The car veered off the circuit and hit the barrier at over a 180 miles an hour and just like that the world had lost arguably the greatest racing driver ever. The incident took place at Imola race circuit close to 16 years ago when Ayrton Senna’s Williams went off the track and hit the wall with such force that a piece of metal pierced through his helmet, killing him instantly.
If he were alive, Ayrton Senna would have turned 58 today. To understand his importance to the sport, one first needs to realize that Senna himself was a man like no other. His commitment to motor racing is unquestionable and his dedication to not just driving but to fitness as well as the engineering side of things has set the foundation for almost all the current generation drivers racing in Formula One to build their careers upon.
A key attribute and one that probably defines him was his ruthlessness when it came to winning, he often was the center of controversy due to his insatiable appetite to win races. His tactics included everything from desperate defending to often pushing drivers off the race track. One of his most memorable moments came in 1990 when he smashed into Alain Prost’s Ferrari going into turn 1 at Suzuka during the year’s Japanese Grand Prix. His rivalry with Prost almost defined his legacy, as Prost, more often than not was his key rival. In fact exactly a year prior to 1990 during the penultimate round of the 1989 season, Prost and Senna were involved in a season long battle for the title which Prost eventually won after he collided with Senna going into the last chicane at Suzuka. Senna was disqualified for the incident and this led to a year-long feud not only with Prost but also with the FIA and its then president Jean-Marie Balastre, this incident along with Senna’s belief the Balastre favoured Prost eventually culminated in that first corner incident at the same venue in 1990.
His self-belief coupled with his immense sense of righteousness not to mention his trademark yellow helmet with blue and green stripes, made Senna a national hero in Brazil. For a country that worships football and idolises the players in their national team (the Brazilian football team in fact dedicated their win at the 1994 World Cup to Senna), it is remarkable that Senna had such an impact on the population of Brazil. Though he was an individual who was born into immense wealth, something a majority of Brazilians cannot identify with, Senna barely leveraged his wealth to get to Formula One. He fought tooth and nail to secure sponsorship during his Formula Ford days and he fought even harder on track to ensure he was the best.
However to say Senna was all work and no play would be a foolish. His exploits with former McLaren team mate Gerhard Berger were at the time some of the most recanted stories in the paddock and he shared a similar level of camaraderie with ex-McLaren chief Ron Dennis. Senna also enjoyed a wholesome life away from the track, though his first marriage ended in divorce, he dated a string of models and was often seen jet-skiing, water-skiing, riding Ducati motorbikes and also piloting a helicopter just to name a few of his pastimes. He was also fond of collecting belts which he bought buy the dozen at various duty-free shops around the world.
Ayrton Senna will no doubt be known as one of the best, if not the best racing driver of all time. His impact on the citizens of Brazil especially in his home city of Sau Paolo can still be felt today. Senna himself gave away millions to help under privileged children in Brazil and his sister Vivian heads the Instituto Ayrton Senna which is a charitable organisation that was formed with the sole purpose of helping the lower income population in the country. Another impact of his legacy was the stringent steps taken to ensure both cars and circuits became safer in Formula One, in fact post the incident in 1994 there has been just a single death in Formula One that came in 2015 when Jules Bianchi tragically passed away from the injuries incurred after crashing into a recovery truck during the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. Finally, his legacy reflects in the sheer number of current and younger drivers who cite his example as their inspiration into motorsport. In fact Senna’s career and life inspired current world champion Lewis Hamilton so much that he entered the sport using a helmet design very similar to the great man’s.
There’s no doubting what Senna accomplished on track, at the same time he was more than just a sporting icon. He was a man who transcended the sport and became a voice for the Brazilian people while also setting a template for what a racing driver must be like in order to succeed. In short, Senna can be summed up through the eloquent words of Frank Williams, “He was an even greater man outside of the car than he was in it.”