Ayrton Senna 25 years on: More than just a driver

Ayrton Senna

Senna Photo by wileynorwichphoto [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

By Jamie Downes (@JamieDownes11)

The 1st of May marked 25 years since Ayrton Senna tragically lost his life at the 1994 San Marino grand prix.

Senna’s car left the track at Tamburello corner, and hit the barriers at 135mph.

His front right tyre swung up into the cockpit and struck the Brazilian, causing massive head injuries. He was pronounced dead later that day.

Statistics will tell you that other drivers are better. Senna only won 3 world titles, in 1988, 1990 and 1991. That is 1 less than Juan Manuel Fangio with 4. It’s eclipsed by Lewis Hamilton’s 5 and positively dwarfed by Michael Schumacher’s record of 7 world drivers’ championships.

However, it is telling that despite the deficit in numbers, Senna is widely regarded by both fans and pundits alike as the greatest driver in the history of Formula One. And there’s a very good reason for this. It’s that he’s seen as more than just a driver.

Senna possessed such a charisma and electric personality that he could silence a room just by walking into it. He would often wonder and theorise about the philosophy of his talent, and pushing himself to the edge. Speaking about the 1988 Monaco grand prix, where during qualifying, Senna outpaced his teammate, the (future) 4 time world champion Alain Prost, by an almost unimaginable margin of 1.4 seconds.

Senna stated at the time: “I was at one stage just on pole, then by half a second, and then one second… and I kept going. Suddenly, I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my teammate with the same car. And I suddenly realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously.”

For a driver to out qualify his teammate in the same car by that much time is astounding.

To put Senna’s pole lap into context, at the most recent grand prix in Baku, Valtteri Bottas out-qualified his teammate Lewis Hamilton in an identical Mercedes, by less than a hundredth of a second.

Senna was also a devout Christian. On the morning of the San Marino grand prix, he read a passage from the bible that said: “God would give him the greatest of gifts, which was God himself”. He would be dead hours later.

However, it’s inappropriate to discuss Senna’s legacy without mentioning his talents on track, which were mesmeric. No matter what he was driving, Senna pushed the car to the absolute mechanical limit of its ability, sometimes beyond.

For example, during the 1994 season, Senna managed to push his inferior Williams FW16 to pole for the 3 races before his death. This was ahead of Michael Schumacher in a much faster Benetton.

However, it was during wet weather when Senna’s talent really shone through.

One of his most famous races was the 1993 European Grand Prix, held at Donnington Park in England.  In the pouring rain, Senna started poorly, and was 5th by the first corner. However, in an unbelievable sequence of events, he overtook driver after driver, and was 1st before the end of the first lap. He’d go on to win the race by a considerable margin.

After his death, it emerged that Senna had quietly donated millions of dollars to underprivileged children in his home country of Brazil. Indeed, the Ayrton Senna Foundation was set up up after his death, and has helped the lives of countless Brazilian children.

It is telling of Senna’s legacy that his grave in Brazil receives more annual visitors than that of Marilyn Monroe, John F Kennedy and Elvis Presley combined.

On a personal level, Senna has always been a personal hero for me. Someone who always strived to be the best they can be. Someone who helped others.

Despite it being 25 years since his death, the interest, enthusiasm and appetite for Senna has never abated. He remains a controversial, mysterious, supremely talented sportsman, and I think nothing will change in 2044, which will be the 50th anniversary of his death.

Formula One by then will hopefully be a pure test of a driver’s skill, free from driver handicaps, soulless circuits and politics. I think that Ayrton would like that.