Today marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Ayrton Senna. Here, EngageSportMode’s editor shares a few words on what that day meant to him, and the lasting impact it had.
For whatever reason, Formula 1 accidents at the San Marino Grand Prix seem to stick in my memory. Perhaps my earliest motorsport recollection is seeing Gerhard Berger’s 1989 accident at Tamburello, with the car bursting into flames following a 180 mph impact with the barriers. I was only four years old at the time, but sitting on the floor watching that drama unfold on TV, has stayed with me the 25 years since.
Other than Nigel Mansell winning the F1 World Championship at the 1992 Hungarian Grand Prix, the next memory in my F1 collection is Imola 1994. Just writing those combination of words produces a strange feeling in my stomach. I think it’s the same for many Formula 1 and motorsport fans throughout the world; the sequence of that race circuit and that year will forever be a black mark in Grand Prix history. There’s no need to repeat the story here. If you haven’t seen it, then you need to watch Asif Kapadia’s Senna documentary film. I’ll openly admit that despite quite clearly knowing the ‘ending’ to it, this is the only film that has genuinely brought me to tears in a cinema. As a primer to what Imola ’94 signifies, that film is the best place to start.
Back in 1994 I wasn’t necessarily a huge Senna fan, but I was a supporter of Williams Renault. As a family we had followed the team for years; one of my father’s proudest moments was meeting Frank Williams in Saudi Arabia back in the mid-1980s. But I knew what Senna stood for, and the unmatchable talent he had behind the wheel of a Formula 1 car. The combination of, arguably, the sport’s greatest ever driver in the top team’s car should have been perfection. Sadly, it never was. Despite the apparent promise of the FW16, with Senna putting the car on pole for all three races he entered, bad luck and misfortune in Brazil and Aida left him without any championship points to his name by the time the F1 circus arrived at Imola.
From Rubens Barichello’s horrendous crash in Friday qualifying, to Roland Ratzenberger’s fatal accident on the Saturday, along with marshals injured in the pit lane during the race and spectators hurt by debris from the JJ Lehto/Pedro Lamy start line crash, seemingly everything about that race weekend was cursed. Looking back 20 years, it seems incredible that just so much tragedy and pain could be brought to bear in three days. Were it not so graphically real, the events would almost seem implausible to have all happened in such a short time frame.
Watching Senna’s accident again brings back those memories I held from two decades ago. Seeing his car spear off the track, the violent impact with the wall and, most significantly, Ayrton’s head slumped to one side in the cockpit of the Williams. Even to a nine-year old, it was obvious that something was wrong at that point. The BBC cut away from the most graphic scenes as the medical team fought, in vain, to save Senna’s life. But the image that does stick with me is the sight of the medical helicopter taking off on the flight to Bologna hospital. That was something I’d never witnessed watching Formula 1, and made it very clear that it was a serious situation. Hindsight brings the realisation that, like millions of people around the world, I saw one of the sport’s greats killed on live television that day. Perhaps that’s what makes it such a haunting event.
Thanks to Imola ’94, we never saw Senna get old and make the decision to retire when his glory started to fade. By contrast, we saw Michael Schumacher’s troubled comeback and second retirement which clouded the image of his untouchable dominance. With Senna we saw him still at his peak, still competitive and still hungry with the desire to win. Perhaps that is one reason his status remains so high, in that we never witnessed him be anything other than incredible. It left so many unknowns. Would he have gone on to get to grips with the FW16 and win the 1994 Championship? Would he have walked away from the sport, given greater time to think about the death of Roland Ratzenberger; something which touched him deeply. We’ll never know.
I’ve collected numerous car magazines and annuals across the years, but only ever retained one copy of Autosport magazine. It’s dated 5th May 1994, and leads with the simple headline of “Death at Imola” on the front cover. I’ve kept it because it signifies a key moment in both F1 history, and my relationship with motorsport. Up until that point, Grand Prix racing had been fun and exciting. I’d been in a bubble, born after the death of Riccardo Paletti in 1982 and, other than Berger’s 1989 crash, unaware of just how dangerous F1 was. Imola ’94 changed that for me.
I could sit here and eulogise for days about how important Ayrton Senna was to Formula 1, and just how remarkable his talent was. But there are better ways to remember him. For a start, watch this clip of him at Donington in the 1993 European Grand Prix, where he obliterates Schumacher, Wendlinger, Hill and Prost in one single lap. Then read this excellent piece from The Guardian published yesterday.
Finally, be sure not to forget Roland Ratzenberger. His death may always be overshadowed by the one which followed the next day, but it makes it no less significant or important to F1.
We haven’t lost a Formula 1 driver since Ratzenberger and Senna, a legacy directly attributable to the changes made following their deaths. That the sport became safer is the only positive thing to emerge out of that wretched weekend. Today, spare a moment to remember the two we lost twenty years ago.