In his own words: Adrian Newey recounts memories of Ayrton Senna’s Imola accident

Thomas Maher
Ayrton Senna, Williams, 1994 Pacific Grand Prix.

Adrian Newey recounted his memories of Ayrton Senna's tragic Imola accident in his own book.

Adrian Newey put his feelings into words when recounting the tragic accident that claimed the life of three-time F1 World Champion Ayrton Senna.

The Brazilian driver died at Imola on May 1st, 1994, following an accident while the Williams driver led the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola ahead of Benetton’s Michael Schumacher.

Adrian Newey: Ayrton Senna had a certain aura about him

Speaking in his 2017 book How To Design A Car, Adrian Newey went into detail on his memories and thoughts regarding that entire time period of his life.

Newey had been the lead designer of the Williams F1 cars through the early 1990s and, together with technical director Patrick Head, had created the FW16 for 1994. Unfortunately for the duo, the change of regulations over the winter had set about stripping Williams of their dominance, with the Grove-based team having mastered all the electronic aids that had been permitted up until 1993.

The change from active to passive suspension proved a particularly big hurdle, and the 1994 car proved an unstable machine at the start of the season. But, before Williams could hone it into the more malleable and pleasant driving experience it would become, Senna would die in a crash at Imola – the exact reason for the crash has never been fully confirmed.

Having only worked with Senna for a brief few months, Newey spoke of the Brazilian in glowing terms.

“Frank [Williams] idolised him, and with good reason: not only was he one of the all-time special drivers but he had a certain aura about him,” he said.

“And if that sounds a bit corny, fair enough, but I can only say it made perfect sense when you were with him.

“You felt as though you were with somebody special. How much of that was due to his reputation is impossible to quantify, but you felt it.”

Having numbly watched on the television screens the events that were unfolding in front of them as the medical crews tended to Senna at Tamburello, Newey spoke of being unnerved by the noises and sounds that became indelibly linked in his mind with that fateful day.

“Another thing I remember, something burnt into my brain, is the noise from the spectators,” he said.

“The horns, klaxons, and tambourines. All this excited frenzy of noise that carried on despite the terrible tragedy unfolding at Tamburello. The sound, a trademark of Italian Grands Prix, still to this day sends shivers down my spine.”

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With Newey and Head, as well as Frank Williams, all charged with manslaughter in Italy – leading to three trials that each resulted in all defendants being cleared – it led Newey to write that he had felt ” a degree of responsibility for Ayrton’s death, but not culpability”.

Explaining this, Newey revealed that he, at Senna’s request, had lowered the steering wheel slightly to avoid him rubbing his knuckles on the inside of the chassis.

Having given the drawing office the instruction, Newey was given the information that this would interfere with the FIA cockpit template, before instructing the office to reduce the steering column diameter locally by 4mm – this later being found to have failed at some point during the crash.

Having carried out tests that proved the steering column had not failed prior to the impact experienced by Senna, Newey explained where he felt he and Williams hadn’t done a good enough job.

“It’s a simple, well-known law of engineering that to maintain stiffness and strength, you have to increase wall thickness, but that wasn’t done. The wall thickness was not increased,” he said.

“It’s also a simple, well-known law of engineering that, if you have a very sharp corner in a component, that causes an area of very high stress; and because of that stress, the component will eventually crack and fatigue, and that fatigue crack will propagate eventually around the whole component and cause failure.

“So there were two very bad pieces of engineering in that diameter reduction. Ultimately, Patrick and I were responsible for that.

“You question yourself. If you don’t, you’re a fool. The first thing you ask yourself is: Do I want to be involved in something where somebody can be killed as a result of a decision I have made? If you answer yes to that one, the second is: Do I accept that one of the design team, for which I am responsible, may make a mistake in the design of the car and the result of that mistake is that somebody may be killed?

“Prior to Imola, stupid as this may sound, I had never asked myself those questions. If you want to continue in motor racing, you have to square that with yourself. You have to be prepared to offer an affirmative to both of those questions because, try as you might, you can never ever guarantee that a mistake will not be made.

“Designing a racing car means pushing the boundaries of design. If you don’t, it won’t be competitive. Then there’s the decision-making during the race. If a car is carrying damage for some reason, you have to make the decision: Do I tell a driver to retire the car or let him continue?

“If you call it too conservatively, you simply retire the car for no good reason. If you’ve been too bullish, the driver could have an accident with unknown consequences.

“It’s never an easy judgement. People ask me if I feel guilty about Ayrton. I do. I was one of the senior officers in a team that designed a car in which a a great man was killed. Regardless of whether that steering column caused the accident or not, there is no escaping the fact that it was a bad piece of design that should never have been allowed to get on the car.

The system that Patrick and I had in place was inadequate; that cannot be disputed.

“Our lack of a safe-checking system within the design office was exposed.

“What I feel the most guilt about, though, is not the possibility that steering column failure may have caused the accident, because I don’t think it did, but the fact that I screwed up the aerodynamics of the car.

“I messed up the transition from active suspension back to passive and designed a car that was aerodynamically unstable, in which Ayrton attempted to do things the car was not capable of doing. Whether he did or didn’t get a puncture, his taking the inside, faster-but-bumpier line in a car that was aerodynamically unstable would have made the car difficult to control, even for him.

“I think now, ‘If only we’d had more time’. By Imola, I understood the problem. I just needed time to develop the wind tunnel model and then the parts to go on the car, to give Ayrton a car that was worthy of him. Time denied us all that chance.”

Adrian Newey’s book How To Build A Car is widely available from all good book resellers.

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