Sunday, May 1, 2011

Ayrton Senna; 17 years without the Genius

May 1st is certainly a well known date for everyone who calls themselves a "worker" out there. It's a day to relax and maybe have a barbecue, if spring weather allows it.
For motorsport fans however it marks the anniversary when one of it's biggest stars was suddenly extinguished.

There's nothing factual I can say about this person that hasn't been said and documented a thousand times before. He was a natural driving talent and a great personality loved and respected by many, transcending the universe of motor racing into the lives of millions of people. This is a very short in memoriam of Brazilian three times World Champion, Ayrton Senna da Silva.

Second place at a pouring Monaco, 1984
Interested in racing since being a child, competing in karts from age 13 and winning the South American championship, he moved to Europe to pursue his career in open-wheel racing. Soon he was going through the ranks of Formula 3, winning the British - one of the most competitive - championship.
He was soon testing at the pinnacle of open wheel series - Formula 1. Various teams were interested in signing the young talent, among them multiple championship teams such as Williams and McLaren, who unfortunately had no available spots for the year of 84, so he finally landed on a very low end team called Toleman. What he did that year opened the whole world's eyes to his skills, taking second place in a very wet Monaco grand prix and a couple of third places in Portugal and Britain.

Famous picture of Senna and his Lotus, 1985

As any driver with ambitions he moved to a better car the following season. Not a great car, but a better car nonetheless. The Lotus team had seen better years and was just beginning a slow downfall that would end up with the team disappearing ten years later. However, in Senna's magic hands, the Lotus came back to victories. The second round of the championship, the Portuguese GP, was the brazilian's first victory in Formula 1, outshining everyone again under the rain. Later in the year he also stepped to the top of the podium in Belgium, in the iconic circuit of Spa Francorchamps. The foundation was built for the legend to grow upon it.

He remained in Lotus for '86 gathering two more victories and finishing 4th overall, and in 87, now with Honda engines, two more first places and some other seconds, performing way beyond the car's potential, brought him the 3rd place in the championship.

In 1988, he finally found himself driving a car that could take him to the ultimate goal: the World Driver's Championship.
Senna (left) and Prost (right)
Not an easy feat to achieve however as two times world champion Alain Prost was at the wheel of the sister McLaren car. It was a duel to the bitter end between team mates and the beginning of a heated rivalry that would last nine years. Senna's results were slightly better than Prost's, and thus became World Champion.
Two controversial years followed in which each one of them won a further championship. In 1989, Prost needed Senna not finish the Japanese GP and accidentally bumped into him. Senna however carried on and won the GP, which would have meant the decision for the championship would go to the final round. However some dodgy manipulation and politics by the frenchman got the brazilian disqualified from the event. Prost was champion for the 3rd time.

Come 1990, the relationship between them had become so sour that Prost decided to join rivals Ferrari for the season. Again they battled to the bitter end, and fate would say that again at Suzuka, Japan, the championship could be decided if Prost did not finish the race. With a little payback mentality, Senna made sure Prost did not finish the race by tackling him from behind before the very first corner, earning him his second championship.
Senna hits Prost from behind, becoming champion in the process.
The next season saw a much dimmer Prost and Ferrari and the competition was with the Williams cars of Nigel Mansell and Ricardo Patrese. Senna earned his third and last championship with a good margin, cementing his legend even further. However, 1992 would bring more bitter results for both Senna and McLaren. The Williams team was putting all it's money into electronics and computer aids for their cars, the very best technology money could buy, and their car was virtually unbeatable. The unbeatable red and white cars of McLaren was now outdated, leaving Senna out of the championship struggle very early on, finishing 4th overall.

1993 would see both McLaren and Senna fight back with all the means available to them. The Williams car was still full of electronic aids and now had Alain Prost at the wheel. He had signed for the next three seasons with the explicit condition that Senna could not be his team mate. It was perhaps Senna's greatest year as far as displays of raw skill, taking to the fight with a vastly inferior car while trying to secure a contract with Williams at the same time. He took 5 unbelievable wins. However no amount of virtuosity could stop the blue cars on their way to both the Driver's and Constructor's championship.

At the end of 93 and after winning his 4th championship, the frenchman Alain "the Professor" Prost announced his retirement. The rumors were that Renault, the engine manufacturer for Williams, wanted Senna driving the second car, and Prost would have none of that.
So it was all set for 94 to be a shining year for the Brazilian, driving the "Dream car" against almost no opposition, since all the great champions from the past had retired.
However, the rules for 94 dictated that all those electronic aids that made the Williams such a dominant force were now banned. Launch control, active suspension, anti-lock breaks and traction control were all forbidden. The Dream car had become the Nightmare car. With all these devices aiding the stability of the cars gone, but with the extreme speeds remaining, Senna made the correct prediction that 1994 would be a "season with a lot of accidents".
He could not tame the big chunky Williams in the first two races, spinning out in a very uncharacteristic manner at the first one, and being punted off the circuit shortly after the start of the second one.
The Williams FW16

Round three took the drivers to the circuit of Imola, in Italy.
It was simply a race from hell. Everything came together to make for an unforgettable weekend for all the wrong reasons.
During friday qualifying, young brazilian Rubens Barrichello lost his car coming out of a fast chicane at over 200 km/h, hitting the kerb which sent him flying into the tire protection barrier from above, decelerating him instantly and knocking him unconscious.
Ratzenberg in the Simtek
Come saturday's qualifying session another, even more serious accident happened where the front wing of the Simtek car of Roland Ratzenberger became loose and fell off, making him effectively lose control as he plowed straight on at 300 km/h on to a barrier. The violence of the crash was too much even for the safety measures in effect at the time. Ratzenberg broke his neck and died in the hospital a few hours later. His death was the first in twelve years in official Formula 1 events.

At the race day, a horrible crash happened right at the starting grid as Benetton driver J.J. Lehto stalled his car leaving him motionless in the grid. Portuguese driver Pedro Lamy hit him at enormous speed from behind, destroying both cars. Nobody was injured, but it prompted the exit of the safety car which lead the pack of cars slowly around the track for several laps.
At the restart of the race, Senna lead the field. The second lap after the safety car pulled out, Senna's car went straight on when it should have turned left, at Tamburello corner. It hit the wall at over 200 km/h. Medical teams rushed to the scene, but Senna was probably dead before being put in the chopper and airlifted to the hospital. It's been 17 years to this day.

That May 1st however would see yet more bizarre accidents, for example a loose wheel flying around the pit lane and injuring several mechanics.
Everything came together to create the most nightmarish scenario any racing fan could ever imagine.

His death was treated as an affair of state in his native Brazil, people came to the streets by the thousands to say their last farewell. Prost and other fellow racing drivers carried the coffin.

I was too young to remember any of this. Interest in Formula 1 had not yet taken me back then and I don't remember watching him race at all, nor hearing about him passing. Still his legend has caught on to me, it's inescapable. My dad knows only one fact about F1: "there was a time where McLarens were unbeatable and they would lap the whole field!". It was rather recently that I realized he was talking about Senna and Prost.
But his legend is hardly just about driving prowess. It was discovered he had donated around 400 million dollars to children's charities. A foundation was set up under his name that continues to do social work in Brazil helping children in need of assistance.

I would like to end by urging you to watch Top Gear's tribute to him. If you feel it ends abruptly, you'll have a notion of how suddenly he was taken from us. Also the recent biographic documentary Senna, beyond the speed of sound. Even if you're not a racing enthusiast, please do so.

Ayrton, wherever you are, you will always be number 1; 
Eternal champion, you are sorely missed.


  1. this is a sad post, but inspiring in the middle but then sad again

  2. Really nice tribute! I will have to check out the film.

  3. Senna was one of the greatest F1 racers alive, good post.

  4. I've never heard of him, but that's a really nice statue

  5. I don't even know where to start! When I was a kid I had to get those F1 car beds because of Ayrton Senna. Truly is a legend in F1 racing and like your title says, a Genius.

  6. You touched upon the major events in his life and presented it systematically(I do get bored quite easily when people drone on about stats and this year and that year but not this time). It's moving too. A job well done

  7. Great tribute. This was an informative post!

  8. I remember watching it live, really sad moment in F1.

  9. Pff how time flys, long time since he is gone.. but still he still lives among us

  10. You have an awesome writing style. I remember as i was a kid my teacher used to tell us this story. It's really tragic, that it ended that way.

  11. Yeah he was a great racing driver, following.

  12. It was a tragedy, good thing F1 is more secure for the drivers nowadays.

  13. Really informative post here. Way to go

  14. Great post!

    I was used follow the races every sunday, just because of him.
    It wasn't just about driving, it was about magic. He could do things on a race that would be considered impossible to be done.

    I remember the moment of his dead and I can't describe that moment. It was horrible as if I had lost a brother.

  15. Senna for ever!

  16. I stopped watching F1 for 17 years after Senna's death. I was 22yrs old at the time. Still hurts a little to think about.

  17. Nice to see a post about him. I was 11 when I saw the fatal race, I was a crazy kid for him, used to wake up very early to watch the races, collected a lot of mini F1 cars to play with them and of course, Senna had to always win.

    I mourned F1 for all over this years untill today, I found a collectable car recently launched in Brazil and that brought tears to my eyes. I bought the little black Lotus for a girl friend that is crazy for F1 but knows little to nothing about Ayrton Senna.

    I'll sleep happy tonight because of this and this post. Thank you for this. This is amazing. :)