Ayrton Senna is a man that needs no introduction. He’s considered one of the greatest racing talents to ever grace the sport of Formula 1, and would have likely gone on to become the GOAT if it weren’t for an unfortunate accident on May 1st, 1994. Even after death, Senna is still inspiring generations of racers, even current championship leader Lewis Hamilton.
The Beginning: Turning An Ailment Into An Advantage
“Being second is to be the first of the ones who lose” – Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna Da Silva was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil on March 21st. Ayrton’s parents, Milton Da Silva and Neide Senna Da Silva, were well respected wealthy family from Sao Paulo. Milton was a businessman with many different ventures, including factories and even a car dealership.
A little-known fact about Ayrton is the fact that he had sever coordination problems when he was a young boy. He had trouble doing the most basic of tasks, like using stairs. It eventually got bad enough that his parents had him tested, finding no cerebral damage. To help Ayrton combat his coordination problems, his father built him a Kart, utilizing a 1-hp lawnmower engine. Little did they know this would shape the remainder of Ayrton’s entire life.
Because of his ailments, Ayrton became infatuated with fitness. He focused the majority of his energy in school on becoming a better athlete, utilizing Gymnastics to further better his coordination. A move for motorsports was there from the beginning, with Ayrton entering his first official kart race at the age of 13. In typical Ayrton fashion, he won his first two races, a significant sign of his already advanced skill.
4 years later Ayrton won his first major Karting Championship. With the South American Championship in the bag Ayrton was off the world stage, competing in the World Karting Championship from 1978 until 1982. In that time he captured two championships, and set himself up perfectly for a chance at open-wheel racing. Ayrton often referred to karting as the ultimate racing, claiming the lack of political and monetary influence enhanced the experience.
The Short Track: Senna’s Rise To F1
In 1981 Ayrton moved to England and started competing in open-wheel cars. He progressed rapidly, winning two championships in a single year. At the end of the 1982 season, Senna was granted a guest seat for the last round of the Formula 3 championship. This was a pivotal moment in Senna’s career. He had already secured a permanent spot in F3 for 1983, but this would be his first outing. All eyes were on the young Brazilian, trying to size up just how competitive he was going to be. The answer? Utterly dominant. Senna destroyed the F3 field like it was an amateur karting event, sending whispers throughout the paddock.
After securing his first and only F3 championship in 1983 the time had finally come, it was time to move onto the main stage, Formula 1. At this point he was in high demand, getting the opportunity to test for some of the best teams in F1. While his skills were growing so was his ego. Senna started making certain demands, something that he was able to get away with thanks to his considerable skill. While he was arguably faster in the Williams than reigning champion Keke Rosberg. Unfortunately Senna didn’t find a top-tier seat for ’84, instead settling for now debunked Toleman.
While his Time at Toleman wasn’t anything spectacular, it did showcase a couple pivotal moments for Senna. 1984 would see Senna claim three podiums. First came a second place finish at Monaco Grand Prix, a race he nearly won. Then he finished with two 3rd place finishes at the British and Portuguese Grands Prix. At the end of the season Senna found himself in 9th position overall, not a bad start for a rookie. And while all these things are good and well, there is one particular interaction that stands out above the rest.
It happened during the Dallas Grand Prix. The track was a road course marked by concrete blocks, and was notorious for being extremely technical with a substantial uneven road surface. Mid-race Senna was in good standing running in 4th position when out of no-where he came in contact with the wall, ending his race. Any normal person would accept human error as the culprit and go on to race another day. Senna was no ordinary person. He was livid, shouting that he couldn’t have done that, and that the wall must have moved. At this point the team was already aware of his absurd belief in himself, so they didn’t contest the fact too much. But Ayrton wasn’t just an overly confident racer with a handful of talent, he was a polarizing human being. That is how he was able to talk Pat Symonds into going onto the track to analyze the point of impact.
“he was so insistent that he actually persuaded me to walk round the circuit and take a look. When I did so, the wall had indeed moved — somebody had clearly clipped the previous block and in doing so, displaced the next one by only about 4mm, so the transition between the two blocks was no longer smooth but marked with a tiny step. That was when the precision to which he was driving really hit home for me. Don’t forget, this was a guy in his first season of F1, straight out of F3…”
It was the first sign that Senna wasn’t just talented, but instead, he was absolutely exceptional.
Becoming A Legend: Senna Conquers F1
“And so you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly can go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and the experience as well, you can fly very high.” – Ayrton Senna
’85 brought on a whole new era for Senna, particularly with his new team. Lotus-Renault. the Portuguese Grand Prix became Senna’s first hat trick, with him taking pole position, the race win, and the fastest lap. While he was well in control of the pace in the dry for qualifying, it was the wet race conditions that really separated him from the pack. Senna went on to win by over an entire minute, lapping everyone up to second place. It’s a record that still stands today. After a few podium finishes Senna would find his way onto the top box once more, recording a second wet race win at the Belgian Grand Prix. These conditions highlighted is superior car control, his single greatest trait.
Senna continued to impress over the next 2-years with Lotus-Renault. Unfortunately, the team couldn’t give him a car that could compete with team McLaren or team Williams. He did have moments of brilliance, like his dominant performance in at Monaco, where he once again won by over a minute. It was still an uphill battle against the faster teams, one he fought until his contract expired at the end of ’87.
1988 marked the biggest year to date for Senna. Landing the dream team in McLaren-Honda alongside Alain Prost, Senna was finally setup to make a run for a title. Senna got his first McLaren win in short order, taking home gold at the San Marino Grand Prix, the second round of the year. Monaco was a track favorite of the Brazilian, and everyone expected to see a blowout after he qualified 1.4-seconds faster than Prost. During the race we got to see Senna’s fiery passion in full swing. While leading the race Senna was being outpaced by Prost, something his pride would not stand for. Senna proceeded to go all out, pushing hard just to beat Prost on lap times alone. That is when Ayrton’s crew chief chimed in telling him to cool it, but the radio call disrupted Senna’s laser focus causing a crash. Senna, understandably upset with the way things transpired, abandoned his car and disappeared from the circuit, only showing up as the car was already packed. No one knows where he went, but it’s fair to assume he wasn’t pleasant to be around at that time.
Senna went on to win 8 out of 16 races for the season, taking home his very first world title in the process. The McLaren team was so fast that it was often a one-two finish, with Prost and Senna jockeying for the top step. This would be the kindling for one of the greatest rivalries to ever grace F1. Things would come to a head the next year, in Japan.
Going into the ’89 Japanese Grand Prix Prost and Senna were in a vicious battle. Prost lead the points, with Senna’s back against the ropes. The race was a spectacular clash between the two drivers. Prost famously said he would close the door on Senna if he tried to pass, sighting risky maneuvers from the Brazilian in the past. While Senna started on Pole, it was Prost who got the jump, taking a 1.4-second lead in just the first lap. Senna fought hard to be hot on the Frenchman’s tail for the majority of the race, until the two collided at the chicane with 7 laps to go.
Interestingly there is much debate over who was at fault for the collision. Senna’s aggressive nature was always under fire from ‘safe racing’ advocates. Yet some would argue Prost was out of place for taking Senna’s line away, especially when you consider his earlier remarks. Either way, the incident happened, taking Prost out of the race and resulting in an extremely controversial disqualification for Senna. This handed the title to Prost, sending Ayrton and his fans into a fit. He criticized the FIA heavily for their decision, claiming a conspiracy against him. It sounds crazy, but the man once claimed a wall moved into his racing line, and he was right. Regardless, Prost was awarded the title, and the two became bitter rivals.
1990 saw the grid shift significantly, with Prost going to Ferrari and Senna staying at McLaren. The results however, didn’t change. It was once again a straight duel between Senna and Prost, coming down to the last two rounds of the championship. With the roles reversed Prost needed to win the Japanese Grand Prix to keep his title hopes alive. The race would be marred by another controversial decision by the FIA, though, further thickening the plot of Senna vs the world. Senna state that he had a verbal agreement that Pole position would be moved to the left, allowing for a cleaner lane well fit for the fastest qualifier. Once Senna qualified on pole the FIA organizer went back on his word, forcing Senna to start on the right, the dirty part of the track.
Senna and Prost collided once again, this time in the very first turn of the race, resulting in a DNF for both drivers. Like it had for Prost, this DNF resulted in a clear win for Senna, giving him his second championship. And while the championship is the end goal, this did nothing to help Senna’s relationship with Prost or the FIA. The champion was extremely bittered by this.
The next year Senna clinched his 3rd world title, making him the youngest ever 3 time Formula 1 champion. Because of Ferrari’s inability to give Prost a competitive car, the season was contested mainly between Ayrton and the Williams team. By the end of the season Senna was looking to move to Williams, but elected to stay at McLaren-Honda due to loyalty. 1992 saw the decline of McLaren, a dated chassis and an underpowered Honda V12. While Senna still managed 3 wins for the season, he couldn’t hope to compete with impeccable FW14B Williams.
While the ’92 season was not the type that defines champions, it did have a single event that defined Senna. During qualifying Frenchman, Erik Comas, suffered a massive crash, with Ayrton being the first to arrive. Normally racers go by and hope for the best. Senna wasn’t normal. He instead pulled over, jumped from his own car and rushed to Comas’s aid. It was an act of pure kindness, sacrificing his own safety for another racer. This was unusual for the fierce Brazilian, but it showcased his true character.
By ’93 the landscape of Formula 1 changed even more. Prost was back after a year off, signing with Williams once more. Prost, still vigilantly upset with Senna, required a clause in his contract that would not allow the Brazilian to be his teammate. This forced Senna to stay with McLaren for yet another year, something he resented Prost for. While Senna’s McLaren proved to be more capable than first thought, it was still no match for the mighty Williams machines. Senna took home his record-breaking 6th win at Monaco, which stands to this day.
The Japanese Grand Prix was once again a hotly debated win for Senna. But not because of a close championship battle. Instead, it was rookie Eddie Irvine, who had simply unlapped himself by passing Ayrton. Senna took this as a sign of disrespect and walked into the Jordan garage and promptly punched Irvine in the face. It’s moments like these that added to the complexity that is Ayrton Senna. Every racing driver on the planet knows that being passed is the name of the game, but Senna took it so seriously that Irvine’s moves were a personal offense. The last race of the year saw Senna once again come out on top, winning the Australian Grand Prix. This win gave him a firm second in the championship, to non-other than a retiring Prost. The move that shocked everyone was when Senna invited Prost to join him on the top step, an olive branch between two fierce competitors. Little did they know this would be Senna’s last full race, and his final win.
1994 brought the change Ayrton was finally seeking, he landed a seat on the Williams team. Unfortunately for Senna it was a bitter sweet moment. While Williams F1 was still the team to beat, the new rule changes made the car a stark contrast to the models of years past. No more active suspension, and limited assists everywhere else left the car darty, and nearly uncontrollable. Senna himself said:
“I have a very negative feeling about driving the car and driving it on the limit and so on. Therefore I didn’t have a single run or a single lap that I felt comfortable or reasonably confident. I am uncomfortable in the car. It all feels wrong. We changed the seat and the wheel, but even so I was already asking for more room. Going back to when we raced at Estoril last September, it feels much more difficult. Some of that is down to the lack of electronic change. Also, the car has its own characteristics which I’m not fully confident in yet. It makes you a lot more tense and that stresses you.” – Ayrton Senna
In retrospect, Senna’s behavior and actions up until his accident have become increasingly wary. Senna pushed on, starting the season in typical fashion, with yet another pole position. The battle was now between Senna and a young Michael Schumacher, and it was almost as fierce as Senna vs. Prost. Ayrton made a slight mistake, spun the car and found himself out of the first race of the year. Then in the Pacific Grand Prix Senna found himself in the exact same situation. He secured his 65, and record-setting pole position, but was taken out in the first corner, a fault that wasn’t his own. It was the worst start to a season in his entire racing career.
Formula 1 then traveled to Imola, in Italy, for possibly the worst race weekend in the history of the sport. The weekend was marred by 3 major crashes, all of significant speed. The second crash of the weekend was absolutely devistating, as it saw Roland Ratzenberger go off track at nearly 200mph. Ratzenberger was pronounced dead when he arrived at the hospital.
This crash in particular hit Ayrton Senna incredibly hard. In typical brash Senna fashion, he stole an officials car and sped to the scene of Ratzenberger’s accident. It was the same drive that saw him jump out of his own car to help another driver, but this time there wasn’t anything he could do. He then went to the medical center where he saw his good friend Sid Watkins was working. Sid is a neurosurgeon, and was in charge of the medical staff over the weekend. Sid recalls Senna being distraught over Ratzenberger’s accident, even telling his friend to quit racing and they would go fishing together. Ayrton declined, simply saying he couldn’t quit racing.
Now, even some 23 years after this horrific day there is still much debate over what happened, why and how. In all honesty, no one really knows, and at this point it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that on the 7th lap of the race Ayrton Senna’s Williams veered off track at and collided with a barrier at a deadly 140mph. It was likely a mechanical issue, but it very well could have been a distraught Senna making a grave mistake, or even debris on the track from an earlier incident. Either way, Ayrton Senna was gone, and that impact is still felt today.
What makes this such a spooky issue is the fact that Senna nearly predicted his own demise. He has been quoted saying, “It’s going to be a season with lots of accidents, and I’ll risk saying that we’ll be lucky if something really serious doesn’t happen.” After Ratzenberger’s fatal accident, Senna became very aware of the need for safer cars, even sitting down with longtime rival Alain Prost to discuss safety in the sport. He was so adamant about making a change that he volunteered to be the leader for such a cause. And while he may not have seen it himself, he kept true to his word about making the sport a safer place.
After The Flag: Senna’s Untimely Death And Lasting Legacy
Ayrton’s death left a massive hole in the sport, one that is still sometimes felt. He was charismatic, passionate and above all else he was fast. When he spoke he had so much conviction in his voice he could get anyone to listen. While his words were powerful enough to start a movement, his death drove that movement into overdrive. The drivers union was resurrected immediately, the same one Senna planned to lead for his fellow racers. The FIA also enforced new rules starting with the Monaco GP, a turnaround time that is unheard of in modern F1. The entire sport was changed by Ayrton’s death, and we owe the life-saving tech of today to that one, horrible accident.
While Senna’s legacy has given us a safer environment for our racing heros, it isn’t the only post humorous charity that has been set up. Ayrton had been secretly giving back to the poor community in Brazil, donating millions of his own money. Before his death Senna had been discussing future plans for the charity with his sister. After his passing Viviane Senna setup the Instituto Ayrton Senna to help under privileged youths in Brazil. IAS has invested close to 100million dollars back into Brazil, funding numerous social programs, schooling, and over bettering the community all on Senna’s behalf. Senna’s reach was so deep that even Bernie Ecclestone and Alain Prost are on the board, a true sign of respect from the F1 legends.
While we have since seen many of Ayrton Senna’s records go on to be broken, there is no denying that he was one of the greatest to ever live. He had a sense of car control that other racers only dream of, a trait he linked to spirituality. Whatever it was, watching him work was a remarkable sight. Donnington 1993 is arguably Ayrtons greatest moment. His level of skill in the rain is still unparalleled, and this single lap showcases that fact beautifully.
Ayrton Senna lost his life on May 1st, 1994. While he surely left the sport too early, he managed to impact its direction for the better, something that will never be forgotten.
Ayrton Senna’s Interviews
Senna’s Impact On Others
Prost On Senna