It doesn’t seem like five years since that fatal crash at the
Tamburello curve at the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy. It doesn’t seem like five
years that Brazilian in a state of shock gave the Formula One champion a funeral few heads
of states have ever had. Ayrton Senna is still much alive in the hearts of his fans.
Brazil has had other sporting heroes, but with Ayrton it was different. He struck a chord
with people and he made us believe that if he could conquer the world than surely there
was hope for us as well.
By Dodd Darin
"The wealthy can no longer live on an island surrounded by a
sea of poverty"
Ayrton Senna, 1993
"From the bottom of our hearts, we dedicate this victory to
our friend Ayrton Senna. He, too, was heading for his fourth world title."
Claudio Taffarel, goalkeeper for the Brazilian national soccer team after the 1994
World Cup victory
I’ve never been quite sure if the old adage "time heals all
wounds" was simply a worthless cliché or perhaps a partial truth applicable only to
life’s less significant losses. When this wonderful adventure we call life deals us a
cruel, soul searing yet inevitable loss, we never fully heal and we most certainly never
forget. The human heart is simply too vulnerable and passionate for that. Indeed it was
the passionate heart in all of us that Brazil’s beloved Ayrton Senna touched so deeply.
Can it really be that five years have passed since he lost his life at
the Tamburello curve at the San Marino Grand Prix in Italy? Flashbacks of Brazil shocked
to the core as we watched his funeral, as grandiose as any head of state had ever
received. The streets covered with simple yet poignant messages : "Thank you,
Senna", "Senna isn’t dead because Gods don’t die", "Thank you for
making our Sundays so happy".
These were the deeply felt emotions of Brazilians of all socio-economic
classes; he belonged to us all. Before painfully revisiting that dark day in May let us
for a moment simply close our eyes and remember him in happier times; parading around on a
victory lap, the Brazilian flag at his side waiving wildly; joyous celebrations for his
World Championship titles in 1988, 1990 and 1991; Paulistas absolutely overcome
with frenzied emotion in 1991 as he captured his first Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos;
the great pride we felt every Sunday in our living rooms as we watched him carry the
colors of Brazil into battle all over the globe. No, surely it has not been five years?
A Nation Mourns
As with the assassination of the American President John F. Kennedy
many of us will always remember where we were and how we heard the horrible news of
Ayrton’s death. May 1, 1994 was the culmination of an ugly, nightmarish weekend in Formula
1 that left Brazil and sporting fans the world over simply numb. Even when balanced
against the long and often tragic history of Formula 1 motor racing, the events of that
weekend shocked us deeply as never before.
Losing a World Cup game final can tear at the national soul for years
but our soccer heroes know, as do we, that they will have the future with which to erase
the pain of the past. Motor racing is a different animal entirely, a cruel temptress that
at times leave us with no possibility for a future happy ending. Our fascination and
respect for the heroes of motor sport in part is derived from our realization that racing
is so inherently dangerous and that each time they get in the car they must stare down
their own mortality and indirectly, the viewer’s as well.
Here then is the crux of why so many people could not cope with
Ayrton’s death; he simply did not seem mortal and if he was, than what did that portend
for us? From the occasional fan casually flipping the dial on a Sunday, to the hardened F1
fanatic, to his fellow drivers, Ayrton was simply the one person this simply could not
happen to. As former 3 time World Champion Niki Lauda said. " If this can happen to
Ayrton, the greatest driver of all time, we have to question what is the point of it
That is partially why all of Brazil mourned so openly and deeply at his
death; it was not possible; this was Senna. Over the final weekend of his life, he
witnessed carnage on the racetrack. During the Friday practice session Ayrton’s protégé,
fellow Paulista Rubens Barrichello crashed heavily; the violence of the crash
seemed to portend the worst but miraculously he suffered only minor injuries. Upon
regaining consciousness, the first person he saw was Ayrton who had tears in his eyes.
On Saturday, Formula 1 racing got hit with a cruel dose of reality not
felt for 12 years; death on the race track. Austrian rookie Roland Ratzenberger had a
front wing break; he lost all control and was killed instantly. The two accidents had a
deep impact on Ayrton; possibly in a way he never before had confronted in his
professional life. Books have been written on the details of that last weekend; suffice to
say that he was quite concerned about the safety of the track and at one point even
considered not racing according to his girlfriend at the time, Adriane Galisteu.
Regardless of any doubts he might have had about safety, or concerns
about the championship situation which saw him trailing his new arch rival Michael
Schumacher by twenty points, Ayrton Senna did the only thing his character and personality
would allow him to do. On May 1, 1994 he strapped himself into a Formula-1 race car to
begin the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, Italy.
As he had a record 64 times before, he began the race from the coveted
pole position. History will record that on lap 7, after a restart due to an accident,
Ayrton Senna’s Williams-Renault left the high-speed left-hander Tamburello at close to 190
miles per hour and crashed into a concrete wall. The impact was significant but it could
have been withstood; in a freak occurrence a suspension arm broke free and pierced his
helmet causing a fatal head wound.
Endless investigations, books and scientific analysis have tried to
prove what caused the accident. The definitive cause of the accident is to this day
unknown. One thing seems certain, it was not driver error. The most widely accepted belief
is that a steering column that was altered for Ayrton’s driving comfort broke, leaving him
with no steering. A second theory is that low-tire pressures and temperatures caused by
slow laps behind the pace car contributed to the accident.
In a haunting and perversely hellish scenario, determined to the end,
Ayrton’s last moments of life were spent fighting to keep a young upstart challenger
behind him on the racetrack. This was his way, and his destiny from his first days of
karting at Interlagos to his final moments on earth thousands of miles away from his
The genuine love and deep affection that Brazil felt for Ayrton Senna
is hard to put into words. The public perceived correctly that he was more than just a
great racing driver and sportsman. In essence, beneath the tough sporting exterior, the
handsome and charismatic looks and his vast personal wealth there was a fundamentally
decent human being who we wanted to emulate.
There have been other sporting heroes for Brazil; Pelé, Émerson
Fittipaldi, and Nelson Piquet of course come to mind. Each in their own way brought pride
to Brazil but it seems to this writer that with Ayrton it was different; it was deeper.
Part of the equation could be the age of technology and information transfer; the world of
Formula 1 racing in 1994 was quite different from that of Emerson’s time or even of
We are living in an age where news is instantaneous and constantly in
our face; often painfully so as with the terrible TV coverage of Ayrton’s final moments
after being pulled out of his wrecked car. This might have contributed but it was not the
primary factor in our emotional attachment to him. No, Ayrton struck a chord with people
the world over because we could relate to him; he inspired us and made us believe that if
he could conquer the world than surely there was hope for us as well!
In addition, Ayrton’s pride of being Brazilian was displayed
passionately and genuinely in a way that was palpable. He spent all of his free time in
Brazil, be it in São Paulo running the many businesses he developed or on the beach at
Angra dos Reis. Throughout his racing career it was as though he never really left; he was
simply the boy who went off to Europe and made good but always came back to Brazil and
never, never forgot where he came from.
The quote about poverty at the beginning of this piece might well have
come from a politician looking to scam votes. It certainly seems a bit incongruous to have
come from a young man at the height of success and fame in the glamorous world of Formula
1 racing. Influential friends thought that one day he would make a wonderful head of state
for Brazil; again a somewhat strange picture is painted; a picture of complexity.
One of the complexities that might have escaped the public was his
fundamental decency and sense of humanity. Those close to him feel he had a basic
philosophical struggle with those beliefs, beliefs based on his strong Christian faith
versus his ruthless ambition to conquer Formula 1. Regardless, he realized that he was
very fortunate in life and he genuinely wanted to use his success to help others have a
During his lifetime he gave millions to charity; always doing so in
private and without fanfare. A few months before his death, he spoke with his sister
Viviane and laid out his vision for an institute that could help give hope to Brazilian
children in need. Sadly, he never got to see the fruits of his vision ,but the Ayrton
Senna Foundation exists today and is doing wonderful work.
It is providing health care, education, nutrition and all the
essentials within a framework of encouraging sports for character development. Officially
licensed shirts, videos, model cars and hats help raise millions of dollars every year for
the foundation. The huge sums that are raised annually through this merchandising stand as
a testament to his popularity worldwide and the money going to help needy children are his
true lasting legacy; this would have been far more important to him than any conquests on
the race track.
The world of Formula 1 racing changed dramatically after Ayrton’s
death. Improved safety of the cars, circuits and medical advancements have all come about
as a result of his losing his life. While each of us personally can debate questions of
fate and destiny, this writer has often pondered whether Ayrton was taken from us to give
us all something of a message or wake up call.
A message to the Formula 1 authorities to improve safety in all areas
and never again sacrificing driver safety for economic reasons. Indeed, if anyone other
than Ayrton Senna lost his life behind the wheel that day it is likely that none of the
safety changes made since 1994 would be in effect today. Every driver on the F1 grid today
and those of the future owe a deep debt of gratitude to Ayrton. The message to the rest of
us might be more simple yet just as profound; to be grateful for what we have and to live
each and everyday fully and to appreciate this life.
It has been five years since Brazil and the world mourned the loss of
Ayrton Senna. To many it is still a fresh wound and always will be. Quite simply he had
that effect on people. We should not deify him now nor make him in death what he was not
in life. There is no need to do that; he was something very special, the likes of which we
may never again see in our lifetime.
"Life is something that God gives us. In many instances it is up
to us to show God that we understand that we regard health and life as a very great gift.
It is our responsibility to look after such a gift" (Ayrton Senna 1990)
Author’s note: While I have never been particularly
superstitious, I must share with you the following personal story. In January 1994 I
ordered a new video about Ayrton from a company in England. I was anxious to receive it
and quite disappointed when by mid April I still had not received it. It finally arrived
on the Thursday before the fateful weekend when he lost his life. For reasons I will never
fully understand, upon receiving it I simply no longer had any desire to watch it. It
remained unopened long after May 1st, 1994.
Ayrton Senna: As Time Goes By by Christopher Hilton 1999
The Death of Ayrton Senna by Richard Williams 1999
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