May 1, 1994. It’s a day I’ll never forget, no matter how much I wish I could.
My wife and I awoke that morning in a high-rise hotel in Waikiki, having moved to Hawaii just the night before. When my wife turned on the early sports report on TV, the first thing we saw was a somber anchorman on the set who said something to the effect of, “We begin today in Imola, Italy…”
Immediately, my wife turned to me and said, “Oh, my God. Somebody else must have died. They’d never lead the show with Formula 1 unless there was another fatal crash.” This, just one day after Austrian Roland Ratzenberger died in a wreck during practice.
Seconds later, we heard the news: Ayrton Senna, the most brilliant racer of his generation and surely one of the best of all time, was dead. It was inconceivable, but it was true.
Senna was leading the Grand Prix of San Marino when something malfunctioned and his Williams went head-on into a barrier and bounced off. Senna should have survived the accident; he had neither bruises nor broken bones from the impact. But a piece of his suspension broke lose on contact, went through the open area of his helmet and struck him in the temple, fatally injuring him. He was 34.
One of the reasons that it was so hard to fathom was that the Brazilian driver seemed to be in a world of his own, in an era loaded with phenomenal drivers.
For his career, Senna won a staggering 41 races and 65 poles in just 161 starts. And he won three World Driving Championships in four years, competing against the likes of Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell and Senna’s own teammate, Alain Prost.
More than that, though, Senna had pure speed none of his contemporaries could match. At the Grand Prix of Monaco in 1988, Senna’s first season with McLaren-Honda, he captured the pole with a lap 1.427 seconds faster than his teammate Prost, who by that point had already won two of his four Formula 1 championships and was the team’s established No. 1 driver.
“I was kind of driving by instinct. I was in a different dimension – like in a tunnel — well beyond my conscious understanding,” is how Senna would describe that lap in a McLaren tribute video put together for the 20th anniversary of his death.
And that was a good description of how he raced: When Senna got in the zone, he would be transcendent. At his best, he was untouchable.
“Some moments when I am actually driving, just detach me completely from anything else,” Senna said.
“Senna,” the award-winning 2010 documentary, paints a fascinating and complex picture of the man who was a national hero in his native Brazil. Senna was fierce and uncompromising — even ruthless at times — a true racer in the most literal sense of the word. The film documents the driver’s entire Formula 1 career, focused primarily on the controversial 1988 and ’89 seasons, when he drove for McLaren-Honda with Frenchman Prost.
The two couldn’t have been more different personalities.
Prost was nicknamed “The Professor” for his cold, calculating approach to racing. He rarely took risks, opting to make sure he finished every race and built points towards a championship rather than possibly crashing if he got too aggressive.
Senna, on the other hand, seemingly drove his car to the edge of its limits — and sometimes beyond — on every lap of every race.
And Senna made no apologies for his balls-out driving.
“You are competing to win,” Senna angrily told former F1 champion Jackie Stewart, when the Scottish great accused him of being too aggressive. “And if you no longer go for a gap, you are no longer a racing driver.”
Ultimately, though, there was more to Senna than just speed. He was extraordinarily complex, a deeply spiritual and religious man, someone who donated millions of dollars to orphans in his native Brazil.
And he was one of the rare people in the world who truly had star power. Although not large physically, he had a commanding presence and lit up every room he walked into. “There was an energy, a force, a spirit that was electrifying,” said motorsports journalist John Bisignano of Senna.
But the one story that will always define Senna in my eyes is this: When Prost and Senna both drove for McLaren, the team used Honda engines that were maintained solely by mechanics provided by Honda. Prost complained bitterly that Senna got better engines than he did – I once witnessed privately Prost berating Dennis over this in Phoenix, a charge Dennis angrily denied.
Frustrated, Prost went to the head of Honda’s engine program and asked why the Japanese mechanics who worked on the Honda engines seemed to like Senna more than they liked him.
“You must understand,” said the Honda engineer. “To them, you are The Professor. But he, he is the Samurai.”
You have been gone for 20 years, but you’ve not been forgotten for so much as a single minute or a single lap.Ayrton Senna, Formula 1, Imola, San Marino GP