1994 should have been the season that Ayrton Senna won his fourth world championship. His new team, the mighty Williams, had won the two preceding world championships in 1992 and 1993 with Mansell and Prost respectively, as well as both constructor’s titles. Senna’s arch-nemesis, the metronomically brilliant and four time world champion Alain Prost had retired from the F1 stage at the end of the 1993 season. On the eve of the 1994 season, Senna’s phenomenal natural talent now harnessed in the most successful team of the day meant he was the nailed on favourite for the title.
|Senna finally signed with the Williams-Renault team in October 1993|
However, there were little signs and portents that the 1994 season was not going to be quite as easy for Williams as everyone thought. After Monza in 1993, Williams did not win any more races that season with the remaining race wins being divided up between Senna and the audaciously talented new wunderkind of F1, Michael Schumacher. Going into the 1994 season, a raft of new regulations came into force banning active suspension, traction control and ABS – all of which meant the Williams cars’ recent superiority was effectively wiped out. If pre-season testing hadn’t quite shown the Williams to be the ‘truck’ that was Ferrari in the early 90s (© Monsieur Alain Prost), it nonetheless was clearly not the world-beating force of engineering of previous seasons.
|Michael Schumacher celebrating his 2nd win of the season at the 1994 Pacific Grand Prix|
By the third race of the 1994 season, the ill-fated San Marino Grand Prix, Senna had endured his worst start ever to a F1 season by failing to score a single point in the first two races. Imola, he declared, was where his season would now begin with 14 races, instead of 16, to win the title. And of course it was the young pretender, Schumacher, who had taken maximum points in the first two races. Senna was among the first to recognise that the German was clearly a force to be reckoned with and the biggest threat to his title chances that season.
And so to Imola. One of the blackest and most tragic weekends in my living memory of following F1. Looking back now, that terrible race weekend had all the hallmarks of a Greek tragedy. Those of a superstitious nature would say it was cursed. It was probably just a horrifically awful amalgam of coincidences but the fact there has not been a single death in Formula 1 since that weekend in 1994 is partly attributable to events at Imola.
During Friday qualifying, Rubens Barrichello, a compatriot and close friend of Ayrton Senna, was involved in a terrible crash when his car was launched into the air, rolled around a number of times and eventually landed upside down. Miraculously (Imola was somehow at least spared a third tragedy) the medical team were able to save Rubens’ life – he had swallowed his tongue and was unconscious. To this day Rubens can recall nothing of the incident. Senna was among the first to visit him in hospital, just as he had done after terrible crashes involving Martin Donnelly at Jerez in 1990, Erik Comas in 1992 and Alex Zanardi at Spa in 1993.
|Rubens Barrichello mercifully survived this terrible crash|
Far worse was to follow in the final qualifying session the next day. The Austrian rookie driver, Roland Ratzenberger, crashed after his front wing became dislodged and went hurtling into a wall at nearly 200 mph fracturing his skull. He was pronounced dead on arrival in Maggiore hospital in Bologna. Ratzenberger was the first racing driver to be killed at a Grand Prix weekend in 12 years, since Riccardo Paletti at the Canadian Grand Prix in 1982. In the period from 1967 to 1982, nineteen drivers were killed including one of F1’s greatest natural talents ever, Jim Clark. It is poignant to note that it was Ratzenberger’s death (not Senna’s) that led to the reforming of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association. Its first three directors were Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Gerhard Berger.
|Roland Ratzenberger, 1960-1994|
The late and great, Professor Sid Watkins, the F1 medical delegate, related later how Senna was utterly distraught on hearing of Ratzenberger’s death.
"Ayrton was beside himself: He had not been close to death at a circuit before... So many accidents in the past 12 years, so many serious injuries, but nobody irrevocably lost... Ayrton broke down and cried on my shoulder."
The Prof tried to persuade Senna not to race but to no avail. When the wreckage of Senna’s car was examined later, a furled Austrian flag was found inside – Senna had intended to raise it in tribute to Ratzenberger after the race.
|The start of the San Marino Grand Prix of 1994|
I remember so so well watching that race and it really doesn’t feel like 20 years ago. The shock of Ratzenberger’s death was still reverberating around the paddock and there was clearly a sombre note to proceedings on race day. Then at the start, the last thing that anyone needed to happen happened. The Benetton of JJ Lehto stalled on the grid and Pedro Lamy’s Lotus crashed heavily into the back of it sending a tyre, carbon fibre and debris into the crowd (injuring several spectators). The safety car was called out immediately and we then had 5 non-racing laps until action resumed on lap 6.
Just one lap later, at 2.17pm on 1 May 1994, Senna inexplicably veered off at the notorious Tamburello corner and struck an unprotected concrete wall. We all knew straight away it was big. And as always with massive shunts, you waited at first expectantly, but then, on this occasion, increasingly desperately for any movement, any at all, from the cockpit. It felt like an eternity that we all sat there (my Dad, my Mum and me) just watching the medical team rush over to Senna’s stricken car, surround the area with white sheets and then the cameras pulled away.
My Mum quite often had a sixth sense about things and said almost immediately after the crash that she thought he had gone. Still then I clung onto some small vestige of hope. I mean its Senna right, it is Ayrton Senna…one of the greatest drivers who ever ever lived…he is too good to die…he cannot not be ok...surely we couldn’t have two fatalities in two days. So we sat in stunned silence as Senna was airlifted to hospital and then we carried on watching the race. In a way there was nothing else to do. I remember thinking how unnerving and difficult it must have been for all the other drivers (but most of all for Damon Hill, as Senna’s team-mate in identical machinery) to continue racing knowing Senna had been gravely injured, but then Formula 1 isn’t like most other sports. There is an acceptance in F1 that there is a fine line between life and death and just as Senna felt he should race on Sunday after Ratzenberger’s death, the other drivers felt compelled to see out the San Marino Grand Prix. Racers are at the end of the day racers. F1 had known terrible tragedy before and while the seismic impact of Senna’s loss sent shockwaves through the sport and the world, F1 would recover and move forward. Just as Senna and Ratzenberger (and all those brilliant drivers who we lost before them) would have wanted.
One of the greatest tragedies of Senna’s premature death was that we were robbed of the Senna v Schumacher years which had all the ingredients for perhaps F1’s greatest ever rivalry. Sport is littered with ‘what if’s’ but on a day like today we should just remember the mercurial, intense, ruthless, compassionate, immeasurably talented and iconic Ayrton Senna.
|Portuguese GP 1985 - Senna's first race win in only his second outing for Lotus. He finished over a minute ahead of Alboreto in second place.|
|Brazilian GP 1991 - Senna's emotional first win in his home country. After the race he collapsed with exhaustion after being plagued by gearbox problems and driving the last few laps stuck in 6th gear.|
|Donington 1993 - Another masterclass in the wet. In the opening lap, Senna climbed from 5th place to take the lead. He finished over a minute ahead of Damon Hill in second place.|
On Ayrton Senna's tombstone is the quote "Nada pode me separar do amor de Deus." Nothing can separate me from the Love of God.