May 1st 2016 marks the 22nd Death Anniversary of the Formula One Legend – Ayrton Senna. His death redefined Formula One and ushered a new age of safety in an already dangerous sport!
Formula One is the pinnacle of motorsport, a gladiator pit for the best and most talented drivers from across the globe. The sport hosts technological marvels that rival aerospace research and thanks to outrageous funding and a worldwide fan following, Formula One has grown exponentially since its inception, rising to the top as the most advanced and elite form of single-seater motorsport.
Today, Formula One is a completely digital world in terms of telemetry and research. Safety is at its highest and the cars are strictly dictated to adhere to multiple regulations. But back in 1984 when a young Ayrton Senna made his debut, things were very different. Formula One was a rush of manufactures pushing their research teams to build the fastest, the lightest and most powerful racing cars with no real regulations limiting their designs. This resulted in the monstrous ’80s era of Formula One, an era of cars pushing the boundaries of speeds known to man, and drivers taking life threatening risks just to go a few milliseconds faster. The cars themselves were sinister turbocharged weapons that produced over a 1000 HP and weighing under 600kgs featuring manual gearboxes and no safety aids of any kind. This period forced Formula One to spawn some of the greatest drivers in its history with the likes of Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Gerhard Berger, Riccardo Patrese, Nelso Piquet and Michael Schumacher all locking horns. Amongst all these great men, Ayrton Senna rose to the top, embracing the chaos of the era and decimating his opponents.
Ayrton Senna was mysterious, very intense and he truly believed that he had a God given right to win! His aggressive driving style and hardworking nature helped him push the known boundaries of the sport. While other drivers spent their free time at the golf course or out partying, Senna spent time with his team, testing their team car under different conditions, finding ways to improve the car and helping in research and development.
Senna began his Formula One career with small time British Constructor Toleman, before shifting to Lotus-Renault where he spent three years. His time at Lotus helped Senna establish himself as the qualifying master setting a total tally of seven pole positions in his first year itself. However, with Williams Honda dominating with Nigel Mansell, Senna was unable to win the Drivers championship. During his final year at Lotus, Senna established a deep connection with Japanese Engine manufacturers Honda. Honda temporarily provided motors for Lotus in 1987. In 1988, McLaren secured the 1.5 litre Honda V6 engine, one of the most powerful engines in the sport for their MP 4/4 race car. Signing with McLaren, Ayrton Senna partnered along with his close rival Alain Prost. Their rivalry is stuff of legends but the two experienced drivers realized that they had to stick together, especially in testing to handle the competition from Ferrari, Williams, Lotus and Benetton. Together, the pair won 16 out of 17 Grand Prix races in the 1988 season making the McLaren Honda MP 4/4 the most dominant and legendary Formula one car in history! Senna also won his first Drivers Championship and set an astonishing 13 qualifying pole positions in a single season.
Ayrton stayed with McLaren Honda for the next 5 years and won another two World Championships and two championship runners up. In 1993, McLaren switched to Ford as an engine partner and their MP 4/8 was not competitive enough, allowing the faster Williams Renault along with Alain Prost to take the title pushing Senna to second. Hungry for another World Championship, Senna decided to make the switch to Williams with the latter offering him a lucrative contract after the retirement of their defending world champion Alain Prost. Little did Senna know that this would be his last season!
The 1994 season saw a disastrous start for Williams Renault and Ayrton Senna failing to score points in the first two races of the season even after qualifying with two poles – Thanks to mechanical failures. Senna stressed on the discomfort he faced with the new Williams he had inherited in terms of its handling. This brings us to the third race weekend of the season at the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola Italy, the last race Ayrton would ever take part in.
During Friday practice Senna set the pole for the 65th time in his career but was upset with events that were unfolding at the Imola race weekend. Senna was continuing to have issues with the car’s handling and the Williams engineers were working very hard to work on these issues. During the afternoon qualifying session, Senna’s protégée and fellow country man Rubens Barichello was involved in a serious accident in which his Jordan race car went airborne at the Variante Bassa chicane smashing into the tyre wall and fence. Barichello survived the accident with a broken nose and arm and withdrew from the race weekend. The next day during qualifying, Austrian rookie Roland Ratzenberger died in a severe accident where his car’s front wing broke off at 310 kmph entering the Villeneuve corner sending the car straight into a concrete wall. Hearing news of this, Senna immediately rushed to the accident scene and later to the medical centre. There he met FIA chief Medical Professor Sid Watkins who spoke to him and tried to console him after the tragic incident. He suggested to Senna to retire from Motorsport and take up fishing, a hobby they both shared. Senna quickly responded saying he could never stop racing!
Senna began his last Sunday Grand Prix morning talking to his former teammate and retired world champion Alain Prost. His aim was to re-establish the Grand Prix Drivers association with the aim of improving safety in the sport. Being the senior most driver in the sport, Senna took the initiative to lead, starting with the next race in Monaco. During the pre-race drivers meet his initiative was met with mild enthusiasm. The Sunday Grand Prix began with another minor start line incident resulting in the safety car being deployed till lap 6. As the race resumed Senna was leading the race into lap 7 when he entered the high speed Tamburello corner at over 300 kmph. His car however left the race line and went in a straight line off the track hitting the concrete wall at around 233 kmph based on the telemetry confirming two seconds of braking. Within two minutes of the accident Ayrton was extracted from his car by Medical Head Sid Watkins and his team. Initially, Watkins treated him by the side of the car, he still had a weak pulse but had lost large amounts of blood. Professor Watkins therefore requested an immediate airlift for Senna to Bologna’s Maggiore Hospital. At 6:40 pm Ayrton Senna was declared dead although his time of death under the Italian law was 1st May 1994 at 2:17 pm when he impacted the wall and his brain stopped working. Senna sustained multiple fatal skull fractures, brain injuries and a ruptured temporal artery.
In 2014 a panel of three senior F1 journalists composed of Murray Walker, Maurice Hamilton and David Tremayne concluded that Senna was under intense pressure, due to various reasons during the 1994 Imola GP weekend. The accident of his compatriot Barichello, the death of rookie racer Roland Ratzenberger, being 20 points behind in the championship, his poor performing Williams Renault car, rival Benetton car driven by Michael Schumacher allegedly using an illegal traction control system and his family disapproving of his then girlfriend was adding pressure on Ayrton.
The death of Ayrton Senna was heavily investigated by the Italian authorities since any fatal accident had to be investigated for criminal culpability according to the Italian Law. His death was subject to a criminal proceedings in Italy which saw senior members of the Williams team investigated and charged. The prosecution culminated in April 2007 with a verdict which stated that the accident was caused by a steering column failure that had been caused by poorly designed and executed modifications and the responsibility fell on Williams chief Patrick Head. However Patrick was never arrested because the statute of limitation for the crime was 7 years and 6 months. The modifications had been carried out by Adrian Newey and Patrick Head because Senna was unhappy with the steering position in relation to his seat prior to the race, one of the handling issues that he faced. Since there wasn’t enough time to manufacture a new steering column in time for the race, the Williams team had the existing steering column cut and extended with a smaller-diameter piece of tubing, which was welded together with reinforcing plates.
The Motorsport world was at a standstill, having lost their biggest star. Michael Schumacher went on to win the 1994 Drivers Championship with team Benetton and he dedicated his victory to the late Senna. Senna’s death triggered a radical change in safety standards for Formula One. Multiple Formula One tracks have now been redesigned to improve safety along with adding crash barriers at every section. Extremely high standards have been implemented to the cars themselves including reinforced cockpits along with major cuts to engine power output giving way to the era of Modern Formula One. Senna’s death marks the culmination of the monstrous ’80s era. He will always be remembered as the greatest Formula One driver that has ever lived.