What made Ayrton Senna different from other drivers
Today has seen the 20 year anniversary of the death of possibly one of the greatest Formula One drivers we have ever seen, and are ever likely to see again. I am obviously talking about the unforgettable Ayrton Senna.
To mark the 20 year anniversary Imola are hosting 5 days of events to mark Senna’s tragic death at the age of 34. On that tragic day in Imola in1994 the sport of F1 lost a legend that still lives on in people’s memories.
But what was the real Senna like?
Any driver than wins three world championships, has 41 wins and manages 65 poles has to be respected. What you also need to remember is that this was achieved in an era when the safety of drivers was not as paramount as what it is today. It is no surprise that it would take someone who was utterly driven to achieve those sorts of results.
Senna was a complex character who was both caring, and utterly ruthless at the same time. Add to this his good looks and his charisma that some have said was almost magnetic, and it is not surprising that he quickly became a firm favourite with the fans.
On the track he showed his ruthlessness and determination to win. It was not a case of if he could pass you, but more a case of you had better get out the way. Senna did admit that he believed in going for the gap and that he accepted that crashes could happen for doing just that. The reason why Senna’s aggressive driving was accepted by many drivers of that era was that Senna still showed complete respect for the other drivers on track with him.
Martin Brundle recalled an incident in 1993 when Senna ran into the back of him so hard that his car was pushed in to the barriers. Brundle stated that “I looked up and there was Senna running towards me with a really angry look on his face. I thought if he’s going to try and blame me, we’re going to have such a fight! But all he was concerned about was if I was all right?” This was the great paradox that was Ayrton Senna – he’d be the first man to run you off the road, and the first man to run back and check you were okay”.
This same sort of aggressive driving was to become a theme of some of the later drivers such as Schumacher and more recently Vettel. The big difference was that Senna still managed to maintain the respect of the other drivers around him.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that Senna won races just by driving aggressively, because he also had exceptional driving skills. Engineer Pat Symonds, who now works for Williams recalls that “There was one area at Dallas where just about everyone hit the wall. Senna hit it there too. When he got back to the pits he said “I just cannot understand how I did that. I was taking it no differently than I had been before. The wall must have moved.”
“We thought ‘Yeah, right, sure the wall’s moved.’ Senna though was very insistent on this, so after the race we went out and had a look. The wall had moved. It was concrete blocks and someone had clipped it, moved it just a few millimetres – and I mean just a few millimetres – and he had been judging it that perfectly.”
Unlike present day drivers, Senna was able to push his car to the maximum without going too far. In the past many circuits did not have wide run off areas on corners as they do now. If a driver stepped over the curb they came into contact with the grass, so the margin for error was very small. So being able to drive within millimetres of a corner or wall was a skill all driver’s would need. Drivers today have a much larger margin of error to work with.
Senna paid the ultimate price for the sport he loved, and as a direct result of that tragic day in Imola many of the circuits made changes to make them safer for drivers. There has not been a driver killed in a race in Formula One since Senna, and the world of Formula One is a better place for it.
Even after his death Senna continued to inspire future world champions such as Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton said “He is an incredible legend. You can still learn things from how he approached racing and how he drove. You like to think that one day you may be recognised as someone that was able to drive similarly to him. He was always my favourite driver.”
Alonso added “I remember I went to school and on my book I didn’t have pictures of girls, but I had Ayrton there, and the same in my room. I had a big poster of Ayrton and even my first go-karts were in the colours of Ayrton’s McLaren because my father also liked him.”
It was not only on the track but also off it that Senna was a force to be reckoned with. Senna’s last employer was Sir Frank Williams who said that “Ayrton was very intelligent, and inside he was very tough. He had immense brain power, charm, charisma and determination” But “my abiding memory of Ayrton is not his world-class ability as a racing driver but as an intellectually unbeatable businessman.
Throughout the several meetings that took place between myself and Ayrton joining Willams, it became apparent that he arrived for each and every meeting fully prepared on every point for discussion.
“He had prepared in his mind at least three counter moves to every possible counter move by myself. He was gifted with a propensity for extraordinarily clear thinking and an outstanding ability to out-guess, out-think and out-manoeuvre his business opponent.”
Such was the love of Senna that on his death Brazilian fans saw it as a national tragedy, and the Brazilian government declared 3 days of national mourning. The funeral was broadcast live on Brazilian TV and it was estimated that three million people lined the streets of his home town of Sao Paulo making it the largest recorded gathering of mourners in modern times.
On the 1st May 1994 the world of F1 lost a very special person, that for many of us we will not live to see the likes of again. However even when Senna was at the top of his game he never forgot the risks involved, and in fact he accepted them as being all part of the sport he loved.
Ayrton was never closer to the truth about his own mortality in such a dangerous sport than when he said:
“You are doing something that nobody else is able to do, (But) the same moment that you are seen as the best, the fastest and somebody that cannot be touched, you are enormously fragile. Because in a split second, it’s gone.
Ayrton Senna 1960 -1994