|Years||1984 - 1994|
|Team(s)||Toleman Hart, Lotus, McLaren, Williams|
|First race||1984 Brazilian Grand Prix|
|First win||1985 Portuguese Grand Prix|
|Last win||1993 Australian Grand Prix|
|Last race||1994 San Marino Grand Prix|
Ayrton Senna da Silva (March 21, 1960–May 1, 1994), better known as Ayrton Senna, was a Brazilian racing driver who won the Formula One world championship three times. Regarded as one of the best ever, his life, character and the circumstances of his death have caused his story to approach what could arguably be termed a modern legend. A spectacularly talented driver with an unyielding desire to win, and a complex character who fascinated Formula One fans the world over, his death in 1994 is still mourned, particularly in Brazil.
Senna was born in São Paulo. As the son of a wealthy Brazilian landowner, he quickly developed an interest in motor racing. Encouraged by his father, a racing enthusiast, Senna got behind the wheel of his first kart at the age of four. He entered karting competition at the legal age of 13. Ayrton Senna himself describes his first ever kart race in a documentary that was made in the early 90's. He describes how the circuits were made in regular streets and parking lots. Starting positions were pieces of paper mixed in a helmet and were drawn. He mentions drawing the number 1, and therefore being in pole position for his first ever race. The competitors were far more experienced but could not keep up with him on the straights as he was much lighter due to being much younger than they. He states that they were much better in the corners ofcourse, and eventually someone hit him from behind and he spun off. In 1977, he won the South American Kart Championship, and was runner up several times in the World Championship but never won.
Heading for Europe in 1981, he entered the British Formula Ford 1600 competition, which he won. He also adopted his mother's maiden name, Senna, as da Silva is a very common name in Brazil. In 1982 Senna combined the British and European Formula Ford 2000 Championships, winning both. In addition to winning the prestigious and high-profile Macau Grand Prix, Ayrton saw off the challenges of Martin Brundle in the 1983 British F3 championship, and after testing with Williams, McLaren and Toleman, he managed to secure a seat with the latter in time for the 1984 season.
Into Formula One
The Toleman team was small in comparison to the big teams of that time like Williams, McLaren, or Brabham. Despite this, the team built a decent car powered by Hart Turbo engines and it was to be in this car where Senna's talents soon started to attract notice. He scored his first World Championship point on April 7, 1984 at the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami. Three races and two points later came the high watermark of Senna's debut season when he really impressed at the Monaco GP. Rain had plagued the event come Sunday where he started 13th on the grid, but after the start of the race, he soon was picking his way through the field in the wet on a circuit not known for overtaking in the dry. By Lap 19, he passed second place man (and future World Champion) Niki Lauda and soon chased after race leader Alain Prost. However, the rain started lashing harder and on Lap 31 the race was stopped. (This would have unfortunate consequences for Prost. Half points for a win was less than full points for the second place he would have earned if the event had continued to two-thirds distance, enough to be counted full race. Few doubt Senna would have gotten by him.) It was an impressive first podium for the Brazilian. Two more podium finishes (thirds) would follow at the British GP at Brands Hatch and at the season-ending Portuguese GP at Estoril, ultimately placing Senna ninth in the standings, tied with Nigel Mansell on 13 points.
The Lotus Years
The next year, Senna joined the Lotus team powered with Renault engines (albeit in a bit of controversy as he had to buy out the remaining year in his Toleman contract) and it was expected that Senna would finally be able to deliver on his promising talent. He scored his first of a record setting 65 pole positions at the season opener in Brazil at the Jacarepagua Circuit in Rio De Janeiro, only to retire with an electrical problem. However, at the second round in Estoril, Portugal on April 21, 1985, he finally scored his first Grand Prix victory, winning from pole position thanks to an impressive display of wet-weather driving in treacherous conditions which even saw second-place man (and later World Champion) Alain Prost spin off into the wall. However, the remainder of his 1985 season was plagued with mechanical failures despite his outright speed and his ability to score pole position after pole position during qualifying. He only managed another win at the Belgian GP at the famous Spa-Francorchamps circuit (once again in wet conditions). At the end of 1985, he finished a respectable 4th in the World Championship with 38 points and four podiums (two seconds and two thirds), as well as snatching seven pole positions. It was during these years that he also established a relationship with Bernie Ecclestone. A famous account is at Spa, where Bernie was standing very close to the guardrail at a very fast corner. Lap after lap Senna would edge his car closer and closer to the barrier to "test" the courage of Ecclestone. Ecclestone later described how incredible he had found Senna's car control as he ended up tapping the barrier with the tyres at 320km/h lap after lap.
His second season with Lotus however was even better, as the new Lotus-Renault proved to be a more reliable if not consistent package. He started the season on a high finishing second to his fellow countryman Nelson Piquet at their home event, the Brazilian GP at Jacarepagua in Rio de Janeiro. Then he took the World Championship lead for the first time in his career after winning an exciting Spanish GP at the Jerez de la Frontera circuit in which he managed to hold off the the menacing Nigel Mansell in his Williams-Honda for the victory by just .014 of a second. He would not last there for long however as the Championship would ultimately become a straight fight between Alain Prost's McLaren-TAG-Porsche and the Williams-Honda duo of Piquet and Mansell; key retirements due to mechanical failures once again befell his chase for the Title. Despite this though, Senna still went on a strong charge, taking his second victory of the year at the United States GP at Detroit, and finishing the season fourth (again) with 55 points, 8 pole positions and six podium finishes (four seconds and two thirds).
1987 came with as much promise for better things as it had before. Lotus had now the powerful Honda engines after Renault decided to step out of the sport. After a slow start, Senna won two races in a row: The prestigious Monaco GP (the first of a record breaking six victories at the Principality) and the United States GP at Detroit for the second year in a row, once again taking the World Championship lead. This time, the Lotus-Honda seemed to be more or less on par with the all-conquering Williams-Honda cars once again driven by fellow countryman Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell. But Piquet had an amazing run of consistency throughout the year that Senna was not able to match, and after a spin due to a faulty clutch in the third to last round in Mexico, he was out of the championship hunt, leaving Piquet and teammate Mansell to fight it out for the last two races. Alas, Mansell badly bruised his back in an accident while practicing for the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, which effectively handed the World Championship to Piquet since he would be out of the season-ending race at Australia in Adelaide as well. However, this meant that Senna still had a fighting chance to snatch the runner-up position in the standings if he managed to finish at least third in both remaining races, and he did more than that by finishing second in both Japan and Australia. Unfortunately at Australia, scrutineering found the brake ducts of his Lotus-Honda to be wider than what they should legally be and he was disqualified, bringing his last and ultimately best season with Lotus to a sour end. After the disqualification, he ended third in the Final Standings, with 57 points, 1 pole position, and 6 podium finishes (four seconds, not counting the one in which he was disqualified, and two thirds). However, this season would mark the turning point of his career as throughout the year, Senna began to build a deep relationship with Honda, a relationship which would pay off in big dividends once his contract with Lotus expired at the end of the season and once the McLaren team soon started calling.
In 1988, thanks to the relationship he had built up with Honda throughout the 1987 season with Lotus, Senna joined the McLaren team with then-two-time World Champion Alain Prost as his team mate. The foundation for a fierce competition between Senna and Prost was laid, culminating in a number of dramatic race incidents between the two. The pair won 15 of 16 races in 1988 with Senna coming out on top, achieving his first World Drivers Championship. The following year their rivalry intensified into battles on the track and psychological war off it. Prost took the championship after the infamous Suzuka chicane incident. For the following year, 1990, Prost moved to Ferrari, but their rivalry continued, culminating in the notorious 'professional foul' committed at the beginning of the title-deciding Japanese Grand Prix in 1990.
At the Suzuka circuit in 1990, the pole position was located on the right, 'dirty' side of the track. After qualifying fastest, Senna made a request to officials that pole position be repositioned to the left side of the track. To Senna's outrage, the request was denied. At the start of the race Prost pulled ahead but when attempting to take the first right-handed corner he found Senna plowing into him. Telemetry showed Senna made no attempt to decelerate as the corner approached. Both drivers were removed from the race, meaning that Senna won the championship. Senna later hinted that it was payback for Prost taking them both out the year before in the 1989 Suzuka chicane incident. For many, however, it was an act of breathtaking cynicism and one for which Senna received much criticism. He was accused of introducing a "video game" mentality of "win at all costs" into the sport, an accusation later repeated against his successor Michael Schumacher.
On the track Senna could be ruthless, showing extreme determination and precision. This was especially so in qualifying, a discipline he mastered like none before to produce a record 65 poles. Senna still holds this record for number of pole positions, eleven years after his death.
Senna also won the Monaco GP six times, a record in itself and a tribute to his skills which earned him the title "Master of Monaco".
Wet weather driving
In F1, wet weather racing is considered to be a great equaliser. Speeds must be reduced and car superiority in power or grip is eliminated. The rain demands great driver car control, ability and driving finesse. Senna is widely considered one of the best, if not the best driver ever in wet weather.
The 1984 season was Senna's first in F1. He came into a field of competitors from whose ranks 16 world championships would be reaped. Participating as an unknown rookie in a low level, non competitive car, the Toleman TG184, Senna had racked up three 16th places and a 13th place.
He started the first wet race of the season, the Monaco Grand Prix (a notoriously difficult circuit for racing, as it is run on regular streets) in 13th place. The race was terminated after 31 laps due to monsoon conditions deemed undriveable. At the time the race was stopped, Senna was classified in 2nd place, and catching up to race leader Alain Prost, at 4 seconds per lap.
In 1993, at the European GP at Donington Park, Senna drove for the McLaren team. The MP4/8, although one of the front running cars, was considered inferior to the leading Williams FW-15C of Prost, and the Benetton B193 (which used a factory Ford engine) driven by Michael Schumacher and Riccardo Patrese. Some maintain that the Williams FW-14B and FW-15C were probably "the most technologically advanced cars that will ever race in Formula One".
The start of the wet-weather 1993 European Grand Prix, by way of its uniqueness, is frequently referred to in racing lore as the best-ever lap. Starting from fifth on the grid, Senna was first before the end of the first lap. Examples of wet weather car control such as this gained Senna the title "The Rain man" in numerous F1 publications in the early 90's.
Starkly contrasting to Senna's intense and unyielding will to win on the track, his exploits off it were humane and compassionate. In 1992 at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium when during Friday free practise Erik Comas had crashed heavily on the back straight other drivers drove past the wreckage at high speed. Senna could be seen jumping out of his car and while endangering his own life, sprinting down the track to the wrecked car to reach inside and hit the electrics kill switch, to prevent a possible fire.
Fellow Brazillian F1 driver Mauricio Gugelmin tells of an episode in 1988 where Senna and Nelson Piquet, another champion, had developed an altercation. It had started when tongue-in-cheek remarks made by Senna to a reporter had been taken out of context. Having been asked why he had not been readily available to the press for a few weeks, Senna had responded that, as Piquet had just been crowned World Champion he had receded to give the press time to talk about Piquet. Piquet, who was infuriated by these comments, told the press to ask Ayrton why he did not like women. Mauricio Gugelmin expands: "He [Senna] was at my house when they called and told him Piquet's answer, wanting more of him. Even my wife was angry with that and said to him: 'Ayrton, tell them to ask Piquet's wife if it is true', referring to Catherine, who was Ayrton's girl before Nelson's. And Ayrton refused: 'No, I don't do this. If he doesn't respect anybody, I do. I don't do this to any woman.'" After Senna's death it was discovered that he had donated millions of dollars to children's charities, a fact that he during his life, had kept very secret.
In 1994, Senna finally left the ailing McLaren team for the top team at the end of 1993 Williams-Renault. After the banning of active suspension the Williams started the season trying to close the gap to Benetton. Senna failed to finish his first two races, despite taking two superb pole positions against the benetton at both events. On May 1 1994, he took part in his third race for the team, the San Marino GP. Senna took pole position yet again, but would not finish the race.
That weekend, he was particularly upset by two events: On the Friday of the Grand Prix, during the morning session, Senna's protégé, the then newcomer Rubens Barrichello was involved in a serious accident that would keep him out of the race. Senna visited Barrichello in the hospital (he jumped the wall in the back of the facility after being barred from visitation by the doctors) and was then convinced that safety standards had to be reviewed. On Saturday, the death of driver Roland Ratzenberger in practice forced the issue and even caused Senna to consider retiring. Ironically, he spent his final morning in meetings with fellow drivers, determined by Ratzenberger's accident to take on a new responsibility to re-create a Driver's Safety group to look at safety changes in Formula One. As the most senior driver, he was asked (and accepted) the role of leader in this effort.
A crash at the start caused the caution flag to wave, and Senna was leading the race after a decent start kept him ahead of Michael Schumacher, the young German. But on the second lap after the restart, Senna's car left the track in Tamburello and struck an unprotected concrete wall. Telemetry shows he left the track at 193 mph and managed to slow the car to 135 mph in less than two seconds but it was not enough. The FIA and Italian authorities still maintain that Senna was not killed instantly, but rather died in hospital, to where he had been rushed by helicopter, although the medics had performed an emergency tracheotomy before moving him. Many believe, however, that this was not the case, and the only reason why Senna was not declared dead on the scene is because this would have caused the race to be cancelled and money lost. The FIA dismisses that conception as an unfounded conspiracy theory.
Professor Sidney Watkins M.D., F.R.C.S., O.B.E. a world-renowned neurosurgeon and Formula One Safety Delegate and Medical Delegate, head of the Formula One on-track medical team, who performed an on site tracheotomy on Ayrton Senna, reported:
“He looked serene. I raised his eyelids and it was clear from his pupils that he had a massive brain injury. We lifted him from the cockpit and laid him on the ground. As we did, he sighed and, although I am totally agnostic, I felt his soul departed at that moment.”
Senna was 34 years old. The lack of information on the cause of death led to much speculation. What is known is that the front right tyre with attached suspension piece become loose on impact, hit Senna on the head and pierced his visor, causing the fatal trauma. Images of Senna's battered helmet indicate that some sort of puncture had occurred at the top of the visor, just over his right eye. This led to the now most commonly accepted theory that one of the car's suspension bars had came loose and impacted with Senna's head.
The Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola was immediately investigated, and the track's signature Tamburello, a lightning rod of controversy because of the lack of run-off and two previous incidents -- Piquet's 1987 crash in Friday practice caused by a tyre failure, which kept him out of the race, forced Goodyear to withdraw all tyres after the first practice, and replace tyres for Saturday's qualifying session. Two years later, Gerhard Berger's Ferrari was in flames after another tyre failure early in the race, surviving because of alert safety workers. But Senna's death meant the end of the sweeper, and it was replaced by a chicane in 1995.
In 2004, a television documentary by National Geographic called "Seconds from death: The death of Ayrton Senna" was screened worldwide. The programme considered the available data from Senna's car to reconstruct the sequence of events that led to the fatal crash. The programme concluded that an unusually long safety-car period had reduced the pressures in Senna's tyres, thereby lowering the car. As the car entered the Tamburello bend, it bottomed-out and the loss of the ground effect led to a sudden reduction in downforce, and hence grip. As Senna instinctively corrected the resultant slide, the downforce and grip suddenly returned, and Senna effectively drove off the circuit. The programme came to the conclusion that if Senna's reactions had actually been slower, he might have survived the crash. To many within the F1 world including drivers of that era who had raced at Imola, the conclusions drawn from low tyre pressure as a cause of the accident seem highly implausible. Telemetry recorded that Senna took the bend at 190mph on lap 6 with cold tyres. Alboreto and other drivers of the era claimed that given his lap time, his tyres would have been at race temperature by the 7th lap and it was not a factor in the crash.
The ban on active suspension affected Williams more than any other team as it was the key development that had helped make the Williams car the class of the field from 1991-1993. 1994 started with the Williams drivers complaining of severe handling problems and a twitchy rear-end. It was ironic that at the beginning of 1994 Senna himself had told the press that he would be surprised if there would be no large accidents that year. Referring to the fact that after the wide 26" Goodyear slicks were banned for 1993, now the technology at the very core of the cars, the technology around which they had been based for the last few years; (Active suspension, traction control and ABS) were also banned for 1994. He surmised that the cars would have trouble staying on the road, which is exactly what was observed at the beginning of 1994, J.J. Lehto damaging his vertebrae at Silverstone in January, Lamy breaking both knee-caps at the same track in May, Alesi breaking his neck in preseason testing, Ratzenberger and Senna's fatal accidents at Imola, and the race after at Monaco, Wendlinger in coma for months. None of these accidents were deemed to be caused by driver error.
There are other factors - Senna did not like the position of the steering column relative to his seating position and had repeatedly asked for it to be changed. At Imola Senna found himself in a car with his team's engineers struggling to cope and adapt to the ban of active suspension. Patrick Head and Adrian Newey agreed to Senna's request to shorten the FW-16's wheelbase, but there was no time to manufacture a shortened steering shaft. The existing shaft was instead cut, shortened, and welded back together with reinforcing plates. Many surmise, based on comparing hours of onboard video footage from Brazil and Imola that the movement of the steering wheel during the race at Imola was completely abnormal. Senna on his final lap is seen turning the wheel left to full lock with no movement of the front wheels. Others have raised suspicion at what can clearly be seen on the onboard footage as Senna looking down onto his steering wheel seconds before entering Tamburello.
The Williams team was entangled for many years in a court case with the Italian prosecutors over manslaughter charges, but they were found not guilty and no action was taken against Williams. In 2004, the case was re-opened, but closed again in 2005 when there was no new evidence.
His death was considered by many of his Brazilian fans to be a national tragedy, and three days of national mourning were declared. Senna is buried at the Cemitério do Morumbi in his hometown of São Paulo.
Off the track, Senna was a deeply religious and compassionate man. After his death, his family created the Ayrton Senna Foundation, an organization with the aim of helping poor and needy young people in Brazil and around the world. As a result, Senna continues to impact the world today and has become a beacon of hope to millions of his countrymen and an example of professionalism and humanity to those who remember him.
In 2004 (when, ten years after his death, the Brazilian media revisited the entire life of Senna), a book called "Ayrton: The Hero Revealed" (original title: "Ayrton: O Herói Revelado") was published in Brazil. The book recalls several passages of Senna's career, and adds a lot of never written before information about his personal life. As the title suggests, the book "reveals" the human side of a hero.
As well, to mark the 10th anniversary of Senna's passing, on April 21, 2004, over 10,000 people attended a charity match in a soccer stadium near Imola. The game was organized by several devoted Italian and Canadian fans of Ayrton, bringing together the 1994 World Cup winning team of Brazil to face the "Nazionale Piloti", an exhibition team comprised exclusively of top race car drivers (of which Senna was a part in 1985). Michael Schumacher, Jarno Trulli, Rubens Barrichello, Fernando Alonso and many others faced the likes of Dunga, Careca, Taffarel and many of the team that won the World Cup in the USA ten years earlier.
That same weekend, Bernie Ecclestone revealed that he still believed Ayrton Senna was and remained the best F1 driver he'd ever seen.
Perhaps the unique duality of his character was most evident at the moment of his death. As track officials examined the wreckage of his racing car they found a furled, bloodsoaked Austrian flag. A victory flag that he was going to raise in honour of Austrian Roland Ratzenberger, who had died on that track the day before.
At his memorial service one million people lined the streets to give him their salute.
"On a given day, a given circumstance, you think you have a limit and you go for this limit and you touch this limit and you think, ok, this is the limit. As soon as you touch this limit, something happens and you realise that you can suddenly go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and your experience as well, you can fly very high." - Ayrton Senna
- Official site [in Portuguese]
- The Senna Files
- Ayrton Senna da Silva Online The Face of a Champion 1960 - 1994.
- http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,12771-1081922,00.html - The Times of London article April 21, 2004 re: Ayrton Senna brand and charitable organization 10 years later
- Ayrton Senna 10th anniversary charitable event photos and article
- Grand Prix History - Hall of Fame, Ayrton Senna
- Comments of Ayrton Senna @ 1984 Brazil GP (Driver participation)