Senna was the Achilles of F1 – he was always at war

Portrait of McLaren Honda driver Ayrton Senna of Brazil before the San Marino Grand Prix at the Imola circuit in San Marino. Senna finished in first place
Ayrton Senna died at Imola on May 1 1994 - Allsport/Chris Cole

There will probably be many Formula One fans who will find it difficult to understand the amount of attention paid to the Imola grand prix weekend of 1994, given it took place 30 years ago today. Personally, I find it difficult to accept that ‘Imola’ is now almost ancient F1 history, given I was competing in it. But it truly was 30 years ago now. Thirty years. That really must feel like ancient history to the legion of new F1 fans who have only just discovered the sport, thanks to a thing they call ‘Drive to Survive’.

But Imola 1994 was a watershed moment in F1, because it beamed the dark side of the sport straight into viewers’ living rooms on an otherwise perfect spring day. And in that moment our sport had to look itself in the mirror and decide how it wanted to project itself in future: as a reckless, callous, human-sacrifice sport… or as a grown-up, responsible, sophisticated and disciplined one.

While the word ‘Imola’ will always conjure up a sad association with the death of Ayrton Senna, lest we forget that weekend also claimed the life of the handsome Austrian F1 new boy, Roland Ratzenberger. Roland’s was the first fatality in an F1 competition for over 10 years. It shocked us, but not to the same degree that we would be shocked by the end-of-play the following day. After Ayrton’s accident, the entire sport was bewildered and confused about the rights and wrongs of our chosen profession. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one driver could be considered bad luck, to lose two might be regarded as carelessness.

Roland Ratzenberger, Simtek-Ford S941, Grand Prix of Brazil, Interlagos, 27 March 1994
Roland Ratzenberger died at Imola on the same weekend as Senna - Getty Images/Paul-Henri Cahier

The weekend had already started abnormally, with a terrifying, acrobatic crash involving Ayrton’s very young fellow Brazilian, Rubens Barrichello. Perhaps because they were both Brazilian, Ayrton had taken a keen personal interest in Rubens’ recovery and treatment. But Roland’s accident seemed to have had an even more profound effect on Ayrton’s state of mind. Indeed, the whole weekend was a catalogue of terrible crashes, culminating in the final catastrophe that claimed Ayrton.

To anyone who experienced this sequence of increasingly serious events, including the millions of television viewers around the world, it will live in our minds forever. Because this would be a tragedy of such visibility and seismic global news that its shockwaves seemed to radiate across the planet. Ayrton was revered as a racing God by most of his hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of fans. Plus the whole of Brazil.

He was only 34 years old when he died. No age really, for the size of the legend he had already created. His death, and the circumstances around it – the mystery, the court cases, his funeral – multiplied his legend exponentially, and gave his life an aura of Greek mythology. He was, after all, the Achilles of our sport. It seemed he was always at war, with something or somebody. There was a fury to his driving and a conflict in his soul that made Ayrton a totally fascinating, fear-inducing and awe-inspiring competitor.

Senna's cars was destroyed as result of the impact - AllSport/Anton Want

One thing Ayrton never did, though, was drive only to survive. He raced to win. Always. That he should die in the attempt should not have been as shocking as it was. Our sport was dangerous. He knew that. He accepted the risks. Indeed, it was latterly suggested that the night before his death he had a dream in which God had come to him and promised to reveal himself in some mystical way, implying a pre-ordained saintly role to his career.

That the ever-present ‘Angel of Life’, F1 doctor professor Sidney Watkins, had implored Ayrton, having seen how emotionally upset he had been when he accompanied Sid to Roland’s crash site, to give up racing immediately and to go fishing with him instead, just adds to the sense of tragedy, and to the idea that Ayrton had accepted the possibility, if not inevitability, of his death through racing.

Of course, he could not go fishing. He was Ayrton Senna, and he had a job to do and a responsibility to himself and others. He felt people were counting on him, Sid conjectured, to deliver the sacrifice that would benefit others.

This aspect to the Imola tragedy lifts the story out of the realm of normality and into that of the mythological. Endless articles and YouTube videos have been made attempting to explain or give well-intentioned, but perhaps not so well-informed, insights into what really happened. Indeed, I included a whole chapter to the Imola weekend in my autobiography. So it has played on the imaginations of F1 fans for an awfully long time now.

If I am honest, despite being his team-mate at Williams at the time, I cannot claim to have known Ayrton Senna, the private man, much more than we all did. OK, I had the chance to work a little with him, which I regard as a very precious privilege. I can tell you that he was frighteningly quick. But we all knew that. I just didn’t want it to be true! Anyway, I am not the person to ask about who Ayrton Senna was. What I can tell you is that the whole sport took a different direction after that weekend, partly because we lost someone who transcended the sport and saw the bigger picture, but also because it had to or it would be sanctioned against. And there was too much business at stake for that to be allowed to happen.

Imola ’94 was when, through necessity, F1 grew up.

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