We remember the date. Perhaps where we were. We remember that moment in time when the motorsport world held its collective breath and then grieved as one… the passing of the legendary Ayrton Senna. A nation in mourning, a family devastated and a name immortalised forever.
In the past twenty three years, there has been a huge amount written about Ayrton Senna. Over 100 books have been written about his life and death, we’ve had a BAFTA winning film produced, countless other documentaries and theories delivered on that fateful accident. Anyone who has followed the @F1PaddockPass Twitter feed will know that Ayrton was one of my childhood heroes. For a long time, it wasn’t the same without him and I’ve often wondered over the years: what would it have been like if he walked away from that accident on lap seven?
Imagine, if you will the sight above.
Moments before, Ayrton Senna lost control of his Williams and slid off the circuit at high speed, slamming into the wall of the Tamburello Curve. The Williams, now just a shell, slid out of control and came to rest on the side of the circuit, Ayrton’s head slumped to the side. As the rest of the field continued to lap, racing past the site of the accident at high speed, the dust slowly started to clear.
Suddenly, the red seatbelt straps were thrown over the damaged monocoque and slowly, Ayrton wriggled his shoulders free and with great effort, lifted himself out of the cockpit. He leaned his body back against the air intake, his head looking down as he gathered himself. At this moment, a safety marshal arrived at his side, then another and they help him from the cockpit. Aryton is injured. He cannot move far and sits by the wreckage of the Williams, slowly undoing his helmet. Sid Watkins and the medical team arrive and after an examination, Ayrton is taken to the medical centre and then airlifted to hospital for further assessment.
It’s revealed that Ayrton has concussion, fractured ribs and severe bruising. It is hailed a miracle that he survived. As the news of his survival and injuries are announced, Micheal Schumacher crosses the line to win the San Marino Grand Prix.
On medical grounds, Ayrton sits out the Monaco Grand Prix. He stands shoulder to shoulder with his fellow drivers as silence is observed for the loss of Roland Ratzenberger. In his new role as GPDA Chairman, he is vocal about circuit changes and safety and continues to push for changes in the way the cars are designed and the circuits are presented.
Ayrton retook his place in the Williams by Round 5, a feat considered dangerous by Sid Watkins. But Ayrton lived to race. He wanted to be out there, competing and racing – it was in his blood after all. Despite incredible pain and against all odds, Ayrton qualified the Williams on sixth and finished the race in ninth after troubles in the pit stop with the right rear. As the season progressed, Ayrton regained his strength and confidence and was a constant points finisher. Wins in Belgium and Japan saw him celebrating alongside his championship rival Schumacher and at the end of the season, Senna would finish the championship in third, just two points behind Damon Hill. Schumacher would claim the title that year – Williams would claim the Constructors.
1995 dawned and it was a whole new ball game. Ayrton and the Williams were dominant and many spoke of the 1992 season, where Nigel Mansell swept all before him. Williams front row lock outs dominated the season with Ayrton leading Damon 11 -3 and a string of wet races saw Ayrton shine in less than perfect conditions. Ayrton’s dominance saw him win his fourth World Drivers Championship by the Pacific Grand Prix and then book ended his season with wins in Japan and Australia. At the end of the 95 season, Ferrari made a very public move to obtain the services of Senna, a deal which Ayrton considered for it was a dream to drive for the Italian marque. But in the end, after long discussion one evening with Frank Williams and Patrick Head, it was announced that Ayrton would continue with Williams in 1996.
Ayrton opened his 1996 account with wins in Australia and Brazil. It was an incredible drive in Brazil to fight his way back through the field, after making contact with Montermini’s Forti. After a change in front wing, Ayrton carved his way through the field with precision, re-taking the lead with two laps to run. The crowd went wild as Ayrton waved the Brazilian flag from the top step of the podium, a tear rolling down his cheek.
Ayrton went on to claim wins in the next two rounds and finished on the podium in San Marino. Further wins were recorded in Canada, France and Germany with his team mate, Damon Hill winning the British, Hungarian and Portuguese Grands Prix. After another dominating season, Ayrton stood on the top step of the podium in Japan, a country that adored him and claimed his fifth world drivers title. He had equalled his hero, Fangio.
During the post race press conference, after describing the delight of the win and the claiming of his fifth world drivers title, Ayrton announced his retirement. It was completely unexpected and the world’s media rushed to get the story out. As he made the announcement he looked peaceful, happy, complete – as if some divine intervention had told him that it was time. He was 36.
Ayrton spent the 1997 season watching from the sidelines. He spent a lot of time in his native Brazil, working with his foundation and improving the lives of children and those less fortunate. He was tempted to drive in the Indy Car series and tested on a number of occasions and took part in the Indy 500 in 1998. His result was a DNF and it was the one and only time we would see Ayrton driving in the Indy series.
1999 saw Ayrton set up his kart racing school, where underprivileged children were given the opportunity to race on a global platform. He instilled in the children and teenagers his values and his vision and in time, these young children went on to drive competitively in racing series around the world. As the new millennium dawned, Ayrton entered a partnership with Honda with a view to bringing his own team to the grid in 2001. This partnership sadly never gained enough momentum and was mothballed at the eleventh hour.
Ayrton focused on his charity in 2002/3 and expanded into other countries. His foundation built schools, hospitals, provided clean drinking water and food to millions of starving and underprivileged people around the world. His work was acknowledged by the Vatican and Ayrton was blessed to have an audience with the Pope, where amongst religion and faith, they discussed motor racing and Formula One. In the latter half of the decade Ayrton featured regularly at races, both as a special guest of teams, Formula One Management and as a guest commentator. He continued to provide funding and support for his driving school, where his young up and coming chargers were featuring heavily in the GP2 series.
Ayrton took up a technical mentor role in 2011 at Ferrari which in some way was the fulfillment of a dream. He worked closely with the team and it’s drivers, helping them develop the car and even spent time in the simulator, honing car set ups and advising the team on technical directions. He may have been out of the sport for some time but his skills had diminished none and his input saw Ferrari challenge for the titles in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
Ayrton returned to his native Brazil in 2014 and once again refocused his efforts on his charity. His tireless work saw him help millions of underprivileged and homeless people all over the world. He took numerous trips into volatile, war torn countries to ensure aid was getting through – and it was reported that he was nearly killed when an errant shell fell near to the aid compound in which he was standing. Ayrton returned to Brazil and travelled to America, where he held audience with the President of the United States of America and pleaded for help and a voice at the UN. He was given this and in an emotional speech, Ayrton told stories of his travels and his quest. He spoke of his experiences in war torn countries and how his Formula One career had helped him cope with what he had experienced.
In January of 2015, Ayrton Senna was given a posting at the UN as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He continues his humanitarian work, often at the front line, helping those less fortunate all around the world…
Life is full of ‘what if’ and ‘if only’ and maybe my thoughts on what Ayrton may have been able to achieve are wide of the mark. But I’d like to think that if he didn’t die this day twenty three years ago, we would still be talking about him and holding his name is such high regard.