PlanetF1’s Hall of Fame: Ayrton Senna – The father, son and Holy Ghost of F1

Oliver Harden
Ayrton Senna tribute. Imola 2021

There is no shortage of poignant images from Ayrton Senna da Silva’s last 24 hours on Earth.

Usually the first to come to mind is that of Senna sitting uncomfortably in his cockpit, helmet off, on the grid at Imola – a man silently wrestling with his own fate, every sinew urging him to walk away but deep down knowing he must go on.

The anguish spreading across his tormented face as he witnessed the horror of Roland Ratzenberger’s fatal accident from the Williams garage is never far behind, nor is the sight of Senna stood arms folded, deep in conversation with Sid Watkins at the crash site minutes later.

Perhaps the most haunting of all, though, is a piece of amateur footage filmed from the spectator bank at the Tosa hairpin. The original clip has long been lost to the bowels of the internet, but stands as Formula 1’s equivalent of the Stations of the Cross.

It tells the tale of the end of Senna’s life across three laps – three acts – the first beginning behind the Safety Car following the start-line crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

Then it cuts to the first racing lap, Senna’s Williams shadowed by Michael Schumacher’s Benetton as the cars accelerate out of Tosa, the piercing roar of the V10 engines only augmented by a joyous blaze of cheers, shouts and airhorns.

This is racing, this is life.

After life comes death and as Senna’s car skids to a halt in the distance following the impact at Tamburello, a single airhorn sings almost mournfully as the soundtrack to the demise of the world’s greatest racing driver.

A part of Formula 1 died with Senna that day and its history can be effectively split into two Testaments – before Imola ‘94 and after.

From Senna’s death, broadcast live to millions on worldwide television, came a multitude of safety measures many take for granted today, from expansive run-off areas and enhanced barrier technology to wheel tethers, higher cockpit sides and halos.

He is the father, son and Holy Ghost of Formula 1 – his death allowed others to live – but it is a reflection of the imprint Senna left on the sport that his memory still far outweighs the impact of his death.

To call Senna a complex character would almost do him a disservice. Think of all the complex characters to have graced sport through the generations and Senna, with that soft way of speaking and that permanently pensive facial expression, is still more compelling.

All human life was here and there was, as the former Times chief sportswriter Simon Barnes observed, “in Senna something of the quality that made saints a few centuries back: that certainty, that sense of destiny.”

Sport can mean many things to many different people. Arrigo Sacchi, the great Italian football manager, famously called it the most important of the least important things.

Senna stood alone in making his chosen sport seem a quest for the meaning of life. A more intense pair of eyes through the visor of a helmet you will never see.

Every race was an opportunity to learn more about life, about himself – the most vivid lessons of all, perhaps, coming over the weekend of the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix.

Senna’s time for pole position, almost 1.5 seconds quicker than Alain Prost in the same car, was not so much the perfect lap as the discovery of motor racing’s Holy Grail.

His arresting description of the lap as an out-of-body experience – “I was in a different dimension… well beyond my conscious understanding” – was something only he could deliver and added to the allure.

But was it something far more tangible, far more human than that?

Was it really anything more, anything less, than someone falling into a state of total tranquility where every decision and every movement becomes effortless and instinctive? Was it so much different to a mere mortal driving on the road and suddenly realising they have no recollection of the last five minutes of the journey?

If the everyday magic of the Monaco pole was Senna’s peak the following day, as he gifted the victory to Prost by crashing at Portier while leading by close to a minute, was yet more instructive.

Modern sport is full of people who vow to never make the same mistake twice, talking the talk but find the walk a more challenging task altogether.

There is no greater tribute to Senna’s commitment to self-improvement than the fact that after disappearing to his nearby apartment to stew in his shame, he would win six of the next eight races to form the spine of his first World Championship.

As for Monaco? He would never be beaten there again.

Ayrton Senna steel gaze

Senna would later claim Monaco ’88 brought him closer to God and his spirituality – combined with a combativeness on track that came as a culture shock to an older generation of drivers who had it drilled into them that contact with another car was racing’s deadliest sin – became both his sword and shield.

He may have rejected Prost’s sniggering suggestion that because he believed in God he didn’t think he could kill himself, insisting he was as vulnerable and scared as anyone of getting hurt, but in such situations it is the perception of one’s peers that matters most.

Would you willingly go wheel to wheel with a man whom you suspected was certain they would be protected by God no matter what? Would you trust him, potentially put your life in his hands?

Senna’s rivalry with Prost was a cocktail of contrasts – heart versus head, artist versus pragmatist – and just as they challenged one another to reach even greater heights, so they tore each other down.

As the outstanding driver of the generation, Prost felt Senna had targeted him from the moment they met properly for the first time at the 1984 Race of Champions.

“He never wanted to beat me, he wanted to humiliate me,” Prost says in the 2010 film on Senna’s life. “He wanted to show the people that he was much stronger, much better and that was his weakness.”

Senna’s death and the subsequent documentary have combined to create another contrast – hero versus villain – yet despite his perception that he was fighting a two-headed monster in Prost and FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre, Ayrton was no angel either.

It was he who took advantage of the confusion of a red-flag stoppage to break a pre-race agreement with Prost at Imola; it was he who edged Prost towards the pit wall at Estoril; it was he who took his team-mate out at Suzuka in a move infinitely more dangerous than Prost’s on him 12 months earlier.

Yet it was also he who stood distressed at the site of Martin Donnelly’s near-fatal crash at Jerez; it was also he who sprinted across the track at Spa to save the life of Erik Comas; it was also he whose behaviour towards Prost transformed the second he ceased to be a threat.

Considering what was to come, the closure of his radio message to a retired Prost before the clouds gathered at Imola 1994 – “we all miss you Alain” – was profoundly poignant.

What, it is often tempting to wonder, must Senna have been thinking as he sat on the grid, eyes shut, the following afternoon?

For the answer, if we are to accept Ron Dennis’s belief that even had he known his fate he would not have changed a thing, perhaps we should retrace the steps to Senna’s stream of consciousness in the aftermath of the Donnelly accident…

“A million things went through my mind and in the end I realised I was not going to give up my passion, just having seen what I had seen. And I had to pull myself together and walk out, go to the racing car and do it again – and do it even better than before.

“Because that was the way to cover the impact that had on me. I was just not ready to give up. As much as I was scared to continue, I was not ready to give up my aim, my target, my objective, my passion, my belief, my life.

“It is my life.”

Other PlanetF1 Hall of Fame entrants

Michael Schumacher