placed on the dirty side and Prost on the clean side of the racetrack. Expectedly, Prost got the better start from second place and pulled ahead over Senna but fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony as the Brazilian and the Frenchman collided once again, taking both out of the race. This time it handed the title to Senna and denied Prost the opportunity to win.
The very next year, Senna dominated the field with seven victories, a trio of second place, and a pair of third-place finishes. The 1991 F1 World Driver's Championship was won by Ayrton Senna with a total of 92 points over Nigel Mansell (who would win the title in 1992) by a margin of 24 points.
Frustration sets in
Senna's hopes of a fourth title were dashed in 1992 the McLaren MP4/6B (and later the MP4/7A) were just not as competitive as the Williams cars. As a result, Nigel Mansell clearly won the title over his Williams teammate Riccardo Patrese.
With his disappointing progress in McLaren, Senna supposedly showed interest in joining Williams in 1993, but Prost made it impossible for him to do so because of the contract clause he executed with Williams to prevent Senna from becoming his teammate; an experience from McLaren that the Frenchman did not want to repeat.
There would be no issue with the 1993 F1 championship season as Alain Prost handily won the title with a lead of 26 points over his rival, Ayrton Senna.
The fateful 1994 season
Senna had to wait for another year before he got a chance to drive for Williams following Prost's announcement that he would be retiring after his fourth title. His first race with Williams was in Brazil wherein he managed to qualify pole. However, a then young, up-and-coming driver named Michael Schumacher of Benetton passed him in the pits. From then on, Schumacher established a good lead over Senna for the championship. Known for his desire and passion to win, Senna didn't want to settle for second best so he pushed his Williams in Brazil. He lost control coming out of a turn and was taken out of the race.
The second race of the 1994 F1 season was in Japan for the Pacific Grand Prix in Aida where Senna once again earned pole but was passed by Schumacher on the first corner. Later on, his Williams car was hit from behind by Mika Häkkinen and Nicola Larini that cost him the race. This was Senna’s worst start during his F1 career as he failed to either score a championship point or finish a race.
A black day at San Marino
The 1994 San Marino Grand Prix weekend was one marred with tragedy. A young Rubens Barrichello was injured after a heavy crash. Several fans and mechanics were also injured, but the most tragic race weekend in Formula One in 34 seasons claimed the life of driver Roland Ratzenberger during qualifying. The Simtek that the Austrian was driving flew off the curb and became airborne. He later died of his injuries.
Witnesses say that Senna was distraught but felt had to go on, even after a clamor to have the race canceled. Nevertheless, the show went as planned with Senna on pole with Schumacher right behind.
At the start, Senna managed to retain his lead over Schumacher but a safety car was deployed because of the collision between JJ Lehto’s Benetton-Ford and Pedro Lamy’s Lotus-Mugen. On lap 6 the race resumed and Senna pushed his Williams to keep ahead of Schumacher's Benneton.
As Senna took the Tamburello corner on lap 7, the car suddenly left the racing line and veered onto the concrete wall at a reported speed of 233 km/h. Senna was immediately airlifted to Bologna’s Maggiore Hospital where he was declared dead hours later. Inside his car, Senna reportedly had an Austrian flag that he intended to wave during the post-race cool-down lap.
Up to this day, pundits still argue the true cause of Senna’s tragic crash, given the level of safety instituted in Formula One following the lethal crashes of the 1970s. Some argued that the steering column on Senna's car broke as he crashed. Some argued for negligence on the part of the Williams team, but they were acquitted. The most accepted cause of the crash is that the safety car period at the start forced tire pressures to drop significantly, allowing the underside of Senna's car to bottom out at speed when the downforce was high, giving him no control at Tamburello.
With Senna’s death, F1 made many safety improvements such as more intensive crash safety standards, redesigning the track with shorter straights and more room around dangerous turns, and making the engines less powerful.
An estimated 3 million people lined the streets to bid farewell to Senna during his funeral procession. Serving as his pallbearers were fellow F1 drivers Ruben Barrichello, Gerhard Berger, Damon Hill, Emerson Fittipaldi, Jackie Stewart, and his fiercest rival: Alain Prost.
A few months before the crash, Senna discussed with his sister, Viviane, about establishing a foundation that will help the less fortunate children and teenagers. In his own little way, Senna had the vision to lessen the gap between the rich and poor.
After his death, Viviane established the Instituto Ayrton Senna that offers education to less fortunate children and teenagers to be able to fully develop themselves and become productive professionals. Over the years, the Instituto Ayrton Senna has invested nearly USD 80 million in social programs in partnership with schools, government, non-government organizations, and the private sector.
In July 1994, the Brazil National Football team won the World Cup against Italy and the players carried a banner in tribute to Senna. The Brazilian government declared three days of mourning and gave Senna the same honor often extended to a head of state or a national hero.
Ayrton Senna da Silva's legacy transcends far beyond being just a racer. He was a hero to the people of Brazil and will always be remembered as one of the greatest drivers to have ever conquered the world of motorsport.